Finding his own voice

Howard Jacobson had to unlock Jewish Manchester to become a successful writer.

Novelist Jacobson (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Novelist Jacobson
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Novelist Howard Jacobson looked relaxed, urbane, plainly enjoying himself. But his appearance belied a decidedly explosive energy evident in the flow of his conversation.
He had come to Israel for the first time in many years to give the B’nai B’rith World Center’s Jerusalem Address, following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Bernard Lewis, Abba Eban and Shlomo Avineri.
The title of the lecture “When will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust?” promised fireworks, and the Manchester-born Jacobson, winner in 2010 of Britain’s foremost literary award for fiction, the Man Booker Prize, had no intention of disappointing his audience.
Talking to The Jerusalem Report ahead of his lecture, he never raised his voice, but there was no mistaking the intensity and directness he projected, leavened occasionally by amused and amusing asides. It would be tempting to assume that, having reached the age of 70, he has concluded he can say precisely what he thinks, but this listener suspects he reached this conclusion many years ago, and has been having a fine old time ever since.
“I came across the sentence, ‘The Jews will never be forgiven the Holocaust,’ in a book called “Straw Dogs” by a philosopher called John Gray, a pessimistic philosopher, and you can’t fail to be pessimistic about human nature if you are a philosopher,” notes Jacobson, wryly. “He’s just thinking generally about the fact that we are not very good about obligation, repaying favors. We resent those who have done us a favor, and we resent even more those whom we have done harm.
“And this is true in literature,” Jacobson tells The Report. “There is a scene in Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park,’ a world away from Jerusalem and indeed John Gray, in which someone says about the heroine ‘that she disliked her because she had neglected her.’ This is really interesting because it is normally the other way around. ‘I don’t like you, so I am going to do you harm.’ However here, it is ‘having done you harm, I must dislike you.’” “That is one of the ways in which we can explain the persistence of hostility to Jews.
We are hated not for the things we have done, but for what others have done to the Jews. I like that twist. And it does partly explain that the Jews will not be forgiven the Holocaust.
“If that is the case, we’re somehow resented for the Holocaust. Holocaust denial is a kind of resentment of the Jews for daring to bring it up. Isn’t anti-Semitism a kind of persistent wrong against the Jews that feeds upon itself? The more anti-Semitism there is, it would seem, the fewer apologies we get for it. The moment you complain about anti- Semitism, you get anti-Semitism.”
And Jacobson, a vigorous combatant against British anti-Zionism that veers almost as a matter of course into ill-disguised anti-Semitism, is speaking from personal experience.
“If I do a column in a newspaper and mention anti-Semitism, I get the reaction, ‘I am not an anti-Semite, believe me, but if you keep going on about anti-Semitism, I might very well become one.’ This is astonishing, and it is common,” he says.
Last year, English literary and cultural figures called for the withdrawal of an invitation to the Israeli Habima theater company to perform Shakespeare in London. Jacobson attacked the initiative as an act of attempted censorship.
“A response came from a quite wellknown, educated Englishman, pro-Palestinian activist,” Jacobson relates. “He was sending around a photograph of my face saying, ‘If you want a reason to boycott Habima, this is the reason. I present to you Howard Jacobson’s face.’ And when challenged by other people, he refused to see what was wrong with it. We are in Julius Streicher country now. We are using the appearance of a Jew to discredit whatever it is that this Jew thinks.”
An even worse example of this was immortalized in Jacobson’s Man Booker prizewinning novel, “The Finkler Question,” which made him, briefly, famous.
“I was out shopping in London and a rather pretty young woman was standing there,” he recalls. “Because she was rather pretty, when she gave me a look of recognition, I was rather happy to give her a smile back. And then she said something, and it had the word ‘Jew’ or something in it. And then I did some shopping, she was still on the street and I heard her say it again, ‘Jew.’ I followed her into a chemist’s shop and asked her, ‘What did you say?’ And she said, ‘Oh, go take a shower, and you know the kind of shower I mean.’ “I came across someone who actually introduced herself to me as a Holocaust denier.
I mean, what do you do when someone introduces herself as a Holocaust denier? Say, ‘Oh well, how long have you been doing that, then?’” Not even that was the nadir. “The worst instance of it was when a very well-known journalist, a friend of mine, a person I’ve got a high regard for, took the Schalit prisoner exchange deal as a sign of “Israeli arrogance,” Jacobson says. “She said ‘Jewish’ at first, then corrected herself. She at least understood that you can’t be an extreme lunatic about Jews but you can be about Israelis.
“She said that Israelis value one Israeli life as worth a thousand other lives, as though the deal had originally been one for one and the Israelis had said, no, we have to give you more prisoners because we value our lives as worth [a thousand] of yours. And this came from a highly educated, intelligent woman, nobody you would think of as being prejudiced.”
Jacobson sees Israel as being central to the argument. “Israel is the proof that we are not deserving of sorrow, apology, compassion or change,” he says. “The Holocaust apparently was our opportunity to change. The Jews going into the camps might not have known that the whole thing was in fact designed for them to be changed. It was an education. We failed. The proof that we failed is that we are not very nice people; look at the way we are treating the Palestinians.
