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Arthur A(llen) Cohen 1928–
American novelist, critic, theologian, editor, and publisher.
Cohen is considered a leading contemporary Jewish-American literary figure. His novels and scholarly works of nonfiction explore the difficulty of following a traditional Judaic ethos in an increasingly secular America. In his works Cohen exhorts his fellow Jews to practice a more devout life and set aside the materialistic aspects of American Judaism. Built on themes of particular concern to American Jews, Cohen's works have nonetheless been praised as successful depictions of the full range of modern life.
Cohen's early writings were primarily works of Jewish theology. These include The Natural and Supernatural Jew (1963), in which Cohen attempted to reconcile Jewish tradition with existentialism. His first novel, The Carpenter Years (1967), is the story of a Jew who leaves his family and his religion to adopt the lifestyle of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in Langham, Pennsylvania. When his Jewish son comes to Langham, the man must confront both his religious past and the family he left behind. The Carpenter Years examines the pressures on the modern Jew to forsake his past and the need to come to terms with his tradition. Although some critics found intriguing Cohen's attempt to develop the novel as a device for moral investigation, most argued that the work was overly didactic and that much of the plot was improbable.
Over the next decade Cohen wrote both fiction and nonfiction, including what has been called his best novel, In the Days of Simon Stern (1973). The story of a post-World War II messiah who sets up a haven for victims of the Holocaust in New York City's Lower East Side, this work was praised as an intellectual examination of belief and survival. Another novel, A Hero in His Time (1975), tells the tale of a Soviet Jewish poet who comes to the United States and is pressured by his government to deliver a poem that contains a coded KGB message. While some critics viewed the novel as an exercise in farce and praised its engaging humor, others considered it a more serious work in its examination of politics and art.
Acts of Theft (1979), Cohen's next novel, does not deal overtly with Judaism. Instead, it is the story of a European sculptor living in Mexico who steals pieces of pre-Columbian art to sell to collectors. Cohen was praised for providing insight into the creative process and for examining the idea that art is necessarily derived from previously established concepts, thus constituting a form of thievery.
In his recent novel An Admirable Woman (1983), Cohen narrates the story of a fictional Jewish scholar who has fled to the United States from Nazi Germany. Although the protagonist is fictional, Cohen has stated that she was inspired by the famed German scholar Hannah Arendt.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 28.)
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[The] Jewish-born protagonist of Arthur Cohen's first novel ["The Carpenter Years"], keen to the logic of his own de-spairing mediocrity, reflects lugubriously about the New York "Jewish mediocrity" he left behind in the middle of the Depression to assume the identity of a Christian functionary in a small Pennsylvania city: "All those people—small merchants and young eager businessmen winding their lives around success, joyless opulence, methodical accumulation, praising their own self-sacrifice, and raising their own children to admire the works which they wrought in despair—were real, but they meant nothing and they had no meaning to offer."
Within the context of the novel, such assertions by Edgar Morrison (Morris Edelman) are intended to simulate the reflections of a morally earnest man at a moment when his whole past is about to be uncovered, revisited upon him by the appearance in Langham, Pa., of the son whom he had abandoned nearly two decades earlier…. Clearly, we are meant to sympathize with Edgar's honesty, if not with his choice or with the deceits he must compound to remain a Christian. "What a damned serious man he is," Edgar's minister declares to the second wife, Edwinna, but it's my serious suspicion that the minister is mistaken. As soon as Edgar begins to reflect on why he did what he did it becomes obvious that he is really just a damned prig.
For even though one hates to uphold Jewish mediocrity, the facts are that when this man sought to get out from under the afflictions of his Jewish self-hate by allegedly pursuing his "Jewish destiny" through Christianity, Edgar Morrison left behind a helpless wife and a small child, in the care of his brother Stanley, who had a family of his own, and was, moreover, a firm believer in "joyless opulence" and "methodical accumulation," a man consumed by his own mediocrity and self-loathing, limited and begrudging.
Yet Stanley supported Edgar's wife and child. He diligently sought out his own brother and was able to release him from the bondage which he had imposed upon himself through bigamy. Is it not blind for a moralist to suggest, consequently, that brother Stanley had "no meaning to offer" anybody? If Stanley's ordeal is only to be made incidental to Edgar's crisis of identity, then one can only assume that the thoroughly honest religious man must turn himself into a thoroughgoing fool….
