An Erasure of Distance: Traveling in Circles with Nathan Englander

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Nathan Englander’s story “The Twenty-seventh Man” opens with Joseph Stalin, from his country house, signing the death warrants of twenty-seven men, twenty-six of whom are the most well-known Yiddish writers in all of Soviet Russia. The twenty-seventh name belongs to the young Pinchas, also a Yiddish writer, but a completely unpublished unknown. “Quite a feat for an unknown!” the famous Bretzky later tells Pinchas, when the two of them along the twenty-five others have been rounded up and are locked away awaiting execution. Not a single soul has read a word of Pinchas’s work, yet here he is on Stalin’s list with the greats. Pinchas spends his final days composing a story in his head, which he recites for his idols, who heap praise on him. Then they are all shot. This leaves the reader with a lot of questions to ponder. What makes a writer a writer? Are the mechanisms of literary recognition and fame any more or less arbitrary than the infamously arbitrary mechanisms of “justice” is Stalin’s Russia? The story, by the way, like most of Englander’s work, is also really, really funny.

“The Twenty-seventh Man” was the first story in Englander’s debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. In his work since then he has continued to adroitly roll art and politics, humor and humans into stories that feel impossible, that seem if they were to be taken apart could not so easily be put back together. His new novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, is about spies and the Mossad and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The novel trots around the world, back and forth through many years, though at its core are two men—The Guard and Prisoner Z—the only two inhabitants of a prison that isn’t on any map.

Back in June, Nathan and I had a free flowing chat over the phone about everything from Waiting for Guffman to profound experiences of literature. We also talked about his new novel.

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The Rumpus: So as your fourth time around then, how does it feel?

Nathan Englander: It’s always the strangest mix of emotions, and if you’re any writer that I know it usually tilts towards the fears, but it’s always a mix of hopes and fears when books go out into the world.

The example I always think about is a gymnast. If I were a forty-seven-year-old gymnast, they’d say, “You’re done here, sir. There’s no amount of training or cortisone shots that are going to get you to the Olympics.” But in the writing life, when you start a project, you’re always hungry. It always feels to me like, “Now I’m ready to write,” or, “Now I’m ready to start.”

There’s a sense of newness with each book. I stand by my previous ones and feel connected to them but it really feels like I wanted to write this book for, honestly, it’s got to be like twenty years. I’m glad you said the fourth book, because the thing you start noticing as books go by, is that you become aware not only of a shape of a career, but of your themes and interests. You don’t want writing tricks where you make the same joke every time, but you do start to notice what consumes your mind, or what drives you.

Really, I’ve actively wanted to write this book for twenty years. I was so heartbroken by the Israeli-Palestinian process coming apart, the second Intifada and all the violence on both sides at the time that I was there. It sort of became the hopeless situation that it seems to be in. This book, that’s why I say it so gingerly and carefully, this book, more than anything I’ve ever done, is so loaded for me and so vulnerable, and it’s an inherently explosive subject where no matter what you say, everyone disagrees. I really was looking to have this empathetic exploration of something. Forget all the politicians, or, don’t forget all the politicians and all the people, but I’m saying personally this is a dizzying subject for me.

I feel you asked one question and it’s now 9 p.m. What I want to say is yes, I’m full of the same excitement and the same fears as always, the same pre-book jumpiness that can swing either way where my wife will be like, “Why are you laughing hysterically? Why are you crying hysterically?” Either could be happening prior to book launch, but yes, separately the subject matter of this book to me and the nature of, it feels on all fronts extra-loaded this time for me.

Rumpus: I don’t want to give anything away, but I do want to ask about the central, titular image, the dinner at the center of the earth. Was that in your mind two decades ago, or did that come to you more recently?

Englander: I would like to say it is a pleasure to talk to you. I’m alone in the room a lot of the time, and over the years of writing I have become so interested in how, in the brain, how stories form. Where do we go when we go to that dissociated place? If I end up writing a book about a pizza place in Jackson, Mississippi, but five years before it’s about a guy fly fishing the Brazos river in Texas, if you can fly fish that river, I don’t know, but I’m just saying sometimes that can be the same book.

