The novelty of success

Undeterred by winning the Man Booker Prize in 2010, Howard Jacobson pressed on with his latest project, a novel about literary failure.

The Finkler Question (photo credit: Reuters)
The Finkler Question
(photo credit: Reuters)
Howard Jacobson, as he sees it, is in a constant argument against his times.
“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 Grey.
“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 retrogressive stick-in-the-mud.
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.
“The 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.”
Take 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 complex emotions.
“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 self.”
Jacobson arranges his craggy features into a suitably solemn expression.
“‘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 think.”
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 F.R.
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 promise.
“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.”
How so?
“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.
“I 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 university.”
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 a writer.”
Miserable times. Jacobson didn’t make them any easier for himself.
“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 Jacobson himself.
“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” writer.
“Things happen to you [when you are a failure],” Jacobson proposes. “You are a better recorder of what happens to you.”
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 fall.
“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 passed.
“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 wife’s mother.”
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 about themselves.”
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 tenaciousness.”
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 Israeli audience.
“The Diaspora Jewish experience, Jews worrying about being Diaspora Jews. I can see that to an Israeli Jew, it is a bit of a luxury.”
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 know.”
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 other.”
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.”