In the collection's hilarious title story, a Hasidic man gets a special dispensation from his rabbi to see a prostitute. "The Wig" takes an aging wigmaker and makes her, for a single moment, beautiful. In "The Tumblers," Englander envisions a group of Polish Jews herded toward a train bound for the death camps and, in a deft, imaginative twist, turns them into acrobats tumbling out of harm's way.
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a work of startling authority and imagination--a book that is as wondrous and joyful as it is wrenchingly sad. It hearalds the arrival of a remarkable new storyteller.
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About the Author
Nathan Englander is the author of the novel The Ministry of Special Cases and the story collections For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
From "The Twenty-Seventh Man":
The orders were given from Stalin's country house at Kuntsevo. He relayed them to the agent in charge with no greater emotion than for the killing of kulaks or clergy or the outspoken wives of very dear friends. The accused were to be apprehended the same day, arrive at the prison gates at the same moment, and--with a gasp and simultaneous final breath--be sent off to their damnation in a single rattling burst of gunfire.
It was not an issue of hatred, only one of allegiance. For Stalin knew there could be loyalty to only one nation. What he did not know so well were the authors' names on his list. When it was presented to him the next morning he signed the warrant anyway, though there were now twenty-seven, and yesterday there had been twenty-six.
No matter, except maybe to the twenty-seventh.
The orders left little room for variation, and none for tardiness. They were to be carried out in secrecy and--the only point that was reiterated--simultaneously. But how were the agents to get the men from Moscow and Gorky, Smolensk and Penza, Shuya and Podolsk, to the prison near the village of X at the very same time?
The agent in charge felt his strength was in leadership and gave up the role of strategist to the inside of his hat. He cut the list into strips and sprinkled them into the freshly blocked crown, mixing carefully so as not to disturb its shape. Most of these writers were in Moscow. The handful who were in their native villages, taking the waters somewhere, or locked in a cabin trying to finish that seminal work would surely receive a stiff cuffing when a pair of agents, aggravated by the trek, stepped through the door.
After the lottery, those agents who had drawn a name warranting a long journey accepted the good-natured insults and mockery of friends. Most would have it easy, nothing more to worry about than hurrying some old rebel to a car, or getting their shirts wrinkled in a heel-dragging, hair-pulling rural scene that could be as messy as necessary in front of a pack of superstitious peasants.
Then there were those who had it hard. Such as the two agents assigned to Vasily Korinsky, who, seeing no way out, was prepared to exit his bedroom quietly but whose wife, Paulina, struck the shorter of the two officers with an Oriental-style brass vase. There was a scuffle; Paulina was subdued, the short officer taken out unconscious, and a precious hour lost on their estimated time.
There was the pair assigned to Moishe Bretzky, a true lover of vodka and its country of origin. One would not have pegged him as one of history's most sensitive Yiddish poets. He was huge, slovenly, and smelly as a horse. Once a year, during the Ten Days of Penitence, he would take notice of his sinful ways and sober up for Yom Kippur. After the fast, he would grab pen and pad and write furiously for weeks in his sister's ventless kitchen--the shroud of atonement still draped over his splitting head. The finished work was toasted with a brimming shot of vodka. Then Bretzky's thirst would begin to rage and off he would go for another year. His sister's husband would have put an end to this annual practice if it weren't for the rubles he received for the sweat-curled pages Bretzky abandoned.
It took the whole of the night for the two agents to locate Bretzky. They tracked him down in one of the whorehouses that did not exist, and if they did, government agents surely did not frequent them. Nonetheless, having escaped notice, they slipped into the room. Bretzky was passed out on his stomach with a smiling trollop pinned under each arm. The time-consuming process of freeing the whores, getting Bretzky upright, and moving him into the hallway reduced the younger man to tears.
The senior agent left his partner in charge of the body while he went to chat with the senior woman of the house. Introducing himself numerous times as if they had never met, he explained his predicament and enlisted the help of a dozen women.
Twelve of the house's strongest companions--in an array of pink and red robes, froufrou slippers, and painted toenails--carried the giant bear to the waiting car amid a roar of giggles. It was a sight Bretzky would have enjoyed tremendously had he been conscious.
The least troubling of the troublesome abductions was that of Y. Zunser, oldest of the group and a target of the first serious verbal attacks on the cosmopolitans back in '49. In the February 19 edition of Literaturnaya Gazeta he had been criticized as an obsolete author, accused of being anti-Soviet, and chided for using a pen name to hide his Jewish roots. In that same edition they printed his real name, Melman, stripping him of the privacy he had so enjoyed.
