In recent years Fitzcarraldo Editions have been blurring the lines between fiction (blue covers) and non fiction (white covers). What is the difference when it comes to storytelling? Recollections, no matter how rigorously checked and cross referenced, will always be filtered through the lens and prejudices of the teller.
Joshua Cohen states clearly that The Netanyahus is a work of fiction, although featuring real people – some of whom are still alive – and inspired by events that actually happened to them. His interest in the episode around which the novel is constructed was piqued when the American literary critic, Harold Bloom, mentioned it during one of their regular conversations.
“the time he was asked to co-ordinate the campus visit of an obscure Israeli historian named Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who showed up for a job interview and lecture with his wife and three children in tow and proceeded to make a mess.”
One of the children, Benjamin, went on to become the youngest ever Israeli prime minister and the longest-serving head of state in the country’s history. This, however, is a footnote to the story Cohen tells of the father – the egotistical and aspiring academic.
Set in the winter of 1959/60, the tale is narrated by Rubin Blum, an historian on the tenure track at what was then still Corbin College. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, Edith, and they have one daughter, Judith, who is applying for college. They are the first Jews to live in Corbindale.
“We were talked-down-to, deigned-to, patronized, studied. Our presence was a nuisance to some and a curiosity to all.”
The Netanyahus do not actually arrive until more than half-way into the book. Prior to this we have character introduction and scene setting, which I very much enjoyed reading. The writing is witty, pithy and cognisant. Cohen pokes fun at Jewish stereotypes, observant of tics, taking down the lazy confidence of the privileged who remain unaware – or unconcerned – about how they may come across to those they regard as beneath them yet will indulge to a limited degree.
Blum’s parents and parents-in-law feature. His mother-in-law is portrayed as the Jewish matriarch from hell – critical, competitive and domineering.
“She’s talk about concerts in terms of how expensive the tickets were and how much better her seats were than her friends’. She’d talk about art in terms of how much Walt had bid at auction and who against.”
Jewish men are portrayed as proud and intransigent, the scholars within the community ‘afflicted with the hubris of the wounded intelligentsia’, who feel regular work is ‘trivial and beneath him’. Politically, many were ‘men of the Left, or professed to be, though they were Marxists with the tastes of bourgeois.’
There are interesting details on the founding of Israel – the politics, history and infighting. These bring to light ingrained resentments. The older generation do what they can to bequeath these, to keep them alive. What is depicted is hatred inherent in the desire to keep Jews Jewish. I pondered if the people chose to be unhappy, if they were strangely happy nursing their malcontents.
Having built a strong backstory, the Netanyahus arrive at the Blums’ house during a snowstorm. Instead of being alone as expected, Ben-Zion brings his wife and three young sons. It becomes apparent that the whole family are badly house-trained. Carnage ensues. What had been verbal sparring – with strong doses of humour lightening the facts and opinion shared – descends into farce wrapped around imperious lecturing. The well-mannered Americans struggle to deal with a man wielding a massive ego and enormous dose of self-entitlement, who displays anger towards any who will not bow to his will.
“he felt underestimated, condescended to, demeaned. He felt insulted, he who’d delivered the insults and had come seeking favor.”
Ben-Zion’s lecture style is described as ‘touting his own delusions as definitive’. The transcripts provided here help explain how his sons turned out as they did.
This is a clever novel and will likely appeal to those who enjoy impressive linguistics within an engaging and entertaining tale. It mines tropes for their comedy, although I am on the fence as to whether I found the injections of humour funny or sad, focusing as they do on casual cruelty in conversation and other bad behaviour. What anyone finds funny will always be highly personal.
There were also elements I found disturbing. I assume Judith is around sixteen years old. She dislikes her Jewish nose so concocts a plan to enable her to access the surgery her family refuses to countenance. I worried for the trauma suffered by her grandparents as a result of her actions. Later in the story there is an interaction between her and the eldest Netanyahu child, Jonathan, who is three years Judith’s junior. The resulting scenes were slapstick but their basis remained inexplicable if not a worrying assault, on or by a child.
That said, I did enjoy this book for the insights it offers into Jewish attitudes and history. It may be yet another American male writing a campus novel, but the window it provides has enough originality and literary merit to make it a worthwhile read.