Here is my review of The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen. The Irish Times, 5 June 2021, p. 17.
In a postface to his sixth novel, The Netanyahus, Joshua Cohen relates how he befriended Harold Bloom (to whom this book is dedicated) towards the close of his life. The venerable critic regaled Cohen with countless anecdotes — playing chess with Nabokov, skinny-dipping with Derrida — but the one that made the greatest impression was the time he supervised the campus visit of an “obscure Israeli historian” called Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who rocked up with his feral family, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Netanyahu’s second-born child went on to become the longest-serving, and most controversial, prime minister in Israeli history, thus endowing this farcical fait divers with a retrospective patina of world-historical importance: “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family”.
The antique cast of this comically prolix, self-deprecating subtitle is redolent of early novels, which frequently masqueraded as authentic documents. The Netanyahus purports to be composed by a retired academic who, sensing the nighness of the end, is prompted to put pen to paper, as established in the opening sentences: “My name is Ruben Blum and I’m, yes, an historian. Soon enough, though, I guess I’ll be historical”. This transmutation of subject into subject matter is posited as a “more natural, rational incarnation” than the Christian version: “Goys believe in the Word becoming Flesh, but Jews believe in the Flesh becoming Word”. It could also be construed as the mission statement of an author at the top of his game who, like Flaubert, has alchemised a rather insignificant real-life incident into fictive gold. Cohen exploits his character’s professional rigour to sport with the conventions of memoir. Quotation marks are “holy to historians”, Ruben explains, vowing “to express only what was expressed to [him], as verbatim as [his] memory is able” — which is ironic given that both he and the dialogue are made up. Beyond his aversion to today’s “culture of grievance”, the character bears no resemblance to Harold Bloom. There is his surname, of course, but Ruben’s year of birth — 1922 — connects him to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, and hence the world of fiction, rather than the waking nightmare of his discipline.
The struggle between history and myth provides the novel with its dialectical armature. History is associated with the onward march of progress, which would go on unimpeded “so long as every country kept trying to be more like America and America kept trying to be more like itself”. Even the revisionist zealot Ben-Zion is depicted, “lotused” on the floor in front of his hosts’ new colour television set, watching Bonanza with rapt attention. Significantly, when events spiral out of control, the tohubohu unleashed by the “Yahus” (as Ruben and his wife, Edith, call them) is likened to technological failure: “the snow was hissing down like static from a world signed-off, ash from the end of broadcast days”.
Ruben opted for “pagan” academia in a bid to flee his “Jewish past” (which returns in the shape of the Yahus), but remains torn between “the American condition of being able to choose and the Jewish condition of being chosen”. His teenage daughter Judy — whose agonistic relation to her elders provides a great deal of mirth — chooses rhinoplasty, which may be her own way of leaving behind the stereotypes affixed to her origins. Corbindale, where the Blums relocated from New York City, is so nondescript that their relatives keep calling it “Corbinton” or “Corbinville”. It is also a hotbed of petty anti-Semitism. The mechanic at the local garage pats Ruben’s head to feel his horns and, as the first Jew to be hired by Corbin College, he is expected to don a Santa Claus outfit at Christmas. It is for this very reason too that he is tasked, in 1960, with vetting Mr Netanyahu’s application and preparing his visit. Ben-Zion, whose idiosyncratic interpretation of the Iberian Inquisition I shall not disclose, argues that the Jewish people have been able to endure by abiding in myth, from whence he himself seems to have sprung. When he howls, it is “in the wind’s language, Hebrew” that he does so.
The Netanyahus demonstrates what can still be done within the relatively conventional yet capacious parameters of literary fiction. It veers from mid-century comedy of manners to campus caper by way of social, political and religious satire. Bravura displays — such as the hilarious scene where Edith’s mother harangues Ruben while her husband unburdens himself, most indiscreetly, in the adjoining toilet — are legion. Dialogue is deftly handled throughout: the banter between Ruben and Edith, in particular, is pitch perfect. Cohen’s style — inventive but elegantly understated — is a class act that few of his contemporaries can follow.