“Someone did some research in Germany a few years ago into what the philosopher, Theodor Adorno, and a colleague, Peter Schönbach, called ‘secondary anti-Semitism.’ It leaps on the back of anti-Semitism and feeds an even greater anti-Semitism, and Adorno saw this growing out of the Holocaust, that the consequence of Jews harping on about the six million dead would be that they would be resented for it.
“When researchers put to people the fact that Jews had been traumatized and it was very difficult for them to move on, the response was, ‘Look at Israel’; and it is this ‘Look at Israel’ moment that interests me greatly.”
But why is it that Jews are always the targets of prejudice? “To me there is an eternality here, that I keep trying to get to the bottom of,” responds Jacobson. “What seems to be eternal is that the world is in an argument with Jews.
“Human nature seems to be naturally in an argument with itself. Human beings are dialectical creatures, and Jews are one of the ways in which human beings have an argument with themselves. In the mind / body argument, the Jews represent the mind, and Jews have often been happy to take on that role.
“I think that it goes all the way back to Freud. He says that as a consequence of what happened in Jewish history, we had to become a people with a portable God, an intellectual God. Because our victories were not physical victories, we became proud of what we could do, which was to have a spiritual god, a god of the intellect, and to be thinkers, and that is indeed what we are. But with intellectual abilities, comes intellectual pride, and people don’t like that: ‘The clever Jew.’ “This argument may go all the way back to monotheism and paganism. Freud says something very interesting about Lithuania and that part of Europe. Why were the Lithuanians, the Latvians and that part of Europe so much more savage in their anti-Semitism than even the Nazis? The Nazis were appalled at how bloodthirsty the Lithuanians were.
“Freud says that the peoples there were pagans for a long time. They were the last [European] people to accept Christianity. In the 12th-13th centuries, they were worshiping oak trees. Then, as Freud sees it, they had Christianity foisted on them, and I find it convincing that what they are resenting in the Jews is actually Christianity, the monotheistic faith. The Jews are resented because they gave the world Christianity.
“We killed Christ, but we also made Christ, and I sometimes think that the gentile world does not know what they most resent us for – giving birth to him or killing him.
“These matters go deep into the substratum of cultures and beliefs. Regardless of what people think that they believe, what we have discovered in the 20th century is that you only need pressures to be exerted, and suddenly people were thinking things in them that they never knew they had it inside them to think.
“I am sure that no one in the 1930s thought, ‘I am an oak tree worshiper really,’ but it schlepped out of the kishkes of forgotten belief.
These are residual feelings and resentments.
I don’t think anybody knows that they hate the Jews because the Jews gave them Christianity, but that does not mean that this isn’t true.”
Howard Jacobson was born in Manchester in 1942, and describes his origins as “Northern, working-class, poor and Jewish.” He studied English literature at Downing College, Cambridge, under the renowned scholar and critic, F.R. Leavis.
He then taught literature in Australia and England before completing his first novel, “Coming From Behind,” published in 1983.
Since then, he has written several books, all of them treading the same high wire – serious fiction that is at the same time extremely funny; and, of course, Jewish.
But his path was not easy, even though he only ever wanted to be a writer. When asked by The Report whether he deliberately chose to write about Jews only after immersing himself in the English literary canon, he demurs.
“That makes it sound like a calculated process and it wasn’t,” he says. “I had Jewish friends at school and we were conscious of being Jews; we were all bar mitzva-ed. One of us wasn’t bar mitzva-ed, and we thought there was something shockingly wrong with him.
“Manchester Jewish life was then basically secular. But it was consciously Jewish.
We would have Jewish families, but we would go on to have English lives. I was the first one of my family to go to university and they were excited it was Cambridge. There was no sense of escaping from being a Jew; there was no stress on being a Jew.
“But something was working its way out, and I never really knew what it was. I didn’t really enjoy Cambridge. Being Northern, working-class, poor and Jewish must have had something to do with it. I went to my first job in Australia and I felt a whole weight coming off me, partly because it felt normal to be Northern, working-class, poor in Australia. Everybody knew what they were dealing with there; everyone was from somewhere else. I enjoyed what going to America would have been like 30 years before – a great freedom.”
Still he could not get his creative juices flowing. “I had a sense that I was more Jewish than I thought I was – I liked Jewish jokes – but I didn’t seek out a Jewish identity,” he recalls. “I knew I was going to be a novelist forever, but I was just finishing a page, getting nowhere, and saying, ‘That’s no good.’ “But I wasn’t trying to be Philip Roth, whom I hadn’t read anyway. I wasn’t trying to be Saul Bellow. I was trying to be Jane Austen and I was trying to be Henry James.
I was trying to write like them, particularly Henry James. And, of course, that had not been my experience, and there was something absurd in trying to write about English country house life when I know nothing about it.
“My father had been a taxi driver and a market man, and it took me longer than it should have done to realize that the sources of my inspiration were there, in Jewish Manchester, more than in Cambridge.
