Photo: Marion Ettlinger.
At 248 pages, Joshua Cohen’s latest novel, The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, is slim by his standards. His 2010 comic novel Witz comes to 824 pages. Book of Numbers is just shy of 600. Beyond page count, there is an instantly recognizable intensity to Cohen’s writing, and in this respect, too, The Netanyahus is a bit of an outlier, for it unfolds with the ease of an anecdote, a comic—if cautionary—tale.
Published in the U.S. this week by New York Review Books, the novel follows a series of events surrounding a job talk in 1960 by the conservative religious historian Benzion Netanyahu at a small college in upstate New York. The narrator is the liberal economic historian Ruben Blum, who is assigned to take charge of Netanyahu’s campus visit, despite not knowing his work, because he is the only Jewish member of the faculty. Netanyahu unexpectedly brings his family along, and their encounter with Blum’s family is about equal parts farcical and disturbing. There are a few other plot points and some significant digressions, including two inserted letters and a fully delivered speech. But all of it comes together in a kind of playful package that I found more congenial—or differently congenial—than Cohen’s previous work.
In the afterword, we learn that the novel is based on real-life events told to Cohen by the literary scholar Harold Bloom, toward the end of Bloom’s life. Ruben Blum is a stand-in for Harold, the Blooms really hosted the Netanyahus, and so on. How much of the rest is true is unclear, for out of Bloom’s anecdote Cohen has crafted a story about two Jewish families half a century ago that is also an inquiry into the religious and political tenets upon which Netanyahu’s son—the famous Benjamin—would later reshape modern Israel. The result is a surprising hybrid, a learned and investigative novel that retains some of the feeling of a story shared by friends. Over and over, Cohen reconfigures the space between artifice and autobiography, between irony and earnestness, between what’s made up and what’s real, and how each of those modes offers its own understanding.
Cohen is the author of six novels, four story collections, and Attention, a collection of essays and criticism. I met him more than a decade ago, when I was the associate director of Dalkey Archive Press, and he and I hustled around New York promoting Witz. We became friends, and have grown as friends, mostly by talking about books we like. We also both spent part of our distant pasts working as musicians on cruise ships, and I would like to think that over the years we’ve quietly bonded over the fact that neither of us ever brings that up.
I interviewed Cohen by email in May and early June 2021. I told him ahead of time that I wanted to discuss Judaism as subject matter, the use of nonnarrative material in a narrative work, and varieties of comedy and irony, in that order.
When Book of Numbers came out, in 2015, you told me you were done writing “Jewish books.” You’d written Witz, a very Jewish book, then Four New Messages was not a particularly Jewish book, nor was Book of Numbers. But later you wrote Moving Kings, an arguably very Jewish book, and now The Netanyahus, inarguably Jewish. Maybe this is a question about subject matter in general, the things we return to, but I’m interested in why you feel drawn back to this one.
You know about the covering cherub? God dwelled in the holy of holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, and because God can’t be experienced directly—because direct experience of God will destroy a mortal—a cherub, or actually two cherubs in some accounts, was employed to hang out there, covering the presence of God with its wings. This was originally in Ezekiel, and though I’m sure I encountered it there at some point in my life, I only really noticed the cherub because of Harold Bloom, whose writing about it didn’t come from the Hebrew either, but from Milton and Blake. It was Milton and Blake who’d turned this cherub singular and associated it with Satan—the angel that covers God, that covers for God and, made overproud because of the privilege, falls. Bloom turned the covering cherub into the artist, the writer, who absorbs the divine light and filters it for the rest and, in doing so, suffers. Why am I bringing this up? Because it’s beautiful, in its cracked romantic way, but also because the process by which this beauty came to me is a model. Here is a figure from what I might call my tradition—Ezekiel, which I had to read at school—that hadn’t meant anything to me until, once Miltonized and Blaked, it Bloomed. This is typical, I think. We don’t know what pasts we have until other traditions absorb and filter them—in this case, a pair of English poets acting as covering cherubs for cherubic Harold. And now here I am, cherubing for you—telling you that after every book I finish, I declare myself “done.” (Mrs. Geller, my fifth-grade teacher of Bloomian proportions, used to remind me, “Turkey is done, a person is finished.”) After Four New Messages, I was “done” with technology, but then I wrote Book of Numbers. After Moving Kings, I was “done” with the Jews, but then I wrote The Netanyahus. At this point, I think declaring myself “done” means “I’ll have another.”
Partly I ask because in the novel’s afterword, you introduce a sort of commentary on your own subject matter, in the form of an angry message you—“the author”—purportedly received from the real person one of the characters is based on. This person has nothing nice to say about the book in general, but her opinions on the subject matter are really scathing. “None of this Jewish crap still matters,” she writes. “No one reads books anymore and the Jews are either on the wrong side of history or irrelevant.” I wondered how much of this quote was real. Then I wondered how much was you. I can’t decide whether it dialectically undercuts what came before or takes the story to a fitting end.
