Nathan Englander: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from The New Yorker, 12/12/11

New Yorker illustration by Zohar Lazar

New Yorker illustration by Zohar Lazar

They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.

So first I re-read the original Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s been a while. My answer to the almost-question of the title has traditionally been: “Anything but ourselves.” What I remember: booze, light and dark, a more civilized Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the shallowness of whatever it is these people call love. Then I read the original vs edited by Gordon Lish version, how “Beginners” became the famous story that was actually published. It always surprises me to see the major changes an editor makes. Then I read some analysis of the original about how Carver was a recovering alcoholic and his stories always use food as nurturing and caring, but booze as destructive, and how important the offer of cheese and crackers, followed by no action of actually providing those things, was. I don’t remember that from my days in Lit 101. Which is why this kind of reading is so much better than that kind was.

And then I read this story, the title story from Englander’s forthcoming collection (which will also include “Free Fruit For Young Widows“). I’ve put off commenting on it for a few days, because I’m intimidated by it. I liked it more than the original (I’m waiting for lightning to strike me dead… no? Ok, good), because the people, the progression, made more sense to me. I think it’s just that I don’t understand 50s people, as portrayed in fiction and movies. They all seem to behave in some socially-approved way that I never learned. Maybe that’s where I went wrong in life.

There’s a definite nod to the original, evident in the opening paragraph quoted above, but I soon stopped trying to force a one-to-one correlation. Two couples get high and talk about deeply emotional topics without really getting deeply emotional. I enjoyed the observation that the Holocaust is forced on Jews in a way they don’t always appreciate, and the anecdote about the golfers with tattooed numbers that differed by five. I love the idea, beloved by many of my generation, that intermarriage is the new Holocaust. Freedom has its price, after all. I don’t know that I agree with the concept, but that’s supposed to be how the Lost Tribes got lost two thousand years ago.

And I love the Anne Frank game. It’s so dangerous, so loaded, it’s just made for a story like this. If there were a new Holocaust, who could you trust to hide you? Could you trust your spouse? The moments of truth these people encounter was quite real to me.

Light and dark are used much the same way as in the original, as are food and intoxicants. I think it gets to the heart of the matter much more cleanly, spiraling in on that last scene in the pantry which could serve as a safe room until it hits squarely on the truth. I enjoyed it very much.

And my answer to the implied question in the title: We talk about love when we talk about Anne Frank. Fear, somewhat. But love. Who would love us, that much. And who we could fool into thinking we love them, that much.

[Note: I re-read and reposted about this story when it appeared on BASS 2012]

One response to “Nathan Englander: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from The New Yorker, 12/12/11

  1. Pingback: BASS 2012: Nathan Englander, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from TNY, 12/12/11, and his 2012 Story Collection | A Just Recompense

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