“Identity, history, America. All in an anecdote”

I Netanyahu, the novel with which Joshua Cohen won Pulitzer 2022 (like his other books published by Codice, pp. 271, euro 20) has a title that immediately suggests politics and an apparently unsolvable conflict. But the subtitle gives us a clue to the irony with which these very serious issues are addressed: “Where a minor and ultimately negligible episode is told in the history of an illustrious family”. After all, if the legendary Harold Bloom told you about this episode … Who, when he was a young scholar at Cornell, found himself chaperoning another professor, a Jew like himself, an expert in Spanish inquisition, visiting for a job interview. The professor was called Ben-Zion Netanyahu and he presented himself with his wife and three children, including little Benjamin, the future Prime Minister of Israel, and the meeting was … a disaster, at least in the story of the great American critic, who died. in 2019. The whole is transposed, in a fictional way, in the winter of 1959-60 at Corbin University, in the North of the State of New York, and Bloom is called Ruben Blum, professor of American economic history. About Netanyahu Joshua Cohen will speak on Saturday 17 September in Pordenonelegge (9 pm), the Book Festival with the authors (14-18 September). He answers the phone from Tel Aviv, even though he lives in New York and was born (in 1980) in Atlantic City (“in New Jersey: we, for those in New York, are the South …”).

What relationship did he have with Bloom?

“I think I saw a slightly different side of him, being much younger. Towards the end of his life he was a public figure, but controversial, and he was no longer in good health. He wanted to leave a mark of how full of energy he was still and so, for the first time, he thought of a memoir. “

Did he contact you for that?

“He never talked about himself. But he didn’t want someone from the university to help him, and especially from Yale, because he felt misunderstood by the academic world. And so he got the idea that I could help him. “

How did it go?

“I knew immediately that it was going to be impossible, because physically he couldn’t work too long. But he told me many stories, about him being an outsider of the academy, about his attempts to change it from the inside, and then about Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Anthony Burgess … For everyone, Bloom was like a mountain, something that is always there. , but he too, from his childhood in the Bronx onwards, had invented himself. And, among the many stories he told me, was the one about Netanyahu. The TV was on and Bibi had appeared on CNN. And Harold: I met that man, he was ten, he was with his father … ».

And then?

“Then Harold died, I listened to the tapes again and the story hit me. It was April 2020, during the first lockdown in New York and I thought that if I wanted to do something really stupid, well, now was the right time. And I did: campus novel and historical novel, two genres I’ve never attended. And comedy, even if I didn’t know it yet. I wrote the proofs in two weeks ».

What is the relationship between historical facts and fiction?

“I decided it was all going to be true, except what happens on the weekend of the visit. The novel actually takes place in two days: that of preparation for the visit, full of memories, and that of the meeting. Everything that happens before the professor is asked to be a guest, and that is remembered, is true ».

Why makes Bloom / Blum a tax expert?

“Ben-Zion Netanyahu was a scholar of the role of the Jew in medieval Spanish courts: a figure used by the nobility to collect taxes, and then invest the rewards. Interestingly, he still persists today, if you think of Kissinger. Then I was so fascinated by Harold, that I had to make him a normal person … And there is also a connection with his theories ».

Which?

“He had this idea that everything has already been thought, written or created and that, consequently, every writer suffers from it. Therefore a writer must develop a certain attitude towards the past, that is, a misunderstanding, or a wrong interpretation, thanks to which he is convinced that his works can change things. From here the question arose in me about the past and what we owe … And so I made Professor Blum not a literary critic, but a professor of the history of American taxation ».

In the book there is much talk, in critical and humorous terms, of the “culture of complaint”.

“Ben-Zion Netanyahu was born under the Habsburg Empire, and when it fractured, a series of tribalisms arose, including Zionism. Even then, people felt they didn’t have an equal slice to others. Today many use the only weapon they have, that is, words, to shout discrimination, insult, even when the dispute they are talking about is false; but I repeat, they use their only weapon, to get what they want. “

What?

“Survival, greed… These are ways of gaining power. History is full of oppressed classes that oppose those who control everything ».

By dint of shouting for tolerance, does one not become intolerant?

«It is not the first time that the left has discovered irony … It is a branding exercise. Very American. Between Coca Cola and Pepsi, cancel culture. It is part of an industry ».

But it is not defined as such.

“True, but it’s part of being a commodity in a liberal economy. Mine, for example, I don’t consider a job. Much of this cancel culture originates in industry, and I’m not a career in the office. “

So academia is also an industry?

“Absolutely. And, as a writer, I have received so many rejections that I have stopped wondering what publishing and industry think ”.

But it won the Pulitzer.

“A great surprise.”

Did addressing an issue like anti-Semitism contribute?

“It’s a symbol. A chance to talk about identity in America, because a lot of the talk is extreme, like: all whites are racist and all blacks are oppressed; instead there is something in between, between these identity claims, which is part of American life ».

What is that?

«America is divided between two narratives: one is that of immigration, of the American dream; the other is that of slavery. And they are both true, and we have to live with the fact that they are both true. We live in a country of many flags, we all experience these claims and we are all defined by our identity, for better or for worse. And it came naturally to me to say this when talking about the experience of American Jews ”.

Blum is a Woody Allen character.

«I was inspired by Svevo and his Zeno. Unfortunate, full of neurosis, ridiculous: I love him. ‘

The Netanyahu, intended as a family, do not make a great impression in the novel. Has it received a lot of criticism?

“Criticisms not on the facts, but because, according to some, I would have been unfair, or politically short-sighted.”

“Identity, history, America. All in an anecdote”