Writing What He Knows

This review and interview were first published in The Jerusalem Report.

Nathan Englander (photo by Juliana Sohn)

The stories in Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank left me in awe – of their power and of the enormous talent of their writer. This new group of eight stories appears 13 years after Englander’s astonishing de- but collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. The long wait, due primarily to Englander’s nearly decade-long process of writing his 2007 novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, however, was worth it .

Englander, 42, has modestly and tactfully batted away comparisons to great American writers of the 20th century like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Raymond Carver, whose short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, inspired the title and certain aspects of the title story of Englander’s new work. But there is no doubt that, given time, Englander’s own precise and penetrating style and unique voice will make an indelible imprint on American letters.

Englander has been quoted as saying that he simply does what authors are taught to do: he writes what he knows. It comes as no surprise, then, that all of these eight stories by Englander, a self-described “God-fearing atheist” who was brought up Orthodox in suburban New York, have obviously Jewish settings or characters.

Although the author’s familiarity with Jewish and Israeli history, texts, languages and traditions is evident throughout, it is Englander’s strong emotional knowledge and astounding ability to inhabit with both gravity and humor the inner lives of characters so objectively different from him – and from one another – that makes most of these stories so memorable.

This is especially true in Sister Hills, a haunting parable of two women who, with their husbands, found, a hilltop settlement in the West Bank in 1973 and pay very dear prices for decisions and actions they take. Rena and Yehudit’s tragic and somewhat absurd saga, spanning 38 years in roughly the same number of pages, is rooted very much in historical events, but is given a decidedly surreal feel by Englander.

You can read the rest of this review, as well as an interview I did with Englander in the June 4th issue of The Jerusalem Report (no online link is available at this time).

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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