What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
By Nathan Englander
(Alfred A. Knopf, 207 pp., $24.95)
The great mystery about the fiction of Nathan Englander is the rapturous response that it has elicited. The enigma deepens with the accolades for this new volume of stories, which, for reasons I will try to explain, is a great falling-off from For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, his debut collection, which appeared in 1999. The jacket of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank comes with a full minyan of blurbs by highly visible, mostly younger, American novelists, printed in double columns like the King James Bible. Among the blurbers are the three Jonathans—Franzen, Lethem, and Safran Foer; Dave Eggers; Richard Russo; and Michael Chabon. Superlatives such as “masterpiece” and “genius” are bandied about. Englander is variously praised for his wisdom, his courage, and the beauty of his writing. Stacy Schiff, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, joined the chorus, inviting us to see Englander as a legitimate heir to Gogol, Babel, and Bashevis Singer. It should be said at once that any link with Babel’s exquisitely crafted fiction or Gogol’s brilliant comic fantasies is preposterous, while the three or four stories in which Englander consciously imitates Singer misfire badly.
Critics should be more careful with their words. I do not mean to say that there is nothing at all to make a fuss about, but this volume offers precious little cause for celebration. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges created a minor sensation, in part for intrinsic reasons and in part for its author’s unusual background. Englander came out of an intensely Orthodox milieu in Brooklyn. Though he broke with that world, he chose to make its black-hatted, bearded men and its bewigged women the protagonists of many of his stories. Thus, to some readers he seemed to be a piquant successor to Bellow, Malamud, and Roth who, instead of writing about Jews in various stages of Americanization, was able to represent “authentic” Jews, who—lo and behold!—exhibit the same sexual compulsions and existential confusions as the protagonists of his predecessors. (In Israel there are several novelists who have emerged from the haredi world and write about it, but they are not especially acclaimed for doing so.)
Englander’s recurrent subject is Jewish victimhood. Sometimes this condition is imagined in historical terms, as in “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” the strong opening story of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which is a fictionalized version of the night of August 12, 1952, when Stalin had most of the leading Soviet Yiddish writers murdered. More often, the stories are about self-victimizers, people who have a gift for turning their personal lives into a desperate shambles. Englander’s novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, from 2007, is not able to sustain itself as a long work of fiction, despite some arresting moments, precisely because it mires itself in victimhood at great length and in repetitious detail. Set in Buenos Aires at the time of the military coup in 1976, it tells the story of a Jewish couple whose son is abducted by government agents for purportedly revolutionary involvements. Any conceivable effort to placate or circumvent this murderous state bureaucracy is bound to be futile, but the couple, like the protagonists of Englander’s short stories, end up merely compounding their own suffering as they attempt to rescue their disappeared child. The book has the uneasy feel of a version of Kafka’s The Trial oppressively recast by a lumbering avatar of Zola.
By contrast, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, though uneven, included at least three compelling stories. There are two different ways in which Englander’s fiction is Jewish. The first is simply the use of Jewish characters—often very Jewish characters, who strictly observe the laws of family purity, pray three times a day, consult their rabbi when faced with dilemmas, and so on. But the predicaments in which they are represented are not distinctively Jewish, only the social framework in which they are enacted. Thus, Ruchama, the protagonist of “The Wig,” one of the two most affecting stories in the book, is an ultra-Orthodox woman who earns her living making wigs for other ultra-Orthodox women, but the story is really about a marriage that has turned sexless, and the woman’s bitter frustration, and her desperate effort to recall and perhaps even revive the beauty she lost long ago. Her Orthodoxy may (or may not, for this reader) give all this a special edge, but the human quandary is a universal one.
Another quite touching story here, “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” which is distinctly reminiscent of Malamud, is the peculiar tale of a WASP stockbroker who during a Manhattan taxi ride has the sudden revelation that he is a Jew. Through the yellow pages, he locates a dubious rebbe to give him guidance, and then he strains to embrace Jewish observance, a course of action that gravely threatens his loving relationship with his elegant wife. You might say that the subject could scarcely be more Jewish, but the story would work just as well in the hands of a writer from a different background, if the sweeping conversion experience had been to Catholicism or Hare Krishna. The title story of this collection, about a man who is advised by his rabbi to go to a prostitute for the relief of his unbearable urge when his wife persists in refusing to sleep with him, is, like “The Wig,” about thwarted desire and marital dysfunction. In this case, unfortunately, the story is spoiled by Englander’s impulse to submit his characters to cruel and unusual punishment: the wife is at last moved to passion, but the husband cannot have sex with her because he has contracted a venereal disease through his illicit encounter. (The forced ironic twist at the end is more O. Henry than Malamud.)
THE OTHER WAY in which Englander’s fiction is Jewish is in its themes, and this is the prevalent mode of his new collection, much to its detriment. Of the eight stories, three center on a preoccupation with the Holocaust, one on the related subject of anti-Semitism, and another on the also related subject of the loss of dear ones in the Israeli-Arab conflict. The problem with this explicit addressing of Jewish themes—all, of course, involving victimhood—is its didactic insistence, which leads to contrivance or to sensationalism.
