What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories

By – January 25, 2012

Some read­ers mis­take fic­tion for an alle­go­ry of cur­rent events, the prose coun­ter­part to a polit­i­cal car­toon. Nathan Eng­lan­der, a mas­ter of short fic­tion, writes about West Bank set­tlers and Ortho­dox fam­i­lies, the Holo­caust and mixed mar­riages, but not to edi­to­ri­al­ize about them. His real sub­jects are mem­o­ry, obses­sion, choic­es, and consequences.

His char­ac­ters’ actions defy easy judg­ments. In How We Avenged the Blums,” yeshi­va boys are taunt­ed, humil­i­at­ed, and attacked by a bul­ly they call The Anti-Semi­te. Our par­ents thought us soft,” the nar­ra­tor con­fess­es, and the ten­sion between the boys’ gen­tle­ness and their need to defend them­selves shapes a para­ble about jus­tice and mer­cy. At Camp Sun­down,” a sum­mer camp for seniors, the young direc­tor can’t under­stand why a group of Holo­caust sur­vivors feels sure that a gen­tle new camper had been a guard at a con­cen­tra­tion camp. As in any tragedy they each do what they must, and the sto­ry clos­es with a breath­tak­ing image of inexorability.

For­give­ness and ret­ri­bu­tion lie at the heart of Free Fruit for Young Wid­ows.” A fruit ven­dor in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehu­dah mar­ket often gives away pro­duce to a man named Tendler, who had pum­meled the fruit­seller severe­ly when they both were sol­diers. Explain­ing him­self to his son, the ven­dor recounts two life-or-death deci­sions that Tendler was forced to make. When the young man, full of cer­tain­ties, pro­nounces Tendler the guilty par­ty, the father can only ask, And who­ev­er are we, my son, to decide who should die?”

Real­i­ty dis­solves into dreams in the stun­ning and strik­ing­ly orig­i­nal Peep Show” when a suc­cess­ful lawyer finds him­self drawn into a tawdry exhi­bi­tion of female flesh in Times Square. An assim­i­lat­ed Jew, faith­ful to his blond Gen­tile wife, he can’t resist the temp­ta­tion to stay and stare at the women on dis­play. When his mind drifts to his rebbes from yeshi­va days, visions of past and present col­lide. As when he was a boy, guilt vies with desire, espe­cial­ly the desire for approval and acceptance.

Two of these sto­ries probe the need to write. The nar­ra­tor of Every­thing I Know About My Fam­i­ly on My Moth­er’s Side,” prompt­ed by his girl­friend, spends six­ty-three num­bered para­graphs telling sto­ries, most­ly about his grand­fa­ther and his great-uncles. For the nar­ra­tor — me, fic­tion­al­ized,” the fic­tive author explains — being able to tell sto­ries about what mat­ters most to him is what makes rela­tion­ships possible.

The aston­ish­ing sto­ry The Read­er” finds a once-cel­e­brat­ed nov­el­ist dri­ving from city to city to give read­ings from his new book. Once his appear­ances were major events; now he is lucky if any­one shows up at the scenes of his past tri­umphs. How much rich­er could a writ­ing life be than find­ing, even for one night, one true read­er?” he ratio­nal­izes to him­self, mak­ing the best of what he feels is the end of his career. He soon dis­cov­ers that things are not quite what they seem, and the motives of one true read­er” are any­thing but simple.

The title sto­ry brings togeth­er two cou­ples who could be stereo­types: Jews in a Flori­da sub­urb and a cou­ple who moved to Israel after becom­ing ultra-Ortho­dox. It turns out that one of the Florid­i­ans is pre­oc­cu­pied with the Holo­caust and the Has­sidic cou­ple has a fond­ness for mar­i­jua­na, a com­bi­na­tion that leads step by step to an unfore­seen, shat­ter­ing realization.

