Furious. Acerbic. Unflinching. Even the briefest glance at Howard Jacobson’s face would seem to explain why these are the words most often used to describe his work (the other is ‘funny’). Surely those craggy, prophet-like features must never be more than a twitch away from a thunderous scowl? Journalist Allison Pearson once described him as looking like ‘God after a bad day at the bookmakers’. There’s definitely something there that suggests grumpiness on an epic scale.
Luckily, Jacobson turns out to be an interviewer’s delight – open and brimful of bonhomie. This sunniness is at least partly a consequence of his latest novel, The Finkler Question, winning the madly prestigious Man Booker Prize. Literary gongs have been a bit of a sore point with him up until now, even though his books get glowing reviews (Jonathan Safran Foer called him ‘a great, great writer’) and he is often compared to Philip Roth. Yet come the awards ceremonies …. nada.
‘I’ve had this reputation as a good writer who is constantly overlooked, and I’ve been getting quite fed up with it,’ he tells me. ‘If you’re identified with a certain kind of non-achievement, it counts against you in the end. So now I feel that particular spell has been broken, and I’m pleased about that.’
Of course, there is no accounting for awards judges’ tastes. But there is always the possibility that his novels trade in subjects still off-limits for some, such as humour and the holocaust – the main conceit behind Kalooki Nights (2006). Or perhaps it’s because they deal with other issues that cut uncomfortably close to the bone, such as British anti-Semitism.
‘My father always said: “Keep your head down, stay schtum,”’ Jacobson says. ‘In the UK, you must demonstrate your remove from Jewishness if you want to feel more English. That’s not the case in America, where you often get the feeling that Jewish life is almost synonomous with general cultural life. But over here, while we’re not disrespected or disregarded, the Jewish way of thinking and speaking has simply not shaped the culture in the same way and probably never will.’ If you’re not thought of as being at the heart of the culture, then maybe your books aren’t reckoned to deserve its acclaim.
That aside, there is no doubt The Finkler Question is a triumph – funny, clever and dark. Its protagonist, Julian Treslove is a typical Jacobson creation: a middle-aged man much given to angst, falling heavily in love and regarding his male friends as his rivals. He’s also been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. Or so he thinks. The problem is, he’s not actually Jewish, although his two best friends are – Sam Finkler, philosopher and author, and Libor Sevcik, his former teacher. Sam and Libor are both newly widowed, and Julian’s feeling left out: while the other two debate Zionism and mourn their wives, all he’s got is an uninspiring job as a celebrity lookalike and a brace of sons he doesn’t care to remember. So he decides to learn Hebrew, studies Jewish history, meets a Jewish woman and gets a job in a Jewish museum. But can all this satisfy his need to belong?
This is Jacobson’s eleventh novel, and like all its predecessors, it uses humour to drive home his discursive, digressive but always thoughtful interrogations of what it means to be a Jew in England. ‘I have always argued for the primacy of comedy in fiction,’ Jacobson tells me. ‘I don’t mean jokes – I mean the illumination of another way of seeing, the sudden turning of an action on its head, not to make light of it but to enrich it.’ Ref. his depiction of one particularly woebegone character who keeps a blog recording his attempts to re-grow a foreskin; or the bitingly satirical scenes in which Finkler spearheads a group called ‘ASHamed Jews’, whose raison d’être is their grievance against Israel.
Jacobson’s speaking to me from his converted loft in London’s Soho, which he shares with his third wife, television producer Jenny de Yong. It’s a seemingly natural habitat for a sophisticated, successful author, yet his roots are in working-class, Jewish Manchester. His late father was ‘a market-trading, taxi-driving magician’ and his mother raised the children at home.
‘We were Jewish in a very secular way. We were expected to have a Bar Mitzvah, but we didn’t know what it was, really. Our parents got a bit upset when we went out with non-Jewish girls – there was a feeling that you weren’t meant to “marry out.” But that was the end of it. Jewishness was in a very nice state then. There was no sense of the kind of Orthodoxy that is in the air at the moment.’
Both his parents had an abiding love for culture – his father for opera, his mother for books – and this led Jacobson to pursue a degree at Cambridge. He later taught literature at various universities, but says that his academic career ran aground in the late ‘70s. ‘I neglected it, because I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t do all the things you were supposed to do.’
Yet his literary career took a while to get going. His first novel, Coming From Behind – often described as a Jewish Lucky Jim – was not published until 1983, when he was in his forties. Once he’d got over the fact that he was never going to be Tolstoy, he finally found his voice. After that, all he wanted was success as a writer and it still matters to him more than anything, even though he’s busier than ever. He’s about to publish a collection of the columns he writes for The Independent; he’s just made a film about British art for Channel Four; and he’s also well into his next novel.
And, of course, there’s the whirl of international publicity surrounding the Man Booker. Is he managing to keep his feet on the ground? ‘My mother, who is in her late eighties and pessimistic – Jewishly pessimistic – gave me a piece of her mind on that: “Don’t hope for too much. Enjoy it now! Let this be enough.” It’s good advice, actually. Because right now I do feel blessed.’
• This piece was first published in South Africa’s Sunday Times