In Hasidism and Modern Man, Martin Buber, the great philosopher and folklorist, tells of a traditional account between a Jewish zaddik, a person of outstanding virtue and piety, and his young son. The zaddik asks his son, “With what do you pray?” And the son, perhaps in an effort to impress his righteous father, responds: “Everything of great stature shall bow before Thee.” When the son asks the same question of his father, the zaddick dryly says, “With the floor. And with the bench.” The anecdote, especially the zaddik’s practical approach to divinity, is an apt metaphor for the fiction of Nathan Englander. His first two books, the much praised short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and his wonderful novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, both interrogate the modern varied Jewish experience for often remarkable insights into the more universal story of humanity. Englander’s latest collection of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank continues that work, but with a more deliberate and complicated relation to the process of storytelling itself. These are stories about how we tell our stories.
Admirers and critics alike have drawn attention to what they call Englander’s “moral assurance” or “moral veracity,” and yet, for the most part, it is his fondness for the moral convolution that makes these stories so compelling. Englander is attracted to the moral borderlands, where right and wrong are not so easily distinguished. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank we find both the sacred and profane artfully mixed, and perhaps there is no better example than the title story in which two couples play a parlor game imagining who among their neighbors might hide them in the event of an American holocaust. It is a masterstroke of narrative and one of Englander’s most dynamic stories yet. In “Sister Hills,” two women, Rena and Yehudit, make land claims on neighboring hills and subsequently raise families side by side. Over the course of generations, nearly four decades, lives are claimed by age, sickness, war, and random acts of violence, there are significant changes in landscapes both geographic and social, and promises are made, kept, and broken between the two women. Each decade receives its own particular treatment, demarcated by year (1973, 1987, 2000, and 2011), and so each epoch soon sloughs off like memory, leaving the reader to navigate what may or may not remain from the prior period. The effect is akin to that of reading the biblical foundation stories of Israel. And calling these stories biblical is not merely a nod at their preoccupation with religious constraints and obligations, but an appreciation of their ability to show the very messy affair of being human. “Sister Hills” acknowledges a great debt to Genesis, and becomes an imaginative retelling of these same biblical stories:
‘It is not far from here,’ Rena said, ‘where Esav returned from the front, tired and hungry, and traded away his birthright for a bowl of red lentils. It is among these very hills where Abraham, our father, took a heifer, three years old, and a goat, three years old…and left them for the vultures in a covenant with God which gives us the right to this land as a whole. And for four hundred shekels of silver, Abraham bought the cave in which he lies buried—and over which, with our Arab neighbors, we spill blood to this day. So tell me, these contracts with God and man, written down nowhere, only remembered, do they still hold?’
In “How We Avenged the Blums” a small group of children stand up to a local bully who also happens to be an anti-Semite. And yet “some whispered that our nemesis was half-Jewish,” turning what could easily have been a story of adolescent vengeance into a subtle and unexpected riff on self-violence, the hurt we impose on ourselves when we hurt others—yes, even those who do mean us harm. “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is overtly concerned with the storytelling act. It’s practically cubist, and yet the most emotionally moving story of the bunch. And there is the masterful “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” a kaleidoscope of relative moralities and a story that seems to retell itself even while reading it.
Englander’s fictional worlds are fully realized places that celebrate the whole glorious morass of humanity, the ugly and the beautiful, the deadly and the divine, the despairing and the hilarious. In fact, there are few writers alive that are as funny as Englander. “Camp Sundown” is a sort of geriatric Marathon Man, as disturbing as it is hysterical. In “Peep Show,” the decidedly secular Allen Fein finds himself at a cut-rate cabaret unexpectedly peopled by his Rabbi, his mother, and his wife, all in various states of undress. It reads like vintage Woody Allen, whose characters sometimes find themselves actually inhabiting the primal rooms of their neuroses. Still, for all its genuine weirdness, it manages to end with a lovely moment of dream-like transformation.
Martin Buber claims “what is of greatest importance in Hasidism…is the powerful tendency…to overcome the fundamental separation between the sacred and the profane.” But Buber’s attraction to Jewish folklore was not strictly a religious one. He was plainly interested in the power of stories. “Since the whole was handed down in crude formlessness, the new teller was obliged to reconstruct the pure event, nothing less but also nothing more.” It’s a powerful analogue to Englander’s writing philosophy, and you can find it in spades in this new collection, his stellar next step at bridging the earthly and the divine.