'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.”