What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

There’s a moment in Raymond Carver’s imperishable story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” that might be described as one of unregistered revelation. Two middle-aged couples perch at a kitchen table consuming an anesthetizing amount of gin while trying to converse about the fundamentals of love. Mel McGinnis, a cardiologist and the table’s chief discourser, for whom “gin” is literally a middle name, offers a heuristic anecdote: He once administered to an elderly husband and wife, married for eons, who were almost snuffed out in a heinous car wreck. Supine in the same hospital room as his wife, the old man despairs not because of his own injuries but because he can’t see his wife through the eye holes in his full-body cast. “Can you imagine?” Mel asks. “I’m telling you, the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.”
Carver’s story is less a narrative than Mel’s monologue, his inebriated apologia on amore, and one that perhaps would have been better served by the title “How We Talk When We Talk About Love,” since the how is Carver’s real concern: in circles, platitudes, and tautologies, and always without certainty or complete comprehension, drunk or otherwise. Mel concludes his anecdote by asking, “Do you see what I’m saying?” But of course none of the four does see, least of all Mel himself. In true Carverian fashion, all present have had multiple marriages and all kneel at the altar of alcohol. The god of the bottle, like covetous and insecure Yahweh himself, requires one’s complete fealty: Eros becomes another casualty of consumption. The revelation that Mel unknowingly offers — true love matures by paradox, by simultaneously vanquishing and uplifting the self — passes unregistered.

In the title story of Nathan Englander’s charismatic new collection, What We Talk About when We Talk About Anne Frank, revelations abound. Two Jewish couples — one secular and American, the other Hassidic and Israeli — spend a Sunday afternoon in the former’s Florida home downing vodka and sparring over Jewishness. The Israeli husband, Mark, is a convincing example of exactly what we find obnoxious and, worse, outright yawnful about religious zealotry: chauvinism and moral superiority wedded to a fondness for bullshit and the very pressing need to spread it. The narrator oscillates between acceptance of and contempt for this oaken blowhard, though alcohol and marijuana help ease the afternoon.

But the marijuana, palliative in one regard, is also cause for the narrator’s unheralded discovery: his wife, Deb, has filched the weed from their teenage son’s bedroom. The narrator is unnerved to learn that his boy has a drug habit and, more menacing, that his wife has kept that fact from him: “It feels to me a lot like betrayal,” he muses. “Like my wife’s old secret” — she and the Israeli wife, Lauren, smoked copious pot as teenagers — “and my son’s new secret are wound up together and that I’ve somehow been wronged.” One senses that this awkward unmasking, this destruction of trust, will deliver a lightning bolt to an otherwise cloudless marriage.

The story’s second unheralded revelation belongs to Lauren. In a spacious pantry with the post-pot munchies, the four play an Anne Frank game devised by the Shoah-obsessed Deb: should another Holocaust occur, which of their Gentile friends would protect them? Short on Christian comrades to hypothesize about, they turn to each other, and when Mark pretends to be a Gentile asked to safeguard his wife, Lauren realizes, in a tense and exposing moment, that he would not do it, despite his paltry assertions to the contrary.
Englander’s clever version of Carver’s famous story sacrifices precisely that element that makes the Carver so effective — the affirmation that epiphanic awakenings are rare, that people don’t improve because they are adverse to revelations that might challenge their fought-for complacency and force them to confront the inadequacies they’ve spent a lifetime hiding from — and yet the sacrifice yields its own potency. The narrator and Lauren will never behold anything in their homes quite the same way again. Carver’s story occurs on a quotidian day in denuded lives, Englander’s on an uncommon day in lives nearly whole. All eight will wake up the next morning hung over, but only two will wake up changed.  

