Nose in a Book

Bookishness is Next to Jewishness

American actress and singer Barbra Streisand, a profile of a Jewish nose.
American actress and singer Barbra Streisand, a profile of a Jewish nose.

Nose in a Book

It is said that London is too large for anyone to live in and that it really amounts to a collection of villages. One such village is Stamford Hill in the north of the city, a district almost entirely inhabited by a community of Orthodox Jews of the Haredi variety. During a fine spring, I moved there from neighbouring Hackney. As I stepped out of my front door, I would enter a stream of men dressed in long coats and fur hats with curls of hair at their ears, and women in frocks and hairdos redolent of the Fifties. It was a strange context at first, but no stranger than most places in London. Then one Sabbath, as I made my way up the road to a party across town, I found a young man with side curls but no hat, standing at the gate of a big house. He had a slightly desperate look in his eyes: 

“Excuse me, are you busy?” he asked. 

“Not really,” I said, “why?” 

“It’s just, well, you’re not a Jew, are you?” 

He paused at that point, as if he was rapidly assessing just how Jewish I might be. 

Now I had recently been reading a fair deal about the Jewish Diaspora, Kabbalism, Sigmund Freud and associated topics. When he paused in that way, it gave me an opportunity to think on my feet. 

“Ah,” I said, “if you mean am I a goy, yes, I am.” 

The young man’s face was instantly suffused with relief. “You’re familiar with the word,” he said, amazed at his good luck to find such a well-informed gentile. “Then maybe you can help us out for a minute.”

He opened the gate, and led me up a long path towards the big mock Tudor house. It was dusk. As we crossed the threshold, we entered a vast hallway lit by dripping chandeliers. I say lit. The interior was actually dazzling, it was so over-lit. After the semi-darkness of the street, it felt like the foyer of a theatre. Off to the left I could hear numerous voices speaking, as I now know, in Yiddish. The young man led me away from them and up a palatial flight of stairs, thick with carpet, to a landing with several doors. “We just need you to turn off some lights,” he said. I nodded knowingly, which made him even happier, then he took me round five or six switches and I turned them off, one by one. 

Job done, I left and continued to my party, but something had changed. Even though I was never again asked to step in and do the good offices of a nonbeliever, I knew from that day I’d arrived: I was now, officially, the only goy in the village. 

Okay, this was not strictly true, as the house I inhabited had a few like me, but they didn’t even know what they were. I was the only one with the fascination. I remember reading about the rabbis arguing for so long over some delicate point about the Torah that God intervened, and then how some of the rabbis started arguing with God. I was fascinated by the levels of meaning in the Kabbala, as complicated as anything Harold Bloom had found in William Blake. It was no surprise the most celebrated Jewish literary critic had extrapolated from the Romantics no less than six revisionist ratios: clinamen, tessera, kenosis, etc. Back then, I would have had the patience to study them. I set about reading, in bed, the entirety of Freud’s monumental Interpretation of Dreams – my method was fool-proof; I could even continue my studies while asleep – and as I moved on to the Rat Man and Anna O, I would hear the rabbi muttering in the room next door. 

I recall one particular, glorious spring morning when, as usual, the birdsong was accompanied by a low hum of Hebrew or Yiddish. I got up and went over to the window to take in the beauty of the gardens behind our row of houses and there, standing on the neighbouring lawn, was a young man with side curls, his head bowed and his nose firmly planted in The Book. I suppose one bookish person is bound to recognise another, but not always with a sense of solidarity. The Romantic in me objected to the idea that while Nature was doing its thing – birds nesting, blossom on the trees, the sun beaming like an ecstatic god – this young man, no more than seventeen, was lost in an ancient text, oblivious to his surroundings.      

Ever since that time, in my lazy way, I have associated Jewishness with bookishness. In my last article I spoke about the awkwardness of discovering that a vague acquaintance has just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Well, the author in question, Joshua Cohen, did nothing to dispel this association. Moreover, the man he has dedicated the book to, the one-and-only Harold Bloom of the ratios, was often compared to a rabbi by his students. 


Definitely bookish. Harold Bloom, literary critic, author, teacher at Yale.

He is said to have known the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays off by heart and to have read everything else, which I know from experience would have taken him a heck of a long time; perhaps he too had mastered the knack of studying in his sleep. If anyone was a candidate for influence anxiety, it was Bloom, but of course he was a strong reader. It occurs to me that, had he tried harder to make it as a writer – the one novel he did attempt was a fantasy set in space – he might have discovered a simple glitch in his theory of influence: that it is not a strong or weak reading that sorts the poetical sheep from the goats, but a strong or weak rewriting.

