Tag Archives: writing

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.

The Naked Woman on Top of the Bookcase

1 Sep

James Thurber was a rewriter.  All of his stories went through several drafts. He admits it openly in an interview with The Paris Review.

Drawing, though, was for relaxation. He tossed off the cartoons quickly.  Pure sprezzatura.  No sweat.  Or so he says.

Here’s one of my favorites:

“That’s My First Wife Up There, and This is the Present Mrs. Harris”

“I meant the naked woman to be at the top of a flight of stairs,”  Thurber says,

but I lost the sense of perspective and instead of getting in the stairs when I drew my line down, there she was stuck up there, naked, on a bookcase.

The eye falters, the hand slips, and next thing you know: naked women perched on top of books! 

No boy from Columbus, Ohio could have intended to put a naked woman on top of a bookcase. 

But his muse (here, taking the form of faulty perspective) gets the job done.

Something similar happened to Alexander Pushkin when he was writing Eugene Onegin.  Pushkin’s heroine, Tatiana, always so obedient to the will of her creator, suddenly, independent of authorial design, up and marries some crusty, old, retired general from St. Petersburg. 

Tatiana Larina: Going rogue.

Romantically-minded Russian girls inexplicably succumbing to dull, respectable marriages and naked women hijacked from the staircase and stranded on top of bookcases.  It’s all the same thing.

Does anybody ever say what they set out to say?

The thought is born in the mouth.  That’s what the Russians say.  Mine are born as they run down my fingers and into the keyboard.


…Irresistible afterthought for those who love Thurber
(from the same Paris Review interview):

How did Harold Ross, editor at The New Yorker, respond to the naked, former Mrs. Harris?

He [Ross] called me on the phone and asked if the woman up on the bookcase was supposed to be alive, stuffed, or dead. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know in a couple of hours.”

After a while I called him back and told him I’d just talked to my taxidermist, who said you can’t stuff a woman, that my doctor had told me a dead woman couldn’t support herself on all fours.

“So, Ross,” I said, “she must be alive.”

“Well then,” he said, “what’s she doing up there naked in the home of her husband’s second wife?”

I told him he had me there.