The title story is a case in point. Two middle-aged Jewish couples, who grew up together in a modern Orthodox setting, meet in the Miami home of one of them. That couple has become secular, whereas the other couple, settled in Israel, is now ultra-Orthodox. The four get drunk, then uncover a stash of pot belonging to the teenage son of the Miami couple, and they proceed to get very high. This scene has been admired by critics for its startling incongruity, but there is nothing either profound or funny about it: it is merely bizarre. Englander has too often gotten artistic credit simply for bizarre and improbable inventions. The couples, in their extreme inebriation, begin to talk about Anne Frank, and the Miami wife announces that “in the event of an American Holocaust, we sometimes talk about which of our Christian friends would hide us.” This twisted fantasy is then translated into a role-playing game in which one spouse is supposed to play the hunted Jew and the other the Gentile neighbor. The story ends when the Orthodox wife comes to suspect that her husband would not hide her.
The murder of six million Jews was an unfathomable catastrophe, and none of us, Jews or Gentiles, can avoid pondering what it may suggest about human nature, history, and much else. What one sees, however, in Englander’s new stories is a sick (and mechanical) obsession with the Holocaust, as in the Anne Frank game of the two couples. He reminds me in this regard of Woody Allen at his cheapest. The moral unseemliness of this obsession becomes evident even in a simple plot summary of some of his other stories.
In “Camp Sundown,” a camp for Jewish elders (hence the heavy irony of the name), the aged campers decide for reasons that remain unclear that one of their number was actually a concentration-camp guard, and they gather together and murder him. Their spokesman justifies this act to the camp director by declaring, “To stand by for a murder is to murder. To hide the history of murder is to murder.” In their eyes their victim was as guilty as Eichmann. When further challenged by the director for what they have done, the same person explains, “That is what happens when you fence people in.... A camp is a camp, Herr Direktor. Inside, different kinds of justice will form.” Perhaps this merging of an Elderhostel with Auschwitz is what Englander’s admirers regard as brave and beautiful (I take those terms from Jonathan Safran Foer), but to me it seems merely creepy, not courageous at all, and also a facile and violent distortion of moral and historical distinctions.
This story is surpassed in sensationalism by “Free Fruit for Young Widows.” Englander’s battering ram is here deployed from the opening sentences. A platoon of Israeli soldiers in 1956 are having lunch at a remote site in the Sinai when one of them raises his gun and shoots four of the others in the head. To his horrified mates, he explains that these were actually Egyptian commandos wearing French-supplied uniforms like those of the Israelis. (We are not told how he detected their true identity.) As the narrative moves forward in time well beyond 1956, we learn that there are still greater horrors lying behind this one. The shooter, a man named Tendler, is a survivor of a concentration camp, and he saw his father, mother, three sisters, and grandparents killed in front of him. When he returns to his home after the war, he is warmly greeted by the Christian family that has moved into the house, but then he overhears them plotting to kill him in his sleep before he can reclaim his property. His response is to anticipate them early in the night by shooting every single member of the family. His final victim is an infant: “That last bullet Tendler left in the fat baby girl because he did not know from mercy, and did not need to leave another of that family to grow to kill him at some future time.”
One might reasonably infer that Tendler’s grief has transformed him into a homicidal maniac, but the problem is that Englander’s treatment of the Holocaust, here and in other stories, like his treatment of anti-Semitism and even of sex, does not leave any firm ground for a moral or even a psychological perspective. A man who witnessed Tendler’s killing of the Egyptians tells Tendler’s whole story to his son, trying to explain why he has a kind of reverence for the Holocaust survivor. Of the son it is said that “it was on that day that Etgar Gezer became a philosopher” and decided that “Professor Tendler was both a murderer and, at the same time, a misken [poor guy].” Two assumptions here are equally objectionable, exemplifying Englander’s weakness of moral imagination. The first is the notion that the exposure to barbaric extremes puts one in touch with the dark profundity of existence, and so in itself makes one “a philosopher,” like Tendler, who holds a chair of philosophy at a university. (In this way Englander’s readers are invited to flatter themselves for reading his fiction.) The second assumption is that having it both ways is not an evasion but the expression of an encompassing view of grim realities. Tendler in the story underwent unspeakable suffering, but then he murdered a whole family, finishing with a baby girl. Does he really retain his status as a poor guy? Is it this combination of victim and killer that makes him a philosopher?
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank betrays a writer who has lost control of his materials. Even on a technical level, the writing is disheartening: the prose, undistinguished throughout, is no more than a vehicle for moving the characters from one point to the next. The characters themselves are for the most part schematically sketched, and riddled with ethnic tics (like Englander’s style, as in that “did not know from mercy”); they are just instruments to convey the author’s uninteresting insistences. And several of the plots are manifestly contrived for little but sensationalistic ends. Englander showed flashes of real talent at the beginning of his career, but he has lost his way. These stories are neither courageous nor outrageous. They are merely bad.
Robert Alter’s most recent book is The Wisdom Books: A Translation with Commentary (Norton). This article appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of the magazine.