Joshua Cohen is Samuel Fischer Guest Professor at the Peter Szondi Institute of the FU Berlin in the winter semester of 2017/18. He is the author of five novels, including Witz (2010), Book of Numbers (2015) and, most recently, Moving Kings (2017), as well as numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces. He has worked as a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times, the Jewish Daily Forward and the London Review of Books, and has taught at Columbia University and the New School in New York, where he lives.
Interview by Chris Fenwick
You’ve lived in Berlin on previous occasions – I think you first came here in 2001, and the final part of Book of Numbers is set in a more recent incarnation of the city. What drew you here in the first place, and how do you feel about the way the city has changed?
I was told, I forget by whom, that the city was cheap. And the truth was, it was – it was cheaper. I had a job working for the venerable Jewish newspaper The Forward – I was the paper’s Europe correspondent. That meant: a whole lot of territory, not a whole lot of Jews. So I was on planes and trains and buses a lot, and that’s where I began writing fiction. In transit. In the window seat.
As for how I feel about how the city has changed, I don’t know. Let me just say that it’s cleaned up a lot. But then so have I. When I was here back then I felt as if Berlin and I were at the same stage of life: irresponsible about everything – about our money, our health, our sleeping – because our true responsibility was to history.
You also have a background in music and hold a degree in composition. What made you pursue literature instead? Do you still keep in touch with that world? Did having this specialized training in another field affect you as a writer, beyond the background it provided for your first novel, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (2006)?
I was a musician from my youth and burned out – I just didn’t have the talent, or the talent of discipline, for a future. I’m not sure what of that education persists in my prose, but I know I write by mouth, by breath, by breath rhythm. I wish I were a singer.
That said, there’s something about music I’ve always mistrusted – though I was only able to admit that once I’d quit music (and had a breakdown) (and found my way back to sanity through putting words on the page). What I mistrusted was music’s ability to inculcate emotion, to inundate with emotion, to sway in a way that silences thought. I think I was, and remain, too susceptible to that: I’m too willing to “surrender.”
The class you’re teaching at the Freie Universität is essentially in creative writing. You’ve been very critical of the way writing is taught in MFA programmes in the United States. How would you say your approach to teaching is different?
We read books by the dead. That’s a difference. Also: my fundamental topic isn’t the sentence but structure, how to build a book. The US has a mania for the sentence. Perhaps that’s because of time constraints. Perhaps that’s because of mind constraints. You choose.
A final difference I’ll mention is: none of my FU students are writing majors (because there is no writing major) and all of them speak German.
Book of Numbers has been described as an “internet novel.” You tell the story of the development of this technology, up to Web 2.0, WikiLeaks, the NSA, etc., but also show its effects on our personal and cultural habits. Do you think the novel has to adapt to help us think about these developments? What do you think an “internet novel” really is?
The novel doesn’t have to do anything, but it will, it has – it always has. I think, in fact, it has adapted so much that we now can remind ourselves that it didn’t have to.
I think “an Internet novel” is a marketing/PR term.
Moving Kings, your most recent book, struck me as rather classical in comparison to your earlier work. The prose is unmistakable, but formally it is a long way from Witz or Cadenza, which are arguably experimental novels. Has your approach to form changed over the years? How do you feel about balancing experimentation with the traditional demands of the novel (to tell a story, create dramatic momentum, etc.)?
Funny: what you’re calling “rather classical” was the result of a desire to prove myself – to prove my education and training. I was annoyed by a few critics (I mean, my family), who, after reading each of my earlier books, said: why can’t you just write “normally”? Of course, after they read Moving Kings, the call for “normalcy” continued.
I remember as a kid going to the Museum of Modern Art with my father who, in a room full of abstractions, turned to me and said, “Not one of these goddamned people could draw hands.”
How important is writing non-fiction for you? What peculiarities do novelists have as critics?
I like having money for rent, so I like non-fiction. (My landlords like non-fiction too.) Novelists bring, or should bring, to criticism the hard-earned sense that making books is hard. Most critics these days, being young (because most criticism is published online), haven’t yet had that experience (they’ve had other traumas).
You are often compared to Philip Roth and David Foster Wallace (or at least your publishers like the comparison). How compelling do you find this? Are Roth and Wallace especially important for you?
Wallace, no. He’s a Midwestern boy. A goy, if you’ll forgive me. His irony isn’t mine. His suspicions about irony aren’t mine. I mean, I respect all that mind – but how much should you have to think to reach sincerity?
Bellow was my teens, Roth my twenties – I think I got it backward. They’re like relatives of mine – I love them completely – I love them even for their flaws.
What annoys you most about contemporary fiction? By contrast, which contemporary authors interest you the most?
I’m bothered by individuals, not by periods or genres. We’re doing this interview a day after the passing of William H. Gass, the most German of American writers. I’ll miss him.