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3am Interview

I first met Joshua Cohen when we were both staff writers for the Prague Pill, an English-language alternative newspaper that we ended up co-editing together for less than a year. During our brief tenure there, we managed to piss off and alienate ourselves from Prague's stuffy expat community, a feat we are both immensely proud of. Then, this year, we were asked -- along with Róbert Gál and Howard Sidenberg -- to take over the Prague Literary Review, a magazine we continue to edit to this day.

I always knew Cohen was a great writer; he's also the hardest working one I've ever met, not to mention the most well-read. With the publication last month of his first collection of stories, The Quorum (Twisted Spoon), and a new novel on the verge of release from James Chapman's excellent Fugue State Press, he's well on his way to becoming one of the big conjurers of our time.

3AM: "Passion," you have one of your characters say, "is only God's to give." Religion is obviously a big thread running through many of these stories, yet you're constantly linking these (inherited) religious ideals with instances of frenzied inspiration (such as The Trial). Is writing, for you, a method of playing God?

JC: It seems to me that no Divinity would have as much trouble with Its work as I do with mine. If I have to have a place in the hierarchy, it's as a supplicant. "Frenzied inspiration" as you put it is just man kindled by religion -- redress, mercy, an open ear, all that is expected or hoped for, all that is prayed for in prayer, is liberating; there's nothing more "inspiring" than even the merest promise that someone, Anyone, is listening. Writing for me, then, is a method not of playing God but of playing human. Whereas, when I'm not writing, I'm an animal. I grunt and take.

3AM: Many of your stories seem to deal with the failure of language to adequately describe, evoke a world. You're one of the few writers tackling this theme today. What are the limitations of language for you as an artist working in the medium of words? What is the point of being a writer?

JC: Not being a philosopher, and never really having an affinity for Wittgenstein beyond a handful of intuitions most people make before ever reading him, I am not sure what to say about "the limitations of language".

Everything is formed by its limitations -- that's a familiar line, perhaps less accurate than just old. My own most formidable limitation always revolved around the question of how; I've never been at a loss for something to say, just the how to say it. Or so I used to think. And so I groped around in the dark. I used to pretend that meant I was involved with the limitations of language. Truth is, I didn't know anything when I began writing and it took me what felt like a life before I understood that what you say and how you say it are/is the exact same thing.

It's a question of translation, of thoughts to words. Thoughts are pure, words aren't -- I say that somewhere in The Quorum. Any limitations are really those of the translator -- the little, plain-looking and altogether responsible pink woman who lives inside your nose. Her job is to ensure that one thing means another. That symbols symbolize. That mind gets lined onto paper in some way accountable to instinct. Some people have better translators than others. Some people ARE their own translators, their own little, plain-looking and responsible pink women. Like Beckett. He had it right: you try again to "fail better."

About limitations, I would say that specificity is also something I think about too much -- how much something needs to be explained, the degree of translation required. Writing the word Auschwitz today requires a lot less explanation than writing it would have in, say, 1942, but then again, in 2136 the aliens might need to be reminded, with an army of adjectives and 6,000,000 horrific descriptive passages superadded. Today, not even three minutes of Liberation footage are as loaded for me as the very word Auschwitz. To me, words are the greatest medium. Television and movies delimit language totally.

While writing the book, I was reading my Gershom Scholem, on the Kabbalistic doctrine of tzimtzum, the idea of God's self-limitation: the idea that God had to limit or contract Himself so there would be space enough in the void of Godness for His Creation -- and its concomitant doctrine, its heresy: that the day God decides to delimit Himself, to reveal Himself in His total power, we die. Of course, that leads us to ask what God is. If He would potentially take over the entire universe, it means that He is everywhere, or would be everywhere. Is able to incarnate everything. To become omni-all. Language is like God -- it is limited only insofar as we limit its definition, through language.

