Bad member, good writer
The novelist and critic Joshua Cohen talks about his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Netanyahus, his influences, and the appeal of "both-sides-ism"
A few months ago, I caught up with the American novelist and essayist Joshua Cohen. He was coming off a busy time. His apartment in SoHo had recently staged a run of Matthew Gasda’s play Dimes Square, which starred Cohen’s friend the critic Christian Lorentzen (and on its opening-night performance, a reference to Cohen himself, as a writer of whom the Lorentzen character admits to feeling jealous). Then he left for Israel to promote his sixth novel, The Netanyahus, in which the Warsaw-born Israeli academic Benzion Netanyahu, plus wife and three sons – Benjamin / Bibi among them – visits a New York college town, Corbindale, where he is hosted by Ruben Blum, the only Jewish member of the faculty, an economic historian loosely based on the legendary Yale critic Harold Bloom, who initiated a friendship with Cohen in the spring of 2018 after reading his novel Book of Numbers. (Bloom died the following year.)
Thanks for reading Taproot: A newsletter on literature and culture! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
During his time in Israel, Cohen, who is forty-one, learned that his novel, the perhaps inevitable winner of the 2021 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, had become the more unexpected recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Though Pulitzer committees do not name a shortlist – or even a date for the winners’ announcement – it seems fair to say that Cohen’s book was not being touted as a frontrunner. And while Cohen was happy with the development, he was also sure to recall moments of scepticism expressed in novels by William Gaddis (“once you’ve been stigmatized with the ultimate seal of mediocrity your obit will read Pulitzer Prize Novelist Dies”) and Saul Bellow (“a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates” – from Humboldt’s Gift, which proceeded to win).
Cohen was born and raised in New Jersey, and educated at Trocki Hebrew Academy, the Manhattan School of Music, and Columbia. In appearance, he is trim, owlish, slightly rabbinical. Our recent interview was conducted by video call. Cohen and I were wearing blue short-sleeve shirts with the top few buttons undone. (When I apologised for my lack of chest hair, he reassured me it would grow.) The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Cohen has a habit of peppering his speech with “you know” and “right?”, charmingly ascribing to an interlocutor his own extraordinary powers of perception and recall.
So you learned the story told in The Netanyahus from the critic Harold Bloom. . .
I was sitting with Harold Bloom and Bibi came on CNN and Harold says, ‘I met him.’ ‘When?’ ‘When he was 10 years old.’ Harold didn’t really care about the anecdote, to be honest – to him it was just that, an anecdote – and I never told him how deep I thought it was, how signifying. But I asked him to retell it to me a couple of times. His wife, Jeanne, would come in the room and correct him and give her version. Two people in their eighties, talking about an event from nearly 60 years earlier – from nearly the beginning of their marriage – and finding themselves unable to agree...
The thing is Harold wanted to write a memoir – Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles, his last book, which is brilliant, is a memoir about his life in poetry, and I had the sense he wanted to write a memoir about his life in, well, life. Deal with some rumors. Pass along some gossip. He was going to sell out some people, he was going to tell the truth. Or his truth. I don't think he trusted anyone at Yale. The arrangement was never really formalized, but it appeared (it appeared to me at least) that he wanted to dictate some memories to me and we'd figure out how to make a book together. And then it became obvious, I think obvious to the both of us, about three or four meetings into the arrangement that was never really formalized, that he was too ill. He was too tired. He couldn’t really sit for more than half an hour without pain. So we called off the sessions and then suddenly – it seemed sudden to me – he died, and in the wake of his death I replayed some of our recordings...and this one anecdote, this told and retold anecdote, kept coming back to me, and I find myself changing it...
At first I thought the afterword, in which you explain some of this backstory, was a piece of parody or meta-fiction – for example, Bloom never met Sebald, as you quote him saying – but that wasn’t the intention.
Harold was in many ways a frustrated poet and fiction writer, and he certainly let's say...overplayed some hands, in the interests of avoiding boredom. As do I, from time to time...as do, I suspect, most of us...we storify, we tell tall tales at short order. However, one of the things in that section that I will say is absolutely true was that he told me he was the model for Mickey Sabbath,which is nuts. I think I said, ‘that’s maybe crossing the line. If Roth told you this, he was either screwing with you and you didn’t get the joke, or he didn’t tell you this and you’re just making it up. Which is it?’
