It’s a truth ruefully acknowledged in England that the adjective “English” has rather less grandeur than “American.” An English Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; English Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; “English Pie” by Don McLean—in all three cases, it seems fair to say, a certain sense of scale and ambition would have been lost. For that reason, the routine description of Howard Jacobson as “the English Philip Roth” may have done him few global favors.
Still, as routine descriptions go, this one isn’t hideously wide of the mark. Both men grew up in secular Jewish households in industrial cities that declined after World War II: Jacobson (born 1942) in Manchester, where his father was a market-trader; Roth (born 1933), famously, in Newark. Despite their backgrounds, both developed a high-minded belief in literature (at Cambridge, Jacobson was taught by F.R. Leavis, one of the most high-minded critics of them all). Their novels, too, share many of the same preoccupations—notably Jewishness, characters with upbringings very similar to their own, the fraught relationships between men and women, and male protagonists who tend to prioritize the needs of their penises.
Nonetheless, while Jacobson can’t help but notice that American Jews in general and American Jewish novelists in particular have played a greater part in shaping their country than their British equivalents, that doesn’t lead to any reduction in scale or ambition. Like Roth’s, his belief in the importance of fiction certainly extends to his own—and like Roth, he sees the novelist as someone whose job is to undermine contemporary pieties, to discomfort his readers rather than console them. In Roth’s The Counterlife (1986), Nathan Zuckerman’s brother, Henry, complains that “reading Nathan’s books always exhausted him, as though he were having a very long argument with someone who wouldn’t go away”—which is precisely the effect that Jacobson seeks as well. “Any book worth reading,” he has said with his customary taste for hyperbole, “will have you arguing with it by the bottom of page one.”
The way Jacobson tells it, it was also his respect for great literature that explains why he didn’t publish a novel until he was forty. After Cambridge, he spent three uncharacteristically happy years teaching at the University of Sydney, but on his return to England, he ended up at a down-market college in a drab Midlands town where, by his own admission, he was “desolate.” At the same time, that Leavisite education left him feeling that any attempts at his own fiction were bound “to fall so far short of the iconic figures.” Only after several years did he drop his plans to be the new Henry James and decide to draw on his own experiences, including—to his own surprise—of being Jewish. (The first time he wrote the phrase “being Jewish,” he later recalled, “was like an electric shock.”)
The result was Coming from Behind (1983), which triumphantly blended a cry of despair with the conventions of the English comic novel, and especially of the comic campus novel that started with Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. The pointedly named Sefton Goldberg duly teaches literature at a down-market college in a drab Midlands town, where he spends most of his time envying anybody more successful than he is, finding consolation only in the disappointments of colleagues and the deaths of high-achievers (“A tragic aeroplane crash killing twenty of the world’s most popular and successful novelists…came just at the right time”).
On the whole, the comedy is broader than in his subsequent novels. Otherwise, most of Jacobson’s future traits are already in place—among them the exuberantly declamatory prose, the comically hyperbolic realism, and the comically hyperbolic generalizations about Jews (“Being Jewish, Sefton didn’t know much about the names or breeds or needs of fish”). And, as it turned out, Sefton set the blueprint for virtually every Jacobson protagonist since: a man consumed by shame as well as envy, and whose masochism encompasses the sexual, the emotional—with his marked preference for hostile women—and the tribal. At one point, Sefton yearns for one of his colleagues to say something anti-Semitic so that he can feel “the bliss of persecution.”
Certainly all of the above applies to Barney Fugleman in Jacobson’s second novel, Peeping Tom (1984), who, not content with the “pleasure” he takes in “the vigorous daily misery” his future wife causes him, also longs for her to be unfaithful, so that he can revel further in his own pain. The desire to be cuckolded would prove another recurring Jacobson theme. Meanwhile, the first phase of his literary career ended with Redback (1986), based on his time in Sydney—which, for all the entertainment it offers, always feels as if it’s filling a hole marked “Howard Jacobson’s Australian novel”—and The Very Model of a Man (1992), a self-consciously “serious” work narrated by the biblical Cain. Following the (understandably) baffled reaction to what’s now his only book out of print in Britain, Jacobson then abandoned novel-writing and wrote and presented television programs instead.
