Arthur A(llen) Cohen Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cohen, Arthur A(llen) (Vol. 7)

Cohen, Arthur A(llen) 1928–

Cohen, an American Jewish novelist, publisher, and essayist, is principally, although not exclusively, concerned with strengthening religious Judaism. In the Days of Simon Stern is his best known novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Has it been sufficiently noted by serious readers of fiction that Arthur A. Cohen, in his new novel In The Days of Simon Stern … has done better than any novelist of our time (Potok, Malamud, Weisel, etc.) with material that appears at first to be familiar, even shopworn? He has written a superb book about the Jewish ghetto in New York during the first half of the 20th century and at the same time about the Nazi horrors against the Jews in Europe. To do the book justice one cannot summarize it or even mention it in passing, but I will: it is a mythic odyssey, intellectual, historic, documentary of Simon Stern Jew who told by his father he is the Messiah, believes it. Moving close to Christian (and other) myth, its texture is so rich in its provision of every facet of Jewish culture and thought that the story, fine as it is, serves merely as catafalque for an absorbing and powerful series of—meditations?—yes, meditations, on life and death, humanity and God, survival and destruction, worship, money, suffering. If this novel has got by you, I urge you to catch up with it. (p. 31)

Doris Grumbach, The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 20, 1973.

[A grand opera] multitudinousness is recalled by Arthur Cohen, who is both [librettist and composer] in his desire to press everything and everybody into service and in the undoubted good taste and sense of appropriate style with which he does it [in In the Days of Simon Stern]. Understandably, since the author is an expert in Judaism and his subject is a Lower East Side Messiah, the area of life explored is specifically Jewish, but Mr Cohen seems determined, at the expense of low technical considerations, to give us as bulky a slice of universal Jewish experience as possible.

Accordingly, the story-line of the novel, concerning the attempts of Simon Stern to rescue the survivors from the concentration camps, can be ignored with somewhat unnerving convenience. The book is not a kitsch Zionist epic so much as a frieze where the precision of background detail is as arresting as the character which it distinguishes. We are forever pausing to admire aptness and authenticity in such episodes as Stern's own memoir or in the thirty-page "Legend Of The Last Jew On Earth" (probably the best thing in the book and surely worthy of extrapolation). It is all there—the Polish childhood in the Singer manner, life in the Kaiserstadt of Schnitzler and Freud, visits to Buchenwald, Russian rabbis, marranos, Ellis Island immigrants—and all detailed not with vulgar breast-beating, but with a certain air of contemptuous isolation from those expanses of European life that do not happen to be Jewish….

The result of this traipse through the Diaspora, not assisted by pauses for italic meditation, is to destroy any narrative cohesion and to substitute intolerable pretentiousness for legitimate pretence. The dismal and astonishing chronicle of Jewish survival in the teeth of unremitting oppression sometimes encourages an awful, pseudo-Mosaic pomposity, a curse which the best Jewish writers have magnificently warded off, but towards which Mr Cohen appears fatally attracted, armed as he is both with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Jewish past and with a grace and facility in words. Perhaps it is the last element which has most obstructed him in the act of creating a fiction. He is as fearsomely lucid and voluble as Norman Mailer giving an interview, though the sum of such fine word-spinning does not leave much else to admire that is simply artistic.

"Hebrewing Up," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 15, 1974, p. 269.

The TLS review [of In the Days of Simon Stern] drew a brief and magisterial rebuke from George Steiner, who demanded to know if it was conceivable that the reviewer did not understand "the fundamental fact about the book … that it is a version, in modern terms, of the career and enigma of Sabbatai Sevi…". After reading the book I can assure Mr. Steiner that it is conceivable. I will even say that to argue from the fact that the narrator is called Nathan Gaza [after, presumably, the historic personage whose endorsement of Sabbatai Sevi as the Messiah ensured his popular acceptance] to the conclusion that Simon Stern must be a Sabbatai figure is unwise. Try reading Roth's outline of Sabbatai's career and expounding parallels in Simon's. Try reading Scholem's account of the manic-depressive Sabbatai and relating that to Simon's paranoid state of mind. You won't get far. There is also the obvious fact that Simon Stern's name evokes Simon bar Kochba (called "the son of a Star") another Messianic nominee who, like Simon at least in this, did the Jews good and not harm.