It is a mark of the smugness of this novel that Stanley is an object of contempt; he is "all those people." But, if he is that mediocre, what does that make Edgar? Mr. Cohen lets Edgar off rather easily: he suffers from recurrent fits of Barthian despair, which occasionally drive him out of the house on a bender, and once he visits a prostitute to discuss his great need for "Talk. Need. Love." It's just about that trite. Mr. Cohen's assertion of an elevated discourse for this beery refugee is his chief admission of the absence of any moral exertion within the novel.
As an erudite and skillful essayist on religion in the modern world, he has argued, with some power, that unless Judaism brings forth its messianic vision to offer to a faithless world it is doomed to its own mediocrity. But the reader who accepts such assertions within an essay may still demand experiential proof in fiction. And when one finds that the writer is insensitive to the very possibilities for which he seems to be searching, then not only fiction, but essay itself is called into question.
Which is to say that this religious potboiler is pretentious, asserting archetypes as people and people as archetypes. It is also morally obtuse, written with stilted dialogue and melodramatic excess, and with a contempt for mediocrity that is about as excessive and blind as adoration would be.
I was prepared to accept Edgar Morrison's choice as an option which any man has the right to exercise until I was introduced to that first son, Daniel. Bitter, nihilistic and violent, Daniel is the author's archly ironic comment on the Biblical reverberations in the name, for it turns out that this Daniel has grown up to become an apprentice psychiatrist with a hesitancy about interpreting dreams. And he is, clearly, the future which the novel holds forth as Jewish destiny.
Richard M. Elman, "Edgar Morrison's Choice," in The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1967, p. 45.
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Can a man who is not a novelist write a good novel? Mr. Cohen is not a novelist. He has mastered the ordinary techniques of modern fiction, the flashback, the controlled point of view, the scene doubling as action and the action doubling as dialogue. But he is content to use these techniques passively, never suggesting that he has something novel to contribute to the history of the form.
Yet The Carpenter Years is a good novel. It is good because the man who made it, though not imaginatively gifted, has known how to take advantage of the possibilities of conventional fiction as a medium of discourse and as a tool of investigation. As philosophers use myth, as novelists have sometimes used theology, so Mr. Cohen, a theologian, uses fiction—for purposes foreign to its ends, but proper to his.
What, for example, can we say of Mr. Cohen's main character, Edgar Morrison born Morris Edelman, an imperfect convert to American Christianity, once a failing accountant with Jewish wife and son in New York, now a YMCA director with gentile wife and son in a country town? As a created person, a man with an illegal passport into one's mind and heart, he is not substantial enough to be moving, for he has no life other than that given to him by his all too paradigmatic plot. Knowing him is like never knowing water except at the boiling point. But what has been made to move in him moves us deeply—two religions, each troubled, confronting each other in the invented laboratory of a consciousness sensitive enough to respond to them both….
Morrison leaves Judaism because he cannot survive as a failure in a community "where no one was ever let off the hook," and where now the criterion of material achievement has been added to that of moral success. He can survive, but only, of course, as someone else, in the community which at its noblest intimated a confession of failure as the condition of rebirth, and which now, in America, offers the additional lure of anonymity. "As a Christian, as an echt American, he could fail and fail quietly, unknown and undiscovered. Soul redeemed in Jesus Christ (that single Man extending his hand to single men) and be buried in the vastness of America." This is a hard, unpleasant view of one religion in its decadence from the point of view of another, equally decadent. But this very unpleasantness commends the novel that contains it….
[In] what I think we must accept as a very fine discrimination among the values possible in such a story, Cohen refuses to make the obvious points. He doesn't argue that an Americanized Jew is bound to be found out and rejected by his Christian neighbors. Morrison's minister and his Christian family continue to adore him for his goodness. Nor does Cohen argue that a man like Morrison will suffer the contumely of a traitor to past and people. The past can't be betrayed, and at the end of the book Morrison and his Jewish son acknowledge each other in wordless compassion. Neither a hypocrite nor an apostate, Morrison has committed only one sin worth thinking about—the sin of shirking his people's legacy of "magnificence," the sin of letting himself off the hook—and the only fate adequate to a sin so subtly defined is precisely not to be let back on the hook. His new community accepts him, but does not know him, for he can be known only in his failure. And by those to whom he is known he can neither be addressed nor embraced.