Even though I talk in circles at the start of every answer, I will get you there. It is the same book that I’ve been wanting to write, and in a sense, it’s the same story but I could never have guessed that it would take this form. When I was very close to a final draft of this book, literally one of the final paragraphs I put in, I was like, “Wait, this moment I need to write I feel like I’ve already written,” and I had to sort of relax my brain. I was like, “Oh my god, it’s in like an early draft from years ago when I was just trying to find this world and this character.”

I searched through my files and I found Prisoner Z, the same book and the same person and it couldn’t have been more different on every front. When I began I had no ideas in terms of the allegorical shape of this book or the circles within circles or the fact that I’d actually write a book with a plot, which is shocking to me, that there’s a thriller element.

I started with Marilynne Robinson at Iowa and sat at her feet. She had such a huge effect on me and I’m quoting her now. There were maybe fifteen years or eighteen years, something gigantic, between Housekeeping and Gilead, and she said people thought she writes slowly. She’s talks about this notion that the book was cooking. People thought the book took her eighteen years. What it took was seventeen years of thinking and then she sat down and executed it. I feel like with Dinner at the Center of the Earth, when it became clear to me, I just wrote the book. A draft in a year, a rewrite in a year kind of thing.

Rumpus: Nice. Am I misremembering or did I read something in an interview with you a while ago about your story “The Twenty-seventh Man,” and you said you waited a long time with that story as well?

Englander: I taught everyone a very bad lesson at my publisher because they actually gave me deadlines this time and I’m now meeting them. I used to say, “Here’s my book; it’s six years late.” I’m so much faster now, and work differently. With all the years of writing, I think I still draft as obsessively, but I think back to writing. On your first story, you start at draft one. On your second story, you start at draft ten. On your third story, you start at draft one hundred. If you need a hundred and eight drafts, you may write eight instead of a hundred and eight. Back to “The Twenty-seventh Man.” I got the idea for that story when I was nineteen. I started drafting it when I was twenty-one, and it’s been with me my whole career. I literally worked on it for seven years. Yes, you remember correctly, but I say if I measure that story in actual cubic feet it would probably be almost as tall as I am.

I have those drafts, and they really must be as tall as me. I revisited it when I wrote that as a play that premiered at the Public and was at the Old Globe, but that’s a whole separate long story not for this interview, how that came to be. I love “The Twenty-seventh Man.” It was what I got into grad school with, it was one of my first published stories, the first story of my book, and then it became my first play. I’ve been writing that story for, at this point, a great part of my life.

Rumpus: That’s got to mean something, right? That you could keep going back to the same material, but could make it new at the same time.

Englander: Did you ever see Waiting for Guffman?

Rumpus: Yeah.

Englander: When I would be scared about the play, six months into the first draft of it, all I could picture was him at the end, Corky, I think his name is.

Rumpus: Corky St. Clair.

Englander: Yeah. He’s like, “This is the Remains of the Day lunch box. Here’s My Dinner with Andre action figures.” I was like, “Yeah, so we didn’t need a Remains of the Day lunchbox.” I kept thinking, “Is this my My Dinner with Andre action figure?” No, now it’s a hot pocket flavor. But now that we’re on this side of it, I’m very thankful. Now I can speak romantically about those iterations.

Rumpus: Nice. I get exactly what you’re saying. To bring it back to the novel that’s about to come out—

Englander: You’re so nice, starting to talk about things. I had to do an interview in front of my beloved publisher and we were doing something, talking about art, but my publisher she was like, “You know, you may want to mention the book.” I’m like, “Let’s talk about Marilynne; let’s talk about the play.” My publisher would remind me to mention the book, but it would never cross my mind. Anyway, yes sir. I’m ready.

Rumpus: Well about Dinner to the Center of the Earth (just released September 5 from Knopf). Central are this prisoner and this guard in a cell that’s not on any map. What’s interesting is that both prisoner and guard seem almost equally miserable. One is the captor, one is the captive, but they both seem in confinement, which is really interesting. It’s a really specific concrete manifestation of a huge abstract idea, I’m wondering if maybe you could just talk a little bit more about how that dynamic came to you.