Three years later they came for him. The two agents were not enthusiastic about the task. They had shared a Jewish literature instructor in high school, whom they admired despite his ethnicity and who even coerced them into writing a poem or two. Both were rather decent fellows, and capturing an eighty-one-year-old man did not exactly jibe with their vision of bravely serving the party. They were simply following instructions. But somewhere amid their justifications lay a deep fear of punishment.
It was not yet dawn and Zunser was already dressed, sitting with a cup of tea. The agents begged him to stand up on his own, one of them trying the name Zunser and the other pleading with Melman. He refused.
"I will neither resist nor help. The responsibility must rest fully upon your conscience."
"We have orders," they said.
"I did not say you were without orders. I said that you have to bear responsibility."
They first tried lifting him by his arms, but Zunser was too delicate for the maneuver. Then one grabbed his ankles while the other clasped his chest. Zunser's head lolled back. The agents were afraid of killing him, an option they had been warned against. They put him on the floor and the larger of the two scooped him up, cradling the old man like a child.
Zunser begged a moment's pause as they passed a portrait of his deceased wife. He fancied the picture had a new moroseness to it, as if the sepia-toned eyes might well up and shed a tear. He spoke aloud. "No matter, Katya. Life ended for me on the day of your death; everything since has been but nostalgia." The agent shifted the weight of the romantic in his arms and headed out the door.
The solitary complicated abduction that took place out of Moscow was the one that should have been the easiest of the twenty-seven. It was the simple task of removing Pinchas Pelovits from the inn on the road that ran to X and the prison beyond.
Pinchas Pelovits had constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies--testing them sometimes more with joy and good fortune. He recorded the trials and events of this world in his notebooks in the form of stories and novels, essays, poems, songs, anthems, tales, jokes, and extensive histories that led up to the era in which he dwelled.
His parents never knew what label to give their son, who wrote all day but did not publish, who laughed and cried over his novels but was gratingly logical in his contact with the everyday world. What they did know was that Pinchas wasn't going to take over the inn.
When they became too old to run the business, the only viable option was to sell out at a ridiculously low price--provided the new owners would leave the boy his room and feed him when he was hungry. Even when the business became the property of the state, Pinchas, in the dreamer's room, was left in peace: why bother, he's harmless, sort of a good-luck charm for the inn, no one even knows he's here, maybe he's writing a history of the place, and we'll all be made famous. He wasn't. But who knows, maybe he would have, had his name--mumbled on the lips of travelers--not found its way onto Stalin's list.
The two agents assigned Pinchas arrived at the inn driving a beat-up droshky and posing as the sons of now-poor landowners, a touch they thought might tickle their superiors. One carried a Luger (a trinket he had brought home from the war), and the other kept a billy club stashed in his boot. They found the narrow hallway with Pinchas's room and knocked lightly on his door. "Not hungry" was the response. The agent with the Luger gave the door a hip check; it didn't budge. "Try the handle," said the voice. The agent did, swinging it open.
"You're coming with us," said the one with the club in his boot.
"Absolutely not," Pinchas stated matter-of-factly. The agent wondered if his "You're coming with us" had sounded as bold.
"Put the book down on the pile, put your shoes on, and let's go." The agent with the Luger spoke slowly. "You're under arrest for anti-Soviet activity."
Pinchas was baffled by the charge. He meditated for a moment and came to the conclusion that there was only one moral outrage he'd been involved in, though it seemed to him a bit excessive to be incarcerated for it.
"Well, you can have them, but they're not really mine. They were in a copy of a Zunser book that a guest forgot and I didn't know where to return them. Regardless, I studied them thoroughly. You may take me away." He proceeded to hand the agents five postcards. Three were intricate pen-and-ink drawings of a geisha in various positions with her legs spread wide. The other two were identical photographs of a sturdy Russian maiden in front of a painted tropical background wearing a hula skirt and making a vain attempt to cover her breasts. Pinchas began stacking his notebooks while the agents divvied the cards. He was sad that he had not resisted temptation. He would miss taking his walks and also the desk upon whose mottled surface he had written.
"May I bring my desk?"
The agent with the Luger was getting fidgety. "You won't be needing anything, just put on your shoes."
"I'd much prefer my books to shoes," Pinchas said. "In the summer I sometimes take walks without shoes but never without a novel. If you would have a seat while I organize my notes--" and Pinchas fell to the floor, struck in the head with the pistol grip. He was carried from the inn rolled in a blanket, his feet poking forth, bare.
