If you think you can’t tell a book by its cover, you should read what such heavy-hitting literati as Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Téa Obreht, Richard Russo and the three Jonathans – Franzen, Lethem and Safran Foer – wrote on the back cover of Nathan Englander’s latest, slim collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Such compliments are not by mere mortals blurbed. They are, to echo Geraldine Brooks’s dust-jacket assessment of Englander’s stories, “the very best of the best.” The triple-A gold seal of literary marketing.
Also, as it turns out, true. Englander’s stories, most of them rooted in or reflecting the Orthodox Jewish faith he has personally renounced, are scary good, inviting instant comparison with the work of any giant of the genre one cares to name, from Gogol on.
Englander himself, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess. Flying into Toronto amid clouds of glory – the first reviews of his book as uniformly adulatory as the blurbs – he confesses to being every bit as “anxious and neurotic” as he was when he started out two decades ago, “alone in my room writing a story in secret.” His arms wave about as he struggles to keep pace with his own monologue, which is as stumbling and sprawling as his prose is tailored. In the world of brown-eyed handsome men, Englander is the nervous Nellie.
“Right before this book came out, I saw Philip Roth and I said to him – I don’t usually bother him with questions about shop – but I said, ‘My skin will get thicker, right? I’ll get tougher with each book, right?’ And Roth said, ‘Thinner and thinner till they can hold you up to the light and see right through.’ ”
And in this tortured way, one is quick to imagine, the torch of Jewish-American literature passes from one generation to another. Just don’t tell Englander. “I don’t even play that game,” he insists – the game of “framing and borders and organizing.”
But his colour commentary is engaging. “I’m superthankful about the groups I get thrown into,” he says. “But I call it a big giant wedding gift you just vacuum around. You don’t unwrap it. There’s nowhere to put it.”
With a personal history he calls “deeply, deeply, wildly Jewish,” Brooklyn native Englander can’t easily avoid the religious labelling. “Obviously, everything I write – it’s all about Jews,” he says. “But I deflect the idea of it being Jewish literature. That’s not how I read. In my head, the tradition I’m writing in doesn’t weave that way.”
Two of the eight stories in the current collection are set in Israel, where Englander lived for five years after earning a graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa. The title story subtly loads a ton of moral torque onto a wry account of old friends living on either side of the divide that now separates “supersecular” Englander from his own Orthodox family. The Hills is a chillingly ironic story about the founding and the future of the West Bank settlements; Camp Sundown, a jokey and ultimately horrifying Holocaust story set among the kibitzing bridge players of a Catskills elder hostel.
“I can only see out through my head,” Englander says. “My point is, that’s the world I grew up in. It’s who I am. It’s everybody I know. It’s a complete universe.”
Recreating that universe and all its fluctuating moral valences in the form of tidy, 30-page depth charges, Englander’s fiction is the opposite of obscure. “If any art is not universal, it’s not functioning,” he says. “That’s my whole aesthetic.” Everybody gets the pyramids, he adds. Everybody understands elegance.
Englander’s early career proceeded at such a stately pace that, for the near-decade it took him to write his first novel, he answered queries about his profession by saying, “I write book.” Now 42, he is suddenly ubiquitous: as translator of the story of Exodus in New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer; and as author of a play based on an earlier story, The Twenty-Seventh Man, in collaboration with Nora Ephron.
Enjoying what he describes exultantly as a rebirth, Englander wrote five of the stories in What We Talk About in the past year. “That would have taken me 10 years before,” he says. “Something about multiple projects and working with other people just changed me. I really am loving having too many obligations.”
But his overriding commitment, Englander insists, is to story, “and if you’re committed to story, everything else falls away.” Although his only novel, 2007’s The Ministry of Special Cases, was as well-received as everything he has published, it is the short story in particular that commands Englander’s special attention.
“I think it’s that spring-loaded form, that size, that voice that allows a real intimacy,” he says, adding he is “lit up on fire with story love right now” – and that working in translation and theatre has only fed it.
“There’s certain jobs that allow for constant rebirth,” Englander says, gesticulating enthusiastically. For him, writing What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank was one of them.
“With every new story, you just feel, ‘Okay, now I’m ready to work. Now I know how to do this. Now I’m ready to start.’ ” A shooting star turned phoenix, rising effortlessly to the loftiest heights of American letters.