Then you ask a much more modest question: what's the point of being a writer? I don't know if there is a point. If you write, especially now, and most especially in America, then you're more dangerous than subversive, you're nonexistent, a nullity. I would say though that it is ennobling to write. And that it is an excellent excuse for spending much of one's time alone. And that lastly, writers have unique opportunities to have sex with women who wear glasses.

3AM: One of your stories is about a young man who emigrates to a country where the monetary currency is human hair. You've created most of your work in the bizarre, some would say exotic environment of Bohemia, specifically Prague, a city with a rich literary history. Would you say that this atmosphere inspired a lot of the stories in the collection? Or could they have been created anywhere?

JC: Half of my books were written in or around Prague. Two unpublished novels of mine were written at home in New Jersey before and after my time there. I came to Prague when I was 20, and liked it because it was "Prague" -- a beautiful, strange and yet ultimately cold and unforgiving city. I grew to dislike it immensely (and I am sure it hated me as much), but by the time I could afford the luxury of such disillusion I had also made a few good friends, and had fallen in love. Prague's atmosphere didn't inspire the stories as much as literature itself did (the literature of Prague as much as the literature of Tel Aviv, or of New York, or Berlin, Paris, Drohobycz, Austro-Hungary). But they could not have been created anywhere else, unless anywhere else was much like Prague vicissitudes-wise. My life was cheap; I had no responsibilities; I could work very little to (barely) survive; I had all day to write. It was ideal. If desperate and very unhealthy.

Also, to live and work in a place to which you have no or little connection familial or otherwise is for me psychically very freeing. To the best of my knowledge, the only other member of my family to have spent significant time in Prague before me was my great-grandfather, Ferencz Weisz, who studied to be a rabbi there. Other than him, who died years before I was born, the city was blank. And the blanker the city, the deeper I work. This would have been a better book had I written it in Kamchatka, and even better had I written it on Europa, one of Jupiter's many moons.

3AM: The novella that ends this collection, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, has the same title as your novel which will be published next year by Fugue State Press. What's the story on that? Will it be an expansion of or sequel to the novella?

JC: Schneidermann is an elderly Jewish-Hungarian composer who, like many great composers of the 20th century (who suffer only from the affliction of being real), achieved little success in his lifetime.

The novella in The Quorum was written in late 2001 and early 2002. As I was waiting the three years for The Quorum to be published, I began expanding the piece into the 400-page novel Fugue State will put out next year. It's less an expansion, though, than a sequel, or, better, a companion; though the conceit is the same -- man stands onstage at Carnegie Hall and, instead of playing his violin, addresses the audience with his voice -- the language of the novella is much more dense, and the exact nature of Schneidermann's fate is only glossed. The novella is, I hope, a maddening rush. The novel is to an extent less frenetic, and, due to its length, is able to encompass a score of themes and variations that the novella only makes overtures at. The relationship between the two can be thought of as a question of orchestration: novella Schneidermann is quartet music; the novel Schneidermann is an orchestra with triple winds. I like them both. Though I am particularly happy I was able to finish the novel, and that its strange form seems to stand.

3AM: What are you currently working on?

JC: Two novels. One, Graven Imaginings, has been in progress for about 6-7 years now. It's a massive hulk (600-some pages) about the last living Jew in the world; I hope to have it finished by September 2006. The other novel is much shorter, entitled Channel. It's about a voice-over artist for Soviet Television (later NTV), who falls in love with a Los Angeles sitcom actress whose show he works on in Russia ten years after it went off the air in America. After the fall of communism, he comes out to meet her. And.

I'm very pleased that I finally have a plot, that I finally wrote a book -- am writing a book -- with even the smallest compromise to causality. And so the last few months have been spent writing about television, which I don't even own.


Travis Jeppesen is the author of Victims (Akashic Books, 2003). His new book, Poems I Wrote While Watching TV, will be published by Blatt in early 2006. He lives in Prague and Berlin.

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