'If I think as I write, those pages are thrown away'
Great writing requires a state of ‘freedom or transcendence’, explains Nathan Englander, winner of this year’s Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. And that means stepping away from the internet
HOW MUCH does it bother Nathan Englander to be boxed in as a Jewish writer? About as much as it bothers any writer who decides to call his book What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. “I always say, when the question of category comes up, what if you’re a writer with the James Baldwin question?” Englander laughs. “I mean, quick – black or gay? Which are you? Quick!”
Irreverence shot through with watchfulness is Englander’s stock-in-trade. Irony is a terrain he likes to excavate from every angle, just to see what it will yield. This is a writer who grew up Orthodox in Long Island, lost his faith on a study year abroad in Jerusalem, of all places, and now lives in Brooklyn, in a neighbourhood where hipster quite literally bumps shoulder with Hasid.
His local cafe, where we meet, has a curated display of the kind of heirloom glassware which may well still be in use on local tables every Sabbath. And somewhere around here, there may well be a pantry in which the game from which his book gets its title is still played on occasion; after all, Englander and his sister played it in their pantry in Long Island 30 years ago, just as his characters do.
Englander’s title story is a microcosm of the game which is in fact being played out over this collection (Englander’s second; he has also published one novel, The Ministry of Special Cases) as a whole.
Tradition locks eyes with indifference, infraction squares up to observance, ritual lords it over reinvention, and from the midst of the resultant fretting and posturing and seething emerge stories of human anxiety, vulnerability, folly.
Here a secular couple are visited by their now-Hasidic friends. The secular wife is excited at the prospect of a story about two elderly Holocaust survivors meeting in a gym, but deflated when the story turns out to be a comic one; she wanted emotion, empowerment, her husband knows.
Meanwhile, their friend maintains the secular couple’s son is headed for “the Holocaust that’s happening now”: intermarriage and the falling-away of tradition.
This, as both couples are getting high on the pot they’ve stolen from the boy’s laundry basket and are preparing to play “the Anne Frank game”, which has to be read to be believed. But then, it is all too believable. So many of the elements which Englander has woven into his fiction are.
“Even when we’re telling our truest stories, it’s always down to our perception of the truth,” he says. “In family history, I guess it’s the most primal moments which are remembered. But what I’m interested in is how they’re changed or protected.”
Which is the fascination out of which another of the most striking stories in this collection, Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side, arose: that story, in 63 sections, is a sharp interrogation of the stuff of storytelling – of how history and biography are malleable and exploitable once in the writer’s hands.
And in another story, the extraordinary Sister Hills, what reads like oral history – two mothers establish a West Bank settlement, only to find themselves embroiled in a bizarre Judgment of Solomon-type battle over a daughter – is an Englander fable, as is the less successful Free Fruit for Young Widows, in which a survivor’s murderous actions are assessed by a young man of the next generation.
As a writer, Englander works through the legacy of his Orthodox background every day, even if he has ostensibly left it behind. He is increasingly aware, he says, of the centrality to his work – both thematically and in terms of approach – of “ideas of sacred time and sacred space” which were instilled in him in childhood.
This is a realisation towards which Englander has been guided partly by his work with Jonathan Safran Foer on a new translation of the Haggadah, the ancient text used at Passover Seders, which was published earlier this year. But, oddly enough, it’s also a realisation prompted partly by Colum McCann, Englander’s colleague at Hunter College.
“I used to be jealous of Colum; he has such a store of stuff,” Englander says. “We’d go out for a beer and he’d try to teach me that Beckett quote: fail again, fail whatever. Ask him to sing a song, he’ll have 6,000 verses.”
Not everyone would see this as a good thing but, for Englander, it is testimony to an oral tradition of which he felt he could only dream: until he remembered. “You know, that this was just a different cultural version of the culture that I had. That I have a lot of stuff, it just happens to be biblical, it just happens to be prayer.”
And, as is so often the case in the strongest influence of oral culture, the enduring power comes down to a sense of cadence, to an instinct for shape and rhythm, something which is much in evidence in Englander’s prose, in which parable never seems far off, no matter how aching the irony.
And in practical ways, too, his upbringing has prepared him to write; it’s natural, he says, for him to be at the desk six days a week and away on the seventh, for him to have rituals around the practice, for him to impose on himself a strict discipline.
Real writing only gets done, he says, when he is immersed to an extent that self-consciousness drops off. “When I’m thinking as I write, those are the pages that get thrown away,” he says. “It’s like prayer or like exercise: you work towards this spot which is beyond the work, where there’s freedom or transcendence or something.” It’s “a kind of Kavanah”, he says, referring to the Jewish mindset for prayer, an intense focus and concentration.
“You know, that it’s not snack time, it’s not internet time, it’s writing time. And I do feel religious about this, that writing happens in the moment. That there is no other Friday morning when you will write this thing you’re writing this Friday morning.”
Englander is of an age of writers whose awareness of the importance of focus and immersion is hard-won, ragged as it is through long experience of dipping a toe into the internet and resurfacing hours later, dead-eyed and fog-brained, wondering where all the writing time has gone.
For a while, the thing to do was to pretend to be above such distractions. Now, the tactic is to admit vulnerability and come clean about tactics. Witness Zadie Smith, in the acknowledgements to NW, thanking the internet-blocking software Freedom and SelfControl, or listen to Englander talk openly about strategies of “brain training”, about his fondness (after an initial repulsion) for Twitter, about the benefits of rhythm-based exercise like yoga or running to nudge the mind into creative territory.
A past generation of writers will scoff into their scotch, but Englander does what he has to do. He’s aware, too, of what he’s expected to do, being a writer whose work explores the questions of modern Jewish identity, who sets fiction not just in Brooklyn and Long Island but in Israel today. There are matters on which such a writer is expected, somehow, to pronounce – conflicts and stalemates his fiction is expected to reflect.
“But I like to picture myself as a coward throughout history,” he says, quite seriously. “In that, everything is scary to me, and nothing, except my obligations to craft, is clear. I am dreaming of an Israel novel now, actually, and when I see a headline about there, it gets ripped, it goes into Evernote” – back to software and its uses – “but I don’t think that comes from the outside, that pushing. It comes from inside. Because I do consider fiction writing a moral act.”
Nathan Englander will be presented with the Frank OConnor International Short Story Award at a public reading at Triskel Christchurch, in Cork, on Sunday; corkshortstory.net