In one of them, Seriously Funny, he laid out a theory of comedy central to his later fiction—that the real challenge is the one Hamlet poses to the skull of Yorick the court jester: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.” Comedy, in other words, is only doing its job properly if it makes us laugh at the darkest aspects of human existence.
Jacobson’s determination to take up this challenge himself wasn’t hard to spot when his novel-writing resumed with the pointedly named No More Mister Nice Guy (1998)—a book that owed its genesis to Sabbath’s Theater, Roth’s blisteringly provocative tale of a priapic puppeteer.1 Jacobson wanted, he said, “to do an English Sabbath’s Theater,” and, even more ambitiously, “to out-anathematize Roth.” He had a pretty good go at it, too. In one scene, a prostitute charges the narrator, Frank Ritz, extra for taking her false teeth out. In another, Frank reflects on why penetration is so often a letdown: “Either it’s a bruising struggle to enter or you are swept in like a salmon awash in a waterfall.” And all the time he looks back on the good old days when teachers at the language school where he worked could sleep with their students—which naturally did nobody any harm.
No matter how lurid Frank’s adventures become (which is to say very lurid indeed), the writing in No More Mister Nice Guy is unfailingly sharp, with one perfectly modulated sentence following another. Less happily, it established the template for what might be termed the default Jacobson novel for the next ten years, in which a disputatious, shame-filled, masochistic, yet somehow sentimental womanizer follows that penis of his wherever it leads him, while also hoping that some other man will add to his shame by cuckolding him. (And while also apparently considering himself to be like all men everywhere.)
Books such as Who’s Sorry Now? (2002) and The Act of Love (2008) contain plenty of good writing, but, unsurprisingly, the law of diminishing returns takes its toll. And when it does, even the exhilarating prose seems like an illustration of the dangers of virtuosity. As in those endless guitar solos much favored by 1970s rock bands, there’s no mistaking the skill involved, but the result is much likelier to weary than engage. The British critic Theo Tait possibly overstated the case when he described reading the default Jacobson novel as “like being trapped in a confined space with a particularly garrulous pervert.” Even so, some readers may find themselves sympathizing with the wife in Who’s Sorry Now?, whose “dirty-minded prolix” husband finally becomes too much for her: “The dirty-mindedness she could almost forgive. But the prolixity!”
Yet amid these books came two novels with a strong claim to being Jacobson’s masterpieces. Neither skimps on his darker concerns. In The Mighty Walzer (1999)—inspired by Jacobson’s time playing for Jewish table-tennis teams in 1950s Manchester—the teenage main character pastes photos of elderly female relatives’ faces onto soft-porn models, before using them for purposes that Alexander Portnoy would recognize. The plot of Kalooki Nights (2006) centers on a Holocaust-obsessed young Jew gassing his parents as they sleep. But both books also have a capaciousness, a narrative generosity to other characters that means that not all of the significant action takes place inside a single male head. Unlike those default novels, they don’t bring to mind his description of table tennis in The Mighty Walzer as “airless and cramped and repetitive and self-absorbed.”2
Jacobson’s status within the British book world was confirmed in 2010, when he won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, which again showed him extending his sympathies more widely—including to an elderly grieving widower, a middle-aged Jewish divorcée, and a gentile comically obsessed with wanting to be Jewish. (His sympathies did not extend, mind you, to the novel’s main subject of bitterly funny satire: a group called Ashamed Jews, who meet regularly to denounce the crimes of Israel.) The outcome was a novel in which a new level of tenderness was added to his forensic examination of received wisdoms and his deft way with a bleak joke: “You have to be born and brought up a Jew to see the hand of Jews in everything. That or be born and brought up a Nazi.”
