March 18, 2012
Nathan Englander’s new story collection illuminates Jewish life and consciousness with exceptional, soulful clarity. Each of the eight stories uniquely employs character, plot and tone to lay before us the challenging and sometimes ugly elephants that can materialize around anti-Semitism, holy law, secular temptation and Jewish suffering. While the subjects are large, the stories feel intimate, reaching deeply into readers’ sensitivities as they explore vulnerability and holy angst.
For me, the book became a kind of secret treasure I thought about during the day, looking forward to it as if I were going to meet a special friend. I attribute that to not only these eight being simply good stories, but also those imposing elephants, so fascinating by their invisible presence revealed.
In the book’s title story, the first in the collection, Mark and Lauren are Hassidic Jews from Jerusalem visiting Mark’s parents in Miami, Florida. They spend an afternoon with their more spiritually casual Jewish friends, Deb and her narrating husband, who regards the Hassidic couple as “strict, suffocatingly austere people.” Loosened up with liquor and marijuana, the couples verbally spar over issues of modern Jewish life, including intermarriage, liturgical absolutism and the significance of holy ritual. Mark’s ultra-orthodox certainty hides an elephant in his marriage, which becomes visible when the couples engage in an unsettling Anne Frank game that asks players who would hide them in the event of a second Holocaust.
Englander probes the demands of religious absolutes in several of the stories, and while it is Judaic law in his telescope, all faiths can fall within its field of vision. In the story “Peep Show,” a successful attorney, Allen Fein, spontaneously enters a peep show on his way home from work. When he drops a second token into the slot to see the pretty girl one more time, the partition raises and reveals his childhood rabbis. In this symbolic story of sexual guilt imposed by holy leaders, Fein says, “You painted for us the most beautiful picture of Heaven, Rabbi, then left us to discover we’d all end up in Hell. Some room – maybe if you’d left us some room.”
The stories are equally compelling and richly imagined, but diverse in style, testifying to Englander’s breadth of creativity. For example, “Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side” is written in numbered paragraphs. There is so much underlying the plots of these truly amazing stories that none are simply open-and-closed fictional narratives. They move us to the edges of eternal contentions, encouraging us to look into their depths, such as in “How We Avenged the Blums.” A Russian Jew training a group of boys to fight an anti-Semitic bully says to them: “Do you know which countries have no anti-Semite? … The country with no Jew;” or in “Sister Hills,” an extraordinary political fable about Israeli settlements, asking probing questions about ancient covenants with God.
It’s unusual for me to claim all stories in one collection as a favorite, but that’s the truth of it here. One more to shout out about – “The Reader,” a story about an old man who follows a has-been author across the country to attend his bookstore readings. He is the author’s only audience. Through the old man’s obsessive attachment to the author’s novels, we understand, as I experienced with What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, “an intimacy as real as a friendship.”
Update: Grammatical corrections were made to this post 3.20.12.
March 7, 2012
I discovered a Southern novel often described as the one that deserved the classic status held by Gone With the Wind. Caroline Gordon’s critically praised fiction about the American Civil War, None Shall Look Back, came out in 1937, but by that time the reading public had fallen in love with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. According to an article about Caroline Gordon in The New Criterion, (October 1989), None Shall Look Back “promptly drowned in the wake of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Gone With the Wind.” The writer, Laura Weiner, further refers to Gordon’s response to what happened and also to the praise:
“Scarlett O’Hara was ‘a Civil War Becky Sharp, and Lord how they’re gobbling it up,’ Gordon wrote. ‘They say it took [Mitchell] ten years to write that novel. Why couldn’t it have taken her twelve?’ Oh, well. Katherine Anne Porter raved about None Shall Look Back in the pages of The New Republic and John Crowe Ransom sent Gordon a personal letter calling her ‘a Great Artist’ for having written it.”
The literary chatter about what could’ve been or should’ve been regarding None Shall Look Back made me curious, and so I found a copy – a first edition, no dust-jacket, south of $50 – and read it. There’s a Southern Classics Series paperback available; however, I wanted to read the ‘organic’ version, without notes or prefaces providing hind-sight interpretation.
None Shall Look Back begins with a birthday party celebrating 65-year-old Fontaine Allard, patriarch of Brackets, a prosperous Kentucky tobacco plantation near Clarksville, TN. The party introduces us to the key family characters, including Fontaine’s orphaned grand-daughters Lucy and Love, his sons Ned and Jim, and his nephews George Rowan and Rives Allard, from Georgia. Ned, George and Rives are surprise visitors to the party – they left school the night before, riding their horses home to join Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry. There’s a dance and some romancing on the plantation, and then the boys ride off to fight at Fort Donelson.
The strength of this story lies on the battlefields. Gordon puts us in the tents and through the binoculars of Union and Confederate commanders. She powerfully captures the troops as they wait for action and then fall into the horror of it. I don’t have deep knowledge about the Civil War battles and, in the case of Fort Donelson, read online about the 1862 surrender to General Grant. The historical background information made a huge difference in my understanding of what was happening in Gordon’s fiction. If only she had included a map of the battle, that would’ve been sufficient. Did readers in 1937 not need that?
Gordon anchors us most closely to Rives, who scouts for Lt. General Forrest and, along with Ned, follows Forrest in escaping Fort Donelson before the surrender. The two boys return to Brackets, where they hide in the woods from Union troops, who pillage and burn down the plantation house. With the Union victory and control of nearby Clarksville, Brackets’ plantation slaves have walked away and Lucy thinks, “…we are sinking, sinking; and they know it and have deserted us.”
Rives marries Lucy and takes her to his home in Georgia. Fontaine Allard collapses into ill health, and the family becomes dependent on others for their shelter and food. Rives continues to fight with Lt. General Forrest, whom Gordon portrays heroically throughout the novel, such as at Murfreesboro and Chickamauga. Meanwhile, Lucy nurses wounded soldiers with her mother-in-law in Georgia. Ned escapes from a Yankee prison and returns home a broken man.
Gordon’s characters are well-drawn but don’t call us to care about them. It makes for less dramatic reading – there’s no “I’ll think about that tomorrow” Scarlett O’Hara or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” Rhett Butler to make us cheer and weep — but the historical significance of the Allards’ fictional lives more than makes up for the lack of emotional drama. There’s an unforgettable final scene of Rives on his horse “carrying the colors” into the middle of a battle, when the original carrier lost courage. Like so many other scenes in None Shall Look Back, it left me with an indelible portrait of the Confederate soldier in battle and, long after the last page, thinking about the American Civil War, more than Mitchell’s classic ever did.
Caroline Gordon (1895-1981) wrote nine novels and three story collections, as well as non-fiction. She was born in Clarksville, TN, where she lived with her husband, poet and critic Allen Tate, on family land.