All in all, this is a veritable triumph.
Me in my bedroom in 1980 at the Museum of Youth Culture‘s pop-up on Carnaby Street in 2021.
Another illustration provided by Christiana Spens for a short film based on the first chapter of my work-in-progress, Loren Ipsum.
“An old dear who had been strangled in broad daylight with her Hermès scarf near the Champs-Elysées. The motive of the crime remained a complete mystery prompting prominent columnists to brush up on their Gide, eager as they were to frame this putative acte gratuit with lashings of Lafcadio. There was no CCTV footage. No witnesses. None of the woman’s expensive jewellery had been stolen. The wads of banknotes she was wont to carry about in her handbag? All there too and all too there. Not only was their non-theft ostentatious, even downright provocative, but rumour had it that a couple of extra bundles had been bunged in for good measure — that is, presumably, as compensation for the murder. A tip of sorts. Her quiddity for a few quid, or the equivalent in euros. Stranger still, forensics had found breadcrumbs lodged, hither and thither, in the biddy’s extravagantly-lacquered bouffant. They believed the victim was beaten about the head with a baguette tradition bien cuite. Whether this had occurred before, after or, less plausibly, during the strangling, remained a moot point at this stage. One school of thought argued that the criminal had planned to kill their easy prey with this incredible — and indeed edible — weapon, before consuming it, thus cunningly disposing of exhibit number one. In the event, however, the crusty bread had proved insufficiently crusty, hence the scarf. The only real clue, and a rather cryptic one at that, was a note pinned to the corpse’s coat, which read NOTHING IS LOST in English and in all-caps Helvetica Neue. A death sentence.”
Another illustration provided by Christiana Spens for a short film based on the first chapter of my work-in-progress, Loren Ipsum.
“Then he got up to refill her glass and, instinctively, she got up too and then they were kissing, deep and slow, their tongues going round and round and round like the ground bass number in the background, and he gently lifted up her summer frock as the melody soared over the looping bassline and she found herself reclining in a Le Corbusier-style chaise longue. ‘J’aime quand ça s’incarne,’ she whispered, drawing him hither with her long legs.”
Another illustration provided by Christiana Spens for a short film based on the first chapter of my work-in-progress, Loren Ipsum.
“She had four sisters and one brother. It was the latter, Athelstan, who had taken the picture that was proudly displayed on Zanzibar’s kitchen corkboard: Andromeda, Lunula, Phylloxera, and Loren, all stark naked, on a Cornish beach (a re-enactment of the famous 1914 shot of the Olivier sisters).”
Here’s another fine illustration provided by Christiana Spens for a short film based on the first chapter of my work-in-progress, Loren Ipsum.
“He pictured Loren curled up on the floor by the open fire, her flared ultramarine skirt like an Yves Klein swirl lapping at her bare ankles; her face concealed by the book she was reading out loud — something heart-rending about the blue yonder you can never possess.”
Here’s one of the wonderful illustrations provided by Christiana Spens for a short film based on the first chapter of my work-in-progress, Loren Ipsum. That’s Loren Ipsum on the left, with Victorine Gribiche — her French translator — on the right.
“The two young women could often be found, giggling away over a cheeky spritz, at La Fourmi, after their Pilates class.”
Here is my interview with Matthew Turner for 3:AM Magazine, 6 April 2021.
Matthew, last year you were Visiting Professor of Architecture and Visual Theory at the University of Bergen, and are currently a Lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts, as well as an editor at an architectural magazine (LOBBY), so it seems quite natural that both your non-fiction (I’m thinking of your superb piece for frieze on the ‘architecture of fascism’ in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina) and fiction should revolve around architecture, as the title of your first collection of short stories — Other Rooms (Hesterglock Press, 2019/ Dodo Ink, 2020) — attests. Your fiction, in particular, delineates a poetics of space — an architecture of the mind — that often focuses, as we shall see, on the liminal or uncanny.
