24 January 2014

Joshua Cohen: Witz (2010)

Joshua Cohen's Witz is a trade paperback containing 817 very densely-packed pages published by the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press of Urbana-Champaign, IL. When I began reading it I couldn't help but think of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Jean-Pierre Martinet's Jérôme, James Joyce's Ulysses, Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love, Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, and of other literary monsters I have known. Now I'm more or less back on planet Earth but still reeling a little from the after effects, I can see that it in some way resembles all of these books.

– Witz  has the ambitious scope of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and that book is obviously a vague background influence – is it merely a coincidence, for instance, that Cohen also mentions Perdue chickens? – but although the word 'witz' means joke, I didn't (unlike Infinite Jest) find the book itself particularly funny.

– It is immensely digressive like Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love, but has an important Oulipian element: it's a book about Jews where the word 'Jew' is never mentioned, being substituted by the expression 'Affiliated'.

– It has an esoteric language in some ways similar to Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, although Cohen draws from a huge Yiddish pool. And there are similar long-drawn-out sentences and unconventional compound words.

– As with Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling – whose sentences are also very long  there are long descriptive passages that hold up the story, only whereas Cohen is concerned with often violent external detail, Young is mainly interested in the lulling strains of the internal monologue.

– In Jonathan Frederick Post's 'An Infinite Frolic of His Own: Joshua Cohen’s Witz' (which of course alludes to works by both Foster Wallace and Gaddis) the author states that the main work he would compare Witz to is the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.  The Jérôme Bauche in Jean-Pierre Martinet's Jerome, as the 2008 Finitude cover transparently underlines, is clearly an allusion to Bosch.

– I was reminded of the difficulty of William Gaddis's The Recognitions, somewhat akin to E. M. Forster's bizarre but brilliant analogy, in Abinger Harvest, between the meaning of Virginia Woolf's writing and a pen trapped in his coat lining: 'So near, and yet so far!'

– Finally, it is evident that Joyce's Ulysses is an influence behind Witz, as it is an obvious influence (no matter how small) behind any serious work written after 1922.* But understandably, Joshua Cohen was annoyed when an unnamed friend of his father's described Witz as a 'like the Jewish Ulysses', completely ignorant of the fact that, as Cohen states in The Daily Beast (15 June 2010): 'James Joyce’s Ulysses is already the Jewish Ulysses'.

Cohen wrote this in an essay entitled 'The Heirs of Joyce's Ulysses', in which he names the works from twelve different countries as the 'Ulysses' of those countries, including Woolf's Mrs Dalloway as 'The English Ulysses', Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood as 'The Welsh Ulysses', etc. Oddly, there is no French Ulysses, although I certainly feel that Yann Moix's 1142-page Naissance (which I've not yet read but which begins with a baby born as a Jew (without a foreskin) to a Christian couple), which won the prix Renaudot in 2013,  meets Cohen's criteria as a 'Jewish Ulysses'. But a French Ulysses proper? Something from Oulipo?

What is Witz about then? Well, Cohen says '[I]t’s about a Wandering Jew – the Last Jew in the world.' This is after all the Jews in the world (apart from first-born ones) die in a plague on Christmas Eve 1999, although very soon Benjamin Isrealien – a really nice innocent guy, born as an adult complete with glasses and beard and without a foreskin – becomes the only remaining Jew, and a superstar. But maybe that's going too far into the story.

For me, Witz may be very difficult – in fact it's a book I wouldn't recommend to many people because of those difficulties – but Joshua Cohen has produced a fascinating book: one he had a large number of problems getting published, one that at least one publisher wanted him to cut considerably, but that he in the end succeeded in communicating uncut to the world. It certainly won't make him a fortune, but then that clearly isn't his aim: he realises how destructive MFAs can be: 'The M.F.A. is a degree in servitude. [...] It is a way to keep writing safe – to keep reading safe from writing'. Obviously, writers in England would never be interested in such nonsense: they only want to pretend to be innovative, sell books, and, well, just get rich if possible.

At least Joshua Cohen, much as his work may be painful (because so difficult), is trying to push the envelope, not merely going for the cash. I have so much more respect for such writers, rather than those who insist on pretending that 1922 never existed.

*1922 was the year Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land were published.


David Bingham said...

"Infinite Jest" sounds so tempting that I've just ordered it from Amazon. This is will be the second door stop sized magnum opus that casual references in your blog have made me read.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Without errors this time, I hope. Many thanks for this comment, and I'm sure you won't regret buying Infinite Jest: it really is a book of wonders. What was the other book, by the way?

I'm merely a quarter way through Witz and so far it vies with Gaddis's The Recognitions in terms of difficulty: phew!

Changing the subject, have you ever come across the graves of either Thomas William Robertson or Isabella Banks in Abney Park Cemetery? I know approximately where they're supposed to be but you're obviously aware of the problems there.

David Bingham said...

The other book was "The Vorrh" by Brian Catling which you just happened to mention as an example of the continuing influence of Raymond Roussel.

