Englander, Nathan 1970–
Englander, Nathan 1970–
Home—Jerusalem, Israel; and New York, NY.
Writer. Worked as manager of a commercial photography studio; fellow at Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, New York Public Library, 2004.
PEN/Faulkner Malamud Award, and Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters, both for For the Relief of Unbearable Urges; Bard Fiction Prize, Bard College, 2001; Pushcart Prize; Guggenheim fellowship.
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (short stories), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
The Ministry of Special Cases (novel), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to anthologies, including The Art of the Story, Neurotica, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Anthology, and Pushcart Prize. Contributor of fiction to periodicals, including New Yorker, Story, Atlantic Monthly, and American Short Fiction.
Nathan Englander's well-reviewed For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, a collection of nine short stories, was described as "a remarkable collection for a newcomer still in his twenties to produce," by Nicholas Clee in the New Statesman. A balance of "comedy and tragedy, surrealism, and pathos" from the Jewish storytelling traditions of writers such as Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the book demonstrates "poise and effectiveness" and reveals Englander to be "a writer of distinctive gifts," Clee remarked.
Born in New York City in 1970, Englander grew up on Long Island in "an Orthodox home in New York, where I had a right-wing, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, fire-and-brimstone, free-thought free, shtetl-mentality, substandard education," he said in an interview on the Bold Type Web site. He studied at a yeshiva throughout his youth and high school days, and he started writing when he was "discovered and rescued by that one teacher that fate inevitably puts in these parochial schools," as Englander recalled in an Atlantic Unbound interview. His sincere theological questions were disdained, he said, "so when my English teacher got me started reading books, she opened the world to me. Writing became my lifeline."
Throughout his youth and young adulthood, Englander maintained strict observance of Jewish religious rules and traditions. Instead of continuing his Orthodox education, however, he enrolled at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Although he considered college to be "unbelievably eye-opening, coming from where I did," he continued to observe the rules of his religion, as he noted in Bold Type. In his junior year, he traveled to Israel, a life-changing trip that found him abandoning his religion and delving deep into his work and identity as a writer.
Englander returned from Israel and graduated from college, then enrolled at the Iowa Writer's Workshop at the urging of the mother of a friend who saw an early draft of the short story "The Twenty-Seventh Man," wrote Paul Zakrzewski on the GenerationJ.com Web site. He successfully completed the prestigious Iowa program and earned his M.F.A. in creative writing.
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is "a superb short story collection that reveals the tension between the sacred and the profane for Orthodox Jews," wrote Frank Caso in Booklist. In the title story, Dov Binyamin, a Jewish man whose wife has undertaken self-imposed celibacy, seeks special permission from his rabbi to visit a prostitute. After his experiences with the prostitute, and the resulting case of venereal disease, Binyamin becomes less and less interested in his wife, even when her sexual appetite re-emerges. In "The Twenty-Seventh Man," twenty-six of the most prominent Jewish authors under the Stalinist regime are rounded up, tortured, and executed. But the twenty-seventh man, Pinchas Pelovits, is there by mistake; he has never published a single word. While imprisoned, Pelovits composes and recites a story to his doomed comrades, and it is a masterpiece. Englander's story "is a radiant little fable of acceptance and loss," Clee wrote.
The characters in "The Tumblers" are a group of Jews destined for the concentration camps, but who board the wrong train and find themselves with a group of entertainers. They devise an acrobatic act to save themselves, even though they are not acrobats and their performance is farcical, prompting one audience member to declare, ironically, that "they are as clumsy as Jews." However, their determination saves them from a gruesome end. In "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" a Protestant realizes, while riding in the back of a Manhattan taxi cab, that he is Jewish. "Reb Kringle" depicts a New York rabbi who, every year, takes the job of a department store Santa Claus.
D. Mesher, writing in Judaism, called the collection "wonderful" and observed that the author "shows an impressive command of both art and artifice" in his writing. A Publishers Weekly contributor called Englander "a wise and mature new voice." The book's "memorable characters and equally memorable circumstances of their struggles make all nine stories a pleasure to read and contemplate," Caso noted in Booklist.
Often, acclaimed short-story writers have a more difficult time gaining critical approval for their novels, especially for first novels. Englander, however, proved to be just as adept at the novel form as he is with short stories. His first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, was published to widespread critical acclaim. "Four p's best describe this work: poignant, powerful, political, and yet personal," wrote Brad Hooper of the novel in Booklist. David A. Berona, reviewing The Ministry of Special Cases for Library Journal, "highly recommended" the novel, calling it a "chilling book of intrigue."
