joshua cohen, “witz”

Joshua Cohen
(Dalkey Archive, 2010)

Talking to someone reading Infinite Jest for the first time a few months back, I found myself remembering what it was like reading that book the summer of 1996: how it felt like one book might, just might, contain all the secrets of the universe. It’s a sensation I found again and again: in Gravity’s Rainbow, The Recognitions, back in Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Under the Volcano, even, falteringly, in something like Underworld; this list could go on. All of these were formative books for me: the big bulky masterpiece, which I read with the promise of gnostic enlightenment, an enlightenment that the preterite world couldn’t see or wouldn’t pay attention to. If they would only listen to this, I found myself thinking, and I forced these books on my friends, imagining that they would like to be enlightened.

I don’t find myself reading as many big books now, though a couple of them sit balefully on the shelves, awaiting attention: Heimito von Doderer’s The Demons, Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling, Against the Day. (For the past year, I’ve been reading at Finnegans Wake, but that seems another case entirely.) Instead, I tend to find myself reaching for shorter and shorter books, things I know I’ll get down quickly: right now Charles Flandrau’s Viva Mexico, the new Harry Mathews, Diary of a Nobody, Libyan guidebooks. This choice is partially one of time management: there are too many books, old and new, that I feel the need to read, more being published every week; and I have a finite amount of time to read these books in. This situation is one that every reader finds to be the case now; we are inundated with books. A long book is more of a gamble for a reader who tends to finish what he starts. But beyond this increasingly universal problem of logistics, I find myself with another problem, perhaps related: increasingly finding myself doubting the revelatory power of the encyclopedic. To an extent, this comes with having read a lot of very good books; to another extent, it’s a problem connected with the Internet, with the power of instantly having at your fingertips almost anything. It’s difficult for the individual voice to successfully counter the voice of the crowd, and I think the encyclopedia novel especially suffers from this: at the time, it was edifying to learn about the Herero genocide in Gravity’s Rainbow or Vaucanson’s duck in Mason & Dixon, for example, but it’s now very easy to go to Wikipedia and learn about these things in nauseating detail. One of the reasons we used to turn to this sort of book – revealing what had been obscure – has been superseded by the Internet, in the same way that newspapers no longer break news. 

(I’m not trying to suggest some sort of inner abdication of the long novel for the short story, though it might sound that way; I’ve always generally preferred the novel to the short story. Nor am I trying to suggest that fact should replace fiction; I still think lies are more interesting than truth.)

At the same time, of course, I find it increasingly difficult to get exciting about reading anything new when I could be re-reading Proust or reading The Death of Virgil for the first time: there’s a much higher chance that I’ll get something out of Broch than I will if I’m reading the novel du jour. At one point, all the smart people that I knew would have been talking about how dumb the latest Michiko Kakutani review is; I still know plenty of smart people, but they’re much more liable to be talking about whatever particular thing it is that they’re interested in at the moment than in any common literary touchstone. Those up to date with the books of the moment generally don’t have much to say about them that I find useful past what on the promo sheets. The margins are much wider than they once were; “literary fiction” increasingly seems a marketing construct, one focus group out of any number of possibilities. 

This preamble is merely to suggest the state of mind in which I found myself approaching Joshua Cohen’s Witz – a big book, dense and unyielding – with the question of why one might write a big novel now. I found Cohen’s two earlier novels interesting; with this one, however, he’s clearly aiming at something very different: there’s a polemic propping up this novel. This is a book I’ve put off reading for a while; my copy’s been unread in Illinois, California, Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, spent time under the seats of countless movie theaters, had a great deal of coffee spilled upon it. This post has been in the draft queue for a while.