Jacobson’s Booker win was greeted by a huge ovation in London’s Guildhall. Nevertheless, there’s no ignoring the fact that the years since haven’t been easy for a novelist of Jacobson’s (or Roth’s) type. As long ago as Coming from Behind, Sefton Goldberg came under attack from his colleagues for representing “brutal patriarchal hegemony,” and from then on Jacobson’s protagonists have had the added difficulty of knowing they live in changing feminist times. Some, like Martin Kreitman in Who’s Sorry Now?, continue to “entertain a nostalgic affection for many of the old discredited categories of masculinist swagger.” Others, like Max Glickman in Kalooki Nights, lament that “never again, not in our time, anyway, would a man’s voice…be acceptable.” The most sustained treatment of the subject, though, comes in The Making of Henry (2004), which otherwise occupies a kind of halfway house between Jacobson’s default novels and his more capacious ones.
The Henry of the title used to work at a minor university, where he found himself “the last man teaching literature, or at least the last man teaching it the old male way.” The trouble was “he hadn’t acknowledged gynocracy”:
It was the women who finally dragged him down…the bookwomen in whose name literature, as sort of evidential documentation of persecution, or, when not that, a palimpsest of resistance, was now being universally understood….Henry’s big mistake, he now realizes, is that he left them to it. He thought they would go away…. One day he’d wake up from the nightmare…and they’d be gone.
Instead, “history rolled with them, burying Henry with his love of the thing that’s written rather than the thing that’s not, until he was just a squeak in the darkness.”
Despite Henry’s fate, Jacobson himself has fought on. The novel, he maintains, doesn’t have merely the right to cause offense, but the duty, because “giving offence is sacred” (his italics). In 2008 students at a Jewish girls’ school in London refused to answer questions on Shakespeare to protest against the character of Shylock. “I have no doubt I could persuade the girls that Shakespeare was not an anti-Semite,” wrote Jacobson in response. “But that’s beside the point. Reading Shakespeare is not conditional on his loving Jews…. Encountering what is not you, indeed what might well be inimical to you, is one of the first reasons for reading anything.”
But for all these defiant words, Jacobson remained well aware of which way history was rolling—and it wasn’t in the direction of his old-school liberalism.3 In Zoo Time (2012), his first novel after the Booker win, he appeared to be dramatizing his own plight as an embattled male novelist opposed to what he sees as modern unthinkingness in all its wide-ranging forms: from the silly food served in fashionable restaurants to the pressures on authors to tweet, from the prevalence of misery memoirs to people who have so little “feeling for language” that they use the phrase “no-brainer.” Jacobson’s biggest targets, however, remain “those who make the world more sanctimonious,” whether Orthodox Jews, orthodox anti-Zionists, or orthodox feminists—and his motives remain a mixture of genuine anger at the resulting oversimplifications and the fact that “it can be fun for a writer with a comic gift to drive the over-principled into an apoplexy.”
Zoo Time’s narrator, Guy Ableman, is an author who writes of “unbridled selfishness and moral slippage in the world of men,” “wallow[s] in filth,” and believes that a novel should be “an impious disturbance.” Sadly, nobody seems to agree—whether readers, publishers, agents, or his wife, who all mistake his unashamed masculine perspective for misogyny (or, at any rate, for something that can be gleefully condemned as misogyny). Jacobson keeps the feminist-teasing going: one of Guy’s publishers is the Callil-like Flora McBeth,
in whom the art of unpromoting any male novelist who wrote in the first person, made light of life or described intercourse with a woman from the man’s point of view, was honed to the highest level of sophistication.
But he also shows us Guy recognizing that the days of Henry Miller are gone, that “the swordsman hero…writing with a pen dipped in hot semen, was dead in the water.” Eventually, Guy gives up on his dream of being “a black-hearted libidinous old devil” and writes a bland crowd-pleasing novel about a good woman called The Good Woman, which becomes a best seller and has female readers wondering how he understands them so well.
And yet if Zoo Time reads like a lament for the lost art of the offensive male novel, Jacobson’s own work since seems to have accepted the loss. J (2014) was a somberly dystopian book set in a near-future Britain where all the Jews have been wiped out in an event known only as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” Shylock Is My Name (2016) gave us a thoughtful updating of The Merchant of Venice set in contemporary England. Pussy (2017) took on Donald Trump in a fierce if unsubtle parable about a prince of unremitting narcissism and stupidity (and misogyny).
