Nathan Englander At AJU’s Book Festival

Here’s an excerpt of my report:

The second speaker I catch at AJU is Nathan Englander. He’s interviewed by Beverley Seehoff. (Listen)

When I hear her described as graduating from college in South Africa in 1983, I’m expecting a crone. Oy, to have to look at all that age for 45 minutes. It’s too much. Then she comes out and she’s totally hot. She has gleaming black hair and shining white teeth and long legs. She gives an adulatory introduction to Nathan Englander. She’s all quivering with excitement over him.

He shambles on stage with his hands in his jeans. He’s short with stumpy legs.

She has him read a section of his book. He does for five minutes with feeling.

"I love that you chose that scene," she gushes.

She loves it! She loves it! She loves it!

She asks him questions like he’s God Almighty and she’s HaShem’s number one cheerleader.

I fear she’s going to hurt her neck the way she nods so vigorously whenever Nathan completes a phrase. It’s like his words are nectar from the gods and she’s slurping them up and asking for more.

"Yes, yes," she sighs and flashes her white teeth and shakes her black hair and stretches her long legs and sighs again in sheer Nathan Englander-drunk ecstasy.

Nathan says he moved to Israel [circa 1993] to "make peace."

"I began to understand that there are multiple realities in this world and governments create their own reality."

"Bibi worked out at the same gym I did. George Bush has his own treadmill. Not for long!"

"We all choose stories. I got interested in good and evil and black and white and all the gradations in between. I chose Argentina [for his novel The Ministry of Special Cases] because it was extreme. It was pure evil. We made up the war to invade Iraq. We made up facts that were sold to us… Argentina declared war on themselves. They didn’t even pick an enemy. That to me was supreme."

"There’s a middle class in Argentina which there isn’t in many South American countries. People want to move up, they don’t want to move down."

Beverley asks him about symbols in his novel.

Nathan says writing "is a form of monkishness…. When you write, you have an obligation to the text. When I’m writing, I don’t get to go outside… It’s what the book demands. It becomes all-consuming… I’ll write a 40-page speech that I might crush it down to a single line."

"My next book will be wholly different from first two. I’m always obsessed with boundaries. When you fly around the country, you look down and everything is in perfect squares."

"Every community is based on boundaries. The guy in Austria who kept his daughter in his basement and had babies with her. Why is that a story after day one? Because we’re obsessed with that this is not OK… That’s the line and you’re on the wrong side of it… I’m obsessed with failures in community. I always picture myself as a historical coward. I’m the guy in World War II who says, ‘The Jews are behind the book case.’"

"I’m interested in getting into that mind… The failure of society to keep up… I’m living that. Habeas Corpus [you hear the charges against you] is the most important thing in the world to me and I still went on tour, I still finished my book, I still went to yoga. Our government says, it’s not about us, it’s about terror. We should’ve been flipping cars in the streets and I should’ve been setting fires… The greatest shame we have known, we are living right now. People have a right to challenge their detention."

Nathan says Jews became pimps and prostitutes in Argentina to survive. "There can’t have been a more miserable job. We think of prostitution as like Pretty Woman… It was a crappy job…. These women were Jews. They wanted to go to shul. They wanted to be buried as Jews. And the community says, we’re ashamed to be buried with you. To look at another Jew and say, ‘I won’t be buried with you,’ that to me is a failure of community… For someone to feel so pure and to judge others in that way.

"It’s like when some Russian immigrant to Israel dies in defense of Israel and the rabbis say, ‘He can’t be buried as a Jew.’ He died as a Jew, he should be buried as a f—ing Jew."


Nathan did not visit Argentina until after he wrote the novel.

I ask the first question. "Why do you write first and research later?"

Nathan: "That’s the shortest first question I’ve ever received. Normally when someone shoots up their hand they’ve got a long speech to give over."

At the end, Beverly says to Nathan, "We are so grateful…"

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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