For the Relief of Unbearable Pressure: A Profile of Nathan Englander

Frank Bures
From the May/June 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Within two weeks of finishing up at Iowa in 1996, Englander found himself on the floor of the house of some friends, back in Jerusalem—the city where he would spend the next six years, working on his stories, watching helicopters take off from the Knesset when there was trouble, and hanging out in cafés hoping they didn't get blown up.

He found a tiny, cheap apartment where water dripped off the fixtures when it rained, and he scraped by until he got word that Aragi had clinched a two-book deal for the collection—which included "The Twenty-seventh Man," the story that Brodie had first helped him revise—and a novel, which by now he had already started.

"He works his ass off. He's wonderfully obsessive about the sound of a sentence," says McCann. "He sweats on the page," says Weldon. "He bleeds on the page and he does what he needs to do. And he'll go off and work on something, and rework it and rework it. That's the kind of discipline we're talking about. He understands the process in a way that not everybody does."

Once For the Relief of Unbearable Urges came out, Englander focused solely on the novel, which would take much longer to complete. "We have to sort of carbon-date it at this point," says Englander when asked how long he worked on it. "I found this old picture from Jerusalem, and in it you can see one of my notebooks, and you can see what I was working on. It's this novel!" Englander isn't even exactly sure when he started it.

"He wrote it first by hand on yellow legal pads," says Orringer, "stacks and stacks of which I'd see in his apartment when my husband and I came to visit. When the draft was finished, he typed it all on his computer, then rewrote it, then showed it to his first readers, then rewrote it again."

"I saw the process of him writing this book, which was [at least] a ten-year project," says McCann. "It's quite extraordinary, and I admired and envied that he could have such patience and endurance and time, to be honest, to work so single-mindedly. Because he really did nothing else."

However long it took to finish, the important thing for Englander's readers is that The Ministry of Special Cases is complete, and they can now see the years of work that went into it. The novel, which tells the story of Kaddish Poznan, bears many of the hallmarks of Englander's short stories—the same dark humor, the same pathos, and the same timeless feeling of being about everything and just one thing all at the same time.

But The Ministry of Special Cases is also wider and deeper and bigger than For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. It is a complete world that covers a vast territory and tells a seamless and alluring story: What does it mean to lose your past and your future? How can a father atone for his greatest failure? How do we choose events from our past to construct our present? What does it mean to be part of a community? What does it mean to love a place that betrays you?

These are some of the questions Englander started to wonder about during the years he lived in Jerusalem. Sometimes, he would hang out with a group of Argentine Jews who'd come to Israel looking for a better life, but who remained wholly, unapologetically, and enthusiastically Argentine, even if their homeland had broken their hearts in the worst way. It was a feeling Englander was beginning to grasp for himself.

"I love Jerusalem," he says now, looking back. "And more and more I identified myself as a Yerushalmi, a Jerusalemite. I wondered what it meant to love a city when its future is in so many different people's hands, and so many people are fiddling with it and fighting over it. I got really interested in the idea of loving a city and watching it crumble around you. That's how I got interested in the tragic love of city and of what's out of the individual's control. What is it to truly love a place?" It is a question that informs every page of The Ministry of Special Cases.

These days, aside from promoting The Ministry of Special Cases, Englander is on to other things: short stories he's been meaning to write, and some nonfiction, too. There's even another novel in the works. "For the last couple years I've been taking notes and sketching, and I have files and all that stuff," he says. "That's how I knew I might actually live to finish [The Ministry of Special Cases], when my brain started to free up space. I think something was let go."

But before he goes too deep into any new world, Englander will be spending some time in this one, doing some traveling, some public speaking. Maybe he'll even try to take a little well-earned time off. "It's been a long haul," he says. "It's been a decade of me just hammering."

For now, though, he's enjoying being back in the present, in his apartment, doing things like staring at his ceiling and wondering about all that he's left undone over the years spent writing his second book. He has left the Argentina of The Ministry of Special Cases behind with a mix of relief, remorse, fear, and elation, as well as a nagging sense that there's a lot to catch up on. Friends to be contacted. Bills finally to be paid. Cracks to be repaired.

Frank Bures writes for Tin House, Wired, Mother Jones, and other magazines. His work has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2004 (Houghton Mifflin). He is the books editor for World Hum, an online literary travel magazine.