Parliament, Palestinians and pornography: An interview with Howard Jacobson
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InterviewUK Jewish author pens satirical novella 'Pussy' to express his outrage at new US president

Parliament, Palestinians and pornography: An interview with Howard Jacobson

The renowned writer has a host of polarizing opinions, and, as illustrated by his new anti-Trump novella, he is not reticent about sharing them

Booker Prize winning author and columnist Howard Jacobson. (Photo credit: Jenny Jacobson)
Booker Prize winning author and columnist Howard Jacobson. (Photo credit: Jenny Jacobson)

LONDON — Howard Jacobson clings to a simple ideology to help get him through the trials and tribulations of everyday life — he deeply mistrusts the fundamental principle of ideology itself.

“The reason I’m a novelist is that I disbelieve in ideology,” the 75-year-old confesses from his home in central London. “I’m not an existentialist. But I’m an absolute skeptic,” he adds.

This statement seems laden with paradoxical contradictions once you begin to engage with Jacobson on certain issues dear to his heart, most notably politics.

Still, he begs to differ.

Last year was just about the most horrible year he can remember, ever. “2016 was morally ugly and intellectually barren,” he says.

The politics of US President Donald Trump is an appeal “to the rabble in people.” Following Trump’s election victory last November, Jacobson says he needed to find a form of writing where he could express his political outrage. The end result was a satirical novella called “Pussy,” which is due to be published in the UK this coming April.

US President Donald Trump during a reception with Congressional leaders on January 23, 2017 at the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM)
US President Donald Trump during a reception with Congressional leaders on January 23, 2017 at the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM)

The novella’s narrative tells the story of Prince Fracassus, heir to the Duchy of Origen, famed for its golden-gated skyscrapers and casinos, who passes his boyhood watching reality TV shows and fantasizing about sex workers.

“It’s a very adult wicked fairy story, where one imagines a baby being brought up to be — I’m not going to say Trump — but well, that kind of thing,” Jacobson explains.

Jacobson warns that Jews in Israel, and further afield, should be cautious of Trump’s so-called loyalty to Israel and his promises to bring peace and stability to the region.

‘Jews should be wary of siding with somebody who we disagree with it in every other regard’

“Jews should be wary of siding with somebody who we disagree with it in every other regard just because he says what we want to hear about Israel,” says Jacobson.

“If we think a person, a party, or a movement are intolerant, then we shouldn’t say that doesn’t matter as long as they are tolerant towards us. Because whoever is intolerant to other people, will be intolerant to [Jews] in the end.”

In conversation, Jacobson can be difficult, contradictory, hilarious, and profound in equal measure. But boring he is not.

For 18 years, Jacobson harnessed his relentless energy and skepticism into a widely read newspaper column at the left-leaning British newspaper The Independent, which ceased printing a daily edition last March after 30 years in circulation.

“Sometimes I felt like my columns were like little novels in themselves,” says Jacobson. “But I wasn’t writing what I believed. I’m not interested in what I believe,” he maintains.

This March, Jacobson is set to publish a collection of these columns in a book entitled “The Dog’s Last Walk (and Other Pieces)” with Bloomsbury Publishing.

Cover of 'The Dog's Last Walk (and Other Pieces)' (courtesy)
Cover of ‘The Dog’s Last Walk (and Other Pieces)’ (courtesy)

Jacobson ‘s journalistic style has its roots in the feuilletonistic tradition of early 20th century European writers like Joseph Roth, where highbrow literary style mixes with ironic wit and intellectual playfulness, and where the personal, the private and the quotidian all interchange while casting a gaze towards public life now and again.

Jacobson may claim to be devoid of any firm political allegiances, but he definitely leans right. And he is what you might call an old fashioned British conservative with just a slight tinge of elitism to his bow, too.

But his contrarian manner can be as hilarious as it can be offensive, depending, of course, on your outlook.

In Jacobson’s rather uncompromising world view, the bygone era was one where life was golden, brimming with vitality and full of high brow intelligence. Meanwhile, he maintains that the future is really nothing much to write home about.

“We should always think things are getting progressively worse. It’s good for us and it beats hollow optimism,” he says.

The novelist constantly complains that the world is going to hell in a handbasket — culturally, intellectually, politically and morally. If you want proof of the great decay of Western civilization in recent years, he says, just take a quick glance at the publishing industry — readers are getting dimmer by the day.

