Jewish fiction is alive and well in America, and holding up a large pike in the tent is Nathan Englander. The Orthodox day school drop-out, born in 1970 on Long Island, has never made his affinity for Jews a secret: "The Ministry of Special Cases," his 2007 best-seller, focused on Jews who disappeared during Argentina’s "dirty war." And his first collection of short stories, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" (2000), was riddled with Jewish-themed works.
One of them, in fact, is now being made into a play. The Public Theater announced yesterday that its 2011-2012 season will feature a theatrical version of Englander’s short story "The Twenty-Seventh Man," which was included in his short story collection. It follows a promising but unpublished Jewish writer who is rounded up with 26 of his Russian Jewish literary heroes, and is then shot dead, along with the rest of them, by Stalin. It is a devastating story, and one only hopes that the play–which will be written by Englander himself–has the same poignancy as his prose.
The play won’t open till February 11 of next year, so in the meantime, I figured I’d mention a little bit about the story’s genesis. Didn’t even need to call up Englander for the news–I found this published interview Englader did with The Atlantic in 1999, in which he mentions how he wrote the story. Here’s how he replied to question about it:
"I had wanted to write that story for years. It’s true that twenty-seven writers were executed by Stalin — not all at once but over a period of years — and I thought, My God, these people need a story. I felt like somebody should write it, but it took me a long time until I understood that writing it didn’t require permission or ordination or something. I sat down and wrote that story, in very clunky drafts, when I was about nineteen. It’s about a young writer who manages to make the decision to become a writer, which as the decision I was struggling with. I found that writing made me happy."
Stay tuned for an (eventual) Jewish Week interview, where we’ll hopefully find out how Englander chose that story to use for the basis of his first play.