I'm not familiar with either Thomas William Robertson or Isabella Banks so I've never noticed their graves. When I was looking up who they Wikipedia says Isabella Banks' grave is on Little Elm Walk which is the path that runs due north from the chapel, on the opposite side to the Isaac Watts memorial. If Wikipedia is right (and I know it isn't always) then she shouldn't be too hard to locate. I'm not sure when I'll be up there again but I'll have a look when I am.

Problems at Abney Park? The rampant undergrowth? Dangerous trees? Storm damage? Gays cruising for rough trade? Local youths exercising their pit bulls? I think Abney Park is probably the dodgiest of the magnificent 7 for a whole variety of reasons!

Looking forward to 'Infinite Jest' - I almost bought it on Kindle until I saw an Amazon review that said "navigating around the end notes was almost impossible, buy a hard copy."

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Ah, I remember you mentioning The Vorrh, but I'd just assumed you were talking about another door-stopper.

Well, you certainly cover what I call problems: overgrowth of vegetation can obviously be a big one, and the gay cruising is another. The first time I went there I was lucky to find – apart from the more obvious and well-known ones – William Hone's grave, but on my way back a guy tried (only verbally, admittedly) to entice me into the undergrowth: it didn't make me feel too confortable about being there. The second time I went with my partner, but – having found Eric Walrond's grave – she wanted to leave as she felt very uneasy about all the single males wandering around for no apparently obvious reason.

I don't find the grave section numbers listed in the Abney Park Cemetery index to be very useful, but Robertson's is K09: oddly, although his age on death (42) is the same as that given everywhere else online, the index gives the year of his birth as 1871 as opposed to 1869. Banks's is D06. We're probably going to London for a few weeks this August and I'm still determined to find these graves, but please let me know if you find anything out before - neither of the graves appears to have photos online, which would of course make finding them so much easier. But it may well be – as in the case of George Borrow's grave in Brompton Cemetery, from what I can tell - that these graves have just been taken over by nature and are at the moment unlocatable.

And you're right to buy a hard copy of Infinite Jest as part of the fun is diligently reading the crazy footnotes! (If you like reading essays, his Consider the Lobster is very interesting reading as well.)

David Bingham said...

I remember going to Abney with my ex wife back in the 90's (we lived ust up the road at Manor House) and the cruising then was much worse than it is now. Like your partner she was very intimidated which is ironic really as the predatory males there aren't remotely interested in them.

I am not a systematic grave searcher - I keep my eye open for people I know are buried but I like to leave things to chance. I generally take pictures and then research to see if I can find something out. Obviously when I trip over JG Ballards headstone or spot Byron's Hobhouse I know who they are but it is the digging up of stories about people I know nothign about which appeals most to me. Having said that I have a list of people I have to find but I am hopeless at locating those - I couldn't find David Jones until I saw it on your blog.

I've always kept my eye pen for George Borrow as well - now I know why I never spotted him!

I'll almost certainly be at Abney before August so I'll keep my eyes open for Robertson and Banks.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Yes exactly - it's chance that rules, and I've come across some of my most interesting graveyard/cemetery finds by pure luck. However, I don't know if you have the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery's Paths of Glory (not updated since 1997) but I've still to find the graves of Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope. That doesn't bother me as it's fun for a future occasion, but obviously the book doesn't give an indication of where Ballard's or Pinter's graves are: any clues would be most welcome!

Dr Tony Shaw said...

I've just remembered that – quite by chance – I stumbled on the grave of the writer Ethel Parton in a cemetery in Newburyport, Massachusetts, which led to me discovering the writing of her father, who wrote under the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks. Doesticks, along with Knight Russ Ockside, published The History and Records of the Elephant Club in 1857. The book suffers from wilful (as opposed to natural) eccentricity, but it's certainly worth looking at a few random pages of it: my link here gives links to two books by Doesticks: http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/ethel-parton-was-writer-born-on-on-1.html

David Bingham said...

'Paths of Glory' was out of print the last time I checked the Friends of Kensal Green website (I joined them last year, they cashed my cheque, sent me an envelope with five postcards of the cemetery and I haven't heard from them since). Ballard and Pinter are almost next to each other so if you find one you can't miss the other. Ballard’s is easier to spot (http://www.flickr.com/photos/31505964@N08/8469285212/) just because Pinter's is a flat slab and if the grass hasn't been cut it is easy to overlook. They are both behind the first line of big memorials on the main path that leads up to the Anglican Chapel from the main entrance - you've got Ducrow and Hobhouse and Casement on one side but Pinter and Ballard are on the other behind John St John Long, Gibson, quite close to Mulready if I remember correctly. If you are looking in that general area behind the big tombs you'll find them easily enough.

Doesticks sounds intriguing, I will have a look ('The History and Records of the Elephant Club' is a great title).

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thank's a lot – I've a good idea where to look now.

(Doesticks and Ockside, I imagine, were trying to do a more comical Pickwick Papers, but unfortunately they weren't Dickens.)