If you’re looking for epic works of modernist literature to be published any time soon, on par with, say, Joyce’s “Ulysses,” or Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” forget it, says Jacobson — readers don’t have the attention span anymore.

Jacobson may complain about the publishing world. But it’s an industry that has rewarded him now and again.

“The Finkler Question,” which won him the Booker Prize, saw its sales increase by a staggering 1918% after he landed the prestigious award back in October 2010.

Award-winning novelist Howard Jacobson delivers the Jerusalem Address for B'nai B'rith Wold Center at Mishkenon Sha'ananim (Courtesy B'nai B'rith World Center)
Award-winning novelist Howard Jacobson delivers the Jerusalem Address for B’nai B’rith Wold Center at Mishkenon Sha’ananim (Courtesy B’nai B’rith World Center)

The novel focuses on issues like Jewish identity, Jewish anxiety, and the politics of the Middle East. It also asks — with a pinch of Jewish humor and literary sophistication — whether British anti-Zionism is just code for anti-Semitism.

It’s a subject Jacobson has focused much attention on in his journalism, too.

“Well this has been my argument of the last 18 years at The Independent,” Jacobson explains.

“Every time I criticize the anti-Zionists, they say ‘You are trying to silence us.’ I don’t deny there are some people who are critical of Israel who are not anti-Semitic. But to criticize Israel, and then criticize Zionism, is not quite the same thing.”

‘I don’t think you can be anti-Jews-having-a-homeland, and not be anti-Semitic’

Jacobson’s main criticism with anti-Zionism, he claims, is that it’s dismissive of the fundamental belief of the ideology itself, that the Jews of the 19th century were entitled to a homeland.

“Now you can argue whether it should have been that homeland [in Palestine] or not,” he says. “But I don’t think you can be anti-Jews-having-a-homeland, and not be anti-Semitic.”

“As a Jew with strong sympathies for Israel, I get very angry about that,” says Jacobson, “because I feel it distorts what Zionism was about in its origins, and that it fails to understand the anxieties that feed Israeli politics today.”

How Israel is spoken about in the British public sphere, it appears, has got Jacobson’s blood boiling. And once the names of certain individuals and organizations from the British Left come up in conversation, Jacobson doesn’t hold his tongue.

Stop the War Coalition, for example, are what Jacobson has called in one of his columns “a home to Jew-haters, because its hate music about Israel is so catchy.”

“They are ill informed, they tell lies, and they are sanctimonious,” Jacobson insists.

“The only thing that seems to upset Stop The War Coalition is Israel. It’s not an argument of any description they use — it’s an illness, actually. And of course, it attracted Jeremy Corbyn.”

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking after a Stop Trident march though central London, Feb. 27, 2016. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images via JTA)
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking after a Stop Trident march though central London, Feb. 27, 2016. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images via JTA)

Corbyn is a committed socialist and currently the leader of Labour, a center-left party that have migrated further to the left over the last couple of years under his leadership. Labour provide the main opposition to the Conservatives, who presently hold a majority in the British Parliament.

“Jeremy Corbyn is unimpressive and is particularly bad on Israel,” says Jacobson.

Jacobson maintains that the Chakrabarti Inquiry — an official investigation held last year into allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party — was a “disgraceful and shabby affair.”

It was chaired by prominent British barrister, Shami Chakrabarti, following supposed anti-Semitic comments made by two high-profile Labour figures, Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone.

Shami Chakrabarti, interviewed on J-TV, July 2016 (YouTube screenshot)
Shami Chakrabarti, interviewed on J-TV, July 2016 (YouTube screenshot)

Following the inquiry, Corbyn subsequently awarded a peerage (a prestigious title in the British honors system) to Chakrabarti, a move which many Jewish groups were extremely critical of.

Jacobson calls the inquiry “scurrilously stupid and superficial,” and says that for Chakrabarti to have then been given a peerage by Corbyn for her efforts was “unforgivably wicked, and a contemptuous act.”

“[Corbyn] is essentially saying: I know that Jews think this is a shallow inquiry, so I’ll give Chakrabarti a peerage. In other words: ‘Fuck you.’”

Jacobson maintains that Corbyn, along with a host of other left wing politicians and progressive social movements in the UK, “offer unconditional support to Palestinians,” which, he says, paints the State of Israel through the prism of “a Marxist dialectic.”

