Song of consequence

Song of consequence

Song of consequence
From scrawls on walls, tