Howard Jacobson, as he sees it, is in a constant argument against his
“I think there’s a tyranny,” he exclaims. “I think the
contemporary is a tyranny.
People will ring me up to do an interview, and
they go, ‘what’s your favourite group?’ What’s my favourite group?” Jacobson’s
voice rises, in not-entirelyfeigned indignation. “I’m a grown man, I don’t have
a favourite group.”
He pauses to pours a cup of tea, Earl
“It’s just the assumption... we won’t all have the same group, but
that we will have a favourite group. I hate it. I truly hate it. I went to
Cambridge and studied with F.R. Leavis. I went there because I like that. I like
the high seriousness.”
It would be easy to presume that Howard Jacobson
is an enemy of modernity just for the sake of it. He knows this, even plays up
to the image, as the title of his most recent book, Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like
It, suggests. But as the book – a selection from 14 years of his weekly columns
in British newspaper The Independent – demonstrates, he is far from being a
Sometimes reflective, occasionally
ribald, the clearest common characteristic in the pieces – which consider
subjects as diverse as the dress sense of the Cosa Nostra, David Beckham in his
underpants or the sheer intellectual laziness of what passes for anti-Israel
argument in the United Kingdom – is an independence of thought; a willingness to
face down the consensus, if his considerable intellectual armor suggests to him
that the consensus is wrong.
It’s a bit surprising that Jacobson is often
shoved into one of two or three convenient categorizations, all the more so
given the range that Whatever It Is demonstrates. When The Finkler
Question, his 11th novel, won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2010, it was
described as the first comic novel to win the prize, and Jacobson the first
comic writer to do so. In a technical sense, this is wrong – Kingsley Amis’s The
Old Devils from 1986 is a more likely candidate – but beyond this, there is what
Jacobson describes as the limiting effect of a label on a writer.
comic label is annoying because I want to use it of myself, because I know what
I mean, but I feel that when other people use it they don’t know what they
mean,” he remarks.
What do you mean?
“Well, I don’t mean humorous, in the
the way that the Americans use it. That dreadful word, ‘humorous,’” Jacobson
shudders. “Making light of something... I am not. I am serious. And for me, I
have written lots of articles about the seriousness of comedy.”
Kalooki Nights, his 2006 novel that explores the place of the Holocaust in
postwar British Jewish identity.
“People have asked how I can write a
comic novel which is partly about the Holocaust. And first of all I say ‘well,
it is not a comic novel, but yes there is comedy in it.’”
Comedy resides in
everyday life, Jacobson contends; it can be a sophisticated tool for exploring
“The comedy I write, I’m not trying to make it light.
I’m not trying to make people think, ‘it’s OK, really.’” The role of comedy lies
in creating a contrast with the genuinely unbearable aspects of human
experience, he argues.
“It heightens the horror, really... comedy can be
very shocking, and it also reminds you that when you make a journey into those
areas, it is your whole self, not just your solemn self, your funereal
Jacobson arranges his craggy features into a suitably solemn
“‘Aha! It’s the Holocaust,’ or some other horror. ‘I am now a
shut off person when I approach...’ No! Go to it with, you know, everything
alive in you, and you will feel the ghastliness of it. The shame, the shock of
it. Even more.”
One must avoid the inevitably circumscribed emotional
engagement, one dictated from without, Jacobson suggests.
“You want your
reader to be shocked instead of, you know, ‘this is comfortable ground, another
Anne Frank book, we know where we are.’ These expressions of solemnity and grief
and so on, we’re feeling less than we should feel. We should feel more, I
JACOBSON WAS born in 1942 in Manchester, to a market-trader
father and a housewife mother. Home life was supportive to the precocious and
bookish young Jacobson – a primary school teacher once wrote to his parents,
saying that “your Howard has got a gift for writing of a sort I’ve never come
across before in a child of his age.”
