Book reviews: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank | Suddenly A Knock On The Door

These two writers are poles apart but both dance superbly around the question of Jewish identity

These two collections, taken together, are almost a case study in what the short story can achieve. The similarities between the authors – Keret is Israeli and was given the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, while Englander grew up in the New York Orthodox Jewish community and won the PEN/Faulkner award; moreover Englander has translated some of Keret’s work – are actually rather deceptive. Although they share common themes, and are both at least in part concerned with negotiating the surrealisms and ironies of Jewish and Israeli identity in the 21st century, their aesthetics are at polar extremes. Englander is, broadly speaking, a writer in the realist tradition, while Keret deploys more fantastical and fabulist forms. Englander’s stories tend towards a moment of epiphany, a realisation however muted, while Keret’s move towards a moment of incomprehension and bemusement. Of course, neither writer’s position is immutable: both books vary the tone and both reveal the author experimenting with different literary modes. It is a skill in itself to modulate a collection of short stories, so as to provide a narrative arc over and above any individual story but without dulling the ear with repetition, and it is a skill in ample evidence in these books.

It takes a daring author to call their collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. It is not just the wink at Raymond Carver, the author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and who, for good and ill, is one of the most influential authors of the last 50 years. It is also deliberately provocative, raising issues about taste, commemoration and who has the right to narrate the Holocaust. The titular story itself is a miniature miracle.

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The narrator’s wife has organised a visit from her schoolfriend Lauren and her husband Mark, who have made the aliyah – the emigration to Israel – and become Hassidic. The first sentences foreground the collection’s themes: “They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.” The story then very subtly moves between a black and very Jewish comedy (Mark berates the Floridans for not realising that 9/11 bomber Mohammad Atta lived there. “Goldberg, Goldberg, Goldberg – Atta. How’d you miss him in this place?”; the narrator, on being told his son doesn’t “seem Jewish” retorts: “A lot of pressure I’d venture to look Jewish to you … like say, maybe, like Ozzy Osbourne, or the guys from Kiss, like them telling Paul Simon, saying, you do not look like a musician to me”) and a mutual awkwardness. The reader is, wonderfully, never allowed to settle into what kind of story this is: an anecdote about Holocaust survivors segues into a domestic tragicomedy morphs into a political fable – and yet the ending, when the Anne Frank reference is made clear in the narrator’s wife’s game, “the Righteous Gentile Game”, “the Who-Will-Hide-Me game” (with the shade of Edward Albee supplanting that of Raymond Carver) we are left not with a story about identity, but humanity.

Only one story in this collection – ‘The Reader’ – misfires: it is technically adept but the ‘message’ seems rather too blatant. Englander shows his fantastical side in a story where a man goes to a peep show. When his first dollar’s worth of time elapses, he is shocked to discover, when the shutters go up again, that instead of sad-looking girls in their underwear, three semi-naked rabbis from his childhood have taken their place. There is a rather more essayistic piece, ‘Everything I Know About My Family On My Mother’s Side’, a kind of ‘non-fiction story’ made more affecting by an undercurrent that the story is not actually intended for the reader. Throughout, Englander’s prose is simply beautiful, whether in dialogue or third- person; precise and poised, able to introduce the grit of reality while preserving the balance of the sentence. ‘Free Fruit For Young Widows’ contains this prime example: “Etgar wasn’t one for the gray. He was a tiny, thoughtful, bucktoothed boy of certainties.” That alliteration and the careful positioning of ‘the’ in the first sentence show how crafted these stories are. Were I to choose one, ‘Camp Sundown’ – about a vacation camp for the elderly where the manager is harassed by a couple who claim another guest was a Nazi – is near perfect. The irony of ‘camp’ is fully exploited; the ending manages to be shocking and appropriate without being melodramatic, and the reader’s sympathies are shuttlecocked around wildly.

Keret’s book has 29 more stories than Englander’s, and some of them are the apotheosis of the squib; witty, complex and delightfully sly. ‘Guava’ is barely three pages long, yet manages to do more than many novels. A man on a crashing plane is given a dying wish by an angel. After some to-ing and fro-ing about the angel’s accent, he opts, to the overworked angel’s dismay, for world peace. Which is nice, except for the man, who is reincarnated as a guava. “People beat their swords into ploughshares and nuclear reactors soon began to be used for peaceful purposes. But none of this was of any comfort to the guava. Because the tree was tall and the ground seemed distant and painful. Just don’t let me drop, the guava shuddered wordlessly, just don’t crash.”

Keret’s universe is one where women find zips in their boyfriends’ mouths containing a whole other person; where the police turn up to tell you your husband is dead and you can’t remember ever being married; or where the wife you never liked is reincarnated as a poodle. One piece, ‘One Step Beyond, depicts a truly vile serial killer, relishing the prospect of being an even harder case once he gets to hell, with the immense left-field ending that, as he attempts to attack a giant in hell, he finds himself saying: “I love you too Christopher Robin.”

This is a world where even Winnie the Pooh is potentially psychopathic. Reality is a cosmic joke cracked by a God with a juvenile sense of humour; it reminded me often of Art Spieglman’s retort to the critics who complained that Maus was in poor taste. The Holocaust, he said, was in poor taste. The title story features Keret being forced to tell a story at gunpoint. At one point he muses, “How do I always get myself into these situations? I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman.” It’s a little manifesto for his project: he depicts exactly what gets left out from their works. The dizzying imagination is not untethered from the political facts of Israel. One story, ‘Joseph’, manages to articulate the randomness of suicide bombing far more effectively than conventional realism could.

The stories are probably best read a few at a time: trying to read through the whole book at once would be like eating too many amuses-bouches. At one point Englander refers to Israel as a “country without borders”, allowing all the ironies of that phrase to resonate. Keret’s world is even more porous; normality itself buckles under the psychic pressures. If Englander is attempting to ask again the question “why?”, Keret seems to respond with a resigned “why not?”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

By Nathan Englander

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 204pp, £12.99

Suddenly A Knock On The Door

By Etgar Keret

Chatto & Windus, 294pp, £12.99