What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Nathan Englander’s previous collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was hailed by some as a masterpiece (masterpiece understood in the old sense: a piece of work produced by a craftsman in order to be admitted to a guild as an acknowledged master). What characterizes his achievement is his patent interest in narrative and storytelling. He shows his influences and proves his technical knack while also moving forward, displaying courage in his own storytelling. Jonathan Franzen and other members of the American literary elite have come out to bat for Englander: from the woman who beat Franzen’s Freedom to the National Book Award with A Visit to the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, to Dave Eggers, to Jonathon Safran Foer. Since then—if it was not already so—his success in America has been assured.
The title of his new work, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, consciously takes on the mantle of the long tradition of the American short story, clearly alluding to Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which came to represent the apogee of lean short story writing in post-Hemingwayian America. Carver’s story explores the topic of love, as discussed by two couples sat round a table with a bottle of gin between them. His genius lies in taking this age-old topic and making it new and various. This is a skill that Englander clearly shares. In the Carver original, expressions of love are undermined by an abusive relationship; in Englander’s story love is replaced with faith. Expectations are coloured in, then often shattered. Englander also uses the form of the short story to question schematic moral judgements. Never leaning solely on the “sting in the tail” rubric often expected by readers of the short form, Englander uses a blend of received lore and shifting contexts to emulsify “oil and water” morality. These stories urge a consideration of inheritance in its discrete forms: from the maintenance of cultural heritage to the scotching of inherited enmity.
Especially pleasing is Englander’s ear for dialogue. Like David Foster Wallace, Englander is a master of tone and transports the reader with vigorous demotic concision. His ease with this direct, level-establishing style is apparent from the opening lines of the first story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”:
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.
“[I]t gives them the right” is somehow enough for the part to suggest the whole; so much is communicated by the wry, establishing, “spoken” tone. It’s also a direct borrowing from Carver’s opening (“Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right”). Englander’s imitation shows a firm working knowledge of Carver’s style, but he is also comfortable moving beyond it in this story and in the collection as a whole. The emphases always fall in the right place; the register is always deft. A father, speaking of his son’s actions, refers to him as “the boy”. Or the mother, talking about that boy’s maturity, says: “you may think he’s grown up, and he may think he’s grown up—but we, we are not convinced”. The reader’s trust that they are in capable hands is located in that accurate pause and in the subsequent repetition of “we”.
As in Carver’s story, there are tensions between the couples and the relationships that exist amid the four players; but where Carver’s characters talk about degrees of love, the relationships between Englander’s couples are further complicated by manifestations of faith. One of the couples, we learn, moved to Jerusalem twenty years ago and “turned Hassidic”; the other is secular and living in Florida. Tensions arising from their respective choices are meted out as they settle into a conversation which is a reckoning of lost years and geopolitical discrepancies. Englander replaces the discomfort induced in Carver’s tale by the characters’ admission that if one partner died they’d find love again with the discomforting admission, in the case of the Anne Frank game, that a husband would not hide his wife in the event of an American Holocaust. This “thought experiment” is “what [they] talk about when [they] talk about Anne Frank”.
Carver’s taut use of idiom is also present in the other stories. In “Sister Hills” a woman “chambers” a round of bullets into her gun, converting a noun into a verb for an assured, kinetic effect, redolent of Carver. The fable reimagines the judgement of King Solomon. Set on two hills of a young Jewish settlement bordering Arab territory, the tale encompasses two mothers’ claim to the same child within the larger territorial disputes. In a twist of outcomes, the woman who is not the child’s real mother draws from their settlement’s folklore to outwit her challengers and keep the child. The story shows how old agreements become untenable and yet remain technically airtight due to the dizzying change of cirumstance. Transferable logic and its repercussions pervade many of these stories. “How We Avenged the Blums” and “Camp Sundown” are as provocative in this respect as “Sister Hills”. Vendettas—ideological and familial—are passed on in a kind of “Newton’s cradle” effect, reminiscent of the appalling cumulative forces of repercussion in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In “Camp Sundown” eye-for-an-eye justice is dealt out by a group of eight Jewish pensioners who suspect a fellow retirement campmate of being a Nazi in his youth. Their ringleader attests: “This is what happens when you fence people in […] This is always true and never changes. A rule. A camp is a camp, Herr Direktor. Inside, different kinds of justice will form.” A giant Jewish star, arranged by the group of eight, burns on the lone man’s lawn and we are told, with some sententiousness, that “the symbols have been flipped. It is their burning cross”.
Englander shares with Carver the ability to oscillate subtle and minute observations with uncomfortable, emotional menace. The wariness Carver created in 1981 by writing about the elusiveness of strong feelings is reworked in Englander’s fabular tales. Here, passionate convictions of faith and opposition, where righteousness becomes a poison, destroy and unsettle because they endure, their very inflexibility ensuring their longevity.
The collection’s title and formal deftness might explicitly invoke Carver, but the overall tradition to which Englander’s concerns speak is expressly Jewish; as the collection progresses, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Isaac Babel (both of whom Englander has been grouped with in the past) come to seem as apposite as Carver. These stories exploit the springboard of such fictional influences to question and unsettle, linking acutely observed specificities to wider dislocations in a way that troubles moral certainty. But then, as with any homage by one writer to another, the points at which their concerns intersect and deviate demand to be noted and considered. When the nod to a tradition is as blatant as it is in Englander’s book (the title of which puts What We talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank on a par with other literary homages such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or Carver’s own paean to Chekov in his story “Errand”), the ghosts of influence are difficult to escape. This is part honour and part challenge. The obviousness calls the reader’s attention to a craft forged in admiration, but also to an individual talent that develops beyond that influence.
Hannah Joll is reading for an MSt in English literature at Balliol College, Oxford.