Kafka and Woody were talking . . .
READING Nathan Englander is as close as we’re likely to get to eavesdropping on a conversation between Kafka and Woody Allen. As in his breakthrough 1999 story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Englander’s new book provides us with a highwire act that balances psychological insight and historical consciousness with playfulness and wit. The eight stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank confirms the youngish (he’s 41) American writer as a modern master of the form.
The title provides a key to the obsessions of Englander’s characters: the Holocaust, the position of victim and oppressor, the implications of guilt and innocence. It also hints at Englander’s mischievous methods of interrogating such heavy topics. Here, as in his previous work, he has a lightness of touch that keeps the reader pondering and grinning long after the stories end. He is a writer well aware of his responsibility to entertain.
Borrowed from Raymond Carver’s 1981 story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Englander’s title story tracks two Jewish couples — one Israeli, the other American — as they discuss life and religion. Fuelled by alcohol and marijuana, the Americans introduce a debate they often have among themselves: ‘‘ No, it’s not a game,’’ the husband says. ‘‘ It’s just what we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank.’’
The ‘‘ non-game’’, this ‘‘ Righteous-gentileGame’’, one of ‘‘ Who-will-hide-me’’ in the event of a second Holocaust, allows Englander to release an arsenal of observations about human nature across a spectrum of history and culture.
One of this collection’s delights is the variety of styles Englander employs as his characters struggle to understand themselves through religion, social status, geography, or a combination thereof. Sister Hills, for example, is an epic-in-miniature about the divergent lives of two neighbours who over four decades watch the development of their Israeli suburb, while The Reader is a self-reflexive fable about literature and the power of storytelling. Then there’s the slapstick meets Dante of Peep Show, in which a man scuffs his $500 pair of shoes and, quick to get off the street because of his embarrassment, unexpectedly finds himself inside a strip club, where he meets figures from his past who force confront the banality of his life.
Englander’s main themes are apparent throughout. These are stories of perseverance, mainly of Jews and Judaism. Englander’s characters are in search of their place in the world. Take the narrator of My Family on My Mother’s Side, in which an author named Nathan learns that everything he thinks he knows about his family is false. In the process, he discovers that his own life has passed by without comprehension:
to It’s not only the past that can be altered and forgotten and lost to the world. It’s real time now. It’s streaming. The present can be undone, too.
Sister Hills, the longest and most ambitious story, centres on neighbours Yehudit and Rena, the latter of whom who loses her husband and three sons to war and the perils of life in Israel. In 40 pages charting four decades, Englander compassionately investigates Israel and its history through the microcosm of a single neighbourhood.
Camp Sundown begins as one of the most humorous in the collection. When rumours flourish that a former Nazi camp guard is among them, the elderly Jews in this summer retreat soon turn hostile and a farcical witchhunt ensues. Here, as in How We Avenged the Blums, Englander supplants hijinks with the taut currents that run through his best stories.
Despite the titular nod to Carver, Englander’s work bears little resemblance to the master of Dirty Realism. Like Carver, however, his stories contain a rich and dexterous authority. This book should spark discussion about the vitality of the short story: I finished it with a newfound sense of faith in the form. Kevin Rabalais is the author of Landscape of Desire.