An interview with Joshua Cohen by Shir Alon

Q. We’re anticipating that the publication of this book—a large, sprawling novel written in language that would seem at home among modern and late-modern greats like Joyce or Gaddis—will raise some real questions about our contemporary literary expectations. Some readers will see as crucial & necessary the fact that a young American writer is still ambitious in this way, or treats readers as being (or being capable of being) this ambitious, while others will see it as unacceptably difficult and will treat it with indifference or even contempt. What were you setting out to achieve with this book?

JC. It’s unabashedly one of those small-penis, big-ego attempts to get everything between two covers, and by everything is meant: “whatever can be said about a subject.” For subject Melville had his Whale; I have Jews, who are physically less large but just as white. Witz is a novel about the Last Jew that’s also, trying, trying, to be the Last Jewish Novel. A terminal text, also an exterminating text (perhaps excessively terminal, because in it all the Jews die – except One). I want, or wanted, to come along after all’s been written about Jews, particularly about Jews in America, and write the End. A rhetorical Apocalypse, the Semitico-literary eschaton. To found the genre of genre-annihilation, that was the intent. No more Jewish bookery…. “Never again!” “Never forget!” That ambition, that post-Holocaust, immigrant/child of immigrant/grandchild of immigrant ambition – consider this book its overripe, almost rotten result; or, lose the fruit metaphor and it’s less a book than a tombstone (it’s certainly as thick as a tombstone, and has my name all over it, a date on the copyright page).
Having finished Witz, I became an American, a plain American without the hyphen and, too, without hyphen-angst.

Q. What about the language? PW called it “an extravagant poeticism combined with an unbridled imagination.”

JC: The style of Witz is speech’s. The style of Jewish speech. That’s why the lowbrow with the high standards, clichés and idées reçues, shtick and superflumina together. Each of my books invents its own language. Reading, then, becomes learning a new language. Ideally, Witz teaches the reader how it should be read.

Q. There is, of course, also a lot of plot and, probably more importantly, great attention to character. Benjamin Israelien, the last surviving Jew, and the book’s protagonist, is born with a beard and glasses. He is overweight, pimpled, inarticulate, indolent, clearly not up to the weighty role thrust upon him. Though followed closely, he curiously remains incomprehensible, almost a blank. Is he a hero, an anti-hero? A hero-give-or-take?

JC: Anti-hero…. Is that a selfhating hero? Or just a hero who’s paid less? I’ve always liked that theory – or anti-theory? – that says the true protagonist of every book is the reader. Ben Israelien is a just a hair over one-year-old when the novel ends. To me, He’s everything religion has become: imbecilic, juvenile – “a golem.” Faith can go golem, too.

Q. How did the book come into being? When did you start it, how did it evolve, when did you decide it was finished (or over)?

JC. I began around my 21st birthday, a week before 9/11. The book changed as I changed, gained pages, lost pages, mostly gained pages. I wrote in Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland. The Baltics to the Balkans. Romania, Moldova. On trains and buses, mostly trains. I worked as a journalist, the dollar still strong but every day getting weaker. The EU encroached. The East was soon West, was soon over. I was eight, nine-years-old when communism fell, I’d arrived too late to the Bloc. Vilnius I had a desk in my hostelroom. Marienbad I had an entire apartment—plus a Mercedes—thanks to a friend. I wrote in Köln, Germany, a grandmother’s hometown. I wrote in Sárospatak, Hungary, another grandmother’s hometown. I spent a month of winter writing in Oświęcim, Poland, or Auschwitz, living in an underheated pension, helping direct Israeli tourists to Polish prostitutes after the bar closed (the bar, singular, not bars: I should’ve charged the Israelis, or asked the whores for commission).
By 2005 when I moved back to NYC I had a 3-4,000-page ms. Subplots cut: a Spinoza section, set in seventeenth century Netherlands; a section written entirely in transliterated Yiddish; a section written entirely in Hebrew (untransliterated, which is to say with Hebrew characters); a section set in (the nonexistent Jewish) Heaven, which I severed to form my previous novel, A Heaven of Others; at least three other recipes, two scenes set at the White House, two in “Palestein,” and numerous recurring conversations between trees or people named for trees (this was never quite clear: Apfelbaum, Birnbaum, etc., straight through to Zitronenbaum), of whom only a Feigenbaum remains.
As for when I knew the book was finished: I’ll only know when my father finishes reading it.

Q. Can you talk about precedents, source materials, of which there are obviously many? Stylistically, Witz doesn’t “look like” many books being written by young Americans today, so the question is where is it coming from.

