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

Knopf  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.


Twitter Book Club

Read a transcript from the March 27, 2012 Twitter Book Club with Nathan Englander.

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?

"The Reader" by Nathan Englander - A Single Sentence Animation

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