You seem to be exploring very similar themes — the intersection between built and mental space — through your academic work, criticism and creative writing: could you tell us a little about these different approaches?
MT: I could answer this by describing how they all relate, and they do, but the real reason is pragmatic. It’s difficult to have the time and funding to think and develop new work, and working across these different areas allows for that. The needs of the students and readers come first of course, and unpacking books which have triggered something for me, but a by-product is that the academic work and criticism are a kind of test site for what filters into the fiction. I don’t have the Nevada Desert to experiment in, however, these more immaterial locations work well at the moment.
The precursor to Loom was an essay on what I called ‘Interior Edgelands’ for Icon Magazine (Icon 196: The London Issue), where I showed how the traditional edgelands, those strange areas on the outskirts of cities where the urban met rural, were migrating inwards because of properties bought for investment and left vacant, and all the buildings sites that pollute the small fragments of nature in the city with toxic dust and other detritus. And that was what I initially proposed to Emma Bolland at Gordian Projects.
It was a bizarre proposition really but I set it as a kind of thought problem to myself and hoped someone else might be intrigued. I essentially wrote a proposal describing this perennially exchanging urban condition, and asked whether someone who was on the run could evade capture by using it. And that happens in Loom, an urban myth of a persona called Olian who is on the run and there are rumours of hidden money that apparently nobody can find.
At the time I was thinking about other crime fiction based on changing urban conditions, such as Chinatown (1974) with its backdrop of changing water landscapes, the California water wars, as well as Scarface (1983) which is supposedly set in Miami, though more often the locations are simulated with these brilliantly grotesque wallpapers and plastic palm trees which really capture the unreality of that city, and, how anything is permissible.
These two examples really capture what I’m interested in when it comes to space, something I explored in the Bachmann piece. There is lots of discussion about how spaces can express personalities and dogmas, while I think they are more effective as incubators that create personas. J. G. Ballard usually described his ‘psychic landscapes’ as emanations from his characters’ minds, but really I think his brutal environments are incubators for these characters. They are made by it and for me that makes them more powerful, because they are real and not fitful projections. You can also see it in Patricia Highsmith’s writing, who was well aware of how spaces can be used to uncover disassociated psychological states. Remember that her first protagonist in Strangers on a Train is an architect who becomes paranoid that his guilt will somehow be shown in the buildings he is designing, yet when they are reviewed his peers see only ‘serenity’. Again, Tom, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, people know he’s evil, however, he gains some kind of redemption because of his exquisite taste in clothes, furniture and painting — which is most likely Highsmith toying with the shallow morals of the reader. All this stuff is not an emanation of his good taste at all, rather the environment is Tom Ripley because he has no solid personality of his own. The intense opulence of this incubator he creates for himself only underscores his lack of psyche. Similarly in Loom I wanted to explore how a corrupt built environment can affect the minds of the people who inhabit it. What kind of person does corruption carve out?
Your new novella, Loom (Gordian Projects), is rooted in the reality of contemporary London — or at least one aspect of it: it revolves around an uninhabited residence on a ‘Potemkin’ street (Millionaire’s Row) in a ghost (part of) town, where houses are investments not homes. The book immediately veers into stranger (and, arguably, far more interesting) territory, but I first wanted to ask you where you stand on psychogeography…
MT: Psychogeography is a tricky term for me. I grew up in such a boring and grey town that using your ‘imagination to remake the world’, as the psychogeographers say, was the only way to cope, and I knew that before I could put a name to it. My friends were all skateboarders and they were great at using the city in way that was opposed to how it was designed. We can’t have been alone in doing that.
