Nathan Englander’s new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, draws together a disparate group of characters haunted by the past, both personal and historical. In ‘The Reader’ a once celebrated author emerges from writing his novel to find that his book-tour following has dwindled to a single fan, whilst elsewhere holidaying holocaust survivors are stalked by the image of a concentration camp guard. Here Englander talks to online editor Ted Hodgkinson about hunting Nazi references, why he is only interested in writing seemingly impossible stories, how the digital age is having an impact on the way we read and the writers who most inspire him.

 

TH: Many of these stories test the supposed morals of their characters. The title story, for instance, sees a pair of Jewish couples play a parlour game in which they speculate which of their Christian friends would hide them in the event of a second Holocaust, with an unsettling conclusion. Would you say that probing the limits of what we might like to think of as ethical givens – or self-fulfilling truths about ourselves – is one of the energising forces that propels these stories?

NE: I’m obsessed with the social contract, or rather the ways that it can be tested and eventually broken. It fascinates me how an individual has to hold so many opposing realities in his or her head simply in order to survive. I’ve been using the phrase ‘bifurcated brain’ for this; by which I mean a person’s ability to believe something and its contrary at the same time. When I think back on the short stories that have had a profound impact on me – whether it’s Philip Roth’s ‘The Conversion of the Jews’, or ‘Goodbye and Good Luck’ by Grace Paley or ‘The Story of My Dovecot’ by Isaac Babel – they all leave me with a sense of those conflicting realities being challenged.

The second story of the collection, ‘Sister Hills’, is a radically condensed epic that retells the bible story of the son with two mothers across four generations and hinges on a single tree that grows on increasingly contested land. Rena, a soldier and mother, hacks at the tree and afterwards finds her life is blighted by tragedy. The story is poised between the intractability of the conflict and the possibility of generational renewal: is this where the real battle lines are drawn – at home?

I don’t want to write any story that I think can be written. The challenge and fun of writing stories is engaging with something that seems impossible to execute, so that even I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. So, I had this idea of trying to write a story about this intractable conflict that no one can seem to get a handle on: the West Bank and settlements. I wanted to try and condense the whole history of the conflict down to a single story, which was why the strange structure was born. To me, if a story is functioning it has to reach you on a universal level. It’s been interesting reading the reviews and hearing from readers, as the story seems to be working like a Rorschach test. It raises a lot of questions and folks are bringing their own answers to it. It was the final story I wrote for the collection and one of the strangest writing experiences I’ve ever had.

‘How We Avenged the Blums’ follows a group of school kids as they defend themselves against an Anti-Semitic bully and in ‘Camp Sundown’, two holocaust survivors, believe they have seen a former concentration camp guard on a holiday camp. Spectres of Anti-Semitism stalk these pages with an unnerving and at times almost comic lightness of touch, yet often it seems you’re more interested in how these half imagined ghosts proliferate in your characters’ minds, rather than depicting cold hard racism?

My parents, grandparents, great grandparents, all lived and grew up here, so we’re a very American Jewish family. I had a religious-Jewish education which is how I encountered the Holocaust, the genocide and the historical nightmare; the terrible things that happened and the echoes we live with today. So my connection to that event is not through experience in any way, it was educated into me. And at this point, that’s most people’s connection to it. And I’m fascinated by this sense of possession when it comes to history and memory, the question of ownership of historical reference. Where do images of Nazism and the Holocaust come from, and who do they belong too? As a fiction writer, sometimes I think, just like there’s the Simon Wisenthal Center for hunting Nazis, they should have the Simon Wisenthal Center for hunting Nazi references. This sense of memory and ownership and history turned into impression is something I wanted to explore in the book, yes, how do these ghosts effect us?

‘Peep Show’ follows a middle-aged Jewish man who takes a diversion on his way home and ends up watching dancing girls, where he then encounters his rabbi, wife and shrink. Religion’s suppression of sexuality seems to be a theme you’ve mined with relish.

It’s funny to see how this story has changed for me over time – or how it fits into the world differently now. When I wrote it, people didn’t have, say, pornography streaming to the cellphones in their pockets. I think it used to be more shocking and now, in a sense, it’s a sweet nostalgic story about naked rabbis. It’s also very much about the sacred and the profane, which is a theme I find myself coming back to.

In ‘The Reader’ a successful novelist emerges after several years of writing to find, on his book tour, that his following has shrunk to one. Is there a comment here about our ever shortening attention spans and our appetite for instant culture, without the wait for a long and complicated novel to be produced?

For me the story is talismanic in a way. And I do believe in the idea behind it. That it would be enough of a gift ‘to find one true reader’ in this world. You better not want for more. If you’ve managed to communicate with one other human being, it really is a gift. Yes, I was also thinking about the printed word in the digital age. If an art form dies out, then so be it. But I don’t think we can measure success purely on numbers, in terms of how many people chose to do something or interact with it. I recently discovered that the Encyclopedia Britannica is no longer going to be in print. As a child I learnt everything I know from reaching for the wrong volume of the encyclopedia. It worries me that they think a nine-year-old is going to care about real-time online updates. There’s something special about the book, any book, the way a person can pull it off the shelf and discover a photo of an old girlfriend tucked into the pages, a receipt, a ticket stub, a note scribbled in the margin. I’m on Twitter and Facebook and all that, and was really excited to work with Electric Literature on the e-version of the story, but, outside of all the wonderful things that come with connectivity, I’d be saddened for us to lose that relationship with books and the solitude of reading.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Photograph by Juliana Cohn

How To Read Brazil
Ben Lerner | Interview