Pinchas awoke, his head throbbing from the blow and the exceedingly tight blindfold. This was aggravated by the sound of ice cracking under the droshky wheels, as happens along the river route west of X. "The bridge is out on this road," he told them. "You'd best cut through the old Bunakov place. Everybody does it in winter."
The billy club was drawn from the agent's boot, and Pinchas was struck on the head once again. The idea of arriving only to have their prisoner blurt out the name of the secret prison was mortifying. In an attempt to confound him, they turned off on a clearly unused road. There are reasons that unused roads are not used. It wasn't half a kilometer before they had broken a wheel and were off to a nearby pig farm on foot. The agent with the gun commandeered a donkey-drawn cart, leaving a furious pig farmer cursing and kicking the side of his barn.
The trio were all a bit relieved upon arrival: Pinchas because he started to get the idea that this business had to do with something more than his minor infraction, and the agents because three other cars had shown up only minutes before they had--all inexcusably late.
By the time the latecomers had been delivered, the initial terror of the other twenty-three had subsided. The situation was tense and grave, but also unique. An eminent selection of Europe's surviving Yiddish literary community was being held within the confines of an oversized closet. Had they known they were going to die, it might have been different. Since they didn't, I. J. Manger wasn't about to let Mani Zaretsky see him cry for rachmones. He didn't have time to anyway. Pyotr Kolyazin, the famed atheist, had already dragged him into a heated discussion about the ramifications of using God's will to drastically alter the outcome of previously "logical" plots. Manger took this to be an attack on his work and asked Kolyazin if he labeled everything he didn't understand "illogical." There was also the present situation to discuss, as well as old rivalries, new poems, disputed reviews, journals that just aren't the same, up-and-coming editors, and, of course, the gossip, for hadn't they heard that Lev had used his latest manuscript for kindling?
When the noise got too great, a guard opened the peephole in the door to find that a symposium had broken loose. As a result, by the time numbers twenty-four through twenty-seven arrived, the others had already been separated into smaller cells.
Each cell was meant to house four prisoners and contained three rotting mats to sleep on. In a corner was a bucket. There were crude holes in the wood-plank walls, and it was hard to tell if the captors had punched them as a form of ventilation or if the previous prisoners had painstakingly scratched them through to confirm the existence of a world outside.
The four latecomers had lain down immediately, Pinchas on the floor. He was dazed and shivering, stifling his moans so the others might rest. His companions did not even think of sleep: Vasily Korinsky because of worry about what might be the outcome for his wife; Y. Zunser because he was trying to adapt to the change (the only alteration he had planned for in his daily routine was death, and that in his sleep); Bretzky because he hadn't really awakened.
Excepting Pinchas, none had an inkling of how long they'd traveled, whether from morning until night or into the next day. Pinchas tried to use his journey as an anchor, but in the dark he soon lost his notion of time gone by. He listened for the others' breathing, making sure they were alive.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, one of the most widely acclaimed debuts in recent contemporary fiction. With remarkable deftness, humor, and wisdom, Nathan Englander illuminates the dilemmas of his characters as they struggle with marital difficulty, obsession, desire, and spiritual crisis. The result is a collection of unforgettable modern fables that transcend the particularities of time and place.
1. "The Twenty-seventh Man"
Is it fitting that Pinchas Pelovits be executed alongside the Soviet Union's best Yiddish writers, even though he is completely unknown and included only by accident?
2. Analyze the story that Pinchas composes in prison. What is the relationship of this strange tale to the frame story? What does Englander's story suggest about the interplay of crisis and creativity?
3. "The Tumblers"
The so-called Wise Men of Chelm, who happily reshape the terms of reality when it fits their needs, are well-known figures in Eastern European Jewish folklore. Why does Englander relocate these familiar characters into a story about the Holocaust, something terrifying and historical? How does the Nazi roundup of the Jews change all the terms of reality for the Mahmirim Hasidim, and what is significant about the particular way in which they respond to this challenge?
4. What constitutes magic and illusion in this tale? Are the Wise Men of Chelm the only ones in the story who invent their own reality? Why, of all the roles of circus performers, does Englander decide to turn his pious characters into acrobats?
5. What is the relationship between chance and fate in this story? Between faith and fate? What is the effect of the story's unresolved ending?
When Marty brings the rabbi's schizophrenic brother along for a suprise reunion, the rabbi rebukes Marty with the words, "You are a man without boundaries. . . . There are limits, prescribed, written. . . . Nowhere does it say I must forgive" [p. 79]. Is the rabbi a hypocrite? Is Marty right to challenge him?
