An Unusual Jewish Novel, Full of Blood and Incense

Josh Lambert in the New York Times:

14Lambert-blog427It’s been a season of reckoning for our high priests, as one after another, in the film industry, journalism, politics, academia and other fields, have been judged and sometimes punished for their sins. How eerie that Ruby Namdar’s strange and exhilarating novel, “The Ruined House,” should appear in English translation just now.

Namdar wrote the book, his second, in his native Hebrew, and received Israel’s most lucrative literary award, the Sapir Prize, for it a few years ago. Having lived in New York for decades, he was the first expatriate ever to gain that particular honor, and it looks as if he’ll remain the only one: After his win, the rules were shamefully changed to exclude those who live abroad.

It’s just coincidental timing, then, that the novel centers on the sort of American high priest who has recently come under long overdue scrutiny. In “The Ruined House,” he’s the kind of 50-something Jewish New Yorker who publishes his essays in The New Yorker, occupies an impeccable Upper West Side apartment and leads seminars on “comparative culture” at N.Y.U. You can probably already picture him, this elegant Andrew P. Cohen, down to “the old-fashioned watch on his left wrist, the cartoonishly heavy-framed reading glasses, the Warholian shock of hair with its playful wink of gray.”

We follow Andrew as he floats through his putatively enviable life, preparing for classes, visiting the mother of his 26-year-old Chinese-American girlfriend, schmoozing the slick president of N.Y.U. He shuttles between the Hamptons and gallery openings, treating himself to cappuccino and biscotti and almond croissants at “those sexy bakeries that have been opening all over.” True to type, Andrew surrounds himself with admiring women he has selected because they will play their roles (ex-wife, girlfriend, daughter) without ever impinging upon his “personal and aesthetic independence.” Namdar skewers the man thoroughly as a hypocritical misogynist, phony scholar and petty narcissist.

More here.