Englander must be one of the most charming, most likable storytellers in America. From his first collection, the wildly successful For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, to his novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, to this current collection, he crafts expert fiction with a close to saintly absence of self-congratulation and, more important, with a Cervantean facility for navigating the narrow strait between hilarity and heartwreck. In her magisterial study of Holocaust literature, A Thousand Darknesses, Ruth Franklin rightly contends that Englander’s story “The Tumblers,” from his debut collection, “is the most brilliant treatment of the Holocaust in contemporary American fiction.” It achieves this brilliance partly by way of a comedic absurdity that would feel at ease in Ionesco or Beckett — not the well-worn route for Holocaust literature.
In the final story of Anne Frank, “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” Englander revisits the Holocaust, this time without the absurdist hand. A Jerusalem fruit vendor tells his son the life story of a certain patron, Professor Tendler, a survivor of the Shoah and former soldier who served with the fruit vendor in the 1956 Suez War with Egypt. Tendler was a savage killer in the years following the liberation of the camps and in the requisite wars he fought for Israel. He had survived the camp by burrowing into “a mountain of putrid, naked corpses, a hill of men,” helped by fellow prisoners who colluded in his concealment and brought him “the crumbs of their crumbs to keep him going” until the Americans arrived. Upon returning home, Tendler slaughtered an entire family, including an infant, who had taken up residence in his house. The fruit vendor’s son is befuddled by how this individual could have turned so monstrous when his father, also a survivor, emerged with his morality intact. “He walks, he breathes,” the fruit vendor tells him, “and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him…. They killed what was left of him in the end.” The story is both a deeply unsettling and oddly touching meditation on the enigma of evil, and — in Kant’s famous metaphor — on the crooked timber of humanity from which no straight thing can ever be made.

No offering in Anne Frank fails to accomplish the objective of eminent storytelling: an aptitude for entertainment and instruction affixed to a faultless aesthetic sensibility. “Peep Show” unfurls as if in a Freudian nightmare. “Sister Hills” includes an elegant sparsity and faintly fabulist bent reminiscent of the great Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld. A twist on the classic bully tale “How We Avenged the Blums” extols the deliciousness of retribution while mining the dysphoria that deems it necessary. The most searing, sinister story in the collection, “Camp Sundown,” should be the envy of suspense writers everywhere: At an idyllic summer camp, a pair of survivors becomes convinced that a fellow camper was a Nazi guard during the Holocaust. Josh, the young camp director, grows slowly incensed: “Doley Falk, a Nazi. An old Nazi hiding in the Berkshires under the guise of a blue-toed low-sodium bridge-playing Jew. It is madness.” And by plot’s end that madness will morph into horror, as madness will do given half a chance.

If Englander has a shortcoming as a storyteller it’s his apparent inability to imagine a human predicament that is not insistently Jewish. The least pernicious effect of this can be the ennui involved in asking one to traipse over the same landscape again and again, while the most pernicious can be akin to proselytizing. Despite his frequent critiques and satirizing of the Orthodox, Englander writes as if he’s still one of them. One shouldn’t wish to be tagged a Jewish writer any more than one should wish to be tagged a female writer or an atheist writer, and yet Englander screams for that nomenclature.

He himself hints at an awareness of this potential snag. In “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side,” the girlfriend tells the narrator, a writer named Nathan, “What you do is tell the stories you have, as best you can.” And when Nathan suggests that his stories might be too recognizable, too rote, the girlfriend changes her mind: “You find better stories than that.” In Englander’s case, though, better is not the problem — other is the problem.
Perhaps Bellow is an unjust contrast for any living fiction writer to be set against, but consider how his journeys of mind are never restricted by a single religio-cultural passport; consider his steadfast resistance to being cubicled. Updike’s immortality has been assured in part by an intrepid willingness to go almost anywhere as witness (how many novelists who happen to be secular Protestants would risk the anomie, the chutzpah, to birth Henry Bech, occluded Jewish writer with an inclination to homicide?). Carver, on the other hand, will always be just shy of greatness because his imagination was tranquilized by his circumstances. No one better understands a heaven-less working class ambushed by the fallacy of the American Dream, but Carver simply has no other subject. “Write what you know” sits among the worst advice ever uttered.
Which is not to suggest that Englander has an equally tranquilized imagination. All three of his books indeed contain stretches of superb imaginative and fabulist strength. Englander has had a Borgesian streak in him from the start and more in common with Bruno Schulz than many have been willing to propose. But the incessant likening of him to Jewish writer par excellence, I. B. Singer, is mainly on target. If Englander intends to join the immortals he’ll have to obviate over-trodden territory and widen his range.
For now — no American storyteller writes more beautifully about Jewish identity, and What We Talk About when We Talk About Anne Frank is an indelible confirmation of Englander’s observant integrity, one more attestation to the promise of his greatness.