Short-listed for the Booker, Jacobson’s new book is Judenrein

In an interview, Jewish author Howard Jacobson muses, ‘I’m not sure whether you can be a Jew and not be in apocalyptic mode’

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

LONDON — Howard Jacobson’s new novel, “J,” is a love story set in a dystopia in which there is a notable absence: Jews.

Ailinn Solomons and Kevern Cohen come together, or perhaps are pushed together, in a society where everything has been changed by What Happened, If It Happened. This seismic event and momentous catastrophe wholly removed the Other from society. Now life is dedicated to forgetting it ever happened.

That Ailinn and Kevern have Jewish surnames is part of that process: the removal of differences and antagonism.

But in removing the Other — and hatred of the Other from society — so too has something of life itself been erased. “If you want God you’ve got to have the Devil,” Kevern tells Ailinn. “I’m for neither,” she says. “Then this is what you get,” he replies.

In “J,” Jacobson imagines life without jazz and improvisation, a society where “people wanted to be sure, when a tune began, exactly where it was going to end,” and one too without wit.

Cover of Howard Jacobson's new novel, 'J'
Cover of Howard Jacobson’s new novel, ‘J’

Jacobson, author of thirteen novels and five works of non-fiction, won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 for “The Finkler Question.” This new novel has been short-listed for the award this year.

The Times of Israel sat down with Jacobson over tea in the sitting room of his light, spacious, and precisely-furnished loft in the heart of London’s Soho district. As well as his new novel, we discussed questions pertaining to anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, social media, and the state of Jewish culture in Britain today.

What was the genesis for your new novel, J?

I’ve been in apocalyptic mode for a while. It’s possible, looking back on my novels, that I’ve always been in apocalyptic mode. I’m not sure whether you can be a Jew and not be in apocalyptic mode — we’re a kind of Jeremiah, it’s woe, woe, it’s a matter of how much. I’m always living in a degraded time, thinking it’s the end of something – it’s my nature to feel that.

‘What is about the Jew that makes him inimical to a sizeable portion of the rest of society?’

The first impulse was thinking very gloomily that Jew-hating is never going to go away. I’ve always thought that and I’ve always been interested in what it is about Jew-hating that makes it not go away. What is about the Jew that makes him inimical to a sizeable portion of the rest of society?

A lot of my gentile friends say, “I don’t feel it, I don’t feel it, I love Jews” – but that doesn’t quite answer it.

In terms of the source of the old hatred, in “J” one of the problems you talk about is anti-Semitism as a generational inheritance. In that sense, can anti-Semitism ever be fully eradicated?

I think it can’t. We seem to stand for something. We seem to stand for an argument humanity is always having with itself. We are one side of the argument, which is why the argument must never be won or lost.

Freud argues that Jews, of necessity and during the exile, over-evolved their mental and intellectual side. Jewish photographs of life in the shtetl will show the Russian peasant, drunk, but the Jew as upright, rabbinical, with books under his arm, with the implication that he is the intellectual superior. We all have our arrogances and that is a Jewish arrogance. But the idea of the Jew as over-evolved mentally is one of the reasons humanity is in a constant argument with us. We gave the world ethics, morals, the mental life, for the which the physical world will never forgive us.

‘The idea of the Jew as over-evolved mentally is one of the reasons humanity is in a constant argument with us’

“J” is about me trying to imagine what happens when this argument stops. These are our Other. These are the people we’ve defined ourselves against. We’ve removed them.

So who are we? It’s thinking about what are the cultural consequences of getting rid of everybody – the argument stops and the imaginative discourse is removed. And, what do Jews very specifically bring to a culture that won’t be there anymore, or what happens if you remove any marginal group from a culture and there’s only one straight view of this-is-who-we-are?

What happens when you wipe out the argument with yourself is that you also remove the things – literature, art, music – that that argument produces? That’s the dystopia.

The other thing we will have be forgiven for is giving the world Christianity, and because in the Western world Christianity cannot be attacked for itself, we will be attacked for it. I often think that when people are attacking Judaism, what they are actually attacking is Christianity.

But there is hatred of Judaism for creating Christianity but also for rejecting it.

It’s a complex mess, and for Christianity, the death of Christ allows it to prevaricate with its own conscience. If you have a faith that needs a sacrificed god, there’s the question of who sacrifices your god for you. That’s why so many cultures create a defiled people – they’re the divine executioners, they do the dirty work and hover around death. You can have your god killed without having to do the job yourself. They are the scapegoats, and for Christianity the Jews are the scapegoats.

‘I am who I am because I am not you’

It is necessary for Christianity to have a pitiless Judaism. I’m working on a re-telling of “The Merchant of Venice” at the moment, and it was necessary for that Christian world to have that Shylock. It explained everything: Jesus, the killing of Jesus, and what Christianity is for.