It is a complex formulation of a complex fate, and worthy of study for the sake of fact, not fiction.
Arthur R. Gold, "What Makes Edgar Run?" in Book Week—World Journal Tribune, March 12, 1967, p. 4.
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The details in ["The Carpenter Years"] are filled in with skill and care and there is some powerful and occasionally even moving writing. But the author moves uneasily between realism and symbolism. The tone is that of sociological and psychological precision, but the incidents are meant to have symbolic dimensions. As a result, there are two levels of probability at work which, instead of reinforcing each other, tend to destroy or at least weaken each other. The pressures that would make a Polish-Jewish immigrant want to appear as a WASP in an American small town are real pressures, and they result in real conflicts, real timidities, self-deceptions, internal strains. But to have such a person converted to Christianity by a nutty Hebrew Christian before finally landing a job as Presbyterian director of the YMCA in a Pennsylvania town, and to have him in the process commit bigamy and therefore not only expose himself to the criminal law but threaten the whole foundation of his new life—this is not plausible. But who wants that kind of plausibility in a symbolic novel?, it may be asked. Well, I do for one: the tone of the novel demands it. "The dilemma of Edelman-Morrison unforgettably symbolizes the dilemma of religion-hungry Americans in an age when the traditional demands of religion have become a burden few can bear," the blurb tells us. I cannot accept this. The special kind of conformity which Edelman-Morrison practices is insufficiently motivated, inadequately related to a psychological drive which in turn might be made symbolic of the urge to abandon differentiating traditions and seek conformity in modern American society.
I think this is a most interesting novel, in some ways a skillful novel, at some points a powerful novel, but I do not think that it consistently achieves the symbolic dimension the author clearly aimed at. (pp. 95-6)
David Daiches, "Symbolic Dimensions," in Commentary, Vol. 43, No. 4, April, 1967, pp. 94-6.
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The Carpenter Years is not a successful novel, which makes for particularly keen disappointment because it is—or has—a number of other very good things. Because Mr. Cohen is a thinker, there are important and provocative ideas in the book. Because he is a religious scholar and theologian, there are profound religious perceptions in it. Because he is a twentieth-century American and a believing Jew, there is in it an urgent concern for the spiritual meaning of the modern American experience, to the Jew and the Christian particularly.
But because Mr. Cohen is not a novelist—at least not yet a novelist—his interests, reflections and ideas are only hung on his characters and events, not embodied in them. Mr. Cohen is more interested in certain ideas and problems, it seems clear, than he is in his characters. If he were really interested in Edgar Morrison (Morris Edelman), for example, he would have to have seen a more complete, more believable human being than the one he presents. Morrison-Edelman's story—a monstrous story, twenty years past when we are introduced to him—is simply incredible. This is not to say that a history such as his is impossible, but that it is impossible for the man the author describes. Almost any man is capable of almost any action, of course, but actions to be believable and meaningful to a reader should be part of some kind of development, and in the case of Morrison-Edelman the past and present are linked only by the author's declaration. What we are shown of the character belies what we are told of him, and vice-versa.
At the core of the novel, Morrison-Edelman's flight from his Jewish identity is given some context and whatever measure of plausibility it has is mostly as a kind of theological betrayal, no doubt because this is what chiefly interested the author. The actual human betrayal, however—of wife, child, family, friends, psychological personhood—is so perfunctorily treated as to be unreal.
It is hard to believe in any of the characters, in fact, and therefore hard to take very seriously the objectively very serious things that happen in the novel. The dialogue, as part of this problem, seldom rings true, although the style is as graceful and sure in the expository passages as we would expect of Mr. Cohen. I am afraid that what he was trying to convey in The Carpenter Years would have been clearer—and better realized—in one of his philosophic essays. (pp. 558-59)
Richard Horchler, in a review of "The Carpenter Years," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 20, September 8, 1967, pp. 558-59.
