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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Netanyahus

Joshua Cohen

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To purchase The Netanyahus

Title: The Netanyahus
Author: Joshua Cohen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 237 pages
Availability: The Netanyahus - US
The Netanyahus - UK
The Netanyahus - Canada
Les Nétanyahou - France
Los Netanyahus - España
directly from: New York Review Books (US)
directly from: Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK)
  • An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family
  • Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2022

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Our Assessment:

A- : well-crafted and good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 30/4/2021 Jon Day
The Guardian . 20/5/2021 Leo Robson
The NY Times Book Rev. A 11/7/2021 T.Brodesser-Akner
The Spectator . 22/5/2021 Christopher Shrimpton
The Times . 1/5/2021 John Phipps
TLS . 16/7/2021 Jude Cook
Wall St. Journal . 18/6/2021 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)hough Blum is no straight analogue of Bloom, Cohen seems to have stuck pretty closely to the rest of the facts. In doing so he raises questions about the workings of history on individual lives. How much should a Jewish historian be a representative of Jewish history ? Blum's tragedy is not so much that his attempts at assimilation are thwarted, but that he has so little choice over whether to try to assimilate or not." - Jon Day, Financial Times

  • "It's a source of slight disappointment that Cohen didn't stick closer to the record. (...) With its tight time frame, loopy narrator, portrait of Jewish-American life against a semi-rural backdrop, and moments of cruel academic satire, The Netanyahus reads like an attempt, as delightful as it sounds, to cross-breed Roth's The Ghost Writer and Nabokov's Pale Fire. Yet the novel may also help to explain why Cohen doesn't possess a fame equal to his talent. The ebullience and hyper-fertility that accounts for his work's rare pleasures can produce an engulfing excess." - Leo Robson, The Guardian

  • "(A) generational campus novel, an unyielding academic lecture, a rigorous meditation on Jewish identity, an exhaustive meditation on Jewish-American identity, a polemic on Zionism, a history lesson. It is an infuriating, frustrating, pretentious piece of work -- and also absorbing, delightful, hilarious, breathtaking and the best and most relevant novel I've read in what feels like forever." - Taffy Brodesser-Akner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Joshua Cohen's The Netanyahus is a campus novel that swerves between stern lecture and clownish humour. (...) Cohen is at his best with chaotic, everyone-shouting-at-once set pieces. (...) The Netanyahus, like Cohen's previous novels, is driven by the momentum of its prose. It has a freewheeling, all-consuming style which frequently turns up unexpected delights. (...) Slowing things down are a series of lectures on Zionism. Dour and rambling, they interrupt the narrative, much as Netanyahu darkens the door of Blum. This is intentionally wearisome, but wearisome nonetheless." - Christopher Shrimpton, The Spectator

  • "Joshua Cohen's sixth novel is a satirical coup de maître that smuggles serious questions about American exceptionalism, the chaotic and controversial origins of the state of Israel, and the sanity of the family of its recently deposed prime minister, into the form of a campus farce. (...) (A)n achingly funny novel, and all the more so for that fact that it includes chapter-long historiographical lectures and a constant smokescreen of counterfactual and metafictional games. (...) Written with Cohen's customary chutzpah, intelligence and wit, The Netanyahus takes the reader on a dizzying journey." - Jude Cook, Times Literry Supplement

  • "Mr. Cohen has fictionalized the episode to brilliant effect, producing a novel that is in part a seriocomic portrayal of postwar American domesticity, in part an ideological origin story, and most of all a parable dramatizing the intra-tribal disputes that divided Jews in the wake of the Holocaust. (...) With it Mr. Cohen proves himself not just America's most perceptive and imaginative Jewish novelist, but one of its best novelists full stop." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Yes, the Netanyahus of the title are those Netanyahus -- though, set in the fall and winter of 1959-60, the best-known of the lot, now-former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin, is merely an unruly ten-year-old accessory here. The Netanyahu who is the focus is the pater familias, Ben-Zion -- a scholar of some (and various ...) reputation, venerated by the real Benjamin --, the 'minor episode' of the title being that surrounding his visit to the fictional upstate New York Corbin College (a Cornell stand-in) as part of a job-interview process.
       In an afterword of 'Credits & Extra Credit' author Joshua Cohen explains that he got to know American literary critic Harold Bloom, and that among the many stories and experiences Bloom related to him was one about:

