September 19, 2012 | by Joshua Cohen
A writer stands outside a story yelling, “Open Sesame!” and the story, as if a seed, opens. And treasure is found inside. That treasure, of course, is just another story, and it all begins again…
Or else, say the writer is no different from any other of his tribe—say he’s actually a thief. And the story is no story, but really a mountain. “Open Sesame!” (this writer continues)—the mountain opens and my meaning is revealed.
A version of this nonsense—this magician’s stage business—occurs in the tale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” popularly known from the One Thousand and One Nights.
But Ali’s tale is not to be found in the oldest manuscripts of that collection. Some scholars believe it to be the invention of one Youhenna Diab, known as Hanna of Aleppo, an Arab Christian storyteller said to have communicated it to Antoine Galland, the first translator of the Nights into French. Others argue for a purely Western source, and believe that Ali is the incorrupt fiction of Galland himself (though Richard Burton, the first translator of an unexpurgated Nights into English, claimed that Ali was to be found in an Arabic original, a mythical manuscript often forged but never found).
April 27, 2011 | by Joshua Cohen
Wounded in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Yoram Kaniuk moved to Greenwich Village to become a painter. Nineteen and broke, he came to center a rarefied circle of fellow painters, musicians, writers, and actors—Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Willem de Kooning, Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, among others. Writes Kaniuk, “I was in the lives of these people by mistake.” Though he may have played a minor role, Kaniuk's memoir, Life on Sandpaper, is an unforgettable telling of his New York decade, the 1950s. His newest nonfiction book, 1948, not yet translated to English, recently won the 2010 Sapir Prize for Literature. Not long ago, I spoke to Kaniuk about Life on Sandpaper, which was published by Dalkey Archive Press this February.
When did you begin working on this memoir?
In the seventies I used to write for a paper here in Israel, and every weekend I used to publish a story. I wrote many of these stories, not exactly in this form, and when I didn’t have any more true stories, I had to invent them. And then at the start of 2000, I started to work them into Between Life and Death [the memoir’s Hebrew-language title]. I didn’t know what it would mean to people here in Israel, but it was amazing how much the young people loved this book. It opened a door for me—for my novel The Last Jew, and for other books.
Today it seems that there are more Israelis outside of Israel than in Israel itself. Soldiers taking a gap year in Europe, in India, in Tibet; scuffling jazz musicians and installation artists in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn; Israelis “making the business” (in Israeli English) in Panama and Buenos Aires. There once was a stigma attached to this expatriation. When one goes to Israel, one literally “goes up,” or “ascends”—makes aliyah. When one leaves one is said to have “gone down,” or “descended”—yerida. Was there the same stigma associated with leaving Israel back in the 1950s, when you came to that other Jewish homeland, Greenwich Village?
The Israelis coming to America when I came, which was in 1951, were people who had fought in the 1948 war, which was a very tough war, the worst war Israel ever had; almost an entire generation was killed. We came to New York because we were never able to find a way, in Israel, of letting out the grief, the demons. Also, you have to remember that I had been wounded, physically. My first years in America, I didn’t think about Israel at all, I didn’t think about the war, I didn’t remember anything, I was completely in a daze. And later I understood that I had to have my autonomy. But I should say that many Israelis who were there with me in New York, or even in Los Angeles, eventually came back. Still there was a feeling that Israelis at that time didn’t know what their homeland was.
November 12, 2010 | by Joshua Cohen
This week “Ask The Paris Review” received a number of doozies, including a question about writer’s block. It occurred to us we should kick that one over to a real writer—ideally, a voluble one. Joshua Cohen, author of Witz and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, was kind enough to share his good counsel. —Lorin Stein
I have been unable to write for the past three weeks, bordering on a month, and it hurts. More than the act of writing ever did. It hurts. More than the pain I no doubt cause others with poor literary attempts, but I’ll have to go selfish on this one, even if it is poor writing, I’d rather that than just blinking. So, do you have any tips or a potent elixir to kick writer's block? Thank you. —Ayat Ghanem
Glengoyne is a superior single-malt whisky distilled from barley that’s dried by air and not by peat smoke. This unique process results in a spirit whose oaken, sherry, banana, apricot, peach, and marzipan nose contrasts pleasingly with—who cares? You don’t want to read bad tasting notes; you want to make better notes of your own—n’est-ce pas? Thing is, there’s no single cure for the Block (this is what serious writers call it; cf. the Clap, the Syph, the Herp). And the reason there’s no single cure is that there’s no single type of Block. The Block can be daylong, or weeklong; it can last for years (Truman Capote) or decades (Ralph Ellison, Henry Roth). I can’t think of any other writers just now.
Hold on—let me top myself off.
You might take comfort from the fact that while writing can’t be forced, time spent not writing can be put to good use. Try acquiring other skills, like rolling cigarettes or reading. Learn to differentiate between scotch and bourbon. Learn the differences among corn whiskey, rye whiskey, and wheat whiskey. Learn what, if anything, separates whisky from whiskey. Ayat, take comfort from the fact that a writer does not always have to write—and not all scotch comes from Scotland.
Of course alcohol is only effective if it’s mixed—not with juices or sodas, you understand, but with narcotics. Speed weekly and hallucinogens monthly. Though the existence of ADD/ADHD has never been scientifically proven, the drugs developed to address these disorders very much exist and are excellent: Ritalin, Adderall. Dextroamphetamines and regular amphetamines go together like love and marriage, like a horse and carriage … what was I saying? Let me just swallow these. OK. One second.
Swall … owed.
Finally, Ayat, don’t discount the two greatest cures for the Block: plagiarism and suicide. Good luck!