What is a Christian? A Christian is not a Jew.

You need another people to tell you who you are. And that’s what “J” is about: If we don’t know who we are different to, who are we? You need the Other, not just as a scapegoat but to measure yourself against. I am who I am because I am not you.

One of the themes of “J” is the issue of remembrance. As we become more removed from the Holocaust, it loses its immediacy, but also as remembrance becomes institutionalized, it is as if saying ‘Never again’ becomes almost robotic and unthinking.

Primo Levi (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Primo Levi (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s very hard, and what do you do? This is bound to happen and I can’t see any way around it, it becomes robotic. But then you get reminded again, and that’s why it is so important to read people like Primo Levi.

You read one piece of Primo Levi and suddenly it’s not robotic anymore – it’s all there for you to think about. We also have to worry about whether people on the side of the perpetrators start to resent this, and start to feel that we’ve had enough and said sorry enough.

So for any Jew, it’s a question of great tact towards himself and towards others. What’s too much memory? “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you,” someone says in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” and that’s what remembering does. You can over-remember and you can under-remember, and it’s a burden, but perhaps that’s why I go writing about it because it’s a burden you have to go on balancing.

In “J,” you also elude to a sort of Holocaust gene in people who are generations removed from the Holocaust or pogrom, living in multicultural, post-national societies, where something that reminds them of the past will jolt them every so often.

How can we not be made by those things? We are a people of memory, so we must go on remembering. But one of the things this does to us too is turn us into what I call in “The Finkler Question” the “ashamed Jew” — those who ingest the view of Judaism of those who hate Jews.

An abused child will often come to think of himself as unworthy, and I think we see that in the crossover between Jewish politics and Zionist politics and the question of why there are so many Jews whose anti-Zionism is so febrile.

What can be achieved in fiction by writing about the Holocaust?

You don’t know until you do it. Once upon a time, I used to say one shouldn’t touch it. I don’t think that anymore, partly because I had a go at it myself in “Kalooki Nights” but I was playing with ideas of memory. And what does saying you shouldn’t do it do: It turns it into some kind of sacred space.

If you feel that the novel is gratuitous and seeking to gain seriousness by using the Holocaust as its terrain, then of course you’ll lose patience with it, but until you see what the novel is doing, I don’t think you can say a priori that it shouldn’t be done.

In “J” you have an event called Twitternacht, which you write facilitated but did not provoke What Happened, If It Happened. Do you think social media shows us who we really are or merely that loons in society now have a platform they didn’t before?

I think it’s both. There something about the medium which creates this and it would be very strange if this weren’t the case. A medium will always create what the medium needs and no medium is a passive recipient – it’s more than a letterbox.

‘I think social media is frightening and it’s perfect for the spread of prejudice’

Not everyone who tweets does so simple-mindedly but it’s pretty difficult because it’s essentially a simplifying medium, committing to statement: This is what I think. It’s changed the nature of discourse itself. It is increasingly a discourse of statement, and what happens in literature where what is said is not necessarily what is meant, or two arguments can be held simultaneously, there’s no space for that.

Whatever arguments it sets up, in itself, I think social media is frightening and it’s perfect for the spread of prejudice.

What do you make of the state of British Jewish culture today?

I’ve always felt we were very timid and there is a kind of English Jewish philistinism which I had a go at in “Kalooki Nights.” We have always been frightened because you don’t know what people are going to do. It’s taken us a while to get out of that and become a bit noisier.

Cover of Howard Jacobson's 'Kalooki Nights'
Cover of Howard Jacobson’s ‘Kalooki Nights’

I thought I was doing something unbelievably intrepid and unwise when I first started writing about Jews – it had never been my intention to write about Jews. I knew I had an interest in the subject but it turned out I needed Jews in my novels in order to get going. My voice needed to have some Jewishness in it or it wasn’t my voice. And many Jews in that period said it was like fouling your own nest.

It don’t hear that now, and now there are more overtly Jewish writers. Not many men, but a lot of women are writing overtly Jewish novels: Deborah Levy, Francesca Segal, Charlotte Mendelson, there’s about half a dozen Jewish female novelists writing at the moment. Why that hasn’t happened for men in the novel, I don’t know.

We’ve had huge success in the theater, like Harold Pinter for example, but in the novels it didn’t happen perhaps because the novel is a slightly confidential form and Jewish men were not prepared to confide much. Brian Glanville wrote a novel called “The Bankrupts” and it was an early attempt after the war at an Anglo-Jewish novel and he had a rough time with it because a lot of Jews didn’t want it. It shook him up.

It was timidity. It was a feeling that drawing attention to your Jewishness was not a smart idea which is just starting to fade and it’s terrific that it is. Now, when Jewish Book Week is on, you feel there is no healthier culture in this country.

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