The Netanyahu anecdote – the episode – went much the same way. The more I pressed him, the more details he gave me, until it became clear to me that many details were being invented as he spoke. But then the moment I voiced my doubts, he went digging for a postcard to him from Benzion Netanyahu. All the thing said was 'I'll be there at noon' or whatever, but still.
This would have been when Bloom was at Yale, not Cornell?
The sticklers! I love these critics, most of them academics, who treat this book like non-fiction: ‘the years don’t work.’ I’m pretty convinced the encounter happened at Yale – the postcard was addressed to New Haven – but I didn't write Yale because… I don’t like New Haven: not in reality and not for fiction. It's too close to New York. So I started thinking about Ithaca, because Harold was also at Cornell, as was Benzion, later. Ultimately, I realized I wanted to write the quintessential American college town and I found myself attracted to the geography and name of SUNY Fredonia – it's in Western New York, on Lake Erie, and it recalls, to me at least, the Marx Brothers.
How did Bloom’s own work inform the book?
You read a lot of literary criticism and ask yourself, ‘What's it worth?’ When you're sitting down to write a novel, you realize that there's almost no applicability. It’s all, as we would say, in American football, Monday-morning quarterbacking. ‘If only I’d coached the team, this is how the game would be played.’ Maybe after you've written the fiction, you can then theorize where your mistakes were, and why you made those mistakes. But one thing I wanted to do here was make criticism useful.
I thought that one of the ways to pay tribute to Harold would be to take on the concept of ‘the anxiety of influence’ and of belatedness – to engage with it in fiction. In the book, there are these two responses to a Jewish past. One is the response of the founding generation of Jewish-American novelists, who were part of an ongoing process of assimilation, the transition from being ‘Jewish’ to being ‘American’ – they were the hyphen, the door-hinge, and I’m writing now without a hyphen, the door is closed...at least that’s what it feels like, though there’s always the anxiety that it's merely a delusion.
The second response belongs to Israel, where the Jewish past has to be rejected or reinvented, in the forging of a new identity that can function as a corrective to the errors of the past – or, perhaps, as a type of revenge.
To be a ‘weak’ writer, in Bloom’s theory, would be the American response. Whereas to be a ‘strong’ writer would be the Israeli response.
I’m putting all this crudely.
One of the things that has changed since both of those responses, which are mid-century responses, is – it’s a malevolent cliché, and I apologize for it – our global present. For thousands of years, Zion was this unattainable ideal that if one were to want to bring it into reality, there would be a dangerously long and arduous trek, on a boat, or over land, and a chance that you might die. Then once you actually showed up in Zion, you’d find that it wasn’t actually Zion but a backwater colony populated by hostile forces and ruled by hostile empires, the land isn’t quite milk-and-honey arable, and you have no practical training in how to survive.
Today, Zion is not a poetic ideal but a real state, however much you disagree with it, it is real and populated by a Jewish majority and ruled by Jews and if I have a credit card that works, I could be there in twelve or so hours – half a day after I left New York I could be on the beach.
It’s this fact as much as the overlap of political interests between the United States and Israel that convinces me that we can’t really speak about these separate responses anymore. I wanted to write a book about a time that began with a split –when all the world’s Jews were busy becoming something else, after the Shoah – and that ended with a variety of recombination, where all these distinctions fell away in the face of, among other things, technology.
How would you characterise the general response in Israel?
