Life & Culture

Two cousins in Paris: the Jewish story I had to write

Jude Cook wanted to write a book with a Jewish theme - but publishers sent 'rave rejections'. Now he's turning to crowd-funding


When I came up with the idea for my Paris-set second novel, Jacob’s Advice, I had no idea life was about to imitate art.

I had long thought there might be Jewish ancestry in my family — my father, in his early eighties, is a dead ringer for the seigneurial Leonard Cohen. And his mother, an immigrant from Silesia in the early twentieth-century, might well have come over with the diasporic wave that the Aliens Act of 1905 sought to quell. My father said he’d look into it. Being an amateur genealogist, his research was very thorough. However, after much effort, he drew a blank, so I did what most novelists do when an idea refuses to go away — make notes for a new novel.

The story I sketched out focused on two English cousins, both academics, who find themselves in Paris in 2015. The action would take place between the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher supermarket in January, and the Bataclan massacre later that year. The younger cousin, Larry, is on a quest to prove he’s Jewish. Like me, he wonders about the reasons his grandmother came to England. The older cousin, Nick— the novel’s narrator — is highly sceptical of the idea, and has his own pressing family problems anyway. I imagined the conflict between the cousins would give the book some humour, and bring relief from the serious issues it addresses. And having Nick as a narrator would provide a degree of distance between the reader and a character shackled to an obsession.

Furthermore, it was essential that Larry’s three artistic heroes are all Jewish men: Saul Bellow, Bob Dylan and Woody Allen. Larry is drawn to all three from an early age, though he doesn’t quite know why. He merely feels an ‘aesthetic excitement’ about their work, before he even knows or cares they’re Jewish. Understandably, when he finds out their heritage, it fuels his obsession.

Setting the book in 2015 was also vital. The year now feels like it was the crucible for what came next — the political tide in Europe was just about to turn, with the resurgence of far-right extremism, nationalism, and antisemitism. When I began to write the novel, no one in the media was talking about racism or antisemitism much — now, four years on, post-Brexit and Trump, there are swastikas on the streets, and deadly attacks on places of worship. We live in more dangerous times, and the book needed to reflect that. Ultimately, I wanted to think about how it might feel to suspect you are Jewish, just as being Jewish becomes — yet again — a dangerous thing to be. I wanted to try to understand how it might feel to live with the weight of all that history and all those fears.

I laboured on Jacob’s Advice for a couple of years and sent it out to agents and editors, only to be met by silence, indifference, and a few examples of what writers mordantly call rave rejections. Though I’d been published before, and had built up a modest profile reviewing fiction, I was unprepared for this response. To me, the novel was urgent and blazingly topical. But it seemed that no one wanted a book about the present political moment, specifically the return of antisemitism. What’s more, the novel was even more personal to me now as, during its writing, I met, fell in love with, and married a Jewish playwright and author: Samantha Ellis. We now have a two-year-old son. To put it bluntly, the dismal reappearance of antisemitism was no longer theoretical — it directly threatened my family.

So, rather than put Jacob’s Advice in a drawer, at the start of this year I approached the crowdfunding publisher Unbound. To my delight and relief, they accepted the book — it’s funding on their website now, and they plan to publish next September if we reach the target. While I still don’t know if I’m Jewish — life doesn’t imitate art so neatly — I’m glad the novel and the questions it raises will at last be heard. Though the book addresses some very serious issues, it’s also a story of family, identity, and what it means to belong. And a story with hope for the future.


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive