Book Review: Nathan ­Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

In his new story collection, the ‘Mayflower Jew’ takes on cultural identity... with humour

Writer Nathan Englander spoke at Vienna’s Main Library in September | Photo: Orion Books

Writer Nathan Englander

Writer Nathan Englander spoke at Vienna’s Main Library in September | Photo: Orion Books

To Talk or Not to Talk

“Ideas belong to the world,” writes Nathan Englander in his controversial new short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. “The world is both wonderful and terrible, but ideas belong to us all, and that’s what we need to explore.” On a hot evening in early September, those who eschewed the city parks to gather in Vienna’s main library on the Gürtel at Urban-Loritz-Platz were rewarded with a thought-provoking reading and heated discussion. The American author was in town to promote his book, and he came armed with his ideas.

The collection won the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, which is, at €25,000, the world’s most lucrative prize in that category. It’s well-deserved for eight wry, dark, thoughtful and hilarious short stories, dealing with issues of Jewish identity, family and history. Burgtheater staple Robert Reinagl read the translations, with culture journalist Gabriele Madeja moderating the discussion.


Rediscovering issues of his heritage

The stories in his first collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges were deft and comic, astutely observing life. But they weren’t political. The Holocaust was hinted at, but there was the lingering suspicion that Englander wanted to explore more. Thirteen years later – a hiatus punctuated by a novel, a play and a fistful of translation work – he is finally talking about the issues that concern him most.

The title story follows the trajectory of Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But instead of discussing love, Englander’s couples – one secular Jewish, the other Orthodox – play the ‘Anne Frank game’: In the event of an American Holocaust, which of their gentile neighbours would protect them?

It is as funny as it is bleak, traits that Englander embodies in equal measure: He talks at a mile a minute, his speech loaded with insights and witticisms. Born in New York, and raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, this was a game he played with his sister. “She said once, about this couple: He would hide us, and she’s the sort who would pick up the phone when he had gone to work.” Englander paused. A beat. “And I couldn’t stop thinking about that notion of moral judgement.”

The title, the game and the story were one thing in America, and something entirely different in Europe. In the Netherlands, a Holocaust survivor asked, “How can you write about Anne Frank?”

“That’s a fair question,” Englander said, “but it’s just different worlds.”  At the Vienna reading, an elderly man in the audience claimed, startlingly, that “Austria is not yet ripe for this.” Diplomatically, Englander replied that “a book is going to look different in different places, and that’s actually very moving to me… if a book isn’t right for this place right now. But I believe that stories need to be universal.” When the old man pressed on further about his use of Anne Frank’s name, Englander’s answer was thoughtful but impassioned:

“Exactly what you’re saying is what I’m saying. What happens when a person becomes a symbol? The title is very literal: What does it mean to be a person who turns into a memory? What happens to a memory, and who owns that memory? I own her as much as anyone owns her… which is that none of us own her.”

For five years after university, Englander lived in Jerusalem, where he renounced his religion, before returning to live in Brooklyn. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne FrankDespite his atheism, he always felt connected to Jewish history and culture. But because of his American-ness – “I call our family ‘Mayflower Jews’, we’ve been here for so long” – he resisted writing Holocaust stories. Then, in 2009, during a four-month stay in Berlin on an American Academy scholarship at Wannsee, he changed his mind. “If this is where my mind goes, I should explore it”.


A Jewish world, not a Jewish writer

When he’s writing about the Holocaust, he isn’t writing about his own experience of the Holocaust. Rather, his focus is always on memory, the past, on heritage, on personal and cultural identity. Englander doesn’t consider himself a Jewish writer: “I don’t write Jewish fiction.  I say that, when nearly every one of my characters is Jewish, every subject is Jewish, every concern, every setting.  But the idea that it’s some sort of other world is very strange to me.” Englander grinned. “I wouldn’t go up to Italo Calvino and say, ‘It’s very strange, your book has so many Italians.’ ” The crowd chuckled.

Isolating writers according to religion, race, gender or sexuality forces them into literary ghettos, Englander suggested. Resisting this ensures that Englander’s stories are specific, yet universal. By following the old adage ‘write what you know’, his belief in a united humanity is encapsulated in each of the stories in the book, written with a quiet confidence by someone sure of his own identity.

“Fiction should live,” Englander asserted, and in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, both fiction and history do just that.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
by Nathan Englander
W & N (February 9, 2012)
pp. 224

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