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What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

February 13, 2012

One of my favorite stories, and not just for the title alone–which I’ve been known to echo in scenarios as different as describing a toddler’s conversation at a play date and giving a name to a faculty discussion of citation–is Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” So when I saw Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories, titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, after the title story, I had to pick it up.

The title story is about two Jewish couples, one living in Miami and the other visiting from Jerusalem. The difference between them are shown on the first page, when the husband telling the story says:

“Debbie, my wife, she puts a hand on my arm. Her signal that I’m taking a tone, or interrupting someone’s story, sharing something private, or making an inappropriate joke. That’s my cue, and I’m surprised, considering how much I get it, that she ever lets go of my arm….Lauren isn’t going to give her husband any signal. She and Mark ran off to Israel twenty years ago and turned Hassidic, and neither of them will put a hand on the other in public.”

Mark, who calls himself Yerucham, tells a story about observing that two Holocaust survivors in a locker room have tattooed numbers only three digits away from each other. When he calls the first one’s–his father’s—attention to this, what happens is that “the other guy looks and my father looks, and my father says “’All that means is, he cut ahead of me in line. There, same as here.’”

The two couples get high, talk about whose way of life is better for raising kids, and then go into the large and well-stocked American pantry, where the narrator reveals his wife’s lifelong game of imagining who and how she would hide if the Holocaust happened again, in her country: “It’s the Anne Frank game.” And this game has very high stakes, even in imagination. It’s a jewel of a story, and worthy of adapting the title of Carver’s masterpiece.

In all the stories in this collection, we learn what is explicitly stated in the most quietly horrifying story, “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” that “it is hard to know what a person would and wouldn’t do in any specific instance” but that it is still possible, even in the face of Candide-worthy horrors (surviving by burying oneself in corpses) to cultivate a garden and try to make ”in whatever small way, a better life.” And we get glimpses of characters like the boy who asks his mother if the story she just read “was for him. He didn’t mean it as metaphor, or exaggeration; he was asking sincerely—a little boy’s question—hadn’t [the author] composed the story for [him] to hear?” There’s an intimacy at the heart of each of these stories, an intimacy the creation of which is an impressive achievement, considering the very foreign-to-me Jewishness of all the main characters.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Karen D permalink
    February 13, 2012 7:32 am

    That _is_ a quietly horrifying story.

    http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/05/17/100517fi_fiction_englander?currentPage=all

    • February 13, 2012 7:36 am

      Thanks for the link–it’s nice to have a sample of one short story from a collection, and this story isn’t very long.

  2. freshhell permalink
    February 13, 2012 12:17 pm

    I usually don’t read short stories. They end too soon. There’s never enough for me. But I make exceptions. Might have to make one for this collection.

    • February 14, 2012 7:31 am

      I like short stories. They can be pithier and some of them have lines that resonate like poetry. I can’t tell you how many times a day, this time of year, I look at something and think “there ain’t no real pleasure in life.”

  3. February 13, 2012 7:55 pm

    I’m like freshhell, not a big fan of short story collections. I have to make myself read only one story at a time, and I’m never that patient. But that is an excellent anecdote about cutting in line.

    • February 14, 2012 7:32 am

      I’m glad you like the anecdote. Why do you read only one story at a time? I read through this whole collection while sitting in the bookstore cafe.

  4. February 13, 2012 8:07 pm

    That Carver title has gotten quite a bit of use. I know Haruki Murakami used it for his running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

    • February 14, 2012 7:35 am

      It’s just irresistible, sometimes, to try to borrow the genius of the way Carver teased out the meaning of what was said in his story. Although I think the “we” is an essential element. It sounds too absurdly based in solipsism not to know what you yourself are talking about.

    • February 28, 2012 7:52 am

      That Carver title was, unfortunately, well beyond Carver’s powers as a writer. It was penned by his editor, Gordon Lish.

      • February 28, 2012 7:59 am

        Ain’t editors grand?!!

        • February 28, 2012 8:13 am

          Some more grand than others. The Carver-Lish deal is less instructive about literary composition than it is about the manufacturing of literary notoriety. I won’t bang on about it because the subject is No Fun.

          • February 28, 2012 9:33 am

            Actually, I’d never read about this. No fun, perhaps, but morbidly fascinating. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/27/raymond-carver-editor-influence

            • February 28, 2012 11:32 am

              DT Max wrote the best article on this, published in NYT 1998 or thereabouts. There is an unpublished article that Brian Evenson wrote running around somewhere. Most excellent. I wrote a syntactical comparison between “A Small, Good Thing/The Bath” which is okey-dokey but nothing more. If you’re curious, the best way to satisfy yourself will be to go to the Lilly Library at IU in Bloomington. Make a weekend of it. Just be aware that you’ll be showering and scrubbing for a good long time thereafter.

  5. February 13, 2012 11:18 pm

    What a beautiful post, Jeanne. I can tell so easily that you love poetry because you have such a lovely way with words 🙂

    • February 14, 2012 7:35 am

      Wow, that’s a fine compliment! Thank you. You have made my day.

  6. February 17, 2012 1:15 pm

    I’m not a big short story reader, but I think I’ll have to look for this collection.

  7. February 28, 2012 8:00 am

    Someone who reads as much WWII literature as you do will probably like the bringing-it-all-up-to-the-present aspect.

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