* * * * *

That said: eventually one gets around to finishing things, and now I have read this book. Caveats need to be made about my incapacity to talk about this book: first, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Mr. Cohen has becomes something of a social acquaintance since I started reading his book, and at his request I wrote him a piece for an issue of a journal he’s editing; take that as you will. Separately, it should also be noted that I’m not Jewish: I hail from a town where the only Jewish family only bothered to point out that they were Jewish after they’d left. I have spent a great deal of time over the past fifteen years with Jews, a number of whom have been disappointed when it eventually came out that I wasn’t Jewish; but there you go. This is a book mostly about Jewishness; I can read with the Internet as a crib, but I’m essentially a tourist, and I’m liable to misread.

To start with the obvious: this is a big book in American tradition of the bookish big books. Near the beginning, the reader is immediately reminded of Gravity’s Rainbow, and later one can see pieces of V. poking through. Tristram Shandy is here, of course. The everlasting Xmas section reminds me of Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos in tone. The Polandland section near the end seems reminiscent of George Saunders when he was interesting; but really it’s the logical extension of Stanley Elkin’s The Magic Kingdom. Elkin presides over the book as something of a tutelary spirit; it’s hard to imagine another writer capturing his voice better than Cohen does. Kafka’s here, of course, though pointedly not by name; the Kafka here is the weird maximalist Kafka of Orson Welles’s Americanized Trial, simultaneously gigantic and claustrophobic. Or the sword that the Statue of Liberty holds aloft at the beginning of Amerika, ready to strike Ellis Island. The Barthelme of The Dead Father is here; so is Philip Roth (The Breast). Even older dead white fathers are here as well: the Bible is a tangible presence, not only the Torah (in the first half) but also the New Testament (the second). 

But the Bible, like the big books, suggest a plethora of voices; and that is not exactly what this is. Until a few hundred pages from the end, this is a narrative largely told in a single voice. Not that this is necessarily a limitation: Cohen’s voice is one of the most compelling features of his fiction, an odd mixture of distinctly oral rhythm and literate diction that is entirely his own. A sentence at random from p. 268:

A scattering of vases with even their cracks chipped, their fill a handling of left umbrellas, corrupt caducei.

C sounds skitter through this sentences, modulated with vs in the first half, ls in the second, ths and ds serving as mortar. Has anyone ever said the word caducei aloud? It’s a distinct voice: but it’s this voice which overwhelms the book, without the interruption of quotation marks or even Joycean tirets. Witz isn’t as suffocatingly Bernhardian as Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto was; but it still requires the reader’s submission to that voice. This is a book to be read for its linguistic flights: it’s not as ingeniously plotted as, say, a Pynchon novel. Though the plotting is significantly more complex than Cohen’s previous novels, it’s not a selling point. I’ve said before that maybe Cohen should be writing poetry; I stand by that, though I am curious to see where he can go with fiction. The voices are modulated towards the end of the book: this is a book that improves as it progresses.

This is, at least in a sense, a book of eschatology. (A fine thesis could be written comparing and contrasting this book to the Left Behind series: this is left as an exercise for a reader who has the stomach for those books, which have an uncomfortable amount to say about where this country is headed.) But the end times depicted here are metaphorical, as, perhaps, end times always are:

But before our loss can be massed, given one face and voice, any name representation, an inviolate symbol – we’re asking you, wait up, langsam just a moment, will you, shtum: we all must stand ourselves, alive, aware, out on the far ice to reflect above the tide. Namely, that it’s the destiny of every individual, of even the symbol, even the ultimate, to think their time the end, to think their world the last – and this especially today, especially fastdeadly, with everything In the beginning again at the already begun, history eternally returning as always, as eternally as ever but rather quickly, evermore and more quickly now, with a precipitate urgency, an Apocalyptic insistence. Now the time in which you live the time to end all times and Time; now the Never again. In mourning, standing atop the furthest spur of frost above the deep, they mourn themselves, a little soon: their failure, their ill luck, the ruinous stars above with their frustrated mazel. It’s understood, which means it’s itself mourned, our knowing hope, our dreaming: howe we can’t all be prophets, we can’t all be priests, we can’t all be kinds; that despite what the scholars once believed, there’s only one Moses; that despite what the sages once bowed down to, there’s only our God; thinking, too, if everyone’s their own Messiah, what’s that worth, what’s in it for me. Better to unify, best to hold One indivisible. Nowadays, there’s no why to wonder who, admit it, who’ll make it, whose testimony, whose witness – that’s been long worked out and over, it’s suspected; already taken care of, chosen long before any of us were ever born to live down any death. A statement is forthcoming. (p. 306)

