Arts & Culture

The Big Jewcy: Rachel Cohen, Writer

Rachel Cohen is a writer, sure, but she is also the teacher I remember best from my college days.  I took every class of hers that fit into my schedule, and learned to hone my own writing by sinking into … Read More

By / June 17, 2010

Rachel Cohen is a writer, sure, but she is also the teacher I remember best from my college days.  I took every class of hers that fit into my schedule, and learned to hone my own writing by sinking into her short lectures, enamored by her quiet brilliance, and treasured our time together talking about what worked on the page and what did not.  

Luckily for Rachel, it all works.  Her book, A Chance Meeting, details the personal connections and private meetings between some of the America’s greatest artists:  James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Robert Lowell and Henry James, just to name a few. 

Rachel is just an all-around accomplished artist:  the winner of the 2003 PEN/Jerard Fund Award, and has published essays in The New Yorker, The Threepenny Review, McSweeney’s, DoubleTake, Parnassus, and Modern Painters and in 2003 Best American Essays and 2003 Pushcart Prize anthologies.

You’ve expressed a great interest in the private and deeply personal lives of great artists, which is the foundation of your book, A Chance Meeting.  How did this preoccupation start?

It’s true that I’m very interested in the biographies of artists; there’s something I find beautiful in watching the stratum of life that sort of underlies and contributes to the much more mysterious stratum running above it that is the art itself. Even as a child I think I would be wonderstruck by a painting or a book and it would feel natural to ask, ‘who made this?’ and ‘how did they do it?’ I often wind up feeling that biography doesn’t really answer the questions we have about art, but that, interestingly, the art answers some questions we have about lives. Artists of course live most urgently on the canvas or the page, and so if you want to understand what is most personal and matters most in the life, you have endlessly to go back to the art.

Have you found that uncovering the connections between artists you admire has inspired you to make similar connections among artists of your generation?

I think it went the other way around, that because it was clear to me how much the writers and artists I knew valued their relationships with one another, it made sense to me to build a book around those connections in history. A lot of my friends are playwrights, novelists, composers, theater directors, visual artists, essayists, and poets and for me there’s pleasure and artistic growth that comes from talking to them about their craft and from watching it develop. When I first moved to New York and was trying to become a writer, I was fortunate to start working for Bang on a Can, which is a collective of composers of new music. Through the work of its founders -Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang – I not only heard terrific things but saw a vibrant community that was helping individual artists to grow. And since then people like the artist Tara Geer and the poet Vijay Seshadri have really helped me to understand things about the way I’m hoping to put language together, and to figure out what to read next.

If you were to hold "a chance meeting" with any working artist today, who would it be?

I would really like to talk to Kazuo Ishiguro about his novel The Unconsoled.

What do you think of The New Yorker’s recent "20 Under 40" list? Do you think there is anyone in particular they left off the list?

I thought the list was a really interesting one. I’ve just started Salvatore Scibona’s The End – it’s so far fantastic – I’m very glad he’s listed. The way I read contemporary fiction is patchy, so I’d hesitate to make declarations about ‘best of’ categories – I know I’m excited about a new novel by Jessica Francis Kane called The Report, which I’ve seen in galleys.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing two books which in some sense separate the preoccupations of my first book, where I was studying historical figures and at the same time working with an active imagination about them. Now I’m writing a novel, which has an historical setting but for which the characters are entirely invented, and a biography, where the focus is much more on the broad and deep historical context and in which nothing is invented at all. The novel is taking its sweet time – I’ve been working on it most days for about five years now. The biography is about the art historian and connoisseur Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), who had a substantial influence on which old master paintings American millionaires bought for nearly sixty years, and, as a consequence, which works are ours to see in museums, and who lived and survived in Italy through the whole disastrous period from the Dreyfus Affair through both world wars. My book is tentatively called Bernard Berenson and the Picture Trade, and it’s for the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series.