Englander: Again, this is such a pleasure. I didn’t know how it was going to go. I’m living this book and in this moment it’s so close to my heart. That’s why this idea had to sit with me for so long to want to address this subject. I guess that’s how I see myself, optimistic pessimist, or pessimistic optimist. The Israel Palestine thing, there are infinite sides to each side, but if we stick to the main sides, everybody’s in the same boat and it’s maddening to me for people not to understand what’s in both their best interest at any given—

You know, and I don’t say this, I’ll say as someone who lived there for a long time, let me call myself someone who spent six or seven years in Jerusalem, we don’t need any more Americans flying over to fix things. They need to fix it. I’m someone who fell in love with the city and fell in love with a place, and has high hopes for everyone there, the good people on both sides.

For me, with this book it was that notion of here is a guy who disappeared, disappeared into a system. Here is this guard who’s with him. What’s the difference? In the end, it’s this notion, like one punishing the other is punishing—I never said it out loud before, thank you so much for putting it into my head.

The notion, you know, one guy’s the captor, one’s the prisoner. One’s punishing, one’s punished, but in the end both are being punished. Both lives are disappearing in that way. I just wanted to explore this notion of everything and its opposite, which is in the book, maybe the only Hebrew phrase in the book, hafuh al hafuh. It’s a thing you say in Hebrew which is ‘it’s the opposite of the opposite.’ I was just obsessed with this notion, of where as time goes by no one can even remember. It’s just the two of them in there. That’s the notion: guard and prisoner, they might as well be flipped.

I have one section of the book which is The General in a coma reliving all of history there. His aide sits by his side. One person in the book is taking care of a dead man who’s alive and another person in the book is inextricably linked to a live man who might as well be dead. I wanted to address the opposites and just look at this maddening situation, which I’m so happy to hear if it read that way for you. Flip a coin, yes there is a major difference. That’s the other point, everything’s complicated. There’s still a difference, because one guy gets to go home on the weekend. You know?

Rumpus: Yeah, that’s a good point. Another big idea that seemed to be throughout the novel is the use of, I don’t know, names that aren’t quite names? The General, the Guard. I thought one of the most heartbreaking points of the book was when he loses his name, essentially, when Z becomes—

Englander: Prisoner Z, yeah.

Rumpus: Yeah. That stuck with me, the idea that this apparatus is powerful enough to strip you of Nathan or Ryan, and make you into the last letter of the alphabet.

Englander: Literally god bless you, of the things that you spend time on that are, that was for me was, like, philosophical conundrum number 984 where you’re very far along and I’m like, “Ah, he’s Prisoner Z only after he’s caught!” You’d have to take the book apart with a screwdriver. But none of the timelines conflict. If you actually look at all in order, even though it seems unimportant, or very important, to me, figuring it out. Thank you for asking because that was so important to me to be like, “We’re already at this point in time, so yes, he’s always Z.” He becomes Prisoner Z, there’s that notion of a sense of erasure and how it works.

Back to referencing Marilynne again, when I showed up there at twenty-four in her class, I was writing these circular sentences and circular stories, basically writing Yiddish and English where I’d say, “I should wait all day here for Ryan to call at 6:15 p.m., I thought this interview was at—” This idea, this reverse, “This is how you treat a friend who’s been so supportive all the time since grade school, and now this is how you—” you know, the sort of Yiddish-y, where the sentence is doubled. This interview probably sums it up for you very clearly if you play back your tape at any point.

I didn’t understand my mind thought in those circles, and to write is an act of communication. That’s the point. There’s me, the book, and you—it’s this erasure of distance, it’s like a shared consciousness and I feel like I spent so much time in my writing learning this is a linear story. This is how we go from point A to point B. This book about Israel, which is about cycles, the serpent eating its tale, it’s about things happening again and again in the same way. The circle upon circle, and I was like, “I really want to be able to keep that circularity of how I think and how I talk and how this story and the world, how it seems to me.”

Do you know what I’m saying? This book ends up being first a thriller, but then it’s also a history of Israel, but then it becomes a love story. There’s all these things that unfold but for me, back to you asking about, and thank you for saying, “I don’t want to give a spoiler,” but for this impossible end, to execute it, I feel to me also it becomes an allegory to me. I thought that was one way for the book to announce that. I’m glad if the feeling comes through about it.

Rumpus: Nice.

Englander: Did that make any sense?

