The Center for Writers & Translators

CWT and American Library Host “The Netanyahus” Author Joshua Cohen

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On Wednesday, January 19, 2021, AUP’s Center for Writers and Translators (CWT) – a research center dedicated to the promotion of literary activity, especially as it relates to the practice of translation – co-hosted, along with the American Library in Paris, an “Evening with an Author” event with New York–based writer Joshua Cohen. The discussion, which took place in the American Library and was livestreamed via Zoom, focused on Cohen’s latest novel, The Netanyahus, published in 2021. Professor Daniel Medin of CWT conducted the conversation.

The Netanyahus takes the form of a historical campus novel set in 1959 in a fictional college town in upstate New York. Ruben Blum, a Jewish historian, reviews the job application of an exiled Israeli scholar: Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Benjamin Netanyahu, the now former prime minister of Israel. When Benzion arrives with his family in tow, Blum “plays the reluctant host to guests who proceed to lay waste to his American complacencies.”

Medin began the discussion by asking Cohen about the novel’s timeliness, noting that much of it was written during the Covid-19 lockdown in New York. Cohen explained how lockdown moved him to reconsider something he had been told by American literary critic Howard Bloom, who met the Netanyahus when Benzion interviewed for a professorial role. “He said that this guy and his wife and three kids showed up and trashed the place!” said Cohen. “It was this great structural metaphor for diaspora.”

The anecdote inspired Cohen to explore historical fiction, though rather than focusing on the details and realism of the period, he concerned himself more with what people might have been thinking. “If you try to show what they were thinking at the time, it would be far stranger, and to use a contemporary word, problematic,” he explained. Cohen viewed this foray into historical fiction as an opportunity to see how far he could push the form into ideological critique, applying the modern-day consciousness of identity politics to a writing style prominent in the 50s and 60s.

Medin and Cohen also discussed the novel’s engagement with Jewish conceptions of history; with conflicting identities and ideologies, such as the tension between liberal democracy and ethnonationalism; and with assimilation and the relationships between Israelis, Americans and American Jews. Following their conversation, Cohen took questions from the audience, including about whether the Netanyahus had responded to his work and whether the novel qualified as historical revisionism.

You can watch the full discussion, including the Q&A session, on the YouTube channel of the American Library in Paris.

The American University of Paris is thrilled to hear that, since this CWT event, Joshua Cohen's The Netanyahus has won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Congratulations, Joshua!