As a teenager though, I really enjoyed reading Peter Ackroyd, but I think his writing is very different from the other writers using that term, and I’m not even sure he would label himself a psychogeographer. Reading Patrick Keiller’s book of essays The View From the Train was also a turning point, along with Anna Minton’s brilliant assessments of subtle control mechanisms and corrupt flows of wealth in London. Minton’s books come across as surreal quasi-fictions at first, but that is the reality of the city now. Surrealism made concrete.
As for the other writers most often associated with psychogeography, I think they commandeered writing about place, which already had an incredibly rich history in literature, put a name to it and overthought the whole thing into something which is, at its worst, close to trainspotting. They had a tendency to fetishise place and architecture to an extent that it put other people off writing about it who weren’t in the club, or, didn’t want to be associated. It might be why lots of fiction now has a very weak relationship to space and environment, whereas in the past, this link has been rich. I’m thinking of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight — he would have hated psychogeography of course, yet it is a great journey through a ghostly landscape. This sense of movement from place to place is also missing from a lot of current fiction and it makes me feel quite detached from the narrative, like some dimension of it is missing. Maybe this is more to do with seeing IRL spaces like digital spaces, where transitions are fast and seamless. Non-existent almost, without a real journey.
Despite this, there are people at the moment who write about place in a really inventive way. Just to name a few: Nicholas Royle, Joanna Walsh and Chris Power in his new book A Lonely Man, which is very clever in its use of a gentrified Berlin as a setting, tedious and ripe for paranoid delusions, and includes a drunken dérive-like taxi ride through London.
As for Loom, after Emma at Gordian Projects initially expressed an interest, we met and she challenged me by asking whether we needed another book about a man walking around London. This question led to the narrator being repositioned as a blind spot, unsure of who they are, resulting in this blurring of the house with the person that’s inhabiting it. For me, the psychogeographic writers I’ve come across write from a very masculine point of view, whereas when I read people like Marion Shoard and Luke Turner, places such as the edgelands are much more fluid in terms of gender and sexuality. In Loom the gender of the narrator is never mentioned, their pronouns will depend on the default setting the reader has in their mind. It will be interesting to see what this is.
The title Loom seems apt given the pervasive sense of foreboding, but it also refers to the all-important piece of gold thread that finds an echo, for instance, in the electric cables the protagonist attends to like ‘a medical student separating a circulatory system from an old cadaver’…
MT: It works in a few ways to hint at the book’s themes, while also functioning to join the personal events in the narrative to some kind of collective catastrophe. It’s easy to imagine the gold thread in Loom making its way beyond the house into all the invisible infrastructure, drains, pipes, internet cables, that could link it to the rest of the world.
The title also alludes to narrative threads. When I was young my mother made lace gloves for these rich aristocrats that nobody had ever heard of and were still living in a fantasy of the past. I see writing as being a bit like that weaving process, a filigree thing where you lay down threads, or, a machine, a loom.
At the same time, the title is somewhat paradoxical because what seems to be looming has, in a sense, already happened (like the disaster for Maurice Blanchot). Would you agree?
MT: Yes, I think this feeling of constant suspense without conclusion is a much more truthful depiction of the times we live in than, say, moving towards one dramatic event. There are these monumental catastrophes that are so big we can’t see them, and they are so carefully stage-managed that it’s rare for there to be a distinct climax. We’re in a moment of these low-frequency ‘borderless disasters’, as M. John Harrison calls them in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, that are largely unseen and constantly ongoing, but must secretly contribute to a sense of suspense and anxiety that people can’t directly pinpoint. Gilles Deleuze writes about this kind of thing in his Postscript on the Societies of Control, mapping how control has metamorphosed from Foucault’s prisons to a serpentine gas that has infiltrated everything. Again, this relates to the pervasive gold thread you mentioned in the previous question.
The real protagonist is this seemingly sentient house, right?
Yes and no. The protagonist fuses with the environment so they are both parts of each other. As I mentioned previously, the house incubates a kind of person to the point where it’s hard to tell which is which. I was interested in how a house built from corruption can create a person, whether it results in a corrupt person is for the reader to decide.