“This kind of argument states that history is on the side of the Palestinians,” says Jacobson. “And that they are struggling with a colonial power, which is Israel.”

“Well, this is making false promises to Palestinians,” he says.

The novelist then turns his attention to university students — in both the UK and US — whose anti-Israel rhetoric, he says, is not “productive for peace” in the Middle East.

‘If you decide that this is the story of David and Goliath — with the Jews ironically as Goliath and the Palestinians as David — you are going to do nothing for either side’

“If you decide that this is the story of David and Goliath — with the Jews ironically as Goliath and the Palestinians as David — you are going to do nothing for either side,” he says.

Jacobson claims Palestinians need to face up to the fact — just as Israelis need to — that they are not going to get everything they want.

“The only way you ever reach any kind of agreement is to accept a compromise,” says the novelist.

Leaving aside the fundamental tenets on Zionism itself for a moment, there are still those on the British left who claim that Israel’s expansion since 1967 has been one centrally motivated by a military industrial complex.

Moreover, they say, Israeli settlements inside the West Bank have been considered illegal under international law for almost 50 years now.

“Legality is a mad phrase to use when it comes to the founding of nations,” Jacobson responds immediately.

“Australia was founded on illegality. For the Americans to go in and dispossess the American Indians was illegal. Does [a nation] just become legal if you stay there long enough?” Jacobson asks rhetorically.

“Will the settlements become legal if Israel can hold its nerve and stay there for 300 years? What makes it legal?” he adds.

Palestinian laborers work at the construction site of a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Ariel near the West Bank city of Nablus on January 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Palestinian laborers work at the construction site of a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Ariel near the West Bank city of Nablus on January 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Jacobson says he would rather talk about the morality of Israel in the West Bank than the legality of it.

“It’s bad. It’s not good for Israel to be [in the West Bank],” says Jacobson. “But I perfectly understand why Israel is frightened. Say if you have a two-state solution, and you then give large sections of the West Bank back to Palestine — what kind of protection has Israel got?” he adds.

While many of Jacobson’s columns in this current book do focus on the politics of Israel, he also writes about a host of other topics too — technology among them.

‘There is such a thing as stupidity’

Or rather, his hatred of it, to be more precise.

Social media, Jacobson insists, has allowed people to believe that because they now have an opinion, it’s somehow as good as everybody else’s.

“Well it isn’t,” he says. “There is such a thing as stupidity.”

And don’t get him started on millennials, their addiction to hardcore pornography and instant sexual gratification.

“I really don’t see how pornography can do anything but harm,” Jacobson explains. “When a man develops a pornographic imagination, his feelings about sex are likely to be cruel and divisive,” he says.

Throughout our conversation, Jacobson keeps returning — in between hateful rants to his enemies and bold statements concerning the corruption of moral values in the world today — to the act of writing itself: how quickly he writes; why writing should never be about self expression or catharsis; and the purpose of putting words down on the page, as opposed to keeping them as thoughts locked inside his head.

And then there is writing to simply get a laugh from his readers.

British author Howard Jacobson rewrites 'The Merchant of Venice' in a wickedly funny novel, 'Shylock Is My Name.' (courtesy)
British author Howard Jacobson rewrites ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in a wickedly funny novel, ‘Shylock Is My Name.’ (courtesy)

Jacobson’s novels, and indeed his journalism, are both well known for their ironic wit, and playful use of Jewish humor. But in conversation, he doesn’t appear to be someone who takes life with a pinch of salt, or see the glass half full. Then again, he doesn’t claim to be.

“People often think that you have a sense of humor because you think that life is funny,” says Jacobson. “Life isn’t funny at all. It’s appalling and tragic.”

‘Life isn’t funny at all. It’s appalling and tragic’

Having the ability to laugh in the face of darkness and despair, Jacobson posits, is a trick he learned from his Jewish heritage.

“Jews are fatalistic people. Nothing that we have seen about life tells us that it’s funny,” he says. “It’s precisely because life isn’t funny that we have developed a sense of humor. Our sense of humor is a laugh at the darkness of life. And it can be very invigorating, strengthening, and a way of going on in the face of profound pessimism.”

Though laughter is not an expression of despair, Jacobson maintains, but a way of dealing with it.

“Nobody knows better than Jews how things turn out — which is very badly,” says Jacobson. “Laughter is almost a philosophical reaction to that in Jews.”

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