After grammar school, he went up to
Downing College, Cambridge, studying under the literary critic and theorist
Leavis. Great things were expected of the young man from a modest
background, but didn’t come to pass in the expected manner. Jacobson started to
shape a career in academia, but as he approached his 40th year, he was teaching
at a distinctly second-rate institution and with little to show for the early
“I’d always thought that I was a novelist. Even as a
little boy, I’d always thought ‘I want to write novels, mummy.’ But as can often
happen if you go to university and become very involved in the academic side of
things, it can work against writing to a degree.”
“I had such a high regard, an absurdly high regard, for literature. I
thought writers were gods, I thought the works of literature were the holy writ.
And I wanted to do that, immediately.”
Setting the bar pretty high, one
might say. Or perhaps setting oneself up for a fall. Jacobson agrees.
wanted to be able to do The Brothers Karamazov immediately, and I couldn’t, for
very good reason. Because no one can when they’ve just left
Jacobson taught at the University of Sydney for three years
in the 1970s, but as the decade petered out, he found himself back in England
and far removed from his expectations.
“I was living on my own in a
horrible town called Wolverhampton, I was teaching at a polytechnic. I’d not
looked after my academic life, I hadn’t published learned articles because I’d
assumed I wasn’t going to be an academic, that soon I would be out and would be
Miserable times. Jacobson didn’t make them any easier for
“I thought my life was a farce. I’d got divorced, was living
alone in this horrible place, in a horrible flat, I didn’t even have hot water
in it. I was almost punishing myself.”
Wolverhampton Polytechnic, as
Jacobson describes it, sounds like it possessed as much humor as a graveyard,
albeit a graveyard for unfulfilled academic careers.
“The institution was
full of people like me, Oxford and Cambridge people, who were very good and sort
of fancied that they were teaching in Oxford and Cambridge. But it was a
polytechnic in the West Midlands.”
But then, deus ex machina-fashion,
inspiration intervened from the most unlikely of sources.
“To add insult
to our injury, we were told that we were going to be moved from our department
in the building to the local stadium.”
As part of a perplexing
money-saving venture, the department was rehoused in rooms at Molineux Stadium,
the home of the local soccer club.
“People thought I made it up, and I
thought, ‘well, there’s a story in this.’”
Coming From Behind, the resulting
novel, established Jacobson’s credentials with what he describes as “the last
throw of the dice.” Sefton Goldberg, its principal – like Jacobson a
working-class beneficiary of a Cambridge education – is trapped at a provincial
polytechnic, locked in mortal combat with both his lack of success and with
writing an academic study of failure.
Goldberg’s background clearly
suggests a fictionalized alter ego of Jacobson; but it is the consideration of
the experience of failure and humiliation that resonate most closely with
“It was a novel about failure, and about loss, and I
thought I can only really hammer home my sense of humiliation and failure –
because that is what it was.”
Curiously, the theme of failure – one that
recurs, with grotesque reliability, throughout Jacobson’s fiction – allows him,
in his opinion, to best explore the complexities and sensibilities of Jewish
identity, and thus is the most reliable pointer for the label of a “Jewish”
“Things happen to you [when you are a failure],” Jacobson
proposes. “You are a better recorder of what happens to
Interesting, but how does this connect to Jewishness?
“The irony is
that there might be some kind of luxury, some mirth in losing, some warm comedy
in losing.” He pauses. “Some acceptance that in losing you win a
particular kind of victory. This idea has always interested me, and it’s to do
with my sense of what a Jewish joke is. The Jewish joke is absolutely an
intellectual version of the masochistic act.”
It’s a vivid, painful
consideration of the function of humor in Jewish life.
“Just as the
masochist knows that life is cruel and fears being hurt, and thinks that the
best way to... anticipate pain is to arrange it. He knows when it is coming, he
has some control over it, he turns the tap on and off, of pain. The Jewish joke
turns the tap on and off, of Jewish pain. And it is as though they are saying to
their tormentors over the years, ‘you think you can be cruel to us? Look how
cruel we can be to ourselves.”
IT IS something of an irony that the
success of The Finkler Question came at a point when Jacobson feared, once more,
the onset of personal failure. His publishers did not show any real enthusiasm
for Jacobson’s acerbic but also deeply affecting consideration of what it means
to be Jewish in Britain today. It was picked up by another publishing house,
Bloomsbury, but the omens were rather inauspicious.
