What we talk about when we talk about reading

13 Apr

I expect Nathan Englander’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” to be a downer.

Not just because of Anne Frank, but because of the simple words that lead up to her.  Those aren’t innocent words.  They echo Raymond Carver’s classic story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

And when we talked about love in Raymond Carver’s story, things ended badly.

Two couples, both on their second marriage, sit around a kitchen table with a (soon empty) bottle of gin, talking about what love is and what it isn’t.

It’s a dangerous topic.  Reality falls so short of the ideal.  By the end, all four at the table feel lost:

“Gin’s gone,” Mel said.
Terri said, “Now what?”
I could hear my heart beating.  I could hear everyone’s heart.  I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

I’m as uneasy about love as Carver’s characters.  And his story reminds me of it.  But I’m feeling better than Mel and Terri at the end.  That’s because I’ve been reading a story.

In a collection of essays called How to Be Alone, Johnathan Franzen explains (to me, anyway) why reading a good story is the best cure for that creeping feeling that you’re alone in the world: Reading creates a group of two: faithful writer and trusting reader.

That’s what gives me the courage to tackle whatever Nathan Englander plans to throw at me.  Even talk about Anne Frank.  Even in the manner of Raymond Carver.  It’s going to be the kind of sad that makes me feel good.

It isn’t until late in the story that Nathan Englander’s characters (two Jewish couples) shift their conversation from figurative Anne Frank (kosher laws, the Israeli occupation, the modern holocaust of intermarriage) to the actual Anne Frank.

Maybe because they find themselves in the enclosed space of the host’s pantry, or maybe because they’ve smoked some very strong marijuana, or maybe because (my husband tells me) this is not an unusual preoccupation, they fashion an Anne Frank game.   The object of the game: examine friends and neighbors to figure out who would hide you the next time they come for the Jews.

But what are they really talking about when they talk about Anne Frank?  Pretty soon, the couples jokingly (they’re stoned) turn the game on one another.

Orthodox Jewish wife (with ten daughters) puts her husband to the test: Does she believes he would hide her, Anne Frank style, if it came to that?

 . . . And she says,  after a pause, yes, but she’s not laughing.  She says, yes, but to him it sounds as it does to us, so that now he is asking and asking.  But wouldn’t I?

. . .

She does not say it.  And he does not say it.  And from the four of us, no one will say what cannot be said–that this wife believes her husband would not hide her.  What to do?  What would come of it?  And so we stand like that, the four of us trapped in the pantry.  Afraid to open the door and let out what we’ve locked in side.

And that’s the end of the story.

All of it works for me except the phrase in boldface (the boldface is mine; the words are the author’s).  With those words my group of two with Nathan Englander evaporates.  Did he think he had to explain everything to me?

I’m sorry about it.

I think: This writer believes his reader would not understand him.

But to you, trusting reader, I say: I put down the book and the room went dark.

31 Responses to “What we talk about when we talk about reading”

  1. imagenmots April 13, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    Georges Duhamel, a well known (to my generation at least) French writer/philosopher once said: “I never had a sorrow that one hour with a good book could not cure”. I say he never had a real sorrow.
    Paul C.

    • sledpress April 13, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

      I agree, but I suspect that many people have been dissuaded from killing themselves by the availability of a good book.

      • imagenmots April 13, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

        Sled, you could be right for some but the book must not have been the sole factor.

    • jenny April 14, 2012 at 6:39 am #

      Duhamel was a writer. Of course he thought an hour with a good book could cure a sorrow. Otherwise, what’s the point?

  2. Christopher April 13, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    “…..Did he think he had to explain everything to me?…….”

    Either Englander thought he had to, or his editors thought he had to, and told him to put in the phrase that so exercised you.

    As Andreas learned, when his editors told him to add a final explanatory chapter to his book, a writer, if he wants his book to sell, shouldn’t underestimate the obtuseness of his readers.

    • jenny April 14, 2012 at 6:20 am #

      Sure. I understand. It’s an imperfect world. I’ll just ignore the parts I don’t like.

      • Andreas Kluth April 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

        In may case, it was as Christopher said: I was pushed and pushed to make the subtle less subtle and painfully obvious.

        But Englander may not have been under that pressure. In fact, even though I am on principle on Jenny’s side, I’m not particularly bothered by this particular phrase. He may not have thought of it as “explaining” it for us, the daft. He may have thought of it as stating a blatantly obvious fact in passing.

        In any case, awfully interesting (loaded word) conversation those folks were having.

