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Like many writers, I am guilty of neglecting my peers, mostly because there’s still so much great literature from the past I haven’t read, and also because my peers are, by definition, my rivals and probably, therefore, more successful than I. So I’m likely to be more familiar with some obscure, harmless nineteenth-century Russian scribbler—say, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin; what, you haven’t read The Golovlyov Family?—than with today’s latest trendy novelist. Jonathan who?
Not surprising, then, that I’d barely heard of Howard Jacobson when I began in the early 2000s reading his opinion columns online in The Independent. I soon warmed up to him. His point of view, trending neither left nor right, did honor to the newspaper’s name, and accorded with my own stance of extreme centrism in all things. His caustic observations were on the mark. He was funny, too, displaying an expansive, allusive humor evocative of the literary satire rather than the humor column—more Kingsley Amis, as it were, than Dave Barry. This was confirmed when I heard from those who knew that Jacobson was in fact that rara avis, a real, and really comic, comic novelist.
He was then in the familiar bind of the comic novelist: appreciated, even revered, by a minority in the know, ignored by the rest, and generally invisible to the literati—the ones who award prizes such as the Man Booker. Comic writing has rarely been taken as seriously as “drama,” even by those who should know better. Woody Allen, for instance, once a promising comic writer himself, said, “Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes; comedy is rather the dessert, a bit like meringue.”
But vindication came to Jacobson as it comes to few writers. At the Man Booker ceremonies in October 2010—despite his aging mother’s last-minute apprehension that his novel The Finkler Question, although shortlisted, was “too Jewish” to win—he went home with the prize. His was the first comic novel to win since Amis’s The Old Devils, which some would say was too bitter to be comic, in 1986.
Success and happiness are not Jacobson’s natural habitat, nor that of his characters, who are, mostly, like him: male, English, Jewish, sex-obsessed, and pretty disillusioned with life. (Of course, one must refrain from seeing too much of an author in his characters.) Called a “British Philip Roth” by many, Jacobson counters with the tongue-in-cheek self-sobriquet “the Jewish Jane Austen,” weighting the Jewish part equally with the Englishness. Not that he dismisses the comparison with Roth, whom he holds in high regard, but Jacobson is disturbed “that Roth became most admired when he stopped being funny.” As Jacobson says, “Any fool can make you cry. If I want to see what a writer’s made of, I say, go on, make me laugh then!”
A preoccupation with their Jewishness is what the two writers have most obviously in common—that and an equal or greater preoccupation with sex. That Jacobson is Jewish, like most of his characters, has become more important to his writing over the years than he thought it would be. He astonished his family and friends when he started writing about Jewish subjects, he says. The Jacobson home in Manchester wasn’t particularly observant, nor was it especially bookish. His mother read; his father didn’t. Jacobson senior was a street vendor, aspiring magician, and ardent socialist in the style of the age. “We were stomach Jews, we were Jewish-joke Jews, we were bagel Jews. We didn’t go to synagogue. I’m frightened of synagogue to this day,” Jacobson says.
So as a writer, something he didn’t really start to be until he was around 40, he never intended to explore “the Jewish experience,” which, at first, he didn’t automatically conflate with his own as a working-class boy from Manchester ascending to a higher social level. The first step upward was becoming a student of the legendary F. R. Leavis at Cambridge. Jacobson’s models were never Isaac Bashevis Singer or Chaim Bermant. He was, and is, “an old-fashioned English lit. man, straight down the line—it’s George Eliot, it’s Dickens, it’s Dr. Johnson, it’s Jane Austen.” But in order for him to be perceived as being as English as any of these, he must be Jewish secondarily, whereas Roth, Jewish though he is, is American through and through. From the British point of view, Jewishness blends into Americanness seamlessly—think, among writers, not only of Roth, but of Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and Joseph Heller. In England, however, “to be Jewish is to feel that you’re too parochial,” Jacobson observes. “You must demonstrate your remove from Jewishness in order to feel more English.” This meant, ironically, that he had to acknowledge his Jewishness in order to become the English comic writer he needed to be.
But first he needed to get away from Cambridge, which—despite the prestige of the ancient university and Leavis’s mostly beneficial influence (Jacobson to this day is very much a Leavisite in his disdain for shoddy language and the lowbrow generally)—was a dead end. There was no scope there for comic inventiveness: at Cambridge, Jacobson says, “I was the quietest and most timorous I’ve ever been.” And when he started down the writer’s path it was via airy-fairy rubbish with titles such as “The Right Moment” and “The Done Thing,” country-house novels set in imaginary Henry James or Jane Austen territory. Country houses were all very well; “The only pity,” Jacobson says, “was I’d never been in one.”