One such reader turned writer, a man with his nose permanently in a book, has now written a slim volume with a nose featuring prominently inside it. The book is called The Netanyahus and features what the subtitle calls ‘a minor and ultimately even negligible episode in the history of that famous family’. It’s a great victory for understatement that a ‘negligible’ tale should win the Pulitzer. 

In an interview, Cohen said the announcement had taken him by surprise, as he had even less likelihood of remembering when the Pulitzer was announced than recalling his mother’s birthday. If this was a slightly awkward attempt at modesty, it was a dangerous gambit: bringing one’s mum up at moments like this could easily appear cute. On the other hand, the remark neatly forestalled psychoanalysis by reversing the old joke about Freudian slips, that you say one thing but mean your mother. Cohen proceeded to explain why he thought famous people, like Trump or Netanyahu, whose ‘soap operas’ we have to endure, could be fair game for a novel: 

‘We're beaten over the heads with them, the soap operas of these authoritarian figures, and we are engrossed in their scandals... but they are mascots in a way... hated mascots... and I resented the omnipresence of this saga that I didn't sign up for, and I wanted to take some of its powers of projection and use it for my own purposes. Why not take a famous name, slap it on the front of a book, and use their generative power for the purposes of art – I certainly wouldn't be the first one to do it.’

Hang on, is ‘mascot’ really the right word here? Entire regiments revere them. Indeed, all the mascots I’ve ever heard of have been considered lucky in some way. And there you have it. Mascot is the mot juste if you’re hoping Bibi’s hated surname will bring you some commercial good fortune. The problem is, by making it all about Bibi, you run the risk of reducing the whole enterprise to a polemic against this ‘hated mascot’, when it is about so much more than that. Now I suppose you can be forgiven for fixating on the title, if that’s all your interlocutor has had time to read, but in reality, as Cohen implies, the title is just bait, and all this talk about ‘generative power’ and ‘the purposes of art’ is screamingly disingenuous: he merely seized an opportunity to exploit the famous name as a lure. This would suggest that, for all his arty-farty protestations, Cohen is not above showing a bit of leg when it comes to competing with the other hookers on the book shelves.

But the book is about far more than the ghastly Netanyahus. It’s arguably about too much. For a slim volume, it has an immense amount of padding, enough to reverse Cyril Connolly’s axiom and demonstrate that in every thin man, there’s a fat man trying to get out. It is a semi-fictional account of a real incident, based on an anecdote, that nonetheless manages to be bookish. It’s a hybrid. It might easily have qualified for the journalism prize, had it not turned Harold Bloom into Ruben Blum, a fictional character who shares the name but with a different spelling, whose profession has changed from literary critic to historian of taxation. It also contains a cast of minor characters, such as Blum’s wife and daughter, his parents, his in-laws and a gallery of academic colleagues in descending order of plausibility. Yet it takes as its ostensible subject a real family, one of whose members was (until recently) Israel’s Prime Minister. Perhaps the Pulitzer committee should consider awarding a Neither Fact nor Fiction Prize in future, since for most of the time they had no way of determining where the original anecdote ended and the embroidery began. If he’d opted for a different title – one that might not have so blatantly invited a libel suit – Cohen could have done worse than A Nose Job.

Perhaps simplicity of that ilk was too much to hope for. Given his penchant for long words, he would most probably have gone with Rhinoplasty. A penchant for the long word where a shorter and less exotic one might do is a sure sign of bookishness, but not of a good kind. They used to call words like this ‘inkhorn’ owing to the great quantities of ink spilt in devising them. In one humble chapter of The Netanyahus, the following words appear: eschatology, chthonic, nugatory, crepitus, propaedeutic and logopoeic. I struggle to describe what is going on here. Is it verbosity? Not quite. Loquacity, perhaps? No word springs to mind that quite expresses a tendency (shared by Boris Johnson, though no one could call him bookish) for employing polysyllabic words whose origins lie in Latin or Greek. Sesquipedalian, maybe, but it strikes me as singularly unsatisfactory that a word denoting a stylistic defect condemns you to bad style just for using it. 

I suffered from a similar tendency when I was at school, until a helpful English teacher diagnosed my condition as ‘logorrhoea’, though I think her thinly-disguised attempt at persiflage may have rendered that epithet more jocose than veridical. Clearly, Joshua Cohen never suffered the mockery of his English teachers. He doesn’t just prefer long words; he also favours strained and over-ingenious conceits. He describes a blameless Thanksgiving turkey, for instance, as a ‘huge fledgeless knoll of gleaming gravied flesh’. It’s a bloody turkey, man! The word ‘fledgeless’ is a poor substitute for featherless, and the word ‘knoll’ only has one obvious connotation in popular culture, and his turkey is emphatically not grassy. 

