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Book review: The Ruined House

David Herman is disappointed by a Bellow-lite narrative

    The Ruined House By Ruby Namdar
    Kuperard/Harper £23.50

     

    Ruby Namdar was born and raised in Jerusalem in an Iranian-Jewish family. His first book, Haviv (2000), won the Israeli Ministry of Culture’s Award for Best First Publication. His new novel, The Ruined House, won the 2014 Sapir Prize—Israel’s most important literary award.

    Namdar now lives in New York, where his new novel is set. It is full of affectionate references to well-known landmarks, especially on the Upper West Side, including Barney Greengrass, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s favourite smoked salmon place and the Hungarian Pastry Shop.

    The central character is Andrew Cohen, a professor of comparative literature at New York University, Jewish, divorced, and living a remarkably privileged life in a beautiful apartment on Riverside Drive. He also shares a summer home on the Cape, cooks delicious meals and is in love with the beautiful, young and talented Ann Lee. His super-smart elder daughter Rachel is a postgraduate at Princeton. Even his divorce was amicable and civilised. If the New York Review of Books got divorced, it would be like Cohen’s.

    Namdar’s New York is a reminder of mid-Woody Allen creations — Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors — where everyone is cultured, well-dressed and reads the right books. This gives the novel a curiously old-fashioned feel. It is a long way from Trump’s America, not just because it was originally published in Hebrew in 2013, but because it has no sense of the anger and divisions of America after the Crash of 2008.

    Even the passages about NYU seem oddly out of touch. There is no sense of the craziness of so many American literature departments with their rigid political correctness and rage about race, gender and trans rights.

    Amos Oz, an admirer of the novel, has compared Cohen with “Saul Bellow’s disintegrating intellectuals”. There are certainly echoes of Sammler and Bellow’s great “suffering joker”, Herzog, just as there are references to Portnoy. At one point, Cohen catches a glimpse of Roth at a local restaurant.

    Cohen seems familiar enough as a character, middle-aged Jewish intellectual going through a mid-life crisis. But the comparisons with Bellow don’t work. Bellow created a whole world, not just a privileged corner of it. He wrote about tough guys, inner-city decline, loving mothers in Lower East Side tenements, and created unforgettable characters. Namdar doesn’t.

    Cohen is supposed to be an intellectual but what has he read or written? Who are his favourite writers, what does he think about the state of literary criticism or intellectual life? The problem with Cohen’s mid-life crisis is that no one cares. He’s not interesting, not funny and not likeable And, apart from Cohen, all the other characters are paper-thin. This is sub-Bellow, sub-Roth and about 300 pages too long.

     

    David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

     

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