I’m not sure it’s an either-or. I think it’s fitting and undercutting both. I couldn’t write a book that doesn’t acknowledge the role of books in the world today. I could read one, of course, but I couldn’t write one, in the same way that I couldn’t take up blacksmithing or fletchery unselfconsciously. It’s like men who wear hats or grow beards—and I don’t mean Hasidim. They know what they’re doing, they know they’re being purposefully anachronistic—antiquarian—but the trick is to never admit it, the trick is to pretend it’s perfectly normal. I was never able to fake it like that. I know that what I’m doing is out of step and against the grain, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that—rather, I think it’s important to bring in the present moment in all its opposition, as a type of background against which the book’s drama can be read. I think my Blum character would understand this as a variety of double-bookkeeping: inviting into the book what was happening around me—what I wasn’t living—while I was busy writing and hoping that the invitation would be enough to compensate.
In fact, you’ve invited all sorts of things into this novel. In his review of The Netanyahus for the Guardian, Leo Robson says a lot of laudatory things but also takes the book to task for your inclusion of nonnarrative materials—letters, a whole speech—that advance the book’s intellectual project but do less to drive the drama. We could talk about the long history of novels that include found forms or essayistic material, but the issue for me is simpler than that. I read those parts as neither impressive nor pretentious, but simply wonderful, a real pleasure. As someone who loves this kind of thing, I want to ask why you love this kind of thing.
I don’t even know that I consider it a kind of thing. It’s not like I have a switch to flick that turns me intellectual, or emotional, or psychological. People talk about everything, they don’t just say what you want them to say or even what they want to say, and characters should be the same. In the deli today there was talk of UFOs, Biden’s hair, the history of Belarus, and the grill guy’s girlfriend problems. We bring ancient history into present conversation all the time, calling facts opinions and opinions facts, and when it comes to the nonverbal, to reading—isn’t the internet just one big dumb essay? Aren’t most people reading this big dumb essay all the time, knowing they’ll never finish?
Okay, but there’s a choice here. Putting aside the question of what’s commercially viable, you didn’t accidentally include large nonnarrative sections in this book. Something about the subject, or something about the project as it initially came to you, or as it developed as you went, led you to decide that these forms—the letter, the speech—were a part of this particular book you were writing. And of course it would have been a choice not to use these forms as well. Why this choice, in this book, is what I want to know.
Because you’re pushing, I’ll try. The novel of ideas—which is a phrase I hate and I’m going to blame you for not forcing on me, so that I have to force it on myself—is a tricky beast. Why it’s tricky is because of people. Novels can’t have an idea without a person and vice versa, of course, and though novels can contain countless ideas, the persons they contain come in two basic flavors, the author and the characters. Sure, an author can be a character, and a character can be an author, but I’m speaking about fundamentals. Who is the person expressing this idea, to whom and how and why? Newer novels are pretty antisocial—the person with the ideas is the author, wandering around somewhere that’s usually a city, thinking first-world thoughts in first person, talking to the reader and so essentially talking to themselves. Call this autofiction if you want, call this essayistic fiction, whatever—it’s antisocial, with a narrator who’s also the protagonist who’s also their own doctor, lawyer, surgeon, judge; the resident expert, through which all knowledge passes: if they didn’t read it, see it, hear it, or if they weren’t told about it, then it doesn’t exist, not for the reader. Now, contrast that to older novels like, say, The Man Without Qualities or, even better, The Magic Mountain. These are social novels. There isn’t any one person with all the ideas. Instead, the ideas are given to, spoken by, incarnated through the characters, who meet up in salons and sanatoriums and go on strolls through the snow, or to dances, or to interminable parties and meals, wearing out their quotation marks as they talk and talk and talk. Sometimes these characters converse in groups that chain—in the Musil, Ulrich and Arnheim, Ulrich and Diotima, Arnheim and Diotima—and sometimes they go back and forth dialectically—in the Mann, Settembrini, the so-called humanist, versus Naphta, the so-called radical—but mostly they do both and more, and if they’re Russian, they also perform monologues without interruption, a guest delivering six pages on metaphysics as the tea cools, and the host has switched to vodka and is already drunk.
Don’t worry—I’m getting to my point. A lot of my writing, some stuff published, a lot of stuff I’ll never publish, has to do with navigating these categories. What I like about the antisocial novel of ideas is the immediacy of first person—I like to read a mind thinking. And what I like about the social novel of ideas is other people besides the first person—I like difference and challenge and arguments with stakes. In everything I do, I’m trying to find ways of combining these categories, of juxtaposing them, blending them, mixing them up—in Four New Messages and Book of Numbers by faking emails, chats, edited and re-edited interview transcripts and drafts, and in The Netanyahus by forging letters of recommendation and lectures. My interest in this comes from my sense that this is how we live, merged with technology, enmeshed in other people’s text, even in self-generated authorless text, and unable to distinguish fact from fiction.