Eng­lan­der’s voice changes marked­ly in Sis­ter Hills.” For this myth­ic nar­ra­tive he sets aside col­lo­qui­al dia­logue and tex­tured nar­ra­tive in favor of spare, ellip­ti­cal lan­guage rem­i­nis­cent of the Hebrew Bible. Matri­arch Rena Cohen is one of the founders of a West Bank set­tle­ment, her life vis­it­ed repeat­ed­ly by tragedy as the set­tle­ment grows into a thriv­ing town. She is a mod­el of self­less­ness and for­ti­tude until her life becomes unbear­able, and for once she uses her for­mi­da­ble intel­li­gence and deter­mi­na­tion to get some­thing for her­self — with trag­ic con­se­quences for others.

Super­fi­cial read­ers may find trite lessons about set­tlers and Pales­tini­ans, war and peace, prej­u­dice and tol­er­ance, or legal­ism and empa­thy in this sto­ry, but that would miss the point. In Nathan Eng­lan­der’s eyes, human beings make choic­es for admirable and regret­table rea­sons, with good and bad out­comes. His com­pelling sto­ry­telling, his com­pas­sion, and his star­tling orig­i­nal­i­ty make Eng­lan­der an essen­tial writer. This col­lec­tion con­firms his excep­tion­al tal­ents yet again, and it is not to be missed.

Jus­tice, Chaos, Sin­cer­i­ty: Talk­ing with Nathan Englander

by Bob Gold­farb

Dur­ing his book tour in Feb­ru­ary, the author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank spoke to Bob Gold­farb by phone from San Francisco. 

Bob Gold­farb: One theme that recurs in your sto­ries is jus­tice and revenge. It hap­pens with char­ac­ters like Prof. Tendler in Free Fruit for Young Wid­ows,” the old­er campers in Camp Sun­down,” and the kids in How We Avenged the Blums.”
Nathan Eng­lan­der: It didn’t cross my mind as revenge. I’m 42 and I can’t get over the fact that the world is unfair, unjust, hyp­o­crit­i­cal, and duplic­i­tous. When the world doesn’t deliv­er jus­tice, what do you do? What would I do? What would oth­er peo­ple do? It’s an explo­ration of the gray with each character.

BG: Some of your char­ac­ters seem to believe one thing and do another.
NE: We’re all stum­bling through the world, and what inter­ests me is explor­ing that. In Sis­ter Hills” it’s the idea of con­tracts, hold­ing peo­ple to their word. Peo­ple start with clear rea­sons for their actions – the Bible, the Con­sti­tu­tion – and end up doing what amounts to the oppo­site of those prin­ci­ples. I’m inter­est­ed in social con­tracts and respon­si­bil­i­ties to the com­mu­ni­ty and deci­sions. Liv­ing with oth­er human beings rais­es big ques­tions with big answers.

BG: That par­tic­u­lar sto­ry deals with set­tlers on the West Bank.
NE: I’m obsessed with the com­plex­i­ties of set­tlers. His­to­ry unfolds in the acts of indi­vid­u­als. Peo­ple are just human beings, but they think they have a big­ger plan. They change fate and unleash forces they can’t han­dle. It’s almost Shake­speare­an. It’s the chaos the­o­ry of the world, and it pet­ri­fies me.

BG: Some of these sto­ries have dis­sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive voic­es, almost as if they were writ­ten by dif­fer­ent authors.
NE: As I write each sto­ry I can hear its rhythm and feel the lan­guage, even as I’m con­scious of the devel­op­ment and struc­ture and exe­cu­tion. It amounts to build­ing a world that has to be as real as the one we’re in. At some point in the devel­op­ment of any sto­ry it comes alive and it makes it own demands. A dif­fer­ent world needs its own voice.

BG: Your sto­ries can inspire very con­flict­ing inter­pre­ta­tions among readers.
NE: Every read is a cor­rect read. My point is about sin­cer­i­ty. There’s hard­ly any­thing more sin­cere than peo­ple try­ing with all their hearts to put their work in the world. If they don’t see it, that’s life.

