BASS 2011: Nathan Englander, “Free Fruit for Young Widows” from The New Yorker

New Yorker Illustration by Emmanuel Guibert

I will pretty much get on a plane to anywhere in the world if it’s to do an event with the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (and, yes, the little boy in the story is named after him). So about a year and a half ago, I flew to Rome to give a talk with Etgar, and, a nice surprise, there in the first row of the audience was an Italian friend of mine. After the talk, we ended up on the roof of her building telling stories for hours. One of those stories was about Etgar’s father, and matching uniforms, and the Sinai Campaign….. I wanted to tell Etgar something about the narrative structure of the story. But I didn’t want to be rude and talk about a personal story in an inconsiderate way. So I asked, in Hebrew, “Would you mind if I engaged with that story as a story?” And Etgar turned and said, “Sure. Take it.” As in, It’s yours, go write it. And there I was backpedalling and apologizing and saying, No, no, that wasn’t my intent. But Etgar made it clear. He writes about talking fish, and fake angels, and women that turn into hairy men after dark, and that, really, this is not the kind of thing he would do. So a year went by, and I was living in Berlin for a few months, and thinking about history and the Holocaust and Israel, and that’s when I sat down to write “Free Fruit.”

This is how Nathan Englander describes the origin of “Free Fruit for Young Widows” in his New Yorker Book Bench interview, and in his BASS 2011 Contributor Notes. Initially this anecdote interested me because I’d read Keret’s “Surprise Party” in One Story (I think I’m being haunted by One Story, I’ve had reason to mention it in something like three-quarters of the comments I’ve done this fall) and would otherwise be unaware of him.

But now I find myself in a position where I’m not sure I’m willing, or able, to discuss this as a story, because it’s one of those intensely personal Jewish pieces that becomes rather like a Buddhist koan, and I don’t have the background to fully grasp it. Still, I can fumble along. You can fumble along, too, since it’s available online.

Three things seem very important for me to say. First, I found it very difficult to get into. The first paragraph is bewildering and reads like a magazine article rather than a short story. Yet I’m not sure I’d want to see it rewritten; one of my complaints about the last BASS volume was that most of the stories were too similar, and here when confronted with something different, I’m embarrassed to find myself balking. So as I’ve learned from past stories, I just kept plugging along, and eventually things started making sense and it turned into a short story.

Second, I think the boy Etgar’s philosophical development is perhaps the real metaphor of the story. He goes from seeing things in absolute certainty to realizing there are gray areas: “Shimmy did his best to make clear to his son that Israelis—in their nation of unfinished borders and unwritten constitution—were trapped in a gray space that was called real life. In this gray space, he explained, even absolutes could maintain more than one position, reflect more than one truth.” At first Etgar is unconvinced, but later, he “decided Professor Tendler was both a murderer and, at the same time, a misken.” Is this growing? Or inuring? Or sophistry? Has he developed compassion, or callouses? Or both? Or has he just learned to rationalize what he wants to believe anyway?

Then there are the questions of blame, guilt, forgiveness, responsibility, punishment. That’s what rabbis do all day; debate is the Jewish sport. I’m not able to follow fully. But I get the jist, and can appreciate the intricacies of what’s going on.

I don’t really “get” the story. But once I got into it, I enjoyed it. And more than that, I appreciated it. We never know how good we’ve got it until we remember how bad we could’ve had it, in a different time, a different place.

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2 responses to “BASS 2011: Nathan Englander, “Free Fruit for Young Widows” from The New Yorker

  1. Pingback: Nathan Englander: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from The New Yorker, 12/12/11 « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Etgar Keret: “Creative Writing” from The New Yorker, 01/02/2012 « A Just Recompense

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