The truth is that Simon is a composite figure. The most important Sabbataian element is one that neither the general fiction reviewer or even the average Jewish reader is likely to recognise. Cohen was obviously fascinated by passages in the original Nathan's dubious writings (quoted by Scholem) in which "the King Messiah … will break the power of the serpent" and "the Redeemer is called Job because he had fallen under the domination of the Kelipoth". So Cohen's villain has to get up a masque of Job in the grounds of the Rothschild mansion, in which he squirms on the ground like a serpent. And so on, to the darkly symbolic climax. Mr. Cohen's Nathan left me feeling, for the first and doubtless only time in my life, that God must be behind the F.B.I. (pp. 21-2)

Roy Oliver, "Not-so-simple Simon," in The Jewish Quarterly (© The Jewish Quarterly 1974), Autumn, 1974, pp. 21-2.

After the spirited and very funny early scenes, Cohen becomes increasingly ambivalent about the tone and method of [A Hero in His Time]: Is it a satiric indictment of Soviet oppression, a contemptuous swipe at the Yevtushenko groupies in New York, an elegiac tribute to the masters of modern Russian poetry who were hounded into oblivion, a lament for the Jews of Russia? Cohen insists on playing all the possibilities, but he is not that much of a virtuoso. No single mood or experience—with the glorious exception of Tyutychev ["a remarkable free spirit … a vagabond"]—is fully developed, and the result is a very clever novel that just misses being profound. (p. 11)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 22, 1975.

Soviet Poet Yuri Maximovich Isakovsky [the protagonist of A Hero in His Time] … is to attend a writers' conference in New York for the purpose of delivering a secret message, contained in a poem written for him by a KGB computer, to some unnamed mole in Manhattan.

Thus far—to the point at which the plot clicks and whirs—Novelist Arthur A. Cohen has written a delightful minor-key farce. Although he is an American (the author of two other well-received novels, In the Days of Simon Stern and The Carpenter Years), Cohen uncannily manages to sound like a U.S.S.R. satirist writing riskily for Samizdat circulation.

The New York section of the book is weaker; perhaps it should have been written by a Soviet. For the satire of the left-wing academic community lacks teeth, and too many plot turns seem to occur in the last third of the novel, simply because something has to happen. One touch, however, indicates the book's essential virtue. Yuri Maximovich is trying to decide whether to defect. To stall for time, he must sell out and read the KGB's poem. He does so. But first, more artist than survivor, he takes the wretched thing apart and sharpens its images. It is not clear whether he understands that as a secret message it is now worthless. As a poem, he realizes happily, it is not bad at all. (pp. 66, 68).

John Skow, "A Lyre for the KGB," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 5, 1976, pp. 66, 68.

What must a Russian poet think of his comrade's success as a kind of rock star of the literature of sentiment? ["A Hero in His Time"] … fabricates a plausible and comical reply…, together with a demonstration of the character of an authentic poet's life and persuasions….

The religion of art is better suited in our time to the black mass of farce than to noble celebration: let Updike's Bech or Nabokov's Kinbote kiss the hem of Poetry for laughs, all right. Who today seriously proposes such worship? Isakovsky [the protagonist of "A Hero in His Time"], a Soviet citizen, the subject of a bureaucracy that might have been designed from a blueprint by Kafka, is a subversive willy-nilly, a man for whom the penalty of a life lived in poems is high indeed.

Arthur Cohen has achieved here a tour de force, bringing the idea of poetry to life in a messy little man, no hero at all, not even that much of a poet….

"A Hero in His Time" is stately as well as funny, an authentically noble account of a celebrant. It has its few faults. Cohen sometimes overloads his sentences in over-appreciation of their effects…. So the novel is, like Isakovsky, from time to time ragged. Like him, too, it is the true article. (p. 4)

Geoffrey Wolff, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 25, 1976.

["A Hero in His Time" is an] engaging, intelligent romantic novel (as romantic, in its way, as the Lermontov classic, "A Hero of Our Time," on which the title is based), marred only by [Cohen's] annoying habit of neglecting his characters for long stretches of moral philosophizing. (p. 94)

The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New York Magazine, Inc.), February 2, 1976.

[A Hero in His Time] has … flaws. One is simply a matter of pacing. Cohen frequently digresses from his plot and characters to philosophize and speculate in a manner more befitting a treatise than a novel….

Despite … reservations, A Hero in His Time … is a worthwhile read. Worthwhile because the reader ultimately is involved with Yuri's fate, and cares about the outcome of that proud and somewhat self-loving poet's mission in America. Along the way Cohen conveys a good deal of knowledge of contemporary Russian history, as when he posits the thesis that, for Russians, history is a god to whom they sacrifice, as a way to humanize history…. Read on this level the novel satisfies. (p. 215)

Robert Phillips, in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 26, 1976.