What you talk about as social I think of as the subjectivity of all ideas, that ideas exist in the context of the people who think them and the moment in which they are thought, and to ignore this rootedness in experience is to pretend the world is more rational than it is. I am very skeptical—more skeptical than you, I think—of omniscience, of authority being taken too seriously, the authority of the author included. Which brings me to the question of irony. Fake forms are one thing—fake emails, fake letters—but fake ideas are another. The Netanyahus is much more theatrically fun than a Thomas Mann novel. It is a book full of comic scenes and lots of pathos, but since it is also full of ideas, the question is how the ideas are to be taken. Do ideas exist here as a part of the world, or as commentary on the world? Or both? Or sometimes one, sometimes the other?
This is the question I’m always asking myself—about myself. And I’m not sure I have any answers that don’t collapse into comedy, which is exactly what happens in the book. The book is a fair portrayal only of my own inner argument: how far I’m willing to push these conflicting ideas within myself until I stop caring about the ideas and care more about the conflict; the contradictions become less interesting than the drama of contradiction, the compromising positions I put myself in by refusing to compromise and the humor inherent in backing myself into opposing corners. If, as you say, ideas exist in the context of the people who think them— I think we agree that this is what I mean by “social”—then the moments that most compel me are those when the context becomes untenable. Do you really lose self-respect or dignity when you refuse to budge? Of what use is integrity? And so on. In my perversity, I want to connect this not to political ideology but to “the writing life.” I love the freedom of writing, but then, is it a freedom? What have I sacrificed or lost for the privilege of this freedom? I have done some ridiculous, comical things in order to preserve my independence, or what I call my independence, as has almost every writer I’ve ever met. They’ve denied themselves pleasures, restrained their social urges, disdained or pretended to disdain their natural impulses toward material gain—toward money—all to pursue this phantom ideal, or all to pursue the time and conditions in which to purse this phantom ideal: total freedom on the page. And let me tell you, it’s hilarious. The whole situation is hilarious. And what’s more, it’s funny how many years it took me to recognize that—how many books it took me to recognize and be able to laugh at the unintended comedy I created out of a hard-line fidelity to an abstraction.
Well if the dark comedy of the artist-self comes through in this novel, I suspect that is only because every kind of comedy comes through. Beyond the personal and dramatic and situational ironies, the comedy of errors and slapstick physicality, and the fact that the Netanyahu brothers could be the Three Stooges except that our knowledge of later world events makes their meathead behavior very scary—and beyond your verbal humor, which is always precise but is here pretty toned down—there is also the fact that your narrator is a classic schlemiel, and that tonally the book folds itself around him, making it actually, in my reading, the lightest of your books, in the sense of the gentlest. Your fiction is always comic, but your comedy is not often gentle. From whence the gentle? Is it because you’re telling someone else’s story? Because the book is written for a friend, in the memory of Harold Bloom?
From whence the gentle, indeed—from Harold, or from Harold dying, and from so many of his generation dying, and probably from my own sense of getting older, and probably from this past year of plague and lockdown. I should also say that when you’re writing an acidic character, like Benzion Netanyahu, it’s hard to be acidic yourself. It’s better to moderate the general tone so that the character’s tone pokes through, cruder and sharper.
I think I’m also saying I did not find much darkness in this book. But maybe what I should be saying is that I find darkness around the book, inescapably, in the looming shadow of the real-life future—the political rise of Benjamin Netanyahu and all that has meant for the world—that readers of Blum’s tale can’t help but hold in mind. The book’s title suggests it is about current events, but really, current events are the book’s unspoken truth. In this particular sense I might put The Netanyahus in a lineage with Georges Perec’s W or W. G. Sebald’s novels, books with absent centers, dark jokes for which history provides the punch line.
That’s extremely generous because I know how much Perec means to you. I’m a student of his, too—interested if not in the strictly Oulipian nature of some of the work then in his principle of writing through lacunae, of purposefully excluding something from a book that might ultimately provide its key. These books tend to be tests, of the reader as much as of the culture itself—tests as to whether a culture has preserved within itself enough of what Van Wyck Brooks called “a usable past,” to enable the book’s comprehension. If you had only the most superficial idea of Nazi aesthetics—if you knew nothing at all of its cult of physicality—would you be able to understand W? If you knew nothing about German writing outside of Germany—in Austria, in Austria-Hungary, at the fringes of the German-speaking world—how could you hope to get at what Sebald is trying for, the assertion of an alternative German canon in the wake of et cetera? Their novels become trials of historical consciousness—do you remember enough to understand them?—as much as of present-day consciousness—do you see and hear the world around you clearly enough to make any connections between the world and the page? Books that omit context or explanation, books that refrain from acknowledging their analogies and allegories, books that withhold from the reader not in a spirit of exclusion but as a spiritual catalyst, books that, yes, summon up the cherub to cover their intentions—these are the books that provoke the reader, or at least provoke me as a reader, into seeking out the sources that are being denied, and in the process of that seeking I find myself situated within and vital to myriad continua. Or, to put it another way, this is how tradition works. This is what it means to live in a culture. Our books should be missing something, the finding of which makes us whole.
Martin Riker is the author of the novel Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, and his critical writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and London Review of Books. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis and co-runs, with Danielle Dutton, the feminist publisher Dorothy, a Publishing Project.
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