Turtle upon Turtle

Christian Lorentzen

  • What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
    Weidenfeld, 207 pp, £12.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 297 86769 2

In 1941 the American journalist Dorothy Thompson published an essay called ‘Who Goes Nazi?’ She proposed ‘an interesting and somewhat macabre parlour game’ to be played at dinner parties. The concept is in the name: look around the room and everybody swings one way or the other. She runs through various guests: the sportsman bank vice-president (Nazi); the threadbare editor (not a Nazi); the scientist’s masochist wife (Nazi); the chauffeur’s grandson serving drinks (not a Nazi); the Jewish speculator who doesn’t like Jews (Nazi); the quiet Jewish man from the South (not a Nazi). In Thompson’s calculus the hyper-competitive and the habitually humiliated, ‘those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t’ go Nazi, while ‘kind, good, happy gentlemanly, secure people’ don’t.

Seventy years later there aren’t any Nazis around, at least not like there used to be. Still, a variation on Thompson’s game shows up in the title story of Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank. Two Jewish couples drinking and smoking pot one afternoon in Florida call it ‘the Anne Frank game’. If a second Holocaust were to start up, which of their Gentile neighbours would give them a hiding place? Then they ask if their own spouses, if they weren’t Jewish, would shelter them in the same circumstances. The story ends in silence: ‘No one will say what cannot be said – that this wife believes her husband would not hide her.’

The couple in question ‘ran off to Israel twenty years ago and turned Hassidic’. They’re visiting Florida from Jerusalem to see elderly parents for Sukkot. Their hosts are irreligious parents of a teenage son – the pot’s his. The two wives were friends in high school and arranged this reunion on Facebook. They spend the afternoon drinking in the manner of the couples in ‘What We Talk about When We Talk about Love’, the Raymond Carver story that was famously rewritten and retitled (from ‘Beginners’) by his editor, Gordon Lish. Englander’s couples engage in a competitive discussion about ethnic authenticity, and the Anne Frank game is its didactic climax. It’s the Hassidic wife who thinks her husband wouldn’t hide her, and the moral being telegraphed is that even the most thoroughly adopted Jewish identity might not turn you into the sort of person who would risk his life to give others cover from killers, even in the eyes of your wife.

Englander’s collection has not run short of praise: it has been called ‘remarkable’ and ‘courageous’ by James Lasdun in the Guardian; Alison Kelly said in the TLS that it was ‘a wonderful collection: entertaining, profound and gently powerful’; Stacy Schiff in the New York Times Book Review said, ‘a kind of hard-won wisdom spills out on every page.’ And Englander has provided a neat package to garner these positive adjectives. His stories make constant gestures towards history and politics, just enough to be called ‘gently powerful’. He portrays characters from a narrow ethnic spectrum that most Anglophone readers never see from the inside, and he does so from the perspective of the sympathetic and nostalgic apostate. If anxiety about identity too often stands in for actual drama in his fiction, for some it may be a preferable substitute. Dressing all this up in Raymond Carver’s clothes offers the prospect of an accessible synthesis.

Of the collection’s title story, Schiff said: ‘Here Englander may just surpass the master.’ Isn’t it pretty to think so? Or to think that anyone these days might do. But Englander’s reaching for Carver exposes his own shortcomings as a storyteller. He has no ear for actual speech; his characters talk either in essay fragments or hammy bits of overdone dialect. He can’t portray something like drunkenness without having his characters constantly state that they are drunk. And his stories are all too often choreographed towards a schematic finish. In a conversation in the Guardian the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer told Englander that he admired his work because it ‘didn’t feel corny or sentimental but just the opposite’. Yet Englander’s appropriation of Carver’s title and scene-setting is corny, in the way that performing karaoke is corny, and his execution is thoroughly sentimental: his characters get to pretend to be Anne Frank without skipping a meal.

A corny premise, a bluffing move towards menace and a retreat into sentiment are typical of these stories. ‘Camp Sundown’ is set at a summer retreat for elderly Jews in the Berkshires. The story is seen through the eyes of the 38-year-old camp director, Josh, who likes his job because he enjoys it when the elderly seem graceful, as they stare out across a lake, watch children play or sit down to play bridge. His summer idyll is disrupted when a couple of resident Holocaust survivors accuse one of the bridge players of being a concentration camp guard. One night they set up candles in the shape of a Jewish star – ‘their burning cross’ – and call for justice, in the form of a summer camp war-crimes trial. In his frustration, Josh throws their book-group and movie-night favourites – Marathon Man, The Boys from Brazil – into the fire, inadvertently enacting a book burning: a moment that’s not without comic effect. The next night, walking by the lake, Josh finds that the vigilante elders have drowned their innocent suspect. As he listens to their demand that he report the death as an accident, he catches sight of something by the shore of the lake: turtles waddling in to end the story in the manner of Robert Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’ or Tobias Wolff’s ‘Poaching’: ‘They watch those turtles on their slow march and behold those ancient creatures, shell-backed and the colour of time, as they lower themselves, turtle upon turtle, disappearing into the stillness of the lake.’ The borrowed lyricism heightens the overall dissonance. The elderly are ennobled by all they’ve suffered, but sometimes they’re also delusional revenge-seeking murderers, and it all stems from the Holocaust; bring on the marching turtles.

