Joshua Cohen just wrote a book called Witz. Or rather, Witz was just published—its writing took nine years, and the inimitable Jewish culture with which it symbiotically exists has been gestating way longer than that. For a day, Joshua and I exchanged e-mails. He loves Saul Bellow, and he likes Philip Roth. I love Philip Roth, and I also love knowing that today still sees writers like Joshua, and books as magnificent as Witz.
Kevin Lincoln: Much has been made of the long sentences, which, true to talk, are very long. But these sentences also seem to have a particular lilt, a warm Jewish canter that imbues the narrative voice with its own Affiliation. I assume this is deliberate unless I’m misreading it, so I’ll ask, what compelled you to Affiliate even your omniscient narrator? Who is this narrator? Is it you?
Joshua Cohen: The narrator, omniscient or not, is Affiliated by dint of the writer’s Affiliation. Certainly it was my conception that the languages approach a Jewish conversational ideal: hyperarticulate, jokey. Also with a krechts. When the narration turns from third person to first—when Benjamin Israelien loses His tongue to an unfortunate confluence of cunnilingus and the 137th Psalm—the true nature of speaker and spoken is revealed: Not that what you call the voice of the book is the voice of Jewry, but that the voice of the book is Jewry itself (that is all Jewry is).
Lincoln: Also, what do you have against the period?
Cohen: Ask the Torah that question—the Torah has no periods, commas, or dashes—ask God. Punctuation is Greco-Roman, not Semitic. What had been a guide to reading aloud has become silent convention. The more holy the book the less its punctuation.
Lincoln: What appeals to you about the effects of blunt repetition and slight variation, which you use to great success in the novel—two particular instances coming to mind: Israel’s being haunted by cancer everywhere, and the manipulation and repetition of the word “beget”?
Cohen: Repetitions and variations fascinate. They provide grounding, comfort to the wilder creations. Formulas also make great bricks for formal pyramids. With them you can build high or build wide. Hebrew has no superlatives. When you want to say “the best song”—meaning Solomon’s—you say “The Song of Songs.” To make better you double, redouble. That is one structural principle of Witz.
Lincoln: Out of all the allusions and symbolism that I’ve so far encountered in Witz, the one that sticks out the most for me comes right at the beginning: the Shabbos guests climbing out of the Israeliens’ oven, stars falling from their chest, the semantics of “oven” vs. “stove” debated so that there’s little doubt in the reader regarding the deliberate, Holocaustian invocations of the word “oven.” In the New York Observer profile, you claim the “aesthetic mission” of putting “an end to the novel of Jewish kitsch, Holocausts with happy endings,” and this scene sticks out as a definite sally in this battle, one that, to me, has a greater ideological significance and gains more ground in the reclamation of Jewish history than Safran Foer and Chabon’s novels all put together. I really liked it. What are you trying to do to the readers’ perceptions with a scene like this and a novel like Witz?
Cohen: That scene—but it’s really more of an image than a scene—is about how history comes to the present, how history comes into our homes—literally. A group of men and women exiting an oven in Europe only to emerge from one—or from a stove—in America. Just in time for dinner. But, in a sense, they are the dinner too.
Lincoln: Also, bonus question: what do you think of Philip Roth?
Cohen: If Roth didn’t exist Bellow would’ve had to invent him. So, yes, I like him. But Bellow I love.