And now comes his latest book, Live a Little—which anything less like an impious disturbance would be hard to imagine. In interviews to promote it, Jacobson has continued to grumble that “we’re dying of correctness,” and that “a woman can make fun of a man, but a man can’t make fun of the woman, that is the rule of it at the moment.” But again, this is a rule he appears to have accepted, at least judging from the book itself, which is by some distance the kindliest novel of his career—and, more unexpectedly still, none the worse for it.
Not that everything about his work has changed. The main male character is filled with shame, and, as for many a Jacobson protagonist, the source of shame is traceable to a single event. Aged eleven, Shimi Carmelli tried on his mother’s underwear, saw his reflection, and instantly felt a humiliating and lasting sense of his own ridiculousness. Or, as Jacobson puts it, “He climbed into his mother’s bloomers and tumbled into hell.” (Even for a Jacobson character, this might seem an over-reaction—but, we’re told, the only way Shimi could have laughed off the incident or chalked it down to not-terribly-important experience was “if he’d been someone else.”) From then on, Shimi “has never been able to make light of anything,” has “unwrapped every new day as though it might go off in his face,” and has never allowed himself to get close to a woman. These days, he’s ninety years old and living above a North London Chinese restaurant, where he earns a bit of money telling customers’ fortunes, and is “ashamed of himself for being ashamed of working there.”
Although Live a Little isn’t one of Jacobson’s more Jewish books, he does have fun with the many elderly Jewish widows who regard Shimi as “the last of the eligible bachelors”—what with his ability “to do up his own buttons, walk without the aid of a walking frame, and speak without spitting.” In earlier times, this fun might well have been cruel. Here, we’re a long way from the kind of comedy that Hamlet urged on Yorick. Not only does Jacobson’s affection for the widows shine through every scene they appear in, but he also mounts a touching, almost dewy-eyed defense of “the elderly glamorous,” against those for whom “old women who try to hold on to their beauty have always been the object of satire.”
In the early sections, Shimi’s story is interspersed with that of the considerably sparkier and even older Beryl Dusinbery. According to those promotional interviews Jacobson gave, ninety-nine-year-old Beryl came to him fully formed, with “her intelligence, her experience, her humor, her wit.” But she was also a cunning solution to the problem of free speech: “If I was going to express things freely, I knew it would have to be a woman and…in an age of correctness, she’s a goddess of incorrectness.” Well, as it transpires, only up to a point. Beryl refers to her Eastern European caregiver as “the Moldovan slut”; she imagines her Ugandan one saying “Lordy, lordy” in the kitchen, adding, by way of mitigation, “there’s no point in my castigating my imagination. It is of another time.” Mostly, though, she remains more bracing than offensive, someone who amuses herself with mildly wicked thoughts rather than really letting rip in the old Jacobson way.
As promised, however, she does make fun of men. Throughout the novel, she records her past in a series of very funny diary entries, eerily reminiscent of the prose stylings of Howard Jacobson, in which the chief target is the many shortcomings of her many lovers. “In her heyday,” Jacobson tells us, “Beryl Dusinbery had been able to drive the thought of any other woman out of a man’s mind. It wasn’t infidelity she conjured, it was oblivion. The man who woke up in Beryl Dusinbery’s arms hadn’t betrayed his wife, he had forgotten he had a wife.”
Among the exes Beryl skewers is a socialist activist, who “didn’t do fun” and who strove to show her the same “considerate condescension” that he showed “the rest of humanity.” Another, perhaps significantly, is a novelist whose belief in the importance of fiction certainly extends to his own, and who has “been going about in the same dreary emotional garb all his life.” Yet despite her awareness of male inadequacies, Beryl retains a sympathy for men in general, understanding “how cruel it was for a man to have to be a man”—which may help to explain why Jacobson seems so smitten with her.
