Joshua Cohen is such an accomplished writer it’s surprising he isn’t a better known one. This might be because his major novels — Witz, a sprawling satire about Benjamin Israelien, the last Jew on Earth, and Book of Numbers, a metafictional thriller about a tech entrepreneur named Joshua Cohen — were slightly out of step with their times.
Both were unapologetic postmodernist epics written after 1990s maximalism had burnt itself out.
Cohen’s new book — his sixth — continues the turn to allegorical realism that he took in his last novel, Moving Kings, which was a sort of Jewish Sopranos about a house-moving company in New Jersey. It is also among his best: a fastidious and very funny book that is one of the most purely pleasurable works of fiction I’ve read in ages.
The Netanyahus, set during the winter of 1959 to 1960, is narrated by an (not “a”) historian, who happens to be Jewish (“not an historian of the Jews”), named Ruben Blum. Blum teaches at a small liberal arts college in upper New York state, where his wife Edith works in the college library. Both are trying hard to ingratiate themselves with the local gentiles, who are either openly contemptuous or treat them like curiosities. Their teenage daughter Judith’s feelings of isolation are channelled into profound self-loathing and a deep desire for a nose job.
At the beginning of the novel Blum is asked by his head of department to interview one Benzion Netanyahu, an obscure yet energetic academic who is a candidate for a professorship. History knows him better as the hardline Revisionist Zionist who was one of the architects of the state of Israel, and father of its two-time and current prime minister Benjamin.
Netanyahu arrives, in the snow, wearing inappropriate footwear, with his pushy wife and three untameable children, who are christened “the Yahus” by Blum. He teaches a class in which he castigates his prospective colleagues, gives a grudging lecture, and abuses Blum’s hospitality, while his children cause havoc. Blum has no expertise in Netanyahu’s area of research, and soon realises he has been asked to officiate simply because he, too, is Jewish.
In an author’s note, Cohen has confessed that the novel is based on an anecdote told to him by Harold Bloom, the venerable literary critic who died in 2019, about the time he hosted Netanyahu for a campus visit to Cornell. And, though Blum is no straight analogue of Bloom, Cohen seems to have stuck pretty closely to the rest of the facts. In doing so he raises questions about the workings of history on individual lives.
How much should a Jewish historian be a representative of Jewish history? Blum’s tragedy is not so much that his attempts at assimilation are thwarted, but that he has so little choice over whether to try to assimilate or not. He resents the fact that he has been asked to join the hiring committee merely because he is Jewish, but he also resents the fact that, as his father-in-law points out, with Netanyahu’s arrival he now has “another Jew up here to share the woods with. I think you’ve gotten quite used to being the only one and you’re afraid of losing that special status.”
For Blum that special status — “chosenness” — is both a curse and a liberation: a metaphor for the difficulties of the Jewish writer, and for the horrors and injustices of 20th-century history.
The Netanyahus, by Joshua Cohen, Fitzcarraldo Editions, RRP£12.99/New York Review Books, RRP$16.95, 240 pages
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