Finding a publisher in the States was just about as difficult as finding a publisher in Israel. In America, my reputation was that I was too male, too white, too Jewish, and beyond that, I lost publishers money, but the reasons for my rejections in Israel were more serious: publishers were afraid of slapp suits and other legal repercussions. The book was submitted during the last week of Netanyahu’s reign. The one publisher who wanted to do the book was a poetry publisher, Hava Le'Or, run by Oded Carmeli, a great poet-provocateur who likes antagonising the government. The book was reviewed when it came out and praised enough, but with the Pulitzer, it became a phenomenon outside the literary ghetto. The reaction was...intense. Interviews, radio, TV: so many journalists wanted to know why this book won a major literary prize of a country of 330 million people, fewer than 2% of whom are Jews, especially given that the book's title is difficult for most Americans to pronounce and that the man at the center of the book with the title as his name wasn't even the famous or infamous Netanyahu, but a more-or-les unknown Netanyahu...and I didn't quite know what to tell them. Chaos? Dumb chance? Jewish power? The Israel lobby? There’s an enormous amount of insecurity in Israel about how Israelis are perceived abroad, to such an extent that many critics failed to understand that this is a book not about the Netanyahus' American years but about America and its future, full-stop. Of course, it didn't help that the book was introduced into evidence in the Netanyahu-Olmert defamation case, where suddenly two former prime ministers were arguing in open court over the uses and abuses of fiction...
Despite a few topical nudges, about modern identity politics for example, the novel is really an attempt to imagine what these struggles felt like in their time.
Certainly, the right-wing separatist violent politics of Benzion Netanyahu are very reminiscent of current left-wing desires for voluntary separatism. And Israel has become a safe space for Jews – a safe space with a nuclear program. But more than wanting to show specific Jewish struggles in their historical context, and even more than wanting to compare and contrast those specific Jewish struggles with their present-day manifestations among other identities, I wanted to write about how political movements and ideologies tend to become displaced...how they tend to become decontextualized and rendered into proxies. What I mean is, when an American Jew is deeply anti-Zionist, I would say that this is their desire not to be read as a bad white person in an American context, in the same way that when you read an Israeli newspaper discussing what I’d consider to be particularly American subjects, like the #metoo movement, or veganism, or climate change, I would say that these are attempts at signalling a liberal or leftist bent without having to comment on or come out against the occupation. Or perhaps they are hedges against the occupation – we save the whales and reduce our carbon emissions because we can’t save, or reduce, the Palestinians...
Are you exercising judgment on the positions you evoke?
I can convince myself of anything. If someone is crying, I want to know why they’re crying, and I’ll believe them, I’ll believe in how they’ve been hurt, or how they’ve been wronged. Even if their politics are odious, as long as they’re emoting I have this involuntary sympathetic or empathetic response. This makes me a very bad party member, but I think it makes me an okay novelist. The fiction I'm attracted to is often the result of both-sides-ism.
With this book, I wanted to ask: can America survive? Or more generally, can we live in these empires of multiple identities, or are ethno-nation states better at securing us, and protecting us, in every sense of security and protection? In the States at least, but I think around the world, these have become fundamental questions, which everyone asks not just on an identitarian level, but on an individual level: ‘What is the basic unit of my survival? Statehood or peoplehood? Am I better off in a community of difference or a community of similarity and why? And what type of difference and what type of similarity – racial, ethnic, religious, political?' These are the questions that Americans ask when they have lost all trust. The state has cut the social safety nets, the extended families have been dispersed, and what is left: lonely individuals asking questions at the point of a gun.
You’re presenting The Netanyahus quite overtly as a novel of ideas.
There’s always a fundamental opposition that I’m trying to work through. In Book of Numbers, it was very explicitly between the culture of the book and digital culture – with characters from those cultures coming into conflict.
That said, I’m wary of creating representative characters or mouthpieces – which are the two ways in which the novel of ideas typically presents itself, through characters that either symbolize or spout. I’ve been trying to find a third way, a way in which the ideas are embodied formally: I tried to do that with all the "found" text of Book of Numbers, and I tried to do that here by repurposing all the tropes of classic hyphen-generation Jewish-American literature, Bellow, Malamud, Roth... I wanted to use those cliches, let’s call them, in ways that worked against their original contexts: the nose-job that isn’t liberating but destructive, for example.
Anyone who reads a novel now is probably among the most sophisticated readers of all time. They’re people who’ve gone to college, if not also to grad school, and they can spot a symbol or an authorial editorial a mile off. They’re wised-up. They’re also, I think, pretty bored. And so I try to find ways to make them read differently – not like they’re just consuming a text for a course, or for their “wellness.”
Are there precedents for this solution?
Pale Fire is probably the greatest example of a novel of ideas expressed through its form. And expression through form flies so under the radar that most people classify it as plain and simple expression.