Jewish violence is taken up in three other stories that have the moral weight of maths problems. In ‘Free Fruit for Young Widows’ a grocer recounts to his son murders of self-defence committed by his friend, an Israeli philosophy professor, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and during the Sinai War of 1956. Halfway through the telling the boy thinks: ‘Nice story … Sad. But also happy … Survival, that’s what matters.’ After hearing of a few more murders he has to revise his calculus, and this turns the boy himself into ‘a philosopher’, albeit one who stacks fruit for a living. Calibrating a happy-sad tone is Englander’s way of being entertaining and serious at once: there was a Holocaust but there were also survivors; more murders, justified or not, but learning about them makes children wise. After the children in ‘How We Avenged the Blums’ undertake a cartoonish martial arts regimen, they learn that beating up an anti-semite isn’t satisfying; the story is a rickety working out of a simple ‘cycle of violence’ allegory. ‘Sister Hills’ is about a curse put on a house of settlers in the West Bank during the Yom Kippur War by a Palestinian boy. Englander alternates here between fable mode and realism and skips across decades to telescope the rise of the settlement into a bland modern suburb, while implying, in the fates of its founders, that there was some injustice involved in its creation. It’s perhaps this implication that counts as political ‘courage’ in the critics’ eyes.

When he isn’t shrink-wrapping history, Englander’s crude literary appropriations tend to spotlight the flimsiness of his plotting and the cautious plodding of his prose. In ‘Peep Show’ he does a soft-core Delmore Schwartz act, aping the Freudian terror of the stories ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ and ‘The Track Meet’. Allen Fein, a married man with a shiksa wife, enters a Times Square peep show and buys several tokens; after seeing one beautiful woman, he is greeted by a phalanx of rabbis, his shrink, and then his mother, in stockings, garters and ‘a wad of Kleenex’ over her breasts, sitting next to his pregnant wife. ‘Why ruin a good marriage,’ his mother asks, ‘even if it’s to her?’ The story ends with him performing for a Latino man: a note less of homoeroticism than cultural posturing, as tacked-on as the turtles in ‘Camp Sundown’. Woody Allen, to whom Englander, despite the general mirthlessness of his attempts at comedy, is often compared, can wring more about sexual guilt from a single line.

Guilt is not a subject taken up with much seriousness in these stories, but there’s a strong vein of unironised self-pity running through Englander’s heroes, especially his self-consciously framed alter egos. ‘The Reader’, the only story in which Jewishness isn’t foregrounded (though in one scene both main characters wear yarmulkes), sends Author, ‘a man surviving on memory and the fumes of prestige’, on an under-attended tour of a series of soulless chain bookstores between Boston and Seattle that seem to be turning fast into pharmacies, marijuana dispensaries and cafés. A ghostly old man called ‘the reader’ shows up at each venue to inspire Author to do his readings and in a last scene gets an indifferent crowd to pay him attention. Author starts to cry, then reads ‘new work’ from his notebook. ‘He smiles at his reader, and reads on through the tears. Author reads on. And author reads on.’ The story dramatises the complaints American fiction writers frequently air about their dwindling readership, and winds up with another happy-sad quasi-lyrical finale.

There’s more weeping in ‘Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side’. The story is in 63 numbered sections – most of them a paragraph long, except for the few containing dialogue – which gives it an experimental sheen that masks a basic formlessness. It opens with scenes of a couple walking down Broadway. First referred to as husband and wife, they turn out to be the narrator and his ex-girlfriend. He’s having a crisis about his work:

‘But what do you do if you’re American and have no family history and all your most vivid childhood memories are only the plots of sitcoms, if even your dreams, when pieced together, are snippets of movies that played in your ear while you slept?’

‘Then,’ the girl says, ‘those are the stories you tell.’

Note the narrator’s dolefulness, a self-pity that here seems disingenuous because it’s being expressed through the persona of an accomplished writer (‘me, fictionalised’ and called ‘Nathan’ by his niece). He’s jealous of his girlfriend Bean’s ethnic authenticity as a member of a family that recently immigrated from Bosnia. He refers to her mostly as ‘the Bosnian’. In a writer who so constantly flaunts his own ethnic authenticity, envy of someone else’s gives the game away. Instead of writing about sitcom memories, Nathan collects stories about his mother’s family. Most of these turn out to be embellished: death from a brain tumour was really death from an infected cut; the great-uncle who ‘was killed in the war’ died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. His ‘favourite’ story is about his great-grandfather punching a man who makes an anti-semitic remark in a bar. There’s no more to it than that – a man who deserves to be punched is punched (Englander places great value on stories of Jewish self-defence) – and the other family tales are just as slight. But where the story is really going, as these anecdotes accumulate, is towards the aftermath of the break-up with the Bosnian:

43. My couch is 92 inches; it’s a deep green three-cushion. It seats hundreds. But that’s not why I got it. I got it because, lying down the long way, in the spooning-in-front-of-a-movie way, in the head-to-toe lying with a pair of lamps burning and a pair of people reading, it fits me and another – it fits her – really well.

44. She is gone. She is gone, and she will be surprised that I am alive to write this – because she, and everyone who knows me, didn’t think I’d survive it. That I can’t be alone for a minute. That I can’t manage a second of silence. A second of peace. That to breathe, I need a second set of lungs by my side. And to have a feeling? An emotion? No one in my family will show one. Love, yes. Oh, we’re Jews, after all. There’s tons of loving and complimenting, tons of kissing and hugging. But I mean any of us, any of my blood, to sit and face reality, to sit alone on a couch without a partner and to think the truth and feel the truth, it cannot be done. I sure can’t do it. And she knew I couldn’t do it. And that’s why it ended.

45. It ended because another person wants you to need to be with them, with her, specific – not because you’re afraid to be alone.

It’s odd, in a book so preoccupied with Jewish suffering, that the only trauma portrayed with a straight face is the break up of a casual dating relationship and the fear of being alone as a bachelor on a big expensive couch in a New York apartment. The story ends with Nathan weeping on the couch thinking about the dead relatives that the Bosnian made him learn about so he could write a story. This seems to be what Englander actually knows about ‘survival’.