the time he was asked to coordinate 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. Of all of Harold's tales, this was the one that stuck with me the most, perhaps because it was one of the last he ever told me, and following his death in 2019, I wrote it down, and in the process found myself having to invent a number of details he'd left out, and, due to circumstances I'm about to explain, having to fictionalize a few others.
       So The Netanyahus is based, more and less, on real figures and, at least in outline, a real event. The narrator of the novel is the Harold Bloom-figure, here named Ruben Blum -- with Cohen insisting the portrait of Blum and family diverges considerably from the actual Blooms -- not least in there also being a high-school-age daughter, Judith, in the household. He notes, however, that in the writing, while: "soon the "Blums" took on a life of their own [...] the Netanyahus remained the Netanyahus". There is some irony in an author fictionalizing much about those he actually knows quite well -- Bloom and his: "highly cultured, shrewd, and witty wife", Jeanne ('Edith' in the novel) -- while sticking much closer to the facts -- at least the public and biographical ones -- about a character he never met (and also sticking to his actual name, Ben-Zion); it's also a bit of a distraction: among the annoyances of such semi-life based fiction is that there's a constant question hovering alongside the text, the reader wondering all along what's (supposed to be) real and what isn't.
       If this half-fact foundation is and remains awkward, the rest of the novel isn't. Cohen easily assumes the voice of his narrator, a professor of history -- his specialty: "the history of tax policy's influence on politics and political revolutions". Blum writes in retirement, but the focus of his story is on events from when he was first starting out at Corbin College, in the late 1950s, and Blum's really feels like a voice of those times; indeed, stylistically, much of The Netanyahus has that 1960s feel -- a campus novel by a (somewhat hapless) academic of those times.
       Blum and his wife are Jewish, and as such complete outliers at the college and in the community:
I became the first Jew ever hired by Corbin College (in those days Corbin University was still a College), and I don't mean the first tenure-track Jewish faculty member in the Corbin College History Department, I mean the first Jew in the entire school -- faculty and, as far as I could tell, student-body included.
       This was an institution where weekly attendance at Chapel was still mandatory, "for students and faculty alike". And with much of the action here set around Christmas-time, the Blums' difference from the rest of the community is even more obvious -- with Blum imagining that when the school directed Netanyahu to their unwreathed door:
Those are the directions that should've been given to Netanyahu: keep a look-out for the one house that isn't Santa's workshop.
       Blum describes his and his wife's (different, but both Jewish) backgrounds, and the previous generation -- their parents, all true New Yorkers -- also figure in the story. (Visiting them in upstate New York, Blum's mother-in-law is horrified by the provincialism they've settled into, finding: "it's a miracle that not everyone has committed suicide". ) There's also daughter Judy, a star student at the local high school, busy writing her college application essays, with Blum her strict -- indeed overbearingly demanding -- editor. (Although a shoo-in to be accepted -- likely on a full scholarship -- Judy won't even consider going to Corbin.) Aside from school and college applications, Judy's other major preöccupation is her nose, which she is desperate to get fixed -- a not insignificant subplot to the novel.
       Jewish identity, in all its forms (not least Judith's distinctive nose), and how it is seen and handled by both the Jewish characters as well as all the others is at the heart of the novel. It does not take Ben-Zion's arrival -- which only comes well into the novel -- to bring it to the fore, but his job application does act as a catalyst, reminding Blum yet again of his position in this community -- which Ben-Zion will eventually suggest is that of the "protected Jew. The useful Jew to keep in your pocket". Earlier in the fall, Department Chair Dr. Morse asked Blum to serve on a hiring committee, to assess a prospective hire -- Netanyahu. Normally, someone as junior as Blum wouldn't yet be asked but they make an exception: Netanyahu's specialty is the history of Jews, and obviously he's Jewish too, so they clearly figure who better to assess him than their very own Jew on staff .....
       Even before he arrives for the campus visit Blum learns a lot about Netanyahu, not least from the letters of recommendation for the candidate. There's the one from the president of Dropsie College -- the institution where the real Ben-Zion did indeed get his Ph.D. (it's now the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania) -- and a lengthier and more revealing one from a professor at Hebrew University, Peretz Levavi, both providing insight into (the real) Netanyahu.
       Among Levavi's observations (and/or warnings) is that: "Netanyahu has demonstrated a tendency to politicize the Jewish past, turning its traumas into propaganda" And he even goes so far as to bluntly state:
Further, many not only throughout all levels of Israeli academia, but even throughout all levels of Israeli government, would prefer Netanyahu's continued employment abroad to the prospect of his returning.
       (Netanyahu did, indeed, spend much of his career in the United States, only returning to Israel in the mid-1970s.)
       Netanyahu's magnum opus was the enormous Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain -- which, Cohen suggests: "remains an acclaimed, though controversial, text". With Netanyahu's arrival upstate -- family unexpectedly in tow -- the novel turns even more to questions of Jewish identity and history, with Netanyahu's strongly-expressed views of things stirring things up further in a story that repeatedly plays provocation against reaction (or lack thereof). He maintains, for example, that: "of all the peoples in the world, none is less historical, or less historically minded" than the Jews -- even as he is applying for a position as teacher of history. (Netanyahu is clearly underwhelmed by Corbin, but he is obviously in dire need of a job; still, he doesn't toady up to the powers that be.)
       The discussions and examples of Jewish identity -- in that present-day as well as historically -- are fascinating and quite well-integrated into the story. The letters and lectures are digressions of sorts, but engaging and thought-provoking rather than dry-academic -- even if at least aspects of the subject-matter might seem esoteric to many readers.
       Beyond that, Cohen weaves back and forth and together very well, his subject matter addressed in so many different ways and from so many angles. Far from being a theoretical novel, too, the action itself -- from the descriptions of academic life (at a not exactly first-rate institution), family life, and then the take-no-prisoners whirlwind that are the Netanyahus -- is exceptionally well presented and described. The Netanyahus is also very much a comic novel -- evermore frenetic, too -- and while Blum often gives the impression of being close to overwhelmed he manages to maintain just enough (self-)control, with just enough dryness to his descriptions of the snowballing disaster that is the Netanyahu's visit.
       The secondary characters here are very strong, too, from the "breezy, barely passable historian" Dr.Morse (who appropriately calls Blum 'Rube') to both Blum's and Netanyahu's wives to strong-willed daughter Judith (who really has some issues ...).
       It's a neat trick Cohen pulls off here, The Netanyahus in many ways disarmingly light, even lighthearted, and much about the novel reässuringly conventional, down to how Cohen uses the wintery conditions when the Netanyahus are visiting, while also being so many-faceted in addressing the question of Jewish identity. The Netanyahus is, undeniably, through and through a 'Jewish novel' but seeing it simply as that really doesn't do it justice; it is an accomplished work of fiction, a solid novel, in every respect -- and a lot of good fun, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 June 2021

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The Netanyahus: Reviews: Joshua Cohen: Other books by Joshua Cohen under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Joshua Cohen was born in 1980.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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