But then I also think about Yiddish writers and why they have such trouble writing novels. I mean novels in the classic sense, the goyish sense. One reason might be that the novel is a creation of the nation state. To read Tolstoy is to read Russia, to read Hugo is to read France, etc. The fate of the characters embody the fate of the nation, or the way the nation is transfigured through moments of historical change can be read into its characters’ ultimate destinies. However, because the Jews in Europe never had their own country, they never had the idea that they were embodying the fate of a nation, and because the notion of messianic redemption is always being deferred, it’s almost a heretical notion...there can be no transfiguration, there can be no authentic change. Judaism is predicated on this lack of change, or to put it in a more positive light, on a fidelity to tradition that is inherently un-novelistic: the same holidays repeat every year, recapitulating Jewish history. So how, given all this, can Jews write fiction? The Yiddish canon has shown me that the answer to this question lies through anecdote, parable, a midrash or mashal, a little tiny story or folktale that distills some larger and perhaps even so-large-as-to-be-indefinable idea.
Writing something comprising a constellation of these anecdotes might not make a classic goyish novel but it’s something I find deeply attractive. Something like Der Nister’s The Family Mashber – that’s a perfect example.
When I discovered that this was the route the postmodernists took out of modernism, it wasn’t a major revelation. Maybe it was a minor revelation that people wrote like that now, but you have to remember I grew up reading texts that were essentially broken fictions, which weren’t supposed to mean what they said, or weren’t supposed to mean only what they said. The man who had the flocks was not actually a man, and the flocks he had were not actually flocks but a nation, or people...and the two daughters given in marriage actually represented two different moral or ethical qualities, or attributes of God. When I was young and exploring Kafka, I admit that I didn’t quite understand all the piles of prose, of criticism, about the meaning of Kafka. I took it for granted already that a thing that is written has its literal meaning, its allegorical or anagogical meaning, its comparative or contextual meaning, and its mystical meaning...and probably, almost certainly, more... This is all part of the apparatus of Biblical interpretation, of Talmudic exegesis. And I took it for granted that these meanings, or that this pursuit of meaning, existed in every tradition. ‘Does The Castle represent heaven or hell? ‘Is The Trial about the fact, or emotion, of guilt?’ It seemed mindless to me.
Because the answer was obviously yes, yes, yes?
The answer to me was – it’s a heuristic, it is there to teach you how to read.
What it’s about is whatever you have learned from it in terms of how to read the sentence that comes next. The primary meaning of any text has to do with whether and how it’s become a mechanism or tool for you to better understand the ur-text that is the world. That’s why the deferral of an answer to me was the answer. The waiting for the Messiah is the Messiah.
To me, this was obvious.
The only writer I read when I was young who acknowledged this very openly and intelligently was Borges, who demonstrated how the use of pastiche and especially of folk material and popular forms could be used to create a similar heuristic. I would say it was Kafka, implicitly, Borges, more explicitly, and then many of the writers of Europe, particularly of Eastern Europe, and Russia, who showed me the way: Gombrowicz, Platonov...more recently, Vladimir Sharov.
These were all writers who used form to guide a reader through very chaotic intellectual and ideological programs, with emotion, with passion – with love, above all, for older forms of writing that they felt were denied them.
These are all writers at a certain angle to the novel’s central tradition.
My indoctrination into the history of ‘the novel’ was Conrad, who is absolutely central but also entirely strange. For him, the formal guidance is predicated on the teller and the occasion of the telling. In Lord Jim, you’re listening to a story about a guy telling you a story about, sometimes, a guy telling you a story...it feels bottomless.
Conrad’s approach has a lot more to do with a European folktale tradition, with the oral encountering the novel, in which readers can no longer trust the teller, or the narrator, and their stable first person singular.
Conrad was the first novelist in the English-language tradition, who was central to the tradition, in whose work I was able to recognise what I myself wanted to do...and I’m trying...
Philip Roth’s sex-crazed anti-hero from the 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater.
‘Fredonia’ is also the name of the setting of Duck Soup.
Bloom distinguishes between weak poets, who suffer the anxiety of influence (often of Milton), and strong poets, who break free.
A poem in couplets by one character; a foreword, textual commentary, and index by another.
Really enjoyed this. Thanks.