Howard Jacobson balances the books
Novel ideas

Howard Jacobson balances the books

Still basking in the glow of his 2010 Man Booker Prize, the English Jewish novelist reflects on writing, Israel and the decline of British literature

Author Howard Jacobson, friend to Shylock. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Author Howard Jacobson, friend to Shylock. (photo credit: Courtesy)

It’s a gray, overcast Wednesday morning in London’s Soho Square.

Sanitation workers are collecting the previous night’s trash, while rain continues to stain the half-empty streets. Just two days have passed since the close of the Olympics. London is in the midst of a serious hangover.

By the time I reach the fifth floor of Howard Jacobson’s apartment building, my mood has lifted somewhat. His spacious loft, filled with thousands of books, looks onto the gleaming enamel that is the sprawling metropolis. Before we begin, the novelist pours me a cup of tea, resting a plate of biscuits on a coffee table that displays his latest work, “Zoo Time,” which will be released in England in September and in the US the following month.

While Jacobson’s prose is renowned for its wit, energy and self-deprecating, priapic jokes, his newest work is perhaps his most lighthearted to date.

The protagonist is a struggling novelist: Guy Ableman, a red-blooded male with a penchant for the filth merchants of English literature. Ableman has two predicaments, the first being his inability to sell any books. The second is his wish to sleep with Poppy, his alluring and sophisticated mother-in-law.

If Jews in the UK previously looked to Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer for cultural sustenance, they’ve turned to Jacobson for commentary on the Jewish experience since his Man Booker Prize.

Although the book is written in the smarmy, tongue-in-cheek tone for which the 70-year-old Jacobson is famous, the novel also passes judgment on a serious matter: the crisis that has befallen the world of literary fiction. More people are reading than ever before, but paradoxically, Jacobson argues, this enthusiasm may not be to the advantage of the London literati.

Depending on your viewpoint, Jacobson’s passion for literature could be mistaken for snobbery — a perception he doesn’t mind.
“It’s wonderful that people are reading and talking about books, but they’re unaware that the mere expression of an opinion is worthless,” he says. “Half the time, they are just describing their inability to read, the shortage of their own imagination, as well as a lack of wide reading. I’m almost tempted to be teaching at university again, just to be saying, ‘Stop all this.’ ”

Since winning the Man Booker Prize in 2010, Jacobson has been asked to attend several women’s reading groups as a guest speaker.

When the groups aren’t discussing bad literature, Jacobson says, they’re reading it. He cites the hype over E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” — a book he labels “pathetic soft porn” — as typical.

If they want proper pornography, he says, “Let these women read ‘Story of O,’ ” Anne Desclos’ erotic 1954 novel about love and submission.

“Give them the real stuff, and they will run a mile,” Jacobson says. “Pornography is about taking sex to its ultimate extreme, which is death. Let them read that, but they won’t — they are frightened of it.”

In conversation, Jacobson is fiery, articulate and extremely erudite. There’s a clear sense he feels we are approaching the cataclysmic last days of the English Canon. He consistently quotes Shakespeare, Shelley and Dickens, as if their names will no longer be recognizable a century from now.

His enthusiasm for the Anglo-Saxon tradition was encouraged by the literary critic F.R. Leavis, under whom he studied at Cambridge University in the early ’60s.

“Talking about the book, and the language on the page, was what Leavis was all about,” Jacobson recalls. “He went through the First World War, and felt that when people were rebuilding the country afterwards, someone had to rebuild the idea of what literature was. I loved being taught by him.”

Jacobson was born in Manchester in 1942, and raised in a secular family in which Jewish identity meant you were circumcised and had a bar mitzva. There was, however, no time spent in synagogues or observing Jewish customs. Growing up, his father’s favorite words of advice were to “keep shtum,” or silent. The words reflected an unspoken fear within Britain’s Jewish community at that time, he says.

“Jews were thrown out of England in the [1200s], and weren’t let back for another 400 years. So we assimilated into a culture that was very firmly set. That meant we were quiet, and marginal to the culture.”

As for finding his own place, “I was shy and unhappy as a child,” he recalls. “I wasn’t well-adjusted; I felt slightly more introverted. My mother was very quiet, and my father” — a part-time magician — “was essentially a song-and-dance man. I was my mother for the first half of my life, and my father for the second half.”

If Jews in the UK previously looked to Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer for cultural sustenance, they’ve turned to Jacobson for commentary on the Jewish experience since his Man Booker Prize.

The novel that won him the prize, “The Finkler Question,” is a look at public discourse about rising European anti-Semitism, and asks whether British anti-Zionism constitutes anti-Semitism. Jacobson’s own ambivalent attitude toward the debate has generated criticism from both the left and the right.

Given his occasional outspokenness on matters related to Israel, I ask him to set the record straight.

“Most of the time we talk about Israel, ” Jacobson says, “it’s not as a real place: It’s a symbol, a myth, an emblem or a fantasy.”

“I’ve traveled and worked in Israel many times, and I was exhilarated and frightened at the same time,” he says. “Obviously, if I saw soldiers pushing around Palestinians, I didn’t like it. But most of the time we talk about Israel, it’s not as a real place: It’s a symbol, a myth, an emblem or a fantasy — especially for the anti-Zionists, who jump on the Marxist bandwagon that hates America and hates Jews.”

Jacobson posits that this “myth of Israel” is also propagated by Zionists.

“For many Jews,” he says. “Israel is also a fantasy place. It’s the lifeboat argument, where will we go when we are kicked out of everywhere. In part of our hearts, we think we’ll never be kicked out of anywhere again, and then we think, well, we could be.”

After an hour of tea and chatting, I decide to let Jacobson get back to his writing. He reports that he is working on a new novel, but that the words won’t take him “where [he wants] the characters to go.”

As he moves into the eighth decade of his life — with the energy and looks of a man 20 years younger — what does he aim to achieve when he sits down at his desk?

“As a novelist, I think one is meant to write about failure,” he says. “The great joy of literature is that it celebrates what the world normally thinks of as failure. Writers like failure because we know failure, as the world judges it, is probably another kind of success. Somehow we feel as though literature is meant to save that which the world has knocked around and bruised. We who write it feel we have been knocked around and bruised, and those that read it feel the same.”

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