What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Conflicts and contrasts are the motifs of a much-awaited collection by Nathan Englander

By David Herman, March 2, 2012
Englander: challenging his characters to a duologue

Englander: challenging his characters to a duologue

Nathan Englander
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99

Nathan Englander is one of the key figures in the new generation of Jewish American writers who broke through in the past decade or so. You could even say his extraordinary debut, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, in 1999, launched this new wave. But somehow, despite his poignant novel The Ministry of Special Cases, Englander appeared to have been left behind by writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss and Michael Chabon. Now comes his second book of short stories and it is another masterpiece.

There is a moment in his first book, when a character thinks a rabbi he has gone to see looks "like a real Jew". The question of who is, or isn't, "a real Jew", an authentic Jew, runs through all of Englander's best stories. Is it someone who is Orthodox? Then what about someone who is not Orthodox? What about a Jew who breaks the rules of Judaism?

The first story in Englander's new book brings together two couples.

Lauren and Debbie were best friends at high school in New York. Debbie has married a secular Jew, moved to Florida and lives an assimilated life. Lauren married Mark (now Yerucham), the son of Holocaust survivors, moved to Israel, became ultra-Orthodox and has 10 children. They have now come to visit Lauren's old friend Debbie for the first time in years. What will they make of each other's new lives? How does Debbie's sense of her own Jewishness stand up against Lauren's and Mark's apparently stronger form of Jewishness, rooted in religion, Israel and the Holocaust?

This seems straightforward, but the story starts twisting and turning, leading to a surprising revelation.

This is typical of the conflicts in these stories. They are never simple. They become more and more complicated. Sometimes, they are about straightforward conflicts between Jews and their enemies: Nazis, Arabs or American antisemites. But the most fascinating conflicts are always between Jews: between the ultra-Orthodox and the assimilated, between two West Bank settlers, between two Israeli soldiers during the Suez war.

Each conflict turns on a question of justice. What is the right thing to do? In the most astonishing of the stories, a character asserts: "Survival, that's what matters." This sounds reasonable; after all, he is talking about a Holocaust survivor. But survival at what cost? What about when survival becomes obsession, madness, even murder?

Some of the stories, set in Israel at war or in Europe after the Holocaust, raise powerful and disturbing questions in extreme situations. Several images are unforgettable. Particular moments are astonishing. At least one will leave you open-mouthed.

Englander has a bitter-sweet turn of phrase and is a superb storyteller. He creates some fascinating characters and at least two of the stories in this collection rank with the best American short stories of the past 50 years. His first collection was a gem. This one is darker, more complex. Englander once wrote of a Yiddish poet killed by Stalin: he "tested [his characters] with moral dilemmas and tragedies." This is what Englander does here - unforgettably.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 11:15am, March 2 2012