When Nathan Englander sat down for a recent interview at a hummus restaurant in the East Village, he had just come from the Public Theater. He was there helping stage a theater adaptation of one of his early short stories, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” which will premiere at the Public in November.
That’s not news. Followers of Englander’s breathtaking career —beginning with his widely praised debut story collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” which came out in 1999 when he was 28 — have known for some time that he’s been working far beyond the bounds of traditional fiction.
Next month, his translation of the Passover Haggadah, edited by his friend and literary equal, Jonathan Safran Foer, will come out. And not long after, another of his translations, this one a work of recent fiction by his friend, the contemporary Israeli author Etgar Keret, will also be published.
You can’t say Englander, 42, has been slacking off. But you can forgive those who miss the writer they originally fell in love with: the short-story author whose morally serious tales about Jewish life never felt as challenging as they were. Humor, laced throughout them, always seemed to leaven them.
But over lunch, Englander was eager to talk about short stories. There was a lot to discuss: his new collection, titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (Knopf), was about to be published, and signaled a return to the form that put him on the map more than a decade ago.
“I just missed stories and I was ready to write them again,” Englander said. But the return to short fiction was less a deliberate decision than a natural progression: “It’s like growing your tail back,” he said. Even if he hadn’t done it in a while, he added, it’s a skill he didn’t forget.
His prior work of fiction was also a change of form. It was a novel titled “The Ministry of Special Cases,” published in 2007, about a Jewish family caught in 1970s Argentina amid the Dirty War. But even if his most recent work — translations, playwriting — has further distanced him from the short story, it hasn’t diminished his love for it. In important ways, he said, the playwriting and translations have had a strong influence on the new collection.
In particular, he mentioned the story “Free Fruit for Young Widows.” It tells of an idealistic Israeli boy, Etgar Gezer, who cannot understand why his father, a fruit vendor, is so kind to Professor Tendler, a man with a dubious past. As an Israeli solider, Tendler had murdered four Egyptian soldiers, point-blank, who had already been captured as prisoners of war.
As a young man in Poland returning from a concentration camp, Tendler also murdered an entire Polish family, including a baby girl, after he heard they were about to kill him themselves. “Even so, it’s murder,” Etgar says to his father, after he’s told of these facts. His father replies: “It is hard to know what a person would and wouldn’t do in any specific instance. And you, spoiled child, apply the rules of civilization to a boy who had seen only its opposite.”
Englander explained that this story was based on a true one Etgar Keret shared with him not long ago; Englander named the boy “Etgar” in homage. Another story in the collection, “The Reader” — about a washed-out writer who, on his latest book tour, is greeted by empty reading halls save for one zealous fan — also came from Keret.
To be sure, each story was only a narrative kernel that Englander transformed into his own works of fiction. And he asked Keret’s approval before adapting them for himself: “He said to me — kach — take it,” Englander said.
Other stories show Englander’s continued fascination with deep moral quandaries. The title story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” deals with two Jewish couples, one secular the other religious, debating which of their neighbors they think would hide them in the event of another Holocaust.
In the often-hilarious “Camp Sundown,” Englander writes about a group of Holocaust survivors at a geriatric summer camp who insist that a new camper, one Doley Falk, is a former Nazi.
The Jewish campers conspire to kill him, but not before they taunt him with a funhouse of horrors. That includes burning a Star of David, made with yahrtzeit candles, and planting it in front of Falk’s cabin — a sort-of Holocaust-survivor ruse straight out of the Ku Klux Klan playbook.
It might be dismissed as a cruel parody of Jewish suffering and revenge if the story were not girded by a serious moral dilemma. The Jewish campers demand that the director stay silent. After all, the director recently dismissed a rabbi from the camp who was caught fondling younger campers, without notifying the police.
“You can make it go away if you want, same as with the rabbi,” one old camper threatens the director. “That crime, your board can swallow? Then let them swallow this — justice served. A ravage avenged.”
Commenting on the moral quandaries found throughout the new book, Englander said: “I’m obsessed with this idea that we live in the gray.”
Englander grew up in an Orthodox home on Long Island. But while at college at SUNY-Binghamton, he became less religious. By the time he decided on becoming a writer, after being selected for the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he had separated almost entirely from the Orthodox community, except for his family.
He has been writing for publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic for years now, and teaches creative writing at New York University, Hunter College and elsewhere. But his fiction remains deeply engaged with Jewish life, as well as Israel, where he lived while writing his first collection of short stories.
All this helps explain Englander’s focus on Israel, Orthodox Jews and the ethical dilemmas posed by fierce religiosity — even once it is renounced.
“Peep Show,” for instance, follows a lapsed Jew married to a Christian who sneaks out to a strip club on his way home from work. He thinks no one will see him, but then the dancer keeps transforming into someone he knows — his rabbi, his mother, his wife.
That these stories deal with issues like guilt and repressed memory, while also being wickedly funny, is a trait few fail to notice. “He’s one of the most morally engaged writers of our generation, and also one of the funniest writers I can think of,” said Chris Adrian, another prominent fiction writer and close friend of Englander.
Englander’s editor at Knopf, Jordan Pavlin, put it this way: “He’s often writing about mercy, brutality, dignity, humanity,” she said. “And he uses humor to express what is essentially a tragic view of life.”
Perhaps the new collection’s most wrenching story, “Sister Hills,” has almost no humor at all, however. It’s set in a fictional Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and follows its growth from a tiny village besieged during the Yom Kippur War, to its current status as a booming town with many non-religious Jews moving in on government subsidies.
Like many of Englander’s stories, the central drama acts as a kind of parable, this one for the larger problems raised by settler ideology. The story revolves around a mother named Rena who has lost all three children: two were killed in war, and another came out as gay and has long since fled.
As an embittered older woman, Rena demands control of her best friend’s daughter, who technically belongs to her. Rena’s friend “sold” the girl to her when she was facing death as a newborn — a Jewish folk tradition meant to cheat the Angel of Death, but that no one ever thinks will be taken literally. The story is so poignant that even Englander said he was disturbed after it was finished.
“I did not sleep after I wrote that story,” he said. “It’s just that I knew I wrote something that was a very emotional experience.”
Though the story leaves you with an unsavory view of settlers, their logic is carefully explored. Englander said that that is intentional — he doesn’t want his work to be read as a one-sided polemic. “I feel like it reads like a Rorschach test,” he said. “My obligation is to the story, to show it from all sides.”
That is not to say he doesn’t have firm personal views, many of them critical of dogmatic religious belief. But his fidelity is ultimately to his characters, and his stories. He spends hours writing and rewriting, telling his students the same thing he tells himself: “The idea is to make work that you can stand by when you’re dead. I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t mean the world to me… My point,” he went on, “is that you have to care more than anything.”