The size of Joshua Cohen’s achievement sank in only when he received an anonymous e-mail showing his head Photoshopped on to the body of a Jewish person being pushed into a Nazi gas chamber.
The writer, 41, had arrived in Israel last week to spend a few quiet days working on his next novel before an appearance at the Jerusalem International Book Forum. Then he got a surprising phone call from New York informing him that his latest novel, The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, had just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
“My in-box was immediately filled with thousands of e-mails,” says a still-exhausted Cohen. “First, congratulations from friends. Then, hundreds of invitations from across the planet to come and speak about the book. And then thousands of neo-Nazi spam hate e-mails. Of course, I knew that lots of Jews get these, but I never made the list before. That’s when I realized that I’d finally arrived. I [had] made it as an American Jew.”
Cohen wrote The Netanyahus — a riotously hilarious account of a disastrous evening spent on a fictional snowy American East Coast campus in 1959 — during the first coronavirus lockdown. “I figured, what’s the dumbest thing I could possibly do when the world is coming to an end,” says Cohen. “I could ruin my career by writing a book no one will read.”
Cohen had already published five critically acclaimed novels, as well as short stories, and been hailed as one of the most brilliant American writers of his generation, but The Netanyahus didn’t look at first like being the novel with which he would reach wider audiences and fame. At first he couldn’t even find a publisher.
“I figured, what’s the dumbest thing I could possibly do when the world is coming to an end. I could ruin my career by writing a book no one will read.”
“It was turned down by a dozen publishers, all the big ones, including my previous publisher, Penguin Random House,” Cohen recalls of the frustration to get his sixth novel published. In the end he signed a contract to publish a paperback edition with The New York Review of Books.
He wasn’t entirely surprised though. In a toxic period of identity wars, when mainstream American culture is increasingly cautious of courting controversy, he had chosen as his main protagonists two extremely controversial figures. One is Professor Benzion Netanyahu, the bleakly doctrinaire and right-wing historian and father of Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I don’t think many editors at publishing houses even got past the title,” says Cohen. “As liberals, their visceral aversion to everything Netanyahu represents was enough to make them automatically reach for their rejection slips.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, the other main figure in the book is a fellow historian, Ruben Blum, a fictional character but one who is clearly inspired by the celebrated American literary critic Harold Bloom (Cohen, who was close to Bloom in his later years, acknowledges this in the book’s postscript).
Bloom, who died in 2019, had been dogged over the years by accusations, which he strenuously denied, of sexual harassment and having affairs with his students. Bloom was also in many ways a precursor of today’s culture wars in his championing of the literary “western canon” against his fellow literary critics and academics whom he characterized as belonging to the “school of resentment”.
“It did seem like career suicide, as a white male writer and at the height of the #MeToo period, to be writing a book like this,” admits Cohen. “It ruined my life for a while until I did manage to get the book published and it was so well received, but I still can’t believe it’s won the Pulitzer. I mean, all these prizes are political and I can’t begin to imagine what political mechanisms went into the committee’s decision here.”
“It did seem like career suicide, as a white male writer and at the height of the #MeToo period, to be writing a book like this.”
The Netanyahus is a satirical account of an actual event more than six decades ago, when Professor Bloom, already a rising star in American academia, was detailed to chaperone Professor Netanyahu, who after failing to get a job back home in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, had emigrated with his young family to the United States in the hope of reviving his failing career. Cohen had heard of the encounter from Bloom and then, after his death, had also found letters from Netanyahu in his archives, mainly disparaging another American-Jewish colleague of theirs.
What was supposed to be a short visit, guest lecture and job audition at the fictional Corbin College (loosely based on Cornell University where Benzion eventually ended up as a professor in the 1970s), with its descriptions of the chaos and destruction wreaked by Benzion, wife Tzila and their three boys (the middle son, Bibi, Israel’s future leader, who is ten at the time, has only a very minor appearance) on the Bloom household, is a rib-cracking romp of a campus novel in the David Lodge tradition.
However, it is also a much deeper exploration of shifting positions of American Jews, at once both successful assimilationists and perennial outsiders, as well as their eternally conflicted relationship with their Jewish cousins in Israel.
“My in-box was … filled with … thousands of neo-Nazi spam hate e-mails.... That’s when I realized that I’d finally arrived. I [had] made it as an American Jew.”
After The Netanyahus came out in the United States, another natural audience for it was in Israel, where not only the former prime minister, but other members of his family, especially the elder brother, Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, a war hero who was killed in the daring Entebbe Raid of 1976, and who makes his own rather thrustful appearance in the book, are regarded as national icons.
But here too major Israeli publishers who were offered the Hebrew translation rights turned down the book. It was finally translated into Hebrew and brought out in Israel by a small literary journal, which until then had only published collections of poetry.
“I haven’t heard anything directly from the Netanyahu family about the book and I don’t think they actually tried to suppress [it],” says Cohen. But the Netanyahus are famously litigious and are currently in the midst of a number of libel actions. The legal departments of Israeli publishers seem to have balked at taking the risk and since Netanyahu was at the time still in office, the publishers may have been wary of jeopardizing their relationship with the Ministry of Culture, headed by a Netanyahu loyalist.
That is all now a thing of the past. In a twist of fate worthy of satirical fiction, Netanyahu is now in opposition and on trial for corruption, while Cohen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and celebrated guest at the Jerusalem Book Forum.
Anshel Pfeffer is an Israeli journalist