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In ["Acts of Theft"], Arthur A. Cohen assigns himself the formidable task of making us believe in an art—sculpture—that we can't see, of evoking space shaped in silence, "essential things," by a piling on of words. That he succeeds should come as no surprise. Mr. Cohen is always ambitious, and almost always succeeds. In his tour de force, "A Hero in His Time," he made us believe in a Russian-Jewish minor poet with whose soul Mr. Cohen had no right to be so well acquainted. In his astonishing "In the Days of Simon Stern," he made me believe that all of us are Jewish.
Stefan Mauger is Austrian, born with our century, of minor nobility, a young Count whose father goes mad. Educated in and around Vienna, he leaves for Paris to teach himself to paint. He is befriended by the American art critic Clemens Rosenthal—a nice touch, that name—who tells him frankly that, on canvas, Mauger has failed. Mauger knows it. He turns to sculpture and to mythology, to the fixities of ancient Egypt and to the carvings of folk craftsmen. He worships Brancusi, even as he resists Brancusi's influence in favor of his example. He makes masks….
After yet another war, Mauger follows Clemens Rosenthal to New York, marries his mistress and takes off for the Pacific Northwest, where the shamanistic art of the Kwakiutl Indians, "indifferent to measurable time," enrages him: he's not as good as they are. Mauger and his wife, Alicia, escape to Mexico, to Yucatan, where we first meet them. Brancusi has died. Rosenthal, who is about to die, brings the news. Mauger, at work on his "creatures," his bestiary, is confronted by the death of Brancusi, the dying of his friend, and, at the same time, Inspector Mariposa of the Mexico Police.
Mauger, you see, is a thief, specializing in pre-Columbian art. He has organized a major heist from an archeological site. For Inspector Mariposa, who was once a student of archeology, the stolen art … is his identity…. Mauger, on the other hand, despises the "brutalism" of this art….
In the confrontation of Mauger and Mariposa, the many themes of "Acts of Theft" scream together, a distraught chorus—the artist as God, art as theft, the ransom of the past, the ancient made modern, pride and sacrifice. I think it was Rimbaud who said that the poet is a thief of fire. For Mauger, his stealing and his art are "interlocking acts of seizure." We are violated by the gods. We have to make silence out of the noise. It is an idea that might have been found in the notebooks of Dostoyevsky….
We also have some ups and downs. Among the ups: a young Mauger stealing the medical report on his mad father, as if to remind us that knowledge is a kind of theft; the sudden friendship of Mauger and Rosenthal; the first, wonderful, silent meeting between Mauger and Brancusi; the account of the Kwakiutl Indians, their art and their potlatch; a Mexico brilliantly rendered without the heavy breathing of D. H. Lawrence in "The Plumed Serpent." Among the downs: an altogether too casual attitude toward crucial scenes in the novel. Why should Mauger marry Alicia? Rosenthal in Mexico is too convenient and too omniscient. Mariposa and Mauger ought to have had a longer confrontation; they understand each other too quickly; Dostoyevsky would have given them a hundred pages. And Mariposa needs more development to be a worthy adversary.
This, however, is housecleaning and bookkeeping. We believe in Mauger's rage and in his bestiary, that garden of the hieratic crane, the ovum, the eye, the bear, the stone masks and the women and the phalluses. We believe Mauger himself in his solitude, as he tries and fails to burn his way to the truths of wood and stone. He lacks an acceptable metaphysics of the unseen, but if he can smash the Olmec figurine and then allow his own sculptured eye to be destroyed, he may be on his way. Prometheus may steal his genius. We believe because Mr. Cohen has somehow found words that amount to a revelation instead of an excuse.
John Leonard, in a review of "Acts of Theft," in The New York Times, February 12, 1980, p. C9.
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Since it's not about Judaism but American Indians, Olmec heads, Mayan pots and Kwakiutl potlatches, "Acts of Theft," Arthur A. Cohen's fourth novel and eleventh book, may appear to be something of a departure from his usual terrain…. But "Acts of Theft" is about religion, and specifically about the kind of worship that Jews have historically held anathema: idolatry….