Discussion Questions

from Ran­dom House

1. The nar­ra­tor of the title sto­ry sug­gests that his wife’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with Holo­caust sur­vivors is exces­sive. And Deb has what can only be called an unhealthy obses­sion with the idea of that gen­er­a­tion being gone. Don’t get me wrong. It’s impor­tant to me, too. I care, too. All I’m say­ing is, there’s healthy and unhealthy, and my wife, she gives this sub­ject a lot, a lot, of time.” How do you feel about this? Lat­er, the nar­ra­tor sug­gests that Deb was dis­ap­point­ed by the sto­ry about the two sur­vivors meet­ing years lat­er in the lock­er room in Flori­da because she was expect­ing some­thing that would recon­firm her belief in the human­i­ty that, from inhu­man­i­ty, forms.” What does it mean to have an unhealthy obses­sion with the Holo­caust? How do you feel about Deb as a character?

2. Yerucham and Shoshana used to be called Mark and Lau­ren, before they became ultra-Ortho­dox. Ear­ly in the title sto­ry, though, Shoshana con­fides, We still get high.… I mean, all the time,” and that, in rela­tion to trav­el­ing with drugs, it’s pret­ty rare that any­one at cus­toms peeks under the wig.” What do you think Nathan Englander’s point of view is about reli­gious Ortho­doxy? What point is he try­ing to make?

3. Appear­ance and real­i­ty, secrets and hid­den truths, are themes in the title sto­ry. These are approached com­i­cal­ly, at first, when Deb and her hus­band dis­cuss Trevor, and the dis­cov­ery Deb had made and kept a secret. But he’s the son.… I’m the father. Even if it’s a secret with him, it should be a dou­ble secret between me and you. I should always get to know — but pre­tend not to know — any secret with him.… That’s how it goes.… That’s how it’s always been.… Hasn’t it?” What is at stake here? Why does the nar­ra­tor sud­den­ly feel des­per­ate and unsure”? What fears are gath­er­ing force in this moment?

4. The idea above — the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we don’t know our spous­es, or even our­selves, and that per­haps our lives are some­thing quite oth­er than what we believe them to be — is echoed with pow­er­ful, indeed trag­ic, impli­ca­tions at the story’s con­clu­sion. Dis­cuss the ter­ri­ble par­lor game the cou­ples play in the story’s final pages. What do the cou­ples learn about one anoth­er? About them­selves? How does this change your under­stand­ing of each char­ac­ter and the por­traits the author had paint­ed of them in the story’s open­ing pages?

5. The sto­ry Sis­ter Hills” is divid­ed into four dis­crete sec­tions. Why? Dis­cuss how the story’s struc­ture relates to its themes.

6. Sis­ter Hills” can be read as a polit­i­cal alle­go­ry based on the sto­ry of a bar­gain struck in order to save the life of a crit­i­cal­ly ill child. In this read­ing, who or what does the child rep­re­sent, and what mean­ing can be inferred from the exchange of mon­ey? What is the rel­e­vance of the two mothers?

7. Rena changes dra­mat­i­cal­ly over the course of Sis­ter Hills.” Describe her jour­ney and dis­cuss the dif­fer­ence between her true rela­tion­ship with Aheret and the way the young cou­ple per­ceive the nature of their rela­tion­ship at the story’s end. What point is the author try­ing to make through his use of irony here, and how does this irony relate to the sto­ry as a whole?

8. What state­ment, in Sis­ter Hills,” is the author try­ing to make about the his­to­ry of the Israeli set­tle­ments? What do you think the author believes about their cost? About their fate? Look in par­tic­u­lar at pages 64 to 66, where Rena dis­cuss­es with the rab­bis the nature of a con­tract, both sym­bol­ic and real, and the nature of justice.

9. How does the sto­ry of Masa­da relate to the sto­ry of Zvi Blum and the bul­ly known as the Anti-Semi­te in How We Avenged the Blums”?

10. On page 88 of the sto­ry above, Eng­lan­der writes, We weren’t cohe­sive. We knew how to move as a group but not as a gang. We need­ed prac­tice. After two thou­sand years of being chased, we didn’t have any hunt left in us.” What does he mean? How is he sug­gest­ing Jew­ish his­to­ry relates to the fate of these neigh­bor­hood boys and their plight?