      • jenny April 15, 2012 at 7:23 am #

        Andreas, you invited your readers to learn from Hannibal as the very premise of the book, so you do not betray us by presenting explicit lessons in the final chapter. Actually, I liked that chapter (even if it was your editor’s idea). In fact, where you are direct (we’ll use that word instead of “less subtle”) it reads as unpretentious.

        (Funny, by the way, that Carver was unhappy about the heavy editing of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.)

        Now, will you listen to me for a moment about Englander’s last paragraph?

        This is a short story. Every word counts. And in the last paragraph of a short story, words count even more. If Englander is, as you say, just “stating the blatantly obvious in passing,” that’s even worse! Now, here at the most dramatic moment in the story, when I have just a few words left to say, I think I’ll use up some to state the blatantly obvious. Just in passing. Come on!

        Next, Englander just told us that “She does not say it. And he does not say it. And from the four of us, no one will say what cannot be said…” and then he comes out and says what cannot be said. Gee, I guess it could be said. The drama and the tension is destroyed for me because I’m laughing at that absurdity.

        So, that’s why I think you should be on my side, and not just in principle.

        But if you still aren’t, here’s the other thought I had (but left unsaid) as I was writing this post: Maybe I am unreasonably sensitive. You thought so. Christopher also suggested as much. It could be. And isn’t that just the way it is? The relationship between writer and reader (it turns out) is just as fragile as the intimate relationships that Carver and Englander describe in their stories.

      • Andreas Kluth April 15, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

        Well, you’re right. I’m now on your side, even without principle.

      • jenny April 16, 2012 at 7:08 am #

        Andreas, you made my Monday morning.

        Next topic: the rhetoric of evolutionary psychology. 😉

  3. dafna April 13, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    orthodox jews get stoned?! no kidding!

    you had never heard of the anne frank game until your husband told you of it? i think that is a blessing that this thought never crossed your mind.

    the anne frank game is a variation of “The Overcrowded Lifeboat” which i think has been a moral/philosophical dilemma discussed for ages. or in more modern parlay… how many people do you know who would sacrifice a kidney for you? or would you donate a kidney to a stranger?

    i think what we are really talking about is empathy and if we are capable of it and to what degree.

    • jenny April 14, 2012 at 6:21 am #

      Dafna, maybe you’ll read the stories? I’m going to read the rest of them in the collection. Of course.

      • dafna April 14, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

        oh, i missed the point that there were more stories and more allegories. oops!

    • jenny April 14, 2012 at 6:31 am #

      The secular couple asks the orthodox couple whether they’re sure the weed is kosher. The response: We’re not eating it; we’re smoking it.

    • sledpress April 14, 2012 at 8:23 am #

      An interesting comparison. The minute I read this story I thought of close neighbors who are observant Jews, imagining that it was Europe in the 1930’s, and was already sketching out a way that they could live concealed in my eave space, which is large.

      But I would never, ever donate a kidney to anyone. Not even the person I love most, whoever that is (I am really not sure at this stage of life if there is anyone I love very much, but more to the point I have learned that the person you love most today is the person who doesn’t have enough contemptuous words for you tomorrow.)

      Hiding people from persecution, though, that’s about justice. Somehow it seems necessary.

      • jenny April 15, 2012 at 6:33 am #


        In Carver’s story, Mel says: “There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that?”

        That’s what you’re lamenting too.

        It is so strange for me to read these comments (yours, Christopher’s, Dafna’s, Paul’s): they might be part of the dialogue from the stories themselves.

      • dafna April 15, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

        Hi jenny,

        i went on amazon to read the excerpt of this story… but couldn’t “get past” the dialogue style of writing to make any connection with the writer. which means that i would never have gotten to his point if it were not for your synopsis.

        so if you are sensitive, i am judgmental of the writer. let me know if any of the other stories have a different “voice”. every writer has a distinct writing voice, perhaps i am not a good fit for englander.

        i felt about the excerpt the way you felt about the last few lines!

      • jenny April 16, 2012 at 6:58 am #

        Sled! I had a great thought for you this morning: On the other hand, the person who doesn’t have enough contemptuous words for you today, is the person who loves you most tomorrow.

        I know this is true; I read a lot of Harlequin Romances back in the day.

      • sledpress April 16, 2012 at 8:33 am #

        That’s like believing in anentropy at the quotidian level — a pretty thought.

      • jenny April 16, 2012 at 7:06 am #


        Plenty of other books out there to read!

  4. Christopher April 14, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    The sentiments Sledpress expressed in the bracketed part of her last comment, are well-nigh the same as mine about people. I thought I was alone in feeling this way. How nice to know I’m not!!