Should I get myself worked up about a conceited turkey? No, definitely not. But when a writer who knows German can come up with a passage like this concerning Freud, well honestly, I cannot desist from fuming impotently at such presumption. He is describing the subtle shades of identity that existed within the Diaspora:

‘In retrospect, the disparities… can seem ridiculously minor.’

At this point, it was already obvious we were heading for Freud here.

‘…they can seem egoistic, egotistic, petty and vain, matters of custom, cuisine, or even just wardrobe…’

Definitely heading for Freud, and a phrase with firmly-established currency in the English language.

‘…but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist and substantially define people’s lives: “der Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen” is Freud’s famous phrase, which you don’t need more than kleinen German to puzzle out, or more than kleinen pride to be disturbed by.’

Now it may just be me, but I didn’t hear the voice of the narrator speaking to me here; I heard the unmistakably patronising voice of the swot what wrote it. 

I shall of course – this being a brief essay on the role of the nose in world history – be returning to Freud in due course. For now, I want to explore the nose’s literary pedigree. I should hasten to explain that the nose in this prize-winning book is not the author’s, any more than the breast in another book was Philip Roth’s. It actually belongs to a young woman not unlike the nose in my picture, though that nose is also not the one in the book. It is a feminine nose nonetheless. And, I might add, one of exceptional beauty. In contrast, the nose in the book is one that its owner considers ugly and wants to get rid of.

The nose in literature can be traced back at least as far as the tale of Slawkenbergius in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. It is an eminently bookish tale, one that Sterne is at pains to attribute to a Latin original, and which descends into ever more bookish complexity as the tale wears on. We are meant to wonder throughout whether the nose in question is actually another part of the anatomy altogether. It’s fair to say, that any dedicated reader is compelled to reflect long and hard (stop sniggering at the back) on this ambiguity. A ‘stranger’ – his name is Diego, and there are hints that he may be a Sephardic Jew – arrives in Strasbourg mounted on a trusty mule and on his way to ‘the borders of Crim-Tartary’…  

Cruikshank disambiguates Sterne’s ambiguity. George Cruikshank spoils the joke.

Is he indeed a Jew? It seems almost certain Cruikshank thought so. The illustration below shows how Cruikshank gave the same nose to Fagin. 

Cruikshank Fagin cell.

Elsewhere, Sterne mentions the case of Corporal Trim’s brother, Tom, who was tortured on the rack by the Portuguese Inquisition for marrying a Jew’s widow who sold sausages. Tom is apparently mistaken for a ‘converso’ – which is to say a convert to Catholicism who continues to adhere to the Jewish faith – because his wife’s sausages contain no pork. This is an area covered by Benzion Netanyahu, but I shall come to that in the next article. 

Why is a Spaniard passing through Strasbourg on his way to the Crimea? Well, there was a Jewish population in Crimea as well as in Spain, but then there were many such communities distributed across Europe. As for Tartary, it seems to have been a generalised term for Asia at this time. The likelihood of Diego reaching the Crimea on a mule and then returning to Strasbourg inside a month seems slim. 

As the stranger passes through the city gates, he attracts a great deal of attention from the sentinel and a bandy-legged drummer, but he is destined to attract far more attention as the tale continues. The cause of all this interest is the immensity of his nose, which he explains by claiming to have come from the promontory of Noses, where he obtained “one of the goodliest and jolliest, thank heaven, that ever fell to a single man’s lot.” The prodigious dimensions of this nose stir ever more controversy, with some proclaiming its fleshly reality, while others insist it is a fake composed of parchment or metal: 

‘Benedicity!——What a nose! ’tis as long, said the trumpeter’s wife, as a trumpet. And of the same mettle, said the trumpeter, as you hear by its sneezing. —’Tis as soft as a flute, said she. —’Tis brass, said the trumpeter. —’Tis a pudding’s end—said his wife. I tell thee again, said the trumpeter, ’tis a brazen nose. I’ll know the bottom of it, said the trumpeter’s wife, for I will touch it with my finger before I sleep.’

To this statement of intent, and other like it, the stranger reacts with wounded horror:

‘—no! said he, my nose shall never be touched whilst heaven gives me strength—To do what? said a burgomaster’s wife. The stranger took no notice of the burgomaster’s wife— he was making a vow to saint Nicolas.’

Bust of Laurence Sterne by Joseph Nollekens, 1766, showing his own very sizeable conk.