11. How We Avenged the Blums” con­cludes with a pow­er­ful image of a cir­cle of boys clus­tered around the Anti-Semi­te, and the narrator’s unex­pect­ed insight about the nature of help­less­ness and pow­er, dig­ni­ty and vic­tim­hood: As I watched him, I knew I’d always feel that to be bro­ken was bet­ter than to break — my fail­ing.” What does he mean? And why does he con­sid­er this his failing?

12. At the start of Peep Show,” Allen Fein reflects on his trans­for­ma­tion. He had only want­ed a peep. He’d gone up the stairs a loy­al hus­band and lover, a work­ing man on his way home to the burbs. And now, min­utes lat­er, a dif­fer­ent man emerges: a vio­la­tor of girls and wives and mat­ri­mo­ni­al bonds.” Then, when the par­ti­tion ris­es and unex­pect­ed­ly reveals a rab­bi, Allen mus­es: Where the rab­bis are involved, there is always a path to be fol­lowed. Either you stay on it or you stray into dark­ness: This is the choice they offer. And, much as Allen feels bit­ter and lied to for all these years, he half wish­es he could live in their realm, where a man is reli­gious or he is not, a good hus­band or bad.” How are these two moments relat­ed? What is the author say­ing about the nature of iden­ti­ty, moral­i­ty, and truth?

13. How is Every­thing I Know About My Fam­i­ly on My Mother’s Side” dif­fer­ent from the oth­er sev­en sto­ries in this col­lec­tion, the­mat­i­cal­ly and tonal­ly? Did you feel it was more per­son­al, inti­mate? Why do you think the author chose to nar­rate this sto­ry in the first person?

14. Camp Sun­down” is a sto­ry about vig­i­lante jus­tice under­tak­en by a group of geri­atric campers at a bucol­ic sum­mer retreat. Dis­cuss the author’s views on guilt and inno­cence. Look in par­tic­u­lar at the pas­sage on page 166, where one of the campers con­fronts the direc­tor and implores, It’s your choice, Direc­tor. You take one crime to bed with you every evening; take a sec­ond one tonight.” What is hap­pen­ing in this scene?

15. What do you think the direc­tor should have done in Camp Sun­down”? What should the campers have done? Why?

16. The Read­er” is an explo­ration of the rela­tion­ship between authors and read­ers. Is there a social con­tract between writ­ers and read­ers? What is an author’s respon­si­bil­i­ty to his or her reader?

17. Dis­cuss the con­trast between the nar­ra­tive form of Free Fruit for Young Wid­ows,” in which a father is lov­ing­ly recount­ing a sto­ry to his son, and the story’s actu­al sub­stance. How does this dis­so­nance con­tribute to the story’s pow­er? What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the com­ment Etgar’s father makes when Etgar is twelve: Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a sto­ry, there is con­text. There is always con­text in life.”

18. In Free Fruit for Young Wid­ows” Eng­lan­der dis­tin­guish­es between two kinds of sur­vival, say­ing that Pro­fes­sor Tendler made it through the camps. He walks, he breathes, and he was very close to mak­ing it out of Europe alive. But they killed him. After the war, we still lost peo­ple. They killed what was left of him in the end.” What does he mean?

19. At the heart of sev­er­al of these sto­ries is the rela­tion­ship between reli­gious ortho­doxy and con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can cul­ture. How do you think the author views reli­gion and issues of faith and belief?

20. The title sto­ry, Sis­ter Hills,” and Free Fruit for Young Wid­ows” all piv­ot around inci­dents with­in Jew­ish his­to­ry, and the ques­tion of how essen­tial sto­ries — sto­ries that define us, that shape both our under­stand­ing of the past and our vision of the future — are told and retold over the course of many years. What do you think Eng­lan­der is sug­gest­ing about his­to­ry, tra­di­tion, and sto­ry­telling itself?

21. Many of the sto­ries in this col­lec­tion are com­ic in tone, despite the trag­ic nature of Englander’s dra­mat­ic predica­ments. How does humor serve the author’s inten­tions? How does it express his view of life?