A funny thing happened when Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker on Oct 12. Instead of the traditional audience reaction — euphoria from the winner’s entourage, anaemic clapping underpinned by envy and bitterness from everyone else — the announcement, over dinner at the Guildhall here, was greeted by loud, sustained applause. A smattering of people who were not even related to Jacobson stood and cheered.
“I think it’s that I’m someone who’sz been around for a long time,” Jacobson, exhausted but excited, said in an interview two days after. “There was also the feeling that, “Thank God an old man’s won it.’” He is 68.
The Winning book, The Finkler Question, is Jacobson’s 11th novel. It is an unusual Booker choice, both because it delves into the heart of the British Jewish experience, something that few contemporary British novels try to do, and because it is, on its surface at least, so ebulliently comic. It tells the story of three friends, two Jewish and one, Julian Treslove, who longs to be.
When Treslove is attacked by a mugger who mutters something like, “You’re Jules,” or possibly, “You Jew!,” the experience sends him on a long exploration of the nature of Jew-ishness, culturally, socially and politically. He grapples with questions like, What makes someone Jewish? Is it anti-Semitic to make generalisations about what makes someone Jewish?
Why are British Jews so much more open and warm than British non-Jews? “Don’t idealise us,” his new girlfriend, Hephzibah Weizenbaum, warns. “Why not?” he asks. “For all the usual reasons. And don’t marvel at our warmth.” Meanwhile his friends argue endlessly about Israel, forever “examining and shredding each other’s evidence,”
Jacobson writes. One of them, Sam Finkler, who writes pop-philosophy books, joins an anti-Zionist group called the ASHamed Jews — mercilessly lampooned by Jacobson — that meets regularly at the fashionable Groucho Club to denounce Israel’s foreign policy.
“I think you’ve got to be one to get it,” Finkler’s wife explains to Julian. “Be one what?” he responds. “One of the Ashamed?” “A Jew. You’ve got to be a Jew to get why you’re ashamed of being a Jew.”
Some readers have misunderstood. “People think they’re parodies of Jews who happen to disapprove of Israel,” Jacobson said of the ashamed, sitting in his apartment in the Soho neighbourhood here, his new Man Booker statuette gleaming behind him. “But they’re not. They’re parodies of Jews who parade their disapproval of Israel.”
Andrew Motion, chairman of the Booker judges, said last week that the subtlety of Jacobson’s writing, the way it mixes comedy and tragedy, had not, perhaps, been sufficiently appreciated before.“There is a particular pleasure in seeing somebody who is that good finally getting his just deserts,” he said. He added that The Finkler Question is “very clever and very funny,” as Jacobson’s work generally is.
“But it is also, in a very interesting way, a very sad, melancholic book. It is comic, it is laughter — but it is laughter in the dark.” Indeed, there is an ominous undercurrent in the book in the form of a growing number of anti-Semitic attacks, mostly offstage, that shatter the complacency of characters who resist the notion of Jews as perpetual victims. Jacobson says that such incidents worry him too, and that some of the views in the cacophony of arguments and counter-arguments in the book reflect his own opinions. But mostly, he said, he adheres to the notion, as one of his characters says, that “as a Jew, I believe that every argument has a counterargument.”
Jacobson said: “Once we accept there’s a constant to-ing and fro-ing of understanding and misunderstanding, all is possible. Here’s the wonder of the novel. The novel is the great fluid form in which all those possibilities flow in and flow out. Nothing is definite, nothing is finished, nothing is determined.”
Jacobson grew up in working-class Manchester with a father who worked as a children’s entertainer and who ran a market stall selling trinkets. Bright, bookish and intellectually ambitious, he studied English literature at Cambridge under the legendary FR Leavis. “I’m an old-fashioned English lit. man,” he said. “Straight down the line — it’s George Eliot, it’s Dickens, it’s Johnson, it’s Jane Austen.”
At first, he said, he tried to emulate his heroes. “I wanted to write the most obscure sentences you’ve ever seen and I wanted to write about, you know, the English country house experience,” he explained. “You see the problem. I didn’t get very far.” Academic in-fighting in the college where he took a teaching job led to his first novel, “Coming From Behind” (1983), a campus farce in the manner of David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury, but with a Jewish hero. The book drew rave reviews. “And then I discovered I rather liked writing about Jews,” he said. “Everyone in my family was astounded.” He mimics their response: “You’re not interested in Jews!”
“I was brought up a Jew, but you know that way of being Jewish — the New York way,” Jacobson continued. “We were stomach Jews, we were Jewish-joke Jews, we were bagel Jews. We didn’t go to synagogue. I’m frightened of synagogue to this day. When I went to synagogue as a little boy, you’d go in and 70 little bald men with their prayer shawls would turn around and go, ‘Sh!’ — he deploys the word as if spitting something out — “and it still happens now, the only difference being that now I’m older than they are.”
Few contemporary novelists here write explicitly about the experience of Jews in Britain, a state of affairs that could be debated as exhaustively, and probably with as little resolution, as Treslove and his friends debate the issues that consume them in The Finkler Question. Because of his rare position in the literary landscape, Jacobson has been called the “English Philip Roth,” but he says he would prefer to be ”the Jewish Jane Austen.” “I’m an English writer who happens to know about Jews and would like to write like Jane Austen, with a little bit of Yiddish,” he said.
He also resists being defined as a purely humourous writer and, indeed, The Finkler Question ends on a note that is not humourous at all. “To me, being a comic novelist is obviously to be serious, too — what else is there to be comic about?” Jacobson said. “But when I hear people call me a comic novelist, I want to scream, because they mean something different. I can call myself a comic novelist, though, because I know what I mean when I say it.”