When I saw that the new issue of The New Republic had Robert Alter reviewing a new work by Nathan Englander, I instinctively thought it’d be of Englander’s new translation of the Passover Haggadah. Given that Alter is a widely admired translator of the Hebrew Bible, it was only natural for me to assume as much.
Turns out Alter reviews Englander’s other new book—his glowingly appraised short story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” In short, Alter tears it to shreds: “These stories are neither courageous nor outrageous,” Alter concludes, “They are merely bad.”
I came to Alter’s review as big fan of “What We Talk About.” I spoke with Englander, too, over lunch, for a profile I recently wrote about him, which only deepened my appreciation of the new stories. Yet I’ve also had the chance to talk recently to Alter, and wrote a column about him this week that previews a seminar he’s teaching on at the 92nd Street Y.
This all makes me a bit biased, perhaps. But hopefully my familiarity with them both cancels each other out. Though when it comes down to it, I think Alter misinterprets Englander’s in at least one significant way. The most damning argument Alter makes is that Englander’s stories lack “moral imagination.” His point is that Englander revels too much in the grisliness of his tales, and doesn’t do justice to the moral quandaries he sets up. It’s all sensation, no substance.
Certainly Englander’s stories are grisly and compelling in no small part because of that. We read about an Israeli professor who massacres Egyptian soldiers, as well as former neighbors he suspects might kill him after he returns to Poland from a concentration camp; we read of geriatric Jewish summer campers, also Holocaust survivors, who murder another old man they suspect is a Nazi; and we come across several other cases where the torment of 20th century Jewish history seems to force Jews into dubious moral situations.
“The problem,” Alter argues, “is that Englander’s treatment of the Holocaust, here and in other stories, like his treatment of anti-Semitism and even of sex, does not leave any firm ground for a moral or even a psychological perspective.”
That’s where I’d disagree. Alter seems to be misunderstanding Englander’s refusal to make his own authorial position be known. In truth, Englander never fails to cast doubt on the moral delinquencies of his characters. What lends Englander’s fiction its power is that he makes us, the readers, understand how his unsuspecting characters might commit atrocious acts. But he never allows this attempt at understanding to shade into moral absolution, or even outright sympathy.
His characters are flawed sinners meant to show what it actually might feel like to live in impossible times. If Englander refuses to let his moral position be known in his stories, he’s doing so for a better purpose: he wants us to stop opining, stop moralizing, and let us think about what real moral choices actually requires of us.