JC. The entire Jewish literary tradition from Scripture to the decay of Europe with the Wars, in Hebrew, German, Russian, Yiddish (in other languages, too). As for America: I’ve worked most of the past decade as a book reviewer for Jewish publications, come to think of it I’m probably the second or third most regular reviewer of Jewish books in America, so…. (And some months I can barely pay rent. Which is a fact, but also the beginning of an unwritten Yiddish novel.)
Though mine’s the first book foolhardy enough to imagine the literal Last Jew, figuratively there have been a few precursors: Yoram Kaniuk’s The Last Jew, about a Holocaust survivor who thinks he’s the eponymous final survivor. Published in Hebrew as “Ha-Yehudi-Ha-Acharon,” in 1982. Hugo Bettauer’s Die Stadt Ohne Juden, “The City Without Jews,” never translated into English, is about a Vienna that evicts its Jews. Parody follows satire. Businesses fail. The culture falls apart. Published in Austria in 1922, made into a film two years later. Leopold Bloom. Josef K. And of course the story of Christ is a Last Jew Story (though it has a happier ending than most realize).
Also, per Christ, to think of the last is to think of the first. So Adam is also a predecessor, the Adamic figure, called in Latin prothoplastus, source of our “protoplasm,” as imagined by science-fiction, especially by movies, especially trashy: Anything that narrates man’s first visit to a planet “far far away.”
Then, from lasts to firsts to the ultimate: Caesar called Brutus the Ultimus Romanorum, meaning the last man in whom the spirit of Rome dwelt (funny when taken in light of future events). Simon the Just, in his generation, was called Ultimus Judaeorum, and after his death no one pronounced the Tetragrammaton aloud. I wanted to create, recreate, that ultimate Jew for today. Politics are also “inspirational,” Israeli and American both. Instead of questioning our former president over his case for waging an unprovoked war, television news crews found recent human interest in the Last Jews of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Q. What about non-Jewish traditions? There seem to be a kitchen-sink’s-worth of literary predecessors here. Modernism, science-fiction, eulogy, slapstick, you mentioned Melville . . .

JC. A Jewish canon is obvious to me, whereas a non-Jewish canon is nonexistent, or just too diverse – non-Jewish literature is Literature Itself. So, the perfect answer to this question would be impossibly long. I’ll just identify two lineages: the modern European novel from early-century aboveground to late-century underground (I’m thinking of the history that leads from expansive, ironic Thomas Mann to the terse, ironic writers of the samizdat East: Bohumil Hrabal and Danilo Kiš being favorites); and secondly, long-breathed Church English, from the King James Version to the sermons of Donne and Jeremy Taylor, and the “enquiries” of Thomas Browne, and how they enlightened the novels of the eighteenth century, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy preeminent.

Q. Those are all literary precedent. What about personal materia/autobiography/historical? The final section, “Punchlines,” leaves the events and characters of the rest of the book behind to focus more on our “real” world.

JC. At Witz‘s end, I thought fantasy wasn’t enough. I thought, “remake the fiction into the fact that inspired it.” So, who’s the Last Jew of our day? The lastliving survivor of the Holocaust. This person will be deceased by around 2040, of course. And not many with many memories of the camps will even make it to 2020 – ten years from now. The idea, then, was to conclude with a section set in the near future – on this survivor’s 108th birthday, which also happens to be Xmas – in Manhattan, Uptown. “Punchlines” is, partly, his final testament/last memories. The record here is not Hollywood Holocaust but actual facts, dates and names. His name is Joseph. One strand follows Joseph from Köln through the Łódź Ghetto to Auschwitz, then Liberation; Amsterdam, London, New York. Incorporated is a host of family history: what happened to some of my family in Europe, also what could have happened to some family had they not fled. Particular Cohen/Maier/Kestenbaum/Weisz lore pertains to Köln, and Sárospatak. The second strand, braided with “autobiography,” is a short history of European Jewry, dwelling especially on the Crusades – especially on the pogroms that plagued the Rhineland ca. 1096 – back into the Roman age that civilized the barbar cults and tribes…. The books ends as Joseph’s life ends – Joseph was my grandfather’s name and also, in the Bible, Benjamin’s older beloved brother, viceroy of Egypt – with the survivor on his deathbed remembering jokes: not setups, only punchlines, 108 of them exactly. Goodluck guessing the setups. As the last punchline goes, “it’s steady work.”

Q. What else can you tell us about this book? What do we need to know?

JC. The title, Witz. It means, in Yiddish as in German, “a joke.” But it also means, in assorted Slavic languages, “son of”: Abramowitz being “son-of-Abram.” Variants include “vich,” and “vitch”: Rabinovich, Rabinovitch.
So, the book is both a joke – the entire book is the entire joke – and a son. Benjamin Israelien, my Last Jew, that son of a witz.

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