Those who buy this book expecting a straightforward drama of crime and detection will find Mauger sadly easy to catch. He drops clues everywhere. This is because, I guess, Mr. Cohen doesn't want the dramatics of pursuit and evasion to distract us from his ruminations on the morality of art. Hence he short-circuits his plot with flashbacks, asides, interior monologues, lectures, the works, for the sake of depth, weight and moral tone.
But rather than challenging the reader, this strategy only exasperates him. Mr. Cohen is basically an essayist starting out with a problem and seeking to concretize it in fiction. Since the problem here is theophany, knowledge of the infinite, Mr. Cohen plies us with vivid and passionate yearnings that overpower his plot and overwhelm his sentences….
The cumulative effect of Mauger's peripatetic religiosity is neither dramatic nor ecstatic but wearily curatorial…. As each character's voice dissolves into the general ambience of lecturing and theorizing, his language grows more animated, as if to salvage his individuality by sheer vividness of phrasing. But this vividness itself quickly becomes routine and, at last, simply shrill. Mr. Cohen is not unaware of this difficulty. "I've no vision worth talking about," Mauger allows. "Anyway, talking makes it as stale as yesterday's bread." He adds, apologetically, "Matisse was right: artists should have their tongues cut out."
Is this, then, another one of those long books about the hopelessness of language, or is the author just throwing in the towel? The trouble with "Acts of Theft" is that Mr. Cohen wants the sublime but can achieve only the breathless, which works in fiction about as well as it does in religion.
Mark Shechner, "Graven Images and Other Temptations," in The New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1980, p. 10.
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[Acts of Theft is] about a believer in Art, but one who digs his own traps rather than falling into the ready-made ones which plague ordinary mortals. Acts of Theft opens in Mexico with a raid on the site of an archaeological dig and the removal of hundreds of priceless figurines. The operation is masterminded by an Austrian aristocrat and artist, Stephen Mauger; when the scene changes to a hunting-lodge in Silesia in the closing years of the 19th century, and the birth of the hero, one gets the sinking feeling that this is yet another Kentucky Fried Novel, constructed according to the formula that permits translation into lavish screenplay with the minimum of effort.
It pays to persevere, though, for Mr Cohen is as serious as his hero, and he has things to get off his chest about the peculiarities of the creative psyche. The balance he has to strike is between dissertation and tale, between an exploration of what it feels like to be an artist of a particular kind and a detective story about an art robbery. The method adopted to keep the book on the rails is to interweave the two themes and to make the detective pursuing Mauger into a kind of mirror-image of the thief. A bit like matter and anti-matter in theoretical physics, if you like; but, in Mr Cohen's case, the collision of the two produces not an enormous bang, but a rather ambiguous whimper.
John Naughton, "Smirking," in The Listener, Vol. 103, No. 2655, March 27, 1980, p. 419.∗
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Although Cohen makes very clear in a foreword that all of his characters [in An Admirable Woman] "are derived wholly from the imagination," it is impossible to read his fine novel without thinking of the late Hannah Arendt. His "admirable woman" is a brilliant German Jewish scholar who flees Berlin with her gentile husband just in time, going first to Paris, then, none too soon, to America…. Cohen's constant probing of what constitutes true brilliance is a fascinating piece of scholarship in its own right, and his portrait of the Nazi era and what it wrought is haunting. To tease just a little, Cohen brings in an offstage Hannah Arendt as a longtime friend of the narrator and then has his "admirable woman" analyze her.
A review of "An Admirable Woman," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 224, No. 13, September 23, 1983, p. 62.
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In an article distributed by the publisher along with "An Admirable Woman," Arthur Cohen says that Erika Hertz, the heroine of his novel, was "suggested to me by the remarkable personality and intellectual career of an old friend, Hannah Arendt." Reading this, one can see both the promise and the potential difficulties in portraying the philosopher and political scientist who wrote the "Origins of Totalitarianism," and "Eichmann in Jerusalem," as well as several other books. When she died almost eight years ago, Hannah Arendt was regarded as one of the most important political thinkers of her time.