I worry, of course, that I’m not Jewish enough to fully appreciate this book: there’s something there, clearly, and I can get some of it, but I know that I’m not quite the audience for this book, as I don’t know enough to give it the reading it deserves. The book this might be the most similar to is a very different one, James McCourt’s Now Voyagers, from 2007: I stand outside that fantastically intricate book about New York’s largely vanished gay opera world in the same way that I am outside of this book’s Jewishness. In both, I can sense that I’m necessarily missing something. It’s doubly frustrating knowing how small the audiences are for books like this even were they not about a minority culture. Witz is a book about the disappearance of a certain sort of culture: Jewishness, here, is only really appreciated after it’s gone, which is a misguided project. Reading this book, I found myself wondering if book culture could be substituted in for Jewishness: this is a book about loss, mourning a literate world. The end of a section:

B spits on a finger to erase, a clean slate, saliva daubed with blood. A thumbprint’s trace. Upside-down, it doesn’t matter . . . I will write myself. (p. 564)

B is of course Benjamin Israelien, the last Jew, the novel’s protagonist; it’s hard to tell exactly who the I is: perhaps Israelien, perhaps the generally third-person narrator, perhaps Cohen himself identifying with Israelien’s lot. Whoever is writing, however, is writing for an audience that is no longer actually Jewish even though it might be pretending to be Jewish; just as the novelist writes for a world where the novel has lost its audience (save the masses of other would-be novelists) and seems increasingly irrelevant as a unit of culture. Or again, from a section near the end of the book, where a character futilely attempts to visit Kafka’s grave in a linguistic graveyard, part of a theme park:

Kaye graves his hands into his pockets, kicks a heel into the mud, turns from the gate only after his trainload’s dispersed: only after many have lifted themselves up on their tiptoes to peer over the low falling fence, a few attempting to decipher the inscriptions in an alphabet foreign, in a few alphabets equally foreign, abbreviated then acronymed to unintelligibility, dazzled into diacritics forgotten: acutes, graves, breves, carons, hooks and horns, dots and diaereses . . . it’s not that they’ll never understand, rather it’s that these invocations will always only make sense to the dead: a readership as obsolete as the language in which they’re left reading themselves – they’ll be literate in no time, give them a night. (p. 675)

It’s hard not to admire the precision here: a writer who knows that what are usually passed off as hačeks and umlauts are properly carons and diaereses in English. But there’s also the sense that something’s being lost here, just as English is slowly but ineluctably routing the languages of eastern Europe. Is there still a space for the encyclopedic novel? One can’t help noticing, while reading this book, that the word “Jew” never appears, an absent center. The Internet is almost entirely absent as well: there’s a random “online” and a stray “://” but only two occurrences in 817 pages set at the turn of the millennium in a book in which absolutely everything else appears suggests that this omission is pointed. Something isn’t being said.

I had the idea when I was younger that by reading an encyclopedic novel, if it were the right one, that I might suddenly understand the world, or at least culture. This is ridiculous, of course: I was hoping for a silver bullet which didn’t exist (and which would be, honestly, disappointing if it were possible). But this is a book that comes, I think, from that same urge, flipped around: the idea to encapsulate everything, the Joycean desire to preserve a day of Dublin in amber, even after Sterne, at the dawn of the English novel, had pointed out the folly of even attempting to capture a single life. I think, on the whole, that I’ve taken more from Sterne than Joyce; but I still admire the attempt.