In the best rom-com tradition, Jacobson keeps Shimi and Beryl apart until halfway through the book. They finally meet at the funeral of his brother Ephraim, from whom Shimi has been estranged since they were young, but whom Beryl knew in his later years. After that, the couple begin to see each other regularly, at first so they can piece together a sense of Ephraim’s life. But before long, they’re enjoying conversation for its own sake.
Even in his most belligerent books, Jacobson has always prized conversation between men and women highly, which makes it all the more surprising, as well as disappointing, that Shimi and Beryl’s should be the weakest aspect of the novel. His characters have generally spoken the way he writes: i.e., a lot more eloquently than most of us. (In The Act of Love, a dominatrix pauses mid-whipping to tell her client, “You know Freud’s problem. He thought that for sex to be normal it had to have a final aim.”) Unfortunately, in Live a Little, Shimi and Beryl speak to each other the way Jacobson writes at his worst: i.e., with slightly irksome—and for conversation distinctly improbable—portentousness. “So what did you see in me that you didn’t dare oppose?” inquires Beryl at their first post-funeral meeting. “Was I barring you from leaving the cemetery of death or welcoming you into the garden of life?”
But even this weirdly obvious blemish doesn’t prevent the overall effect of Shimi and Beryl’s relationship from being undeniably sweet. In an essay about his teenage sentimentality, Jacobson talked satirically of “the vision of yourself saved by women who understand you better than you understand yourself”—but that’s exactly, and nonsatirically, what happens to Shimi in Live a Little. Eventually, he shares the long-held secret of his mother’s bloomers, and Beryl “barely blinks.” The novel ends with preparations for their wedding—and with two characters who, in another departure for Jacobson, seem not just happy, but happy to be happy.
So what are we to make of this? After all, both Jacobson’s main characters and the man himself have always dreaded what Guy Ableman in Zoo Time calls “the forces of the great god Nice.” Admittedly, in his harsher novels, Jacobson frequently posed the question “Aren’t all dreads half desires?” Nonetheless, it’s still a shock to see him surrendering to such forces here with every appearance of good grace, dropping his usual emotional garb—dreary or otherwise—and following Beryl’s advice to Shimi when she tells him, “You’ve told the same, unvarying story to yourself a thousand times. Risk another story. Risk another end.”
One reason for the conversion, it seems, may simply be autobiographical. Jacobson, now seventy-seven, has recently said how much he’s “enjoyed the whole experience of aging,” because “I didn’t like having my head full of all the nonsense that you have in your head when you’re young.” “Having been a querulous, very unreliable, miserable, bitter, sometimes envious, mean, certainly a very bad husband,” he told one interviewer, “I’ve become at my age quite a nice guy.”
True, toward the close of Live a Little he throws a few barbs about young people, the lack of irony in the modern world, and the like. Yet this undercutting of his newfound benevolence smacks of the same needless and ultimately unconvincing self-protectiveness that Shimi displays when he could “almost, almost” say that Beryl makes him happy “but…couldn’t quite.” In the end, there’s no mistaking that this is a book that proves the truth of Beryl’s claim, “It’s never too late for anything”—even a nice Howard Jacobson novel.
In 2008 Jacobson praised a volume of diaries by the then seventy-one-year-old British playwright Simon Gray for having “the time-dyed tenderness a younger man could never manage.” Substitute the word “Jacobson” for “man,” and you have a pretty neat summary of Live a Little.
This was the last Roth novel Jacobson fully admired, largely because, after that, Roth—in what Jacobson regards as a serious dereliction of the novelist’s duty—“stopped being funny.” See Lindesay Irvine’s interview with Jacobson in The Guardian, August 6, 2010. ↩
Not that Jacobson would necessarily see this as a criticism. In 2011 the publisher Carmen Callil resigned as a Man Booker International Prize judge over the decision to award it to Philip Roth, saying that “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” “Need that be such a bad thing?” Jacobson wondered in a 2018 essay in The Guardian. “How much breathing must a reader do?” ↩
In 2015 Jacobson proposed in the Independent that everybody starting college should be greeted with the words “Good morning, students. Welcome to a liberal education where you will encounter, if we are doing our job right, much that will distress and infuriate you.” ↩