Success and happiness are not Howard Jacobson’s natural habitat, nor that of his characters.
His salvation as a comic novelist awaited in drab Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, site of the polytechnic at which he was teaching when he threw caution, and Henry James, to the winds: “Face it, I’m not living a Jamesian or Lawrentian life, I’m in fucking Wolverhampton.” Seething with years of pent-up Jacobsonness, he wrote Coming From Behind, published in 1983. It’s a campus farce in the style of David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, but with the significant difference that the main character, Sefton Goldberg, a lecturer at a provincial polytechnic who despairs of ever escaping the place, is a Jewish fish entirely out of the Anglo-Saxon water, which leads to reflection and memory and a realization of how distinctive an identity Jewishness is, even (or especially) in the secularized post-Christian world of modern England.
Reviews were mixed, but there were a couple of raves: “One of the funniest novels in the language,” said The Daily Telegraph. Coming From Behind crossed the pond with reasonable success, too: “[An] acerbic, claustrophobic, immensely entertaining book,” opined The New York Times Book Review. Others, inevitably, were dismissive of this flashy neo-Roth. Never mind: the important thing was that Howard Jacobson had finally broken out as a comic novelist. He had become Howard Jacobson.
His next two novels, Peeping Tom and Redback, confirmed his growing eminence among British comic writers. Time Out’s reviewer called Peeping Tom, whose sex-obsessed hero thinks he might be the reincarnation of the Marquis de Sade, or at least Thomas Hardy, “the funniest book about sex ever written,” and Redback, a farce set mostly in Australia (the title refers to a poisonous Australian spider), earned Jacobson comparisons to such masters of satire as Jonathan Swift and Kingsley Amis.
But success remained just around a couple of corners. Jacobson was deemed good for a laugh, but a lightweight. It’s the old story: comic writer pens a couple of funny books, then everybody waits for him to get serious. When he does, they all go, “So where are the laughs?” This happened with Jacobson’s ambitious The Very Model of a Man, his 1992 take on the Cain and Abel story and the entire Old Testament. After the reviews fizzled, and no awards were forthcoming, Jacobson temporarily lost hope and sought refuge in television production and screenplays.
He only returned to fiction in 1998, with No More Mr. Nice Guy, the story of a midlife crisis with plenty of raucous sex and some affecting nostalgia. It’s funny—Frank, the protagonist, whose marriage is collapsing, goes on a ludicrous pilgrimage to the sacred sites of his sex life—but not as intimate or impressive as The Mighty Walzer (1999), in which Jacobson unpacks his childhood and his family home and the whole Manchester Jewish experience. The main character, Oliver Walzer, is hemmed in by the knickknacks and tchotchkes of generations. When he remarks on the near-futility of “ever putting any of it behind you,” he amends that to “ever putting you behind you.” His sole talent is for ping-pong, unless you include another wrist activity associated with Roth’s early work. The Mighty Walzer is a brilliant exposition of a sexually repressed, working-class Jewish kid’s struggle for both social acceptance and self-confidence in 1950s Manchester—and yes, we’re deep in autobiographical territory here.
Kalooki Nights (2006), which ended up on the Man Booker long list, takes The Mighty Walzer one step further. It confronts a similar Jewish family in North Manchester with colossal issues of love, death, and guilt, framed by memories of the Holocaust and an uneasy accommodation with the anti-Semitism that lurks beyond the community and within it. Kalooki is a card game, something like gin rummy, that Max Glickman’s mother plays obsessively with a small circle of friends and admirers, except—reluctantly—on High Holy Days, although neither she nor Max’s father has any time for religion, theirs or anyone else’s. Max is the standard Jacobsonian male protagonist. He is a cartoonist whose masterwork, a comic history of the Jews, is called Five Thousand Years of Bitterness. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t really comic at all. Kalooki Nights also is too angry to be entirely comic, yet somehow is hilarious. It fuses both elements—the comedy and the anger—into a kind of verbal slapstick, as in this exchange between Max and his second (Gentile) wife, Zoë:
Now Zoë was wondering why I had to look quite so Jewish quite so much of the time.
‘Because I am fucking Jewish,’ I reminded her.
‘All the time?’
‘Every fucking minute.’
‘Stop swearing,’ she said.
‘I’ll stop fucking swearing when you stop asking me why I look so fucking Jewish.’
‘Why is everything a negotiation with you? Why can’t you stop swearing and stop looking Jewish?’
‘What do you want me to do, have a fucking nose job?’