“So I thought, I am
in real trouble here, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to earn a living as a
novelist any more. I’d have to do more journalism.”
It was in this frame
of mind that Jacobson started writing Zoo Time, to be published this
“I thought I’d cheer myself up by writing a comic novel about
literary failure. I like writing about failure, can’t write about success...
failure is fun to write about.”
But the judges of the Booker had other
ideas about The Finkler Question.
“And then halfway through this novel
about literary failure, I win the Booker. Which stops it in its tracks, dead.
And I think, I don’t know if I can go back to it.”
But the feeling
“Little by little, I thought, nothing has changed, I’ve won this
prize, but that’s luck.”
And back he went.
Zoo Time, Jacobson
says, is a comic novel.
“It’s the funniest thing I’ve written, I loved
writing it. The ostensible story is about a man who is in love with his
Ah-hah. Everyday, run-of-the-mill stuff. Bound to end in
spectacular, glorious humiliation.
“That is the tale... what is actually
going on is that it is a novel about the end of novels.”
He sketches out
the opening scenes.
“It begins with him being caught by the police
stealing one of his own books from an Oxfam bookshop [a chain of charity shops,
often accused of undercutting the book trade], and that happens just after he’s
come out of a reading group, a women’s reading group where they’ve said things
like ‘I can’t identify with any of your characters,’ ‘why don’t you like women,’
and all this.”
Zoo Time is set in a world of closing bookshops,
publishers at the end of their tether, people reading only thrillers and
children’s books. Pretty much this world, then. It’s probably fair to say that
Jacobson is not the biggest fan of the intrusions of the supposed democratic
voice on the book trade, literary bloggers and user-generated reviews taking the
place of serious literary criticism.
“It’s the sheer illiteracy, the
wicked democratization of the intellectual life, where everyone thinks that they
are entitled to an opinion and they don’t know... they don’t know what a
judgment is. They think that if they go ‘I don’t like it’ then they have said
something about a book. They don’t know that all they’ve done is said something
Which takes us back to the issue of labels,
particularly when they are appended to a writer for the sake of convenience more
than anything else. It is, technically, correct to think of Jacobson as a
“Jewish” writer. He has no quarrel with this per se, but refuses to engage with
the label in the reductive sense.
“I’m not by any means conventionally
Jewish,” he told the American website Nextbook in 2004. “I don’t go to shul.
What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind... a disputatious mind. What a Jew is
has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that’s what shapes the Jewish
sense of humor, that’s what shaped Jewish pugnacity or
Jacobson, to his regret, was obliged to cancel a planned
visit to Israel, as a guest of the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem,
on medical advice. He says that he had looked forward to talking about his
books, particularly The Finkler Question, not least because many had not been
published in Hebrew before his Booker win.
“Do you know what they said?
‘Because he is too Jewish!’ Too Jewish for Jerusalem!” It is ironic, but he
acknowledges that his concerns as a Jew may not necessarily resonate with an
“The Diaspora Jewish experience, Jews worrying about
being Diaspora Jews. I can see that to an Israeli Jew, it is a bit of a
Does he feel, perhaps, that Israelis have lost the capacity to
laugh at themselves?
“I don’t know enough about life in Israel. I just don’t
But: “There were people who many years ago lamented the idea of an
Israel – even before the politics of modern- day Israel – because Jewish culture
had become Diaspora culture. What was beginning to define what was virtuous and
admirable about the Jews was precisely what they would lose if they then all
gathered in one place. Alienation, being the other, the Jewish
Humor, he thinks, is one of these key traits. And perhaps giving
up on it was part of the trade-off.
“It’s almost as if, in one sense, the
Jewish state was predicated on a knowledge of that loss. That particular thing,
that cleverness, that bitterness, that edgy wittiness. That was our
reward for, you know, the terrible life that we lived. But we were prepared,
surely we were prepared to lose that for a better life.”