Universal dilemmas

What We Talk about When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£12.99, 224 pages

In “The Gilgul of Park Avenue”, a story in Nathan Englander’s first collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, a Christian financial analyst on Wall Street suddenly decides he is Jewish. At one point his wife, exasperated by the fresh convert’s usual zeal about prayer and diet (“You threw out all the cheese, Charles. How could God hate cheese?”), blurts out: “If you have to be Jewish, why so Jewish?”

It is not a question you could ever ask of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, the two second-generation Jewish immigrants who came to define Jewish-American writing in recent decades. Bellow displayed little interest in a Jewish identity defined by religious and ethnic traditions. Roth, who grew up in New Jersey’s lower-middle-class Jewish neighbourhoods at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant, became, like many of his peers, a beneficiary of postwar America’s great material success and cultural power.

Indeed, the assimilation of second-generation Jewish immigrants into secular America accelerated to a point where, as the critic Vivian Gornick has written, the “claim on existential outsiderness that, from its inception, had acted as a foundation for Jewish-American writing became, almost overnight, a thing of the past”.

It seems intriguing then that recent fiction by some prominent third-generation American writers – Nicole Krauss, Dara Horn and Jonathan Safran Foer – should go searching for roots in the Old World and Israel. Roth himself satirised this political and intellectual aliyah through Henry Zuckerman in The Counterlife, who renounces his “old life of personal non-historical problems” to move to Israel, trying to exchange his invincible solipsism for a warm bath in the historically defined collective.

Certainly, self-conscious reconstructions of cultural identity and claims on outsiderness are no guarantee of art. Moreover, the quest for authentic selfhood in the past may actually impede an understanding of Jewishness in the present, or the multiple settings in which it is being defined (and contested): the West Bank and IT campuses of Tel Aviv, retirement condos in Florida and summer camps for the elderly in the Berkshires, and among the hipsters of Williamsburg as well as the rabbis of suburban Long Island.

Englander’s second collection of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, luminously evokes these worlds and many others. Englander, who grew up in an orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn, is not prone to being impressed by ostentatious displays of Jewishness – on the contrary. In the title story, a marvel of crisp, comic dialogue, he primes us to mock the orthodox Israeli-American who asserts that “intermarriage” is the “Holocaust that’s happening now”. In “Sister Hills”, a miraculously compressed fictional history of a West Bank settlement rendered in quasi-Biblical cadences, we observe with growing unease the fanatical steadfastness of a millenarian.

At home in many idioms, Englander unerringly finds the right one for each of his stories, and his laconic prose facilitates quick shifts of scene, emphasis and sympathy. In “Sister Hills” we also see the flabby software programmers and the self-proclaimedly “leftwing” American who “feels bad for the Arabs” but can’t resist a real estate bargain in the Occupied Territories.

However, anyone who comes to these stories hoping to figure out Englander’s political views may be disappointed. Faced on one hand with the world’s intractable disorder, and the claims of Judaism and Zionism on the other, Englander seems to have refined his perhaps natural gift of ventriloquism.

This preference for miniature polyphony is not evasiveness. Englander, like all genuinely comic writers, is profoundly serious – and moral. He seems particularly obsessed with the pathologies of violence: how quickly the oppressed can turn into oppressors. The schoolboy narrator of “How we Avenged the Blums” describes how he and his Jewish mates overcome, partly through training in martial arts, the menace of an appalling anti-Semitic bully. But, with the bloodied villain at his feet, he confesses: “I knew I’d always feel that to be broken was better than to break.”

The more pacific of Englander’s readers might nod their heads at this point. They would not feel so secure in their convictions when Englander describes in “Free Fruit for Young Widows” the ruthlessness of a Holocaust survivor, and the debate between an Israeli father and son about the ethics of pre-emptive killing. Here the beliefs of the nerdy intellectual, the beneficiary of a long peace, are tested by the story of the man who escaped his Nazi murderers by hiding in a pile of corpses, and then had to massacre the family of his former Polish nurse before the latter could kill him.

Englander seems as disturbed by the implications revealed by the stories as his reader might be: there seems little pre-cooked about any of his fictions except one Bech-like tale about a failing writer on tour. Moving quickly through a range of emotion – fear, farce, pathos, sorrow and even pure joy – they tend to end abruptly. It is as though Englander would rather leave his reader with a genuine perplexity than a neat little solution.

In this the stories, though full of fantasy, humour and a sense of absurdity familiar to us from Sholem Aleichem to Woody Allen, transcend any antiquarian notion of Jewishness; they explore dilemmas that are, for want of a better word, universal. Writing in 1930, the American critic Lionel Trilling claimed that the Jewish experience “demands poetry, passion, a little madness”. “It will support greatness,” he predicted, but only when “included in a rich sweep of life, a life which would be important and momentous even without the problem of Jewishness, but a life to which the problem of Jewishness adds further import and moment.” Trilling was, of course, writing before the great and unprecedented calamity of the mid-20th century. But his words ring no less true today; and few literary works have better demonstrated their veracity lately than this glorious collection.

Pankaj Mishra’s ‘From The Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia’ will be published by Penguin in August

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