7. Is Marty a difficult person because he is mentally ill or because he refuses to accept his place in the community? Why does his wife Robin say, "A sick man is not a devil. You, Marty, are both" [p. 80]? Do you sympathize with Marty or with his wife?
8. "The Wig"
What does natural hair symbolize for the women in this story, and particularly for Ruchama? How do each of the major figures in this story attempt to satisfy their forbidden yearnings?
9. Why do Ruchama's desires spiral out of control? Is it significant that the hair she will be wearing in her new wig is that of a man, and not a woman?
10. "The Gilgul of Park Avenue"
How has his conversion experience changed Charles Luger? How has it changed his wife Sue? Is there a sort of spiritual awakening on her part as well as his? Is it surprising that she wants to stay with him?
11. Rabbi Zalman Meintz was living in Bolinas, California, and was "addicted to sorrow and drugs" [p. 116] when he discovered his Jewish soul. Are we meant to take the notion of "gilgulim" reincarnated souls seriously or not? How is spiritual identity defined in this story?
12. Sue asks, "Well, if you have to be Jewish, why so Jewish? . . . Why do people who find religion always have to be so goddamn extreme?" [p. 122]. Why wouldn't Luger be satisfied with being what Sue calls "a West Side Jew" rather than a scrupulously observant Orthodox Jew? Does the idea of being a real Jew stand for the need for ritual observance and spiritual meaning in daily life?
13. "Reb Kringle"
In what ways is the Jewish boy who celebrates Christmas but longs for a menorah in a position similar to that of Reb Itzik? What is Englander suggesting about the challenge to religious identity in a consumer culture?
14. Is the rabbi a sympathetic figure? Is his wife betraying something sacred by sending him out to make money in this way? Does the story leave open the possibility that he will refuse to return to the store the next day or are we to assume his wife will force him to do so?
15. "The Last One Way"
Why does Gitta's husband Berel refuse to give her a divorce? Is Gitta justified in forcing Liebman, the matchmaker, to help her? How does this story highlight the lack of privacy within Orthodox communities?
16. Why does Gitta end up telling Berel the truth about the pregnancy? How is he able to extract this information? Did he really intend to give her a divorce, as he says he was ready to do?
17. What kinds of violence are there in this story? Is the emotional violence Berel employs more or less vicious than the physical violence to which he is subjected?
18. "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges"
How does this story highlight the difficulty of reconciling the demands of religious observance with the realities of sexual and emotional life within a marriage? How does it compare to "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," in the ways it examines a marriage in crisis?
19. How good is the rabbi's advice? What do you think of the fact that Dov gets a venereal infection because of his attempt to obey the biblical injunction that "it is a sin to spill seed in vain" [p. 188]? Why can't he tell his wife what has happened?
20. "In This Way We Are Wise"
Why does Englander choose to end the collection with a terrorist bombing in present-day Jerusalem, seeming to shift into the realm of nonfiction? Why does he use his own name for the protagonist of this story?
21. What is he saying about the distance between the Jerusalem in this story and the Zionist ideal of Jerusalem "nestled away like Eden" [p. 203] on which he was raised? Or between the ideals fostered in Jewish tradition and the contemporary nation of Israel? What is the meaning of the story's title?
22. Often when reading fiction we don't have a sense of the presence of the writer, but this story seems to move us closer to Nathan Englander. How does it change your perception of the stories that have come before?
23. For discussion of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
The characters in this collection are nearly all of one religion and ethnicity, but this hasn't prevented the book from winning wide praise and interest in the literary press. What is it about Englander's themes and concerns that his work can be shared and enjoyed by a far more diverse group of readers?
24. In several of these stories, a character is removed from a comfortable, homogeneous world and placed in a new and bewildering situation. Englander himself, who has broken with his Orthodox upbringing, has said, "I'm a fourth-generation American. I lived in a shtetl with strip malls around it. Everything was so forbidden. But when you know nothing else, it gets to be a real adventure to find another world." How do his characters respond to these challenges?
25. Many of the stories in this collection are quite funny, though in different ways. How would you characterize Englander's sense of humor and the way it affects the style of these stories?
26. At the heart of several stories is an exploration of the problems of marriage and intimacy. What sorts of troubles arise in the marriages in this novel? Do marriage and sexual intimacy seem to intensify rather than bridge boundaries? Why?
27. What is the relationship between religious orthodoxy and contemporary American culture in these stories? What are the ethical conflicts, for the faithful, that arise out of their collision?