The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family by Joshua Cohen (NYRB)
I know the moment I fell in love with The Netanyahus. 1960: the lead, mediocre professor of history Ruben Blum, is visited by his in-laws in his provincial college town. A harrowing conversation between Ruben and his mother-in-law ensues about the downsides of leaving New York, anti-Semitism, and the sex lives of his parents, while his father-in-law enters an adjoining bathroom. As the dialogue progresses, we hear a budding slapstick catastrophe through the door: hocked loogies; a toilet being plunged. Pages fly until Walter finally emerges eight pages later. Two paragraphs after that, a new crisis again thrusts us forward. A bag is opened to screams of horror: a special lotion has exploded. And the lotion had secretly been bought with the intention of reducing the size of Ruben’s daughter’s nose.
And the whole time, of course, a brisket is burning downstairs.
The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family (That the title contains approximately 7% of the words I’ve been allocated for this piece should tell you something about the humor) is a wonderful example of the rich tragicomic tradition of the campus novel: Pnin and his train ticket; the hangover in Lucky Jim. But then Joshua Cohen plays a gambit. Benzion Netanyahu comes to town, looking for a job, and Blum, in another bit of casual anti-Semitism, is asked to host him. Netanyahu, the real-life father of Benjamin, gives a sequence of lectures—which means, in essence, that the book gives a series of lectures—that make a contentious argument about the 15th Century Jews of Iberia. I read these with grave interest, impressed by the novel’s quickstep pivot into essay. Afterward, the comic kinesis resumes in a closing sequence that goes so fast that it’s like watching a film.
Three friends have texted me the same line from this book: “Satan, the angel who fell when he failed to get tenure.” The Netanyahus could have been shortlisted for that alone.