Rumpus: Oh yeah, a hundred percent. I’m totally on board with you. One big theme I wanted to talk about quickly is the idea of motherhood. Mother and son relationships seemed to keep popping up in interesting ways. I loved this idea that even amid all the complex structural things, maybe you’d call them postmodern or whatever, there was at the novel’s heart these mothers doing anything they could for their sons.

Englander: I’m smiling here; it’s pretty exciting if I maybe get to be postmodern while here I am in Paris. Do you listen to Marc Maron?

Rumpus: Yeah, definitely.

Englander: I always like when he’s says, “You’ll cut this out.” He’s like, “Sure.” Then we end up hearing those parts he’ll cut, but I keep thanking you between questions. Thank you, this is really a calming first interview. It’s an act of communication. I put this book out in the world and I worked so hard on these things, and I don’t know if they’re going to come through. But, back to your question: there are the generalizations that work across culture, where you can be like, “Jewish boys and their mothers,” and that works. You can be like, “Italian boys and their mothers.” “Bosnian daughters and their mothers.” Those things, the parental relationship is primal, but there is this specific notion. I’m super close with my mom, do you know what I’m saying? She’s a good reader for me.

I was about to get on a plane home from last book tour in Israel and that was when the Prisoner X story broke. You know, this guy, he had hung himself, he had been dead. This guy who just suddenly appeared, there’s obviously not going to be much research on him. I didn’t try to research. Part of what drives this book is that notion where I was thinking people do extreme things for country. Do you know what I’m saying? I thought doing extreme things for an adopted country is even more extreme. What is it to believe so much, for a guy like that to believe so much in Israel as an Australian kid that he would become a spy for the Mossad? Then, what is it to flip?

People have different realities, so I was really thinking, what would it take for someone who’s so dedicated to an idea to so empathize that they literally become a traitor to the other idea? I was thinking a lot about myself and my own super inextricably Jewish boy link with my mother. I felt like even a Jewish spy would have this relationship, so yes, I was very much exploring this relationship of boys and their mothers, and Jewish boys and their mothers. Exactly that, the ridiculous lengths that a doting mother will go for her son, and the ridiculous lengths that—I will pretend this is distanced from me—the ridiculous neediness of a grown man for a mother.

Rumpus: Nice.

Englander: I can’t have made that sound more intellectual and less funny. I’m forty-seven. Now at least, I want you to know I am married, and I do put my wife down as emergency contact. I do know not to put my mom. You put your wife.

Rumpus: If you don’t mind, I’m hoping to sort of end with a big question, an impossibly big question. But something that’s been on my mind a lot recently. I’m wondering, do you have profound experiences of literature? Do you ever pick up a book and then later when you put it down, you’re of a different person? I know a lot of people—

Englander: Oh, god.

Rumpus: Go ahead.

Englander: The answer is a million percent. Do you know what I’m saying? I remember talking to David Foster Wallace and he was talking first as a writer of how with many books, there’s a sense of loss even just finishing. It being a true sense of loss just to have to say goodbye to characters that you’ve been living with. That’s the writer front of change and experiencing a space, but on the reader front, I pretty much, it’s like I’m pausing only because it’s so at a trigger point, I scream it at anyone who will listen. I feel like people who become writers are people who have been saved by books.

I think books can cure cancer and grow back hair. I can’t say it enough. For me, that’s why it’s so syrupy. It’s both syrupy and over the top, and overly sincere, and also dead true. What else can I tell you? A writer can’t catch a cab half the time, but when there’s a demagogue, when there’s a government that wants to suppress, there’s a reason that writers end up getting in trouble. It’s such a subversive form that can really change people.

I feel like when I was in this closed world in suburbia and I was this religious kid with huge questions and really feeling cut off and trapped and not knowing there was anything else… do you know what I’m saying? That idea, I literally feel like books saved my life. I found these people. Me reading Camus and Kafka, all of the tortured teenager stuff of someone who’s falling in love with books. These people, these writers had the questions. They may not have had the answers, but they’re not afraid to look at the questions head on. It was just life-changing for me. Yeah, books, honestly, I can’t even tell you. I feel saved by books; I feel like they let me be who I was and find the world I wanted to be in.