  • My interview with Bob Stein is up at Triple Canopy as part of Issue 9.
  • A thread at MetaFilter about Jack Green’s Fire the Bastards!. Tangentially related: David Markson’s library appears at The Strand; some of his Gaddis annotations have appeared online.
  • Gary Shteyngart & Joshua Cohen on the Tablet podcast.
  • More of Robert Walser’s poetry is coming out in English.
  • Joseph McElroy’s Preparations for Search is available from Small Anchor Press; the text was originally published in Formations in Spring 1984 as part of Women and Men, but cut before that book’s publication; Small Anchor’s edition has been “slightly revised”.
  • Trevor Winkfield, Miles Champion & Steve Clay present “Poems and Pictures: A Renaissance in the Art of the Book (1946–1981) tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Center for Book Arts.
  • Tomorrow: a release party for Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies at Printed Matter from 5–7.
  • Also tomorrow night: Ferry Radax’s documentary Thomas Bernhard – Drei Tage shows at Anthology Film Archives at 7:15 p.m. Also shows on Friday at 9 p.m.

joshua cohen, “a heaven of others”

Joshua Cohen
A Heaven of Others
(drawings by Michael Hafftka)
(Starcherone Books, 2007)

The premise of this book is carried in its subtitle: “Being the True Account of a Jewish Boy Jonathan Schwarzstein of Tchernichovsky Street, Jerusalem, and his Post-Mortem Adventures in & Reflections on the Muslim Heaven as Said to Me and Said Through Me by an Angel of the One True God, Revealed to Me at Night as if in a Dream.” Like Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto it is composed of a long monologue (albeit one with section breaks this time); Jonathan Schwarzstein speaks in the first person, so the “me” of the subtitle might be the author himself: one thinks of how Joseph Smith is given a translation credit on The Book of Mormon.

The book most readily brought to mind by this fictional exploration of Heaven is Stanley Elkin’s The Living End (1979): Ellerbee, Elkin’s virtuous everyman, is sent to Hell after he is killed in a hold-up of his liquor store by a literal-minded God for, among other offenses, keeping his store open on Sundays. God is getting tired, as he explains to Ladlehaus, one of Ellerbee’s killers: 

I’m Himself Himself and I don’t know how I do it. I don’t even remember making this place. There must have been a need for it because everything fits together and I’ve always been a form-follows-function sort of God, but sometimes even I get confused about the details. (p. 54)

He goes on to brag that Ladlehaus would go blind even trying on His contact lenses. While it’s left unclear if Elkin’s characters are Jewish (as was, of course, their author), the afterlife they end up in is the Christian one of popular mythology: St. Peter waits at the gates of Heaven, there’s no Purgatory. It’s clear what sort of universe Elkin’s is: one battered down by neglect and incompetance; it might be run by Communist bureaucrats. (God is once described as having an Iron Curtain around him.) The Living End is, I should make clear, an immensely funny book. Cohen’s, by contrast, starts from the same lack of definition of the Jewish Heaven, but turns into a corporatist nightmare Hugging the young Muslim suicide bomber who kills him, Jonathan ends up in the Muslim heaven; no redress of the mistake is possible. The influences of Beckett (the trilogy) and perhaps even more Kafka (the blind fixation on justice in “In the Penal Colony”) are here, inescapably: while this is a cosmology without meaning, the structures linger on, not unlike Nike co-opting Gary Gilmore’s “Just do it” into advertising for sneakers.

Like Schneidermann, this is an extended monologue; however, this one is less directly indebted to Bernhard. This book is broken into sections; three short poems (“Alef,” “Beit,” and “Alef” again) further subdivide the text. That isn’t to say that the breathless quality of Schneidermann isn’t here: a child is telling this story, and the rhythm varies from short, fragmentary sentences to extended, redoubling ones; the final section, titled “A ‘Metaphor’,” is a single 16-page sentence. Something odd is going on with capitalization: take this, for example, excerpted from a much longer sentence, where Jonathan recalls his father talking about cancer:

. . . he said it was A big black bumpishness that just grew larger or rather filled you largely despite what the doctors would empty, which despite the nail of any needle would never be enough to empty It all – Aba himself never went to doctors, he went to the Queen, by which I mean my first one and only his second – and so this Queen, that former Queen whom I never knew her neither her name even she was blackened as if burned like a bush once consumed . . . (pp. 126–7.)

