Who’s Laughing Now?

Howard Jacobson, London, October 2010
Andrew Testa/The New York Times/Redux
Howard Jacobson, London, October 2010

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…

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