To dress such a woman in fiction, to do her justice in an everyday context, is an ambitious project. Mr. Cohen did not, he says, borrow actual biographical details. Rather, he tried to imagine the kind of life Hannah Arendt had lived. To do this, he would have to capture her conversation, the workings of her mind, the flow of her feelings. But in taking on such a complex character, it is almost as if Mr. Cohen had tried to write a novel about the human condition itself. Miss Arendt had, in fact, written a book called "The Human Condition."
What one misses in "An Admirable Woman" is contact with other people. Erika's career in New York City is more often summarized than dramatized. And after all this sacrifice of the concrete stuff of which novels are made, Mr. Cohen does not succeed much better in conveying the quality of Erika's mind. While his summaries of her books are adequate, he has not given Erika the style, the intellectual texture, of a great woman.
Though one critic accuses Erika's work of suffering from "a surfeit of elegance," Mr. Cohen's notion of elegance makes Erika sound like this: "My life task had been until that moment and remained confirmed thereafter to understand the unspeakable loneliness of human consciousness—the shared faculty of awareness whose every detail defies camaraderie."
It is Erika's defiance of camaraderie that makes "An Admirable Woman" a rather schematic or unrealized novel. Mr. Cohen means to portray her as an example of what Kant called a "moral terrorist," but she achieves only a kind of dry, majestic remoteness. On her deathbed Erika says that most of her friends "are growing tired of my steadfastness." For all Mr. Cohen's intelligent exertions, the reader too may grow tired of steadfastness.
Anatole Broyard, in a review of "An Admirable Woman," in The New York Times, November 17, 1983, p. C25.
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Not so many years ago, before it became a stew of poverty and boutiques, the Upper West Side of New York was a German university town, and all the inhabitants were Jews. Or so it seemed to someone newly arrived from the Southwest. It was a miraculous town in which a pediatrician spoke of his schoolmate Sigmund Freud and the person on the next bench in Riverside Park browsed in a German edition of Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time." Part of the fascination of this town of the mind is that it was closed to outsiders, surrounded by walls of language and tragic history.
Now, with the university town largely gone, lost, like a person, to time, Arthur A. Cohen has written "An Admirable Woman," a novel in the form of a memoir by the most famous woman of that place in that time. One could not be better prepared than Mr. Cohen to write such a novel, for besides being the author of four other novels, he is a theologian, a historian, an editor and an anthologist. He succeeds in opening the gates of the town, revealing its origins and exploring a kind of life and a kind of marriage in what seemed an elevated, magical town. (p. 9)
Mr. Cohen has written a novel about not-Hannah Arendt. He uses the denial brilliantly to inform the novel and to overlay it with the suspense of a puzzle. The particulars of Erika Hertz, which Mr. Cohen uses so deftly to give a fullness to her, are often the particulars of Hannah Arendt. Erika Hertz is vain about her legs. Hannah Arendt is said to have been vain about her legs. Both women smoke. Both are comfortable using Latin and Greek phrases.
But Mr. Cohen has not written a biography of Hannah Arendt, nor has he intended a biography. Rather, he has used the novelist's imagination to explore fame in the intellectual world, to reveal life overwhelmed by ethics, to take the reader to the miraculous town. All through her memoir, Erika Hertz ponders the quality of admirableness, examines it in relation to each of her attributes. She is a doubter, a critic of herself. A measure of Mr. Cohen's accomplishment is that the reader wants to argue with her, often to insist that she is a "wholly admirable" woman.
Near the end of the novel, Mr. Cohen comes inevitable to the Eichmann trial, for even in the life of not-Hannah Arendt, the drama of the controversy caused by Arendt's book "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and the idea of the banality of evil cannot be ignored. Instead of a parallel that might take the reader into the soul of a person in a storm of conflicting views of history, Mr. Cohen chooses to let Erika Hertz attack her "friend" Hannah Arendt, to accuse her of using "the occasion to be original," of misunderstanding the meaning of the word "banal" in English, of recklessness.
Whether one agrees with Hannah Arendt or Erika Hertz makes no difference, the scene is an act of timidity, and art is not timid. For all its thoughtfulness and its knowing and sure-handed use of the writer's craft, "An Admirable Woman" cannot recover from this moment. (p. 49)
Earl Shorris, "Not Hannah Arendt," in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1983, pp. 9, 49.
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