The words capitalized in the middle of sentence (as “A” and “It” in the example above) recur throughout the book; in the sections with extended sentences they seem to function almost as pauses for breath, or the way linebreaks function in a poem. (The first one in this quotation also has a slightly different function, signaling the opening of a quotation.) This book could probably have worked as a narrative poem: as in Schneidermann, the language is very much oral, and the rhythms of this book demand that it be read aloud. But there is a pronounced bookishness to this, which the capitalized letters bring out: capital letters don’t exist in spoken language, or, for that matter, in Hebrew; they are a part of written language, that of the scribe writing this book. 

Something should also be said about the form of this book: most prominently, it features spidery, blotchy pen and ink drawings by Michael Hafftka, generally illustrative of what’s happening in the text at that point in time. I don’t love these; but they are of a piece with the tone of the text, and it’s a good match. It’s nice to see an illustrated book, though I don’t know that they add much to the text. I find myself a bit vexed by the book design (also by Hafftka): the body text is set in a slab serif, which complicates reading. Perhaps this was chosen because the darkness of the letterforms look like Hebrew (as is the case with the display type); to me, it gets in the way of the text and seems too showy. 

The death of David Markson makes me think of the apocryphal story that Samuel Beckett was a friend of the parents of André the Giant and would drive the young André to school. One wonders what stories Beckett would have entertained a child with; maybe something like this.

joshua cohen, “cadenza for the schneidermann violin concerto”

cadenza for the schneidermann violin concertoJoshua Cohen
Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto
(Fugue State Press, 2007) 

This book is a rant, one that goes on for 380 pages. It’s impossible, when discussing the rant as literature now, to escape the influence of Thomas Bernhard, who looms large in this book. The narrator of a much smaller book, William Gaddis’s Agapē Agape midrant on Bernhard’s Concrete addresses the problem of Bernhard:

Where the tissues, just get cold water on it stop the bleeding, you see? Scrape my wrist against this drawer corner tears the skin open blood all over the place it doesn’t hurt no, skin’s like parchment that’s the prednisone, turns the skin into dry old parchment tear it open with a feather that’s the prednisone, reach for a book reach for anything tear myself to pieces reaching for this book listen, you’ll see what I mean, opening page you’ll see what I mean, “From March to December” he says, “while I was having to take large quantities of prednisolone,” same thing as prednisone, “I assembled every possible book and article written by” you see what I mean? “and visited every possible and impossible library” this whole pile of books and papers here? “preparing myself with the most passionate seriousness for the task, which I had been dreading throughout the preceding winter, of writing” where am I here, yes, “a major work of impeccable scholarship. It had been my intention to devote the most careful study to all these books and articles and only then, having studied them with all the thoroughness the subject deserved, to begin writing my work, which I believed would leave far behind it and far beneath it everything else, both published and unpublished” you see what this is all about? “I had been planning it for ten years and had repeatedly failed to bring it to fruition,” but of course you don’t no, no that’s the whole point of it! It’s my opening page, he’s plagiarized my work right here in front of me before I’ve ever written it! (11–12)

The narrator of Concrete is of course writing on Mendelsohn; the narrator of Joshua Cohen’s book, a violin player named Laster, is speaking about a fictional composer named Schneidermann. (Prednisone, for what it’s worth, appears on p. 100 of Schneidermann.) One thinks past Agapē Agape to J R’s Edward Bast, another New York composer whose musical dreams keep getting shifted downwards by the world. Thematically, the Bernhard novel that leaps most quickly to mind is The Loser, a book about a talented musician friend misunderstood by the world, though stylistically this book is closer to Concrete. Laster, a violin player, has just played Schneidermann’s sole work, the titular violin concerto at Carnegie Hall; in lieu of the cadenza, he holds forth from the stage all night, a textual, rather than a musical, cadenza.

