AMONG THE legion of writers converging onGalway from near and far for next month’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature is Joshua Cohen, who has been widely hailed as one of America’s best young novelists.
Cohen was born in Atlantic City in 1980. His books include the novels Witz (2010 ), Book of Numbers (2015 ), and Moving Kings (2017 ), several volumes of short stories and Attention - Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, a collection of non-fiction pieces published last year. Indeed the eminent American critic Harold Bloom listed Book of Numbers as one of the very best novels by a Jewish American author, and praised it for being "shatteringly powerful" and "frighteningly relevant."
When I ring Cohen at his New York home I begin by asking what Jewish novels or writers have meant most to him? “That’s a difficult question,” he replies. “There was always tension in my mind thinking about the writers who wrote in the explicitly Jewish languages - Yiddish and Hebrew - and Jewish writers who wrote in the language of the country in which they lived. I very much like the Ukranian Yiddish writer Der Nister and the Yiddish American writer Lamed Shapiro.
"I read widely in Hebrew literature from Israel and there’s a tension between that tradition and the European Jewish tradition where you had people like Kafka writing in German. It was that tension in the reading rather than any specific writers that was interesting to me. Then there were the writers within American literature like Henry Roth, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.”
Cohen studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music and he outlines how that has influenced his writing. “I have always been attracted to writing that has an explicit musicality or that appeals to the ear and is made to be read, if not out loud before people, at least in one’s inner voice. That stimulated my interest in a lot of classic Irish writing; writing that comes from a tradition of poetry but also that is founded in the breath or the ‘spokenness’ of it. I certainly trace that to my experience of music from a very young age.
"There are very few ways to study form in literature. There is almost no such thing as literary form; every form is sort of invented by the story that is being told but music, being a comparatively abstract art, is where you can really begin to think about formal thematic principles and formal organisation. As I get older I realise that my education in things like fugue and counterpoint and in musical forms influence my way of looking at a book.”
'To whom am I writing? Is it possible to know the audience that will read me when I am published on a global platform? Is there a way to be intimate with an audience when you write for so many people?'
Another key early experience for Cohen was his time as a young roving correspondent for The Jewish Daily Forward in central and eastern Europe. “That was a wonderful first job,” he declares. “I was 20 years old. I didn’t know that the job they were giving me was one that nobody else wanted to do. I thought they were giving me the chance of a life to cover nine or 10 countries and I was covering a part of the world that for the entire readership was associated with destruction.
"It was alternately a harrowing experience and an exhilarating one and it brought me in touch with parts of a cultural past that I had always inspected growing up with my family and grandparents, but one that was pushed by them to the side or rejected by them. In a way, as that part of the family got older, it was a way of being among the people and the landscape in which they grew up. It also taught me how to write to deadlines!”
'Doing the classically Jewish thing of becoming one’s own worst enemy, Israel is now on the verge of re-electing Benjamin Netanyahu which will effectively solidify the almost permanent occupation of Palestinian land'
With last year’s non-fiction collection, Attention, Cohen engages with some of the issues of being a writer in our digital age, a theme he also explored in Book of Numbers. “It was interesting for me in Attention to look back and to ask what makes a life and what makes a mind? You turn around after 17/18 years and you realise in a lot of ways you went where the work was and where the interest was but in the process your mind is shaped. So, for me, this was trying to understand what it meant to come of age in the era of the advent of the internet and to have this idea of pursuing writing and then realising that the central topic was does the audience have the attention for the discipline that I have chosen.
"It’s an odd position where the existence of one’s audience becomes one’s subject and I think that was for me, in all of my non-fiction, the primary theme. To whom am I writing? Is it possible to know the audience that will read me when I am published on a global platform? Is there a way to be intimate with an audience when you write for so many people? What can you assume about what they know, what they feel, their sense of irony or sarcasm, their humour? These were dizzying questions to which the answers have just barely begun and these pieces in Attention are all part of my attempt to reckon with the global word.”
'I am saddened by America’s slip from democracy into authoritarian populism, with Israel it feels like a change in the soul and that is far more mournful.”'
Cohen’s most recent novel, Moving Kings, straddles Israel and America and I ask how he feels about the way in which Israel, which was once portrayed as the heroic figure in the narrative of the Middle East is now increasingly seen as the villain.
“To me it is the fundamental fascinating change in the existence of 'the Jewish people'; that change you’re talking about,” he replies. “Up to the Lebanon war in 1982 the narrative was that Israel was the democracy that flowered in the desert surrounded by hostile Arab states seeking its destruction. Then, doing the classically Jewish thing of becoming one’s own worst enemy, Israel is now on the verge of re-electing Benjamin Netanyahu which would make him the country’s longest serving prime minister which will effectively solidify the almost permanent occupation of Palestinian land.
"We can’t understand all these things in a political way; I try to understand them through feeling and the feeling is one of a deep, historical, sense of existential dread that Israel, with all of its military and technological might, has still being unable to suppress. It has a crisis of existence at its core which I think is a crisis of moral existence. It’s not easy to become 'a normal people' cohering together from so many different countries and languages and ethnic backgrounds and to try to come to a national identity that isn’t fundamentally designed as oppositional.
"I think that this crisis is one that deeply dismays me because the fundamental values of Jewish culture, as I understand it, are regressing. I am saddened by America’s slip from democracy into authoritarian populism but it doesn’t have the same emotional impact because I feel like that is just a change in governance; with Israel it feels like a change in the soul and that is far more mournful.”
Joshua Cohen will make his first visit to Ireland for Cúirt and he will read, with English novelist Will Eaves, at the Town Hall on Saturday April 13 at 1pm. Tickets are €12/10. See www.tht.ie and wwww.cuirt.ie