All of Max’s wives—he has had three—are, incidentally, Gentile: “In the fairy stories which Jewish men tell themselves, the princesses are always Gentile.” This is incidental, or appears to be, because it shouldn’t really matter to secular Max in secular England who’s a Jew and who’s a Gentile, but it does, because being Jewish in England is increasingly (or so it seems to Max) fraught with anti-Semitism spoken and unspoken, public and private. Max becomes enmeshed not only with the religion he thought meant nothing to him, but with an Orthodox Jewish boy he grew up with but never especially liked, Manny Washinsky, holy fool and fetishist (“not a person who responded well to pressure. Demand anything of Manny and he’d hold his breath for half-an-hour”). Manny’s sole act of distinction is to murder his domineering parents Channa and Selick by turning on the gas while they sleep. The scene in which Max’s mother tells him resonates with madness and absurdity.
‘Ma, just tell me what happened.’
‘Channa and Selick have been found dead.’
‘In their beds, Max. They think gassed.’
You don’t say ‘gassed’ to Jews if you can help it. One of those words. They should be struck out of the human vocabulary for a while.
Years after Manny is released from prison, where he served a token sentence, a TV documentary firm, Lipsync Productions, convinces Max to look him up and help him examine his past and find out why he murdered his parents. Like a pair of rabbis, Max and Manny argue and discuss faith and community in half a dozen salt-beef restaurants and pizza parlors across London, but there’s no satisfactory answer to any of it. Manny gassed his parents because they forbade his brother to marry the Gentile he loved. Or he gassed them because they weren’t observant enough. Or too observant. Or because they’d escaped the Holocaust . . . but not really, because no one does; no Jew, anyway. Everything leads back to the Holocaust, dragging Max into its spiritual vortex, the religion, or at least the community, he’s tried to leave behind:
Never again. But which is the true freedom—saying never again in the hope that never again, or never again saying never again? (emphasis in original)
Novel of character, roman à clef, fictional memoir—Kalooki Nights is all these, resembling Jacobson’s other books but not exactly like any of them. It’s a constant, baffling, exhilarating surprise. “Kalooki Nights . . . was intensely Jewish,” Jacobson says. “It had the Jew on every line really. It was a novel about being obsessed with being a Jew. I mean every line was ‘Jew Jew Jew, joke joke joke, why why why’—obsession was its subject. And I thought that was that.”
In Kalooki Nights, Max’s master-work, a comic history of the Jews is called Five Thousand Years of Bitterness.
But it wasn’t. The Finkler Question is less exhilarating but more topical, and in some ways more disturbing. In it, the resurgent anti-Semitism in the wider world hinted at in Kalooki Nights comes to the fore. At the heart of the novel is Jacobson’s reaction to Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, a controversial ten-minute stage piece written by the English dramatist Caryl Churchill in response to the Israeli military action in Gaza in 2008–2009. Ms. Churchill, author of the hits Cloud Nine and Top Girls, is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and many of her colleagues in London theatrical circles belong to similar groups, such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Labour Friends of Palestine. We’re on familiar Anglo-lefty thespian ground here, heavily trodden over the years by the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Christie, Ken Loach, and Stephen Fry. But Jacobson was having none of it. Soon after Ms. Churchill’s little drama hit the stage of the Royal Court Theatre in February 2009, wowing the bien-pensant with its strained and insulting parallels between the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Israelis in Gaza, Jacobson wrote a blistering column in The Independent, which concluded:
And so it happens. Without one’s being aware of it, it happens. A gradual habituation to the language of loathing. Passed from the culpable to the unwary and back again. And soon, before you know it . . .
Anti-Semitism is this language of loathing; it looms large in The Finkler Question. But so does the language of love, and that of laughter, because this is a Jacobson novel, after all—a comedy about tragedy. Julian Treslove, the (Gentile) primus inter pares of the three protagonists, is a professional celebrity double. He plays Brad Pitt mostly, but he resembles pretty much anyone you want him to, having been a man of parts all his life. In university he’d been
a modular, bits-and-pieces man . . . not studying anything recognizable as a subject, but fitting components of different arts-related disciplines, not to say indisciplines, together like Lego pieces. Archaeology, Concrete Poetry, Media and Communications, Festival and Theatre Administration, Comparative Religion, Stage Set and Design, the Russian Short Story, Politics and Gender.
