BASS 2012: Nathan Englander, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from TNY, 12/12/11, and his 2012 Story Collection

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.

[Note: I posted about this story when I first read it in The New Yorker last December, but I did a lousy job; I was too focused on comparisons to the Carver story to really pay attention to the one I was reading, though I knew through Englander’s Page-Turner interview at the time that he’d avoided re-reading the story himself. So I’m giving it another go.]

It’s an immensely complicated, though essentially “plotless,” story. Mark and Laurel (Yerucham and Shoshana) are Hasidim who’ve lived in Jerusalem for the past twenty years; they’re in South Florida to visit Mark’s ailing father. The narrator and Deb are non-observant Jews living in South Florida. Deb and Laurel went to school together, and are visiting for the first time since then; the two couples sit around talking. That’s it.

It’s all in the details.

Who touches whom – who clings to whom, and why – and who can’t touch. Where they are at any time – the den, the kitchen table, the floor, the back yard, the pantry – and why they went there: for a drink, to play, for food. What name, their given names or the Hebrew names they prefer, the narrator chooses to call the two visitors – and how not only what he says changes, but how he uses those names in the narration of the story. The snipes that take place, under guise of “conversation.” Who likes whom. Who approves of whom.

Most of the discussion falls into the category of what it means to be Jewish. Is it a religion, a culture, an ethnicity? Is an Ethiopian convert, or a guy who lives a non-religious life in South Florida, just as Jewish as an Hasidic Yeshiva-educated son of a Jewish woman? Is intermarriage the second Holocaust?

There’s some amazing choreography, both verbal as topics weave and course, and physical. They start in the den, looking at pictures and meeting the teenage son. Then to the kitchen for a drink and, as the afternoon progresses, a few joints (suggested by Laurel, since everyone in Israel smokes pot, apparently, and fortunately, Trevor hides his in the laundry hamper). At one point Deb, stoned, is on the kitchen floor, and the narrator joins her, holds her, comforts her, until they are lifted up – back – by Mark. They go out and play in the rain. An attack of munchies brings them to the pantry, a small room rather than the closet I’m familiar with.

Have you ever thought about what room in your house would be ideal for hiding a family in the event of a second Holocaust? I haven’t. But Deb has. It’s the pantry, and being in the pantry, stoned, leads Laurel/Shoshana to bring up the Game.

“It’s not a game,” Deb says.
And I’m happy to hear her say that, as it’s just what I’ve been trying to get her to admit for years. That it’s not a game. That it’s dead serious, and a kind of preparation, and an active pathology that I prefer not to indulge.
“It’s the Anne Frank game,” Shoshana says. “Right?”
Seeing how upset my wife is, I do my best to defend her. I say, “No, it’s not a game. It’s just what we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank.”
“How do we play this non-game?” Mark says. “What do we do?”
“It’s the Righteous Gentile game,” Shoshana says.
“It’s Who Will Hide Me?” I say.
“In the event of a second Holocaust,” Deb says, giving in. “It’s a serious exploration, a thought experiment that we engage in.”
“That you play,” Shoshana says.

Imagine yourself, stoned, having confided some things to people you don’t really know, having played in the rain with them, having fretted about what your husband is saying to them – and suddenly you play this game, and try to imagine: Would your husband, if he were Gentile and you were not, hide you? What I truly love about Englander’s handling of this is that he doesn’t look at who would or wouldn’t; he looks at who believes the other would or wouldn’t.

So here they are, on the last page of this story, in this pantry, this closed room – they can see the sun dimming again through the crack under the door – and now Deb and Shoshana consider whether their husbands would hide them.

A plotless story? Hardly.

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]

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.