The Ministry of Special Cases revolves around the Argentina's Dirty War, which lasted from 1976 to 1983 and led to the disappearance of numerous dissidents. Englander focuses on the Jewish Poznan family. When young Pato Poznan is kidnapped by authorities, his parents Kaddish and Lilian begin looking for him. Soon they are faced with an exasperating and frightening bureaucracy in the form of the Ministry of Special of Cases. The strain of endless paperwork and bribes cannot even get the government to acknowledge the existence of Pato, and the Poznans find their marriage falling apart.
Several reviewers commented that, despite the horrific aspects of the Poznan's situation, Englander provides the story with plenty of humor. As Bookforum.com contributor Paul Terzian noted: "Englander's great gifts are an absurdist sense of humor and a brisk, almost breezy narrative voice." In a review of The Ministry of Special Cases for Newsweek, David Gates wrote that Englander "maintains an undertone of quirky comedy almost to the end of his story." Gates went on to note: "Such apparent inappropriateness seems like a throwback to the black humor of such '60s novels as Joseph Heller's Catch-22."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 1999, Frank Caso, review of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, p. 1150; October 1, 1999, Ray Olson and Gilbert Taylor, review of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, p. 322; January 1, 2002, Brad Hooper, "Send Your Submission in Now," p. 813; February 15, 2007, Brad Hooper, review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 5.
Chicago, June, 2007, Victoria Lautman, "Writers on the Record," p. 32.
Entertainment Weekly, April 27, 2007, Jennifer Reese, review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 144.
Esquire, May 2007, Tyler Cabot, "Bastard out of Argentina," review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 44.
Guardian (London, England), May 27, 1999, Michael Ellison, "Un-Orthodox Author," p. 4.
Harper's, May, 2007, John Leonard, review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 87.
Judaism, winter, 2000, D. Mesher, review of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, p. 120.
Library Journal, April 1, 2007, David A. Berona, review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 80.
Nation, May 28, 2007, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," p. 44.
New Republic, May 21, 2007, Ruth Franklin, "Kaddish's Nose," review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 61.
New Statesman, June 28, 1999, Nicholas Clee, review of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, p. 50.
Newsweek, February 19, 2007, "A Life in Books," p. 16; May 7, 2007, David Gates, "Great Expectations; Short-Story Phenom Nathan Englander's First Novel," p. 63.
New Yorker, May 21, 2007, Wyatt Mason, review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 80.
New York Times Book Review, June 3, 2007, Will Blythe, review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 38.
New York Times Magazine, April 8, 2007, Deborah Solomon, "The Fabulist" (interview), p. 18; April 22, 2007, David Colman "A Good Luck Charm with Ideas of Its Own," p. ST9.
Publishers Weekly, February 1, 1999, review of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, p. 74; November 1, 1999, review of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, p. 46; May 28, 2007, review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 54.
USA Today, May 10, 2007, Bob Minzesheimer, "‘Special Cases’ Finds Itself in Its Symbolism," p. 6.
Washington Post, May 10, 1999, Ann Gerhart, "OY WONDER; for Nathan Englander, an Unorthodox Route to Literary Acclaim," p. 1.
Washington Post Book World, April 1, 2007, review of The Ministry of Special Cases, p. 8.
Atlantic Unbound,http://www.theatlantic.com/ (March 3, 1999), interview with Englander.
Believer,http://www.believermag.com/ (September 14, 2007), review of The Ministry of Special Cases.
Bookforum.com,http://www.bookforum.com/ (September 14, 2007), Paul Terzian, review of The Ministry of Special Cases.
GenerationJ.com,http://www.generationj.com/ (September 16, 2002), Paul Zakrzewski, profile of Englander.
Nathan Englander Home Page,http://www.nathanenglander.com (September 14, 2007).
New York State Writers Institute Web site,http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/ (March 28, 2000), profile of Englander.
Random House Web sitehttp://www.randomhouse.com/ (September 16, 2002), interview with Englander.
Seattle Arts & Lectures Web site,http://www.lectures.org/ (April 12, 2000), biography of Englander.
Zeek,http://www.zeek.net/ (September 14, 2007), Jay Michaelson, "Fantasy and Totalitarianism: On Ministering to Special Cases"; Peter Bebergal, review of The Ministry of Special Cases.