I could go on for nine hours, but I think it is transcendent when you find the right book, and since you’ve made me feel comfortable, this is unnecessary to add and it’s a vulnerability, but I’ll add it. I sometimes think about that, when I finish in something big I find it even hard, I feel like I lose an actual noticeable percentage of my reading time. Back to me starting with the thing that David Foster Wallace said, even on the reader end I find it so hard when a book that I love so much ends, to find the kindness to enter into a new one. Do you know what I’m saying? To find my way in, I feel like even there’s that space after. I just love inhabiting a book that hits right.

Rumpus: I feel exactly what you’re saying. I know I said that last one was going to be my last one, but I’m curious. I know you’re about to go do a reading later tonight in Paris, is that correct?

Englander: I actually read last night. Yeah.

Rumpus: Well, I was going to ask, what’s the atmosphere or the preparation like for a reading in Paris as opposed to Jerusalem as opposed to Jackson, Mississippi? Is there any appreciable difference between literary-minded audiences around the world?

Englander: I can tell you, and last night’s reading was for a specific group. I read at Shakespeare and Company all the time here, by the way, where my wife and I got married in the store. Which is a whole separate crazy story, again, another story. What I have to say for me, if you ask me what I most think about, it’s something that’s really beautiful to me. Back to those, even the couple of books that I referenced from high school. It’s enough that stories work, that you can tell a story that works that can move someone, or make someone laugh, or change someone. They work across time and then they work across language, and then across culture. It’s just overwhelming to me.

Do you know what I’m saying? I’m in Paris, so I will tell you. I think Candide, Voltaire’s Candide, I think it’s fucking funny. That’s a funny book. I’m not French. I’m not three hundred years old. I’m not dead. That’s a straight up joke with Cunégonde. “I thought you got disemboweled.” “I got better.” Do you know what I’m saying? That book is funny. How is it possible for me to read it in English, and so far away? There’s a beauty in that.

I’m forty-seven and referred to myself as a little Jewish boy five times as soon as you mentioned mothers. Mommy. Anyway, that notion of identity and stuff, I wrestle with that a lot and that’s surely in the work. My first book came out and they were like, “Oh, you’re a Jewish writer.” All these nice compliments in very nice company. “You are in the tradition; you are following this.” I was like, “I was just telling stories. I’m an American, telling stories.” Are all my stories about Jews? All my Americans for a long time were Jews.

This notion of identity and reading abroad, I have to say, what’s really been beautiful to me is to be translated and get to travel and do those readings. Whether I’m sitting there and someone’s reading from the book in German, or the audience is Norwegian. Again, back to having been a suburban kid. The more foreign to me, to my existence, to your core existence, the more foreign the foreign language, it’s really moving to me to think, to get to experience my own story crossing those boundaries. To have that experience that I so cherished as a reader. I can’t believe this. To me, it’s really nice because that would be a thing where I’m like, “There may be lots of Jews in my work. I’m not writing stories for Jews. I’m telling stories about people, and Jews are people, too.”

Do you know what I’m saying? If a story’s functioning, it’s universal, is my answer. To me, when one is writing sometimes about a very specific subject with very specific people, I feel like if that story doesn’t cross over, it’s not working. That’s very beautiful to me, to be sitting in Berlin and there’s an actor reading my book in German. I don’t even know what’s going on, except I know to feel my own rhythms in another language and say, “If this is going well, I think everyone should laugh around now.” Then maybe there’s laughter, and for me, it reminds me of how story can move around the world.

Rumpus: I’ll just say this quickly. For The Relief of Unbearable Urges was a pretty big book for me, personally, when I read it maybe ten years ago. It taught me a lot of things about epiphany, structure, and how to tell stories. I came to Dinner at the Center of the Earth with pretty high expectations. They were certainly met. I loved it. It definitely entertained; it also instructed.

Englander: That’s my big canned joke in my head for this book. That it’s a twenty year present to Knopf that I finally wrote a book that’s not about a rabbi eating toast. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s true. As I wrote this book I was like, “Ah! One may turn to the next chapter because they want to know what’s happening.” It never crossed my mind before. What a strange idea to introduce into a story, that you actually may want to know what happens next. I was like, this is a crazy thing.

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Author photograph © Joshua Meier.


Ryan Krull teaches at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and is a reader for Boulevard magazine. More from this author →