Buildings, and how we interact with them, are shadows of thoughts and feeling before we become fully conscious of them. A cluttered home can be stream of consciousness made real, which is much more convincing than traditional articulations of that narrative mode, that for me is usually too ordered and well defined. Space in my writing expresses pre-conscious and pre-personal undercurrents which one of my favourite writers, Nathalie Sarraute, defined as ‘tropisms’ — a phrase borrowed from how plants move towards the sun or other stimulus, such as wind, gravity and darkness. I think my characters grow towards walls and objects, and in turn spaces grow inwards around them. Kafka wrote in one of his notebooks that everyone carries a room around inside of them, and we can hear the noises it makes — it’s this kind of relationship.
We are told that this house was modelled on Alfred Loos’s Villa Müller in Prague, which is famously all about its interior. Here, the original is criticised for containing — like many great artworks — ‘too much of its creator’. What are we to make of this remark when applied to the copy?
MT: You mentioned my piece on Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina for frieze in the introduction. While writing that I was working something out on a map of Vienna and realised the house where the majority of events in Malina take place is just five minutes from Adolf Loos’ apartment and he would walk past the address regularly on the way to the headquarters of the newspaper he wrote for. I find these moments where fiction and reality meet really interesting. Many of the psychological control mechanisms described by Bachmann find their physical manifestation in the architecture of Adolf Loos. Loos designed the Villa Müller so the women inhabiting it could only sit on the built-in furniture, giving him complete control over how they inhabited his spaces. The fixed chairs are usually placed below windows and looking away from them, so in effect void the outside world and reality. The Villa Müller was the epicentre of modernism and partial copies of this house are everywhere, along with the misogynistic and racist spatial politics it promoted. And we don’t even need to look far in the first instance, a slightly longer walk from the Malina house is Haus Wittgenstein that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein designed for his sister, continuing Loos’ principles. It’s an incredibly intimidating house with heavy doors made from iron, and his sister never could live there, writing that it was a house for ‘gods’ rather than ‘small mortals’ like her, echoing Bachmann’s unnamed narrator in Malina.
There is a disquieting centripetal force at play in the novella, as well as an oppressive feeling of claustrophobia: the edgelands have migrated to the city centre; the house ‘turns its back on the outside’ and even haunts itself through its negative space. The house — which is already a copy — harbours its own Matryoshka doll-style doppelganger (the kind of doubling which is often indicative of the unheimlich):
A typical house or flat has a whole host of hidden constructional layers; walls sandwiched with carcinogenic chemicals, asbestos and poisonous lead paints; strange dark voids filled with cigarette ends and vodka bottles from those that built it.
Could you tell us a little more about this very original twist on the haunted house trope? I have already mentioned Blanchot, but were you at all influenced by Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of the il y a (I’m thinking here of the passage where you write that the house ‘obsessively contemplates’ its inhabitants)?
MT: When you invent a ship, you also invent the shipwreck. In some strange way, when you invent a place through writing you also invent its ghost, without really being in control of what that is. This house that haunts itself came about in that way. Its external surfaces are haunted by the secret life of the detritus hidden in its layers of construction. It just happened, but if I were to look back I’m pretty sure Levinas and Blanchot are there.
I was also thinking about how buildings are probably the most effective way to launder money, not just in the sale of whole properties, but all the materials they are constructed from. Due to the complexity of buildings, it’s all very unaccountable and difficult to point fingers at particular individuals when something goes wrong. We are seeing this right now in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Many buildings have ghosts of corruption and potential disaster, we can feel these things intuitively, but don’t really understand them or see them clearly. I think that’s what ghosts really are and why they are such sources of anxiety.
In one of my favourite extracts, the narrator wonders ‘What slips by unnoticed when we’re habitually grasping for a light switch in the dark?’, drawing the conclusion that ‘We dwell in the spatial equivalent of a stranger’. This ties in with the theme of architecture as fiction that runs (like the piece of gold thread) throughout the book, as well as that of hyperobjects. Is architecture a hyperobject like Olian himself?
