24 Aug 2012

Nathan Englander: Modern Storyteller

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Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.–Free Fruit for Young Widows

If  Raymond Carver is a master storyteller who provides the most pared down snapshots of human drama, then Nathan Englander is a modern storyteller who fleshes out his narratives to provide the context for specific behaviors. Both are brilliant at crafting short narratives and engaging the reader, yet their styles are distinctive.

Englander, whose work we will be discussing in our second short story session at Books and Books, draws scenes that provide much more than just the bones. While never sacrificing form, Englander layers his fiction with history and politics to show that human behavior cannot be divorced from what is happening in the world around us.

We will focus part two of our discussion on three of Englander’s stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows.” With the first, we will compare his story with Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and specifically address why Englander chose the Carver story as an inspiration.

We will also engage in conversation about the following:

  • The title story, “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” all pivot around incidents within Jewish history, and the question of how essential stories—stories that define us, that shape both our understanding of the past and our vision of the future—are told and retold over the course of many years. What do you think Englander is suggesting about history, tradition, and storytelling itself?
  • “Sister Hills” can be read as a political allegory based on the story of a bargain struck in order to save the life of a critically ill child.  In this reading, who or what does the child represent, and what meaning can be inferred from the exchange of money? What is the relevance of the two mothers?
  • Discuss the contrast between the narrative form of “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in which a father is lovingly recounting a story to his son, and the story’s actual substance. How does this dissonance contribute to the story’s power? What is the significance of the comment Etgar’s father makes when Etgar is twelve: “Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.”
  • In “Free Fruit for Young Widows” Englander distinguishes between two kinds of survival, saying that Professor Tendler “made it through the camps. He walks, he breathes, and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him. After the war, we still lost people. They killed what was left of him in the end.”  What does he mean?

Raymond Carver and Nathan Englander use perfect language to convey loss, despair, intimacy, tenderness, shame, truth, justice, and pain and suffering all in the space of a short story. Yet, Englander is becoming more Carveresque: “Generally Englander works with a light touch, a nearly whimsical sobriety. He is more of a minimalist here, even when exploring the thickets of cognitive dissonance that flourish between faith and falsehood.” (NY Times 2/19/12)

To our ears, that sounds like the highest praise. Let us know what you think about Carver and Englander by posting a comment on our blog.

(Questions adapted from those found on the Random House website.)


written by
Lisa Forman Rosen is an avid reader and facilitator of book clubs in Miami, Florida. She has worked at the University of Miami since 1986, first in the Department of English Composition as a lecturer and now at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a writer. Lisa created this site to share her love of literature with others and expand the conversation into the virtual world.
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