Jewish Manchester was where I grew up – the people I’d met, big Jewish market men.
I’d played table tennis with Jewish boys for a Jewish team, and I realized I was still going to write like an Englishman, I was still going to write like Henry James and certainly more like Jane Austen than I was ever going to sound like Saul Bellow.
“But there were other things that I knew about – spirit, and the vigor of my voice.
That’s the first thing you have to find as a writer, what’s your voice, and where’s the life of it, and the vigor of your voice. Once I got going – by this time I was in my late 30s – it’s Jewish, I thought, it’s Jewish. I am an exaggerator.”
Jacobson’s leonine features light up. “I don’t want to write pared-down, beautiful, elegant prose. I want to explode a bit and where have I heard this before? I didn’t hear it in Cambridge. I was a shy boy among shy boys in Cambridge, and a premium was put on quietude and reserve.
“But the thing I heard in my head, the vitality, was my dad in the markets and all the Jews in the markets and all the boys I played table tennis with, made jokes and exaggerated, told big stories. My experience had closed in, and it took ages to work it out again.
“It was only when I unlocked Manchester that I unlocked me, for what it’s worth.”
And it is evidently worth something.
Apart from “The Finkler Question,” two of Jacobson’s books have won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, his 1999 novel “The Mighty Walzer” and, in 2012, “Zoo Time.” His 30-year career as a writer has earned him great respect, even though fame had to wait for the Man Booker. As Sir Andrew Motion, the Booker prize chairman, said, “There is a particular pleasure in seeing somebody who is that good finally getting his just deserts.”
Few Anglo-Jewish male writers have ever come anywhere near getting their deserts, though, just or otherwise. How is their lack of success explainable, especially bearing in mind the rich Jewish literary talents that flourish in the US?
Jacobson Pauses for a moment. “It’s very hard to understand. American culture was always very much more malleable and available to whoever was prepared to come along and affect it. Look at popular culture, for example. Jews were turning up in vaudeville, writing songs. They were molding American culture, Hollywood.
America was a country that had to have these outside influences, because there was no indigenous culture.
“Britain, though, has a well-established culture. It’s urbane and it welcomes other voices, but you never quite get to the heart of it. That’s one of the reasons why the Jewish voice has been less prevalent in England.
“There is one thing I have never been able to explain though: While you get a number of English Jews in the arts – Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard on the stage, a list of successful playwrights – why didn’t they go into the novel? A few tried: Gerald Kersh, now forgotten, a pity; Brian Glanville who burned his fingers with the Jewish community; Bernard Kops, the poet, who is enjoying a revival but is on the fringes; Frederic Raphael, of course.
“Perhaps it’s to do with the more intimate nature of fiction. If you are going to write about things Jewish in fiction, you have to be more overt about it than when you are on the stage. Harold Pinter, for example, never managed to mention the word, ‘Jew,’ while writing play after play after play about Jews. If you inserted into every Pinter silence the word, ‘Jew,’ in any play that might have mystified you, it suddenly becomes perfectly clear.
“But you couldn’t do that in a novel.
There is something about the exposure of the novel that Jews, especially Jewish men, have backed away from.
“I never intended to write about Jews.
Nothing was working, until I found myself making the hero of my first novel a Jew and I remember thinking to myself, ‘This will work. Now I can do it.’ I had a much more Jewish voice than I knew I had.’ “But some Jews were quite savage about it really, including Frederic Raphael, who wrote, ‘Why do you make Jews the strange, exaggerated figures here; why do you imagine there is some little dybbuk?’ “Well, the answer is that there is one.
The experience of going to Cambridge does not make you an English gentleman.
The Jew never vanished. I saw him in the eyes of the people teaching me at Cambridge.
They didn’t want to kill me; they didn’t want to hang me; they didn’t want to poison me. But between us, we conjured up a dybbuk.”
While Jacobson had been looking forward to his visit to Israel, he has no desire to leave London, where he lives with his third wife, documentary maker Jenny De Yong. Israel remains for him the “lifeboat” of his parents, a place that was important as somewhere to go to should the worst happen. “Half of me thinks I’ll never need it, but…” Meanwhile, further literary projects are in the works, including an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
“Actually I think that ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is much less anti-Semitic than most people think it is,” notes Jacobson, while adding that news of the project drew such prejudiced comments as “Shylock rewriting Shakespeare.”
This forthcoming work should engage two sides of Jacobson’s personality: his affinity for Jewishness and his love of the English literary canon. And he sees close connections between the methods by which both are studied.
“The work I did with Leavis was Talmudic – close textual criticism,” he says.
“There’s not a lot of difference. I’ve been to yeshivas here and filmed in Jerusalem.
I’ve watched the boys arguing over a text and I think this is me, this is me at Downing College Cambridge, talking about a Wordsworth poem. The difference is that the boys are banging the table and fighting with one another. They love the disputatiousness.”
And the glint in his eye more than suggests that he feels akin to them. It’s also in the vigor of his voice, and in the life of it – the dybbuk that exaggerates, that laughs