Never married, but the father of two sons, Julian feels bested in the matter of emotional depth and seriousness when his Jewish friends—Libor Sevcik, an octogenarian P.R. man from Prague via Hollywood, and Sam Finkler, a TV celebrity and pop philosopher (The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life)—are both widowed. Julian is then thoroughly humiliated at the hands of a female mugger whose parting words, as she makes off with his wallet and credit cards, are, or so Julian believes: “You Jew.” So he decides, in defiance of the mysterious mugger, as well as to fashion an identity for himself, that he is indeed a Jew, and he goes about constructing his Jewish persona from vaguely remembered, plausibly Jewish characteristics of his parents, Yiddish expressions, etc. The overall absence of evidence is itself adduced as evidence:
Wouldn’t it have made sense, if my father didn’t want me to know we were Jews, or for anyone else to know we were Jews for that matter, to have changed our name to the least Jewish one he could find? Treslove, for Christ’s sake. It screams ‘Not Jewish’ at you. I rest my case.
Meanwhile, in the larger world, anti-Semitism is on the rise, again, disguised as anti-Zionism. This comes as no surprise to Prague-born Libor.
Libor had been lucky in love but in politics he was from a part of the world that expected nothing good of anybody. Jew-hating was back—of course Jew-hating was back. Soon it would be full-blown Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism. These things didn’t go away. There was nowhere for them to go to. They were indestructible, non-biodegradable. They waited in the great rubbish tip that was the human heart.
But Sam Finkler, whose family name Julian uses as a kind of private shorthand for Jewishness (hence the book’s title, parodying “The Jewish Question” of unlamented memory), takes pains to show how little being Jewish means to him by joining a group of anti-Zionist Jews who call themselves ASHamed Jews, mostly composed of theater types and dilettantes, including one chap who only learns he’s Jewish while making a TV program during which he’s presented with his true identity, à la This Is Your Life:
Born a Jew on Monday, he had signed up to be an ASHamed Jew by Wednesday and was seen chanting ‘We are all Hezbollah’ outside the Israeli Embassy on the following Saturday.
Not much changes, really, despite Julian’s attempted dip in the Jewish gene pool. The three friends continue to have amiable fallings-out over women and politics and life itself. Julian may be a nebbish, to use one of the Yiddish expressions he employs in his long-sublimated yearning to be Jewish, but he’s a decent soul, concerned about his friends, sympathetically disgusted with Sam’s ASHamed Jews, and worried about Libor, whose widowerhood has made him suicidal. Meanwhile, the process of Sam’s own disillusionment with the ASHamed Jews and their ilk is beautifully played out against the backdrop of an angry piece of agitprop that sweeps fashionable London: Sons of Abraham, Jacobson’s fictionalized version of the Caryl Churchill number. And does he ever do a number on her.
Sons of Abraham . . . charted the agonies of the Chosen People from ancient times up until the present when they decided to visit their agonies on someone else. The final scene was a well-staged tableau of destruction, all smoke and rattling metal sheets and Wagnerian music, to which the Chosen People danced like slow-motion devils, baying and hallooing, bathing their hands and feet in the blood that oozed like ketchup from the corpses of their victims, a fair number of whom were children.
You can almost taste the outrage as Jacobson gleefully takes aim and scores a bull’s-eye.
Sons of Abraham, like much else of its kind, was a travesty of dramatic thought because it lacked imagination of otherness, because it accorded to its own self-righteousness a supremacy of truth, because it mistook propaganda for art.
The Finkler “Question”—what does it mean to be Jewish in 21st-century England?—is never answered, but it’s in the nature of fiction to pose life’s big questions, not to answer them. Anyway, the reader doesn’t take pleasure in a Jacobson novel because of the “message”; that would be to confuse art and agitprop, the way Caryl Churchill and Sam Finkler’s ASHamed Jews do. Nor is it because of the plot, which, like the sacred river Alph, disappears underground for long stretches, only to reappear unexpectedly. Rather, it is because, like all good fiction, Jacobson’s outrages, delights, and surprises. And sometimes the power of his prose takes your breath away:
The great London dawn bled slowly into sight, a thin line of red blood leaking out between the rooftops, appearing at the windows of the buildings it had infiltrated, one at a time, as though in a soundless military coup. On some mornings it was as though a sea of blood rose from the city floor. Higher up, the sky would be mauled with rough blooms of deep blues and burgundies like bruising. Pummeled into light, the hostage day began.
Most of all, he has the courage to make you laugh, in spite of life’s miseries.
Jacobson was amazed when he heard his novel’s title called out at the Man Booker award ceremony. “I hear, to my astonishment and wonder, the name Finkler read out. Finkler! Don’t tell me my own character has stolen the prize from me,” he wrote. When asked what he planned to do with the £50,000 prize money, he said, “I’m going to buy my wife a handbag. Have you seen the price of handbags these days?” Thunderous applause erupted, not a usual event at the Man Booker ceremonies. Howard Jacobson was, however briefly, a happy man. And comic novelists everywhere stood a little taller.
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