Nonetheless, the desire to touch the nose soon becomes unanimous, and is especially fervent among the good ladies of Strasbourg, not least those in its convents. The stranger begins to tease them with the possibility of touching it, given certain unspecified conditions, which may amount to the first recorded case of a prick doing the teasing:

‘I have made a vow to saint Nicolas this day, said the stranger, that my nose shall not be touched till—Here the stranger, suspending his voice, looked up—Till when? said the inn-keeper’s wife hastily. It never shall be touched, said he, clasping his hands and bringing them close to his breast, till that hour——What hour? cried she.——Never!—never! said the stranger, never till I am got—For heaven sake into what place? said she.—The stranger rode away without saying a word.’

Eventually, the stranger leaves Strasbourg in some haste, bound for the east but with a promise of returning in a month’s time. The consequences for the town’s inhabitants, in particular the ladies and those domiciled in its convents, are catastrophic:

‘It was about the same hour when the tumult in Strasburg being abated for that night,——the Strasburgers had all got quietly into their beds…’ 


‘queen Mab, like an elf as she was, had taken the stranger’s nose, and without reduction of its bulk, had that night been at the pains of slitting and dividing it into as many noses of different cuts and fashions, as there were heads in Strasburg to hold them. The abbess of Quedlingberg […] was ill all the night. The courteous stranger’s nose had got perched upon the top of the pineal gland of her brain.’

Evidently, the abbess is a closet Cartesian. Others ‘…were still in a worse condition than the abbess of Quedlingberg—by tumbling and tossing, and tossing and tumbling from one side of their beds to the other the whole night long—the several sisterhoods had scratch’d and mawl’d themselves all to death—they got out of their beds almost flead alive—everybody thought saint Antony had visited them for probation with his fire——they had never once, in short, shut their eyes the whole night long from vespers to matins. The nuns of saint Ursula acted the wisest—they never attempted to go to bed at all.’

It is as if a plague afflicts the city. It is reminiscent of the dancing mania, when entire towns danced literally until they dropped. Folk memories of this affliction persist in the form of Tarantism in remote parts of Puglia. 

The deleterious effects of bagpipes? Dance at Molenbeek.

Because the nose obsesses one and all, it threatens to lay the city open to the depredations of the French:

‘every soul, good and bad—rich and poor—learned and unlearned—doctor and student—mistress and maid—gentle and simple—nun’s flesh and woman’s flesh in Strasburg spent their time in hearing tidings about it—every eye in Strasburg languished to see it——every finger—every thumb in Strasburg burned to touch it.’

Of course, this being Sterne, there is no consummation to be had for his readers. As for his nuns, the phrase ‘Noli me tangere’ will forever haunt their dreams. 

Actually, that’s just given me an idea – what if the stranger is a parody of Christ? He could easily be entering Jerusalem in Cruikshank’s picture. But hush, surely this is a speculation too far. Still, if you find the depiction below (by Hans Holbein the Younger) suggestive, you should see the one by Titian, too risqué for a family show:

Mary gets the stranger treatment. Noli me tangere (1524); Hans Holbein the Younger.

Laurence Sterne was a vicar, though not a very reverend one. After reading his sermons, Thomas Gray wrote ‘They are in the style I think most proper for the pulpit, and show a strong imagination and a sensible heart; but you see him often tottering on the verge of laughter, and ready to throw his periwig in the face of the audience.’ The jovial vicar would surely have relished the medical associations of noli me tangere, namely swellings that increase in size if touched, or the botanical angle of the touch-me-not balsam, also known as Impatiens noli-tangere. Apparently, its seed pods explode when you touch them.  

Impatiens noli-tangere.

It took many years for Tristram Shandy to get translated. It’s not a task anyone would take on lightly. When part of it was rendered in Russian in 1804, it finally arrived at the ‘borders of Crim-Tartary.’ There, it would inspire Gogol’s more celebrated nose in the short story of that name. Since Gogol has been accused of anti-Semitic undertones, the nature of that inspiration might repay further enquiry. Through Gogol, the debt to Sterne extended to include Kafka and Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a cockroach. It was absurdity that he bequeathed to European letters, coupled with a sentimental streak. Since then, Shandyism has ravished the continent. It only remains for a statue of Sterne’s nose to be erected in Strasbourg for Diego’s journey to come full circle.  

Now, with Joshua Cohen’s addition to the long history of noses in literature, we have a fresh insinuation that large, or even misshaped, noses are tokens of Jewishness. It comes not from the author, but from his narrator’s daughter, Judy, who has two main fixations, the first with assimilation into American society, which she sees as a beacon of fairness; the second a radical alteration of the most prominent feature of her face. This leads to her declaration in the book – maybe it was a certain nervousness that made me laugh out loud when I read it – “And fairness must also be this: that everyone in this country who can pay for a nose with their own money can have one.” Judy is clearly a very intelligent girl, but not in a bookish kind of way.

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