Story Title: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank’ by Nathan Englander.
Collection/Anthology?: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Briefly: Mark and Lauren aka Yerucham and Shoshana, return to the US as Hasidics to visit their more secular Jewish friends. It makes for an afternoon and evening where tensions cross from strained to relaxed and back again, with the day culminating in a ‘parlour game’ that will never quite be forgotten.
Afterthoughts: Well, my first venture into the fiction of Nathan Englander has been memorable, and for all the right reasons. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is an extraordinary story, that bursts at the seams with detail.
It’s befitting that this story has a title which pays tribute to Raymond Carver because it certainly has something of the feel of a Carver tale to it, albeit in a more extended way. If you’ve ever read Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love then you’ll know exactly what I mean – two couple sitting around a table, sharing a bottle and talking out the day. There’s also tension in this story, but something more akin to the tension found in Carver’s Cathedral.
Of course, although I’m only speaking on the strength of this one story, it would be wrong of me to suggest that Englander is a carbon copy of Carver. The similarity between writers is certainly there but Englander is a very different writer altogether. That said he does, in this story at least, focus in the same way that Carver does, on the precise moment in a person’s life when something happens to make them change direction, or alter their way of thinking.
I said in my forethoughts post for the collection that orthodox Judaism is said to be a big theme of Englander’s stories, and that theme is certainly undeniably present in this story. Englander pits the ultra orthodox Judaic way of life against a more diluted form of secular worship. Injecting humour as he goes, Englander plays with these different ideals of the religion, while continually relaxing and tightening the mood. The tension of orthodox vs. modern worship remains throughout the story with Englander playing both sides of the coin, showing that even in the orthodox side of Judaism, life isn’t always as rigid as might be expected.
Memory of the Holocaust is omnipresent in this story (as the title would suggest). Debbie, the more religiously relaxed Jewish wife, has an obsession with the Holocaust. She searches for stories to reaffirm her belief that from inhumanity can come humanity. She craves these stories to teach her son (Trevor) that human-kindness does exist. Ultra orthodox Mark on the other hand has a very different opinion on the Holocaust, and the unhealthy obsession that the present generation of Jews have with it.
Then there are the sublime moments in this story, like when the couple from Israel see rain for the first time in a long time. They are profoundly moved by it. It is an amazing moment in the story, made all the more so by the couple’s physical reaction to the rain. And then there’s the ending, and what an ending it is. It’s the pinnacle moment of the entire story; a moment when the relationship of a couple changes forever. And it is at this precise moment that Englander shows such deftness in delivery. A remarkable story, from an equally remarkable author.
This story was read as part of a review of the Nathan Englander collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. If you want to find out more about this collection then I invite you to pop along to my forethoughts post for this title. I also encourage you to make a trip over to the publisher page for this title.