How does one escape the shadow of Bernhard? This doesn’t look like a Bernhard book: rather than a single long paragraph there are frequent breaks, often mid-sentence, which are given a triple indent. (A ragged right margin also makes this look slightly less like standard prose.) The indents seem to function as pauses for breath: most of these breaks appear mid-sentence, but the sentences run on and on, generally only reaching an end when they detour into rhetorical questions. Occasionally the indents move further in, an interesting choice for what is such an oral book: toward the end, when section breaks become more frequent, the margins shift more often, seeming less like prose and more like poetry. Though Bernhard’s books are deeply concerned with voice, they are not oral: they are written documents through and through, a writer attempting to explain something. Here, a speaker attempts to explain things; though there’s an exhortation to the audience at the beginning, we never hear from the audience, and one wonders, finally, if they exist at all. Carnegie Hall is, of course, available for rental: this might simply by a monomaniac’s indulgence.

One can’t help wondering, in a book like this, about the audience. The book takes as its subject the artist unjustly ignored; as a novel, it’s positioning itself similarly, in the tradition not only of Bernhard but also of Stanley Elkin, whose voices I can hear in this. Allusions to Henry Roth and perhaps J R also appear. I think also of Evan Dara’s two books, the first-person narration of which has a similar feel, though in those the perspective shifts seemlessly between characters; there’s no escape from Laster’s vice-like grip in this book. And the audience comes into play as well because the question of the survival of High Art – in the form of the classical tradition in music – is an immense part of the book. There’s a decided similarity in tone, if not in form, to the later David Markson novels, which stack up trivia about artists, ostensibly against oblivion. Schneidermann implicitly parallels the classical tradition to the survival of the Jews: it’s hard to know what to feel about that. The reader of this book is Cohen’s audience as much as the possibly non-existent audience in Carnegie Hall is Laster’s; one struggles to find a place to listen appreciatively while suspecting a certain amount of contempt. Maybe it’s not contempt: maybe it’s simply that the audience is by and large ignored. I wonder about that. I wonder as well about the narrative voice, which is, among other things, unlikeable: in an age when any other book is nearly instantly accessible, I wonder about the readers who have the temerity to persevere with such a voice. The audience is being challenged; Laster’s audience in the book don’t see fit to take up his challenge. 

Writing about classical music in New York in 2007 is necessarily different from writing about classical music in Vienna when Bernhard was alive. I wonder, as well, about a young writer taking up an old man’s voice: while it works surprisingly well, it’s hard for the reader to get around the knowledge that this is very much an imagined past. (This might be the source of the repeated references to Thomas Taylor’s Hymns of Orpheus, which float behind this book.) 

A parallel might be drawn between Schneidermann and James McCourt’s under-appreciated Now Voyagers, though that book was created under the shadow of Joyce rather than Bernhard and took as its subjects gays and the opera world in New York in the wake of AIDS rather than Jews and the symphonic after the Holocaust. The two books are constructed entirely differently: and McCourt’s is the work of an old man rather than a young one. But both attempt to reconstruct a world against oblivion; and neither of these books seems to have found its audience yet. 


  • Tan Lin has an event at the Kelly Writers House for his exciting new Seven Controlled Vocabularies; I won’t be able to make it, but I’ve written a couple of pieces for his editing pleasure. See also: Thom Donovan’s piece in Harriet; an interview with Tan Lin in Bomb; his online appendix to the book; and the Amazon page for the book, with blurbs in the reader review section.
  • Everyone should go see Ben Vershbow’s production of Bartleby at Triple Canopy; on Sunday, it follows a reading by Joshua Cohen and Joseph McElroy, also very much recommended; I wish I were going to be in town.
  • A long interview with Guy Maddin about his films and books; Michael Silverblatt comes up.