MT: Hyperobjects are these strange presences that only show themselves through the marks they leave behind. Global warming is a hyperobject and probably the internet in some ways as well. The architecture in Loom could be seen in this way because it only becomes visible in its interactions with the narrator, through the traces they leave on each other.
Loom was written two years before Covid yet the confinement and the emptying of town centres and cities is already there. In this section of the book I was interested in how little of our homes we actually see. If you were to track the parts of your home you actually walk through and interact with, it would be a surprisingly small percentage. You might look at a painting occasionally, but when was the last time you looked at the wall? There are many of these voids. It relates again to what ghosts really are, and for me they are an acknowledgement of all the parts we don’t see or can’t see.
Similar to other themes in Loom this goes beyond the narrative. Work makes us not see things, capitalism doesn’t really require us to be aware of our environment, and this accounts for why the built environment is becoming increasingly boring. Capitalism wants you to keep walking, it doesn’t require you to stop and admire a building. The result is that the places we walk through every day feel as though they are forever someplace else, distant and unreachable, despite the fact that we live in them. A whole city can become a ghost.
Without giving too much away, of course, where did the inspiration for Olian come from?
MT: Olian is an amalgamation of the oligarchs we read about in the news, but he is also based on a real person that Orson Welles lived with for over a year. Similar to the character described in my book, Michel Olian was a Latvian fixer, an international financier of extreme dubiousness. He was in the background of many major political events and one of the richest men in the world. Search his name on google now though and he’s disappeared. In Olian there are also shades of François Genoud, who was a similar individual. All these people had a fog-like ubiquity, an ability to seemingly be in multiple places at once, that makes them all human precursors to the darker side of the internet. They were all centres masquerading as peripheries, the same as the urban condition underpinning Loom, they were also hyperobjects before that term was coined.
If we return to the subject of influences, Loom (for me) conjured up J. G. Ballard, Tom McCarthy, Shirley Jackson, ruin porn and the nouveau roman — but I think there’s also a Huysmans-style element in there. In particular, a tension between surfaces (aestheticism) and depths (decadence)…
MT: Around the time of writing Loom I was re-reading Huysmans’ À rebours and Là-bas. In his decadent phase, spaces are part of the cosmos of his characters’ inner world. The intensity of his prose is something I find really addictive and has the feel of a medieval cathedral, it reminds me of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, where there is so much detail you can’t possibly perceive it all at once — there is something of the internet there. Despite being directed towards the future, the internet weirdly strives for the religious symbolism of the past: immateriality, light, point clouds, the similarity between prayers and algorithms. Huysmans helped me realise this. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was also with me at the time, and you can see that influence clearly in the illustrations.
The beautiful illustrations also have a William Morris wallpaper quality, which may be linked to what we have just said apropos of Huysmans. Could you talk about the interaction between the text and the illustrations?
MT: I don’t really see them as drawings but more as an extensions of the text. They are just single lines because I wanted them as similar to writing on a page as possible. There are minimal passages mixed with those that are more rococo in character and the drawings respond to this pace, texture and complexity without illustrating it directly.
I have an interest in Early Netherlandish painting, a time when the distance between text and painting was incredibly fine. The Arnolfini Portrait, for instance, might appear as a painting, but really it contains a good amount of writing and was seen as a legal contract at the time of its creation.
MT: At the moment I’m working on an article about disaster architecture for Port Magazine and finishing my short story collection, which doesn’t have a publisher yet. I’m also in the current issue of Icon Magazine (Icon 203: Spring 2021) writing about unstable ground in London and how it was never as stable as we might like to think. The issue is available for free on their website.
“If the world cannot be made beautiful, it can at least be destroyed.”
– Len Gutkin, Dandyism: Forming Fiction from Modernism to the Present (2020)