    In the matter of hiding people from persecution, the modern equivalent to the Anne Frank scenario is the plight of those who come under the appellation of “Illegals”, whose only wish is not to be returned to the terrible life from which they escaped.

    It is entirely likely that a law will one day be passed under which you’ll be put in jail for a long, long time if you hide an “illegal” from the police.

    On the day this law is passed, and an “illegal” knocks on your door and asks you to hide him from the police and tracker dogs on his trail just down the road, what would you do?

    First they came for the “illegals”………..

    • imagenmots April 14, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

      ….then they will come for the dissenters, who will hide us? Certainly not the Harperites.
      Paul C.

      • Christopher April 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

        “….the Harperites….”.

        Vous voulez dire, des loups déguisé en brebis?!!

    • sledpress April 14, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

      Once again, interesting.

      I would take a risk for someone who was an asylum seeker but not for a garden variety illegal immigrant. It’s the difference between knowing someone will go back to a hard life and knowing they may be jailed or executed.

      The whole love things stumps me. Such bad things have happened as a result of my loving people and making decisions based on that, I honestly feel like I’ve reached the point of having a sort of emotional form of erectile dysfunction. I do care about people, but I just instinctively avoid investing much in it; it’s past the point of being a choice..

      One of my clients explained her surgical history to me a few weeks back and when she mentioned she had donated a kidney to a cousin I felt the same frozen smile occupying my face as you would if someone told you how wonderful it was that they had just become a Moonie, or something.

  5. dafna April 14, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    very interesting distinctions sled and christopher,

    the over crowded life boat scenario and an illness are imagined acts of fate, the hiding of an illegal a result of an act of inhumanity/injustice.

    maybe it’s a jewish thing, but i don’t see a huge gap in the way one should respond.

    would i self-sacrifice in either scenario? wow, that’s a vey hard question… it seems so much easier to ask “would someone do that for me?”

    much harder to ask, would i do that for someone else?

  6. Christopher April 15, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    As did Dafna, I went on Amazon and read the excerpt, that I found…..well……compelling. I was in the room with the five of them, and saw them and listened as they talked, and wanted to butt in. Really.

    Off now to my neighbourhood bookstore………..and to a psychiatrist too, if I can get up the nerve.

  7. Christopher April 15, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    If I might be allowed to add something else on the subject of explaining the obvious, I find, being of a Certain Age, that I’m having to get used to explaining the obvious to people below this Certain Age when conversing with them.

    As an example, I’d told you once of my invoking the name of Paul Robeson when I was talking with someone below this Certain Age, who hadn’t heard of Paul Robeson and asked me to explain who he was. Making enquiries among others below this Certain Age, I found they hadn’t heard of Paul Robeson either.

    I was, to put it mildly, surprised. Later, I realised I shouldn’t have been because, of course, while Paul Robeson was common currency to my generation, there’s little reason why he should be to that coming after.

    I learned only recently, and by chance, of the existence of Adele, who, I’m led to understand, is common currency among those growing up today, who would be as surprised by my ignorance of Adele as I had been surprised by my interlocutor’s ignorance of Paul Robeson.

    I’ll say no more about all of this, except to whisper…….”The Closing of the American Mind” and……Allan Bloom, and to ask, is what he talked about getting worse, so making ordinary conversations more irritating as time goes on?

    • jenny April 16, 2012 at 7:31 am #


      You know it can’t be true that things are getting worse and worse. Every generation says that. (And, by the way, the coolest kids to graduate from my high school were seniors the year I was a freshman. There was never a class like that again!)

      What we have to do is embrace all of the goods things the kids have to offer. Adele? Yeah, I’ve heard her. She’s ordinary pop. But the recently departed Amy Winehouse was truly soulful.

      And the kids who like Amy Winehouse will either already know Paul Robeson or be a few steps away from loving him.

      Anyway, it’s all something more for us to explore with the psychiatrist, right?

      • Christopher April 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

        “…..it can’t be true that things are getting worse and worse. Every generation says that……”

        As usual, you are absolutely right.

        I had, in fact, written a short entry on this very topic not too long ago, and I’d forgotten about it.

        Yes, I’ll talk of this with my psychiatrist.

  8. Cyberquill April 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Detective #1: “No signs of forced entry.”
    Detective #2: “This means the victim let the shooter in.”
    Detective #1: “Which suggests she might have known him.”
    Detective #2: “Or her. The killer might be a woman.”

    You’re absolutely right. This kind of writing is highly irritating.

    • jenny April 17, 2012 at 12:33 am #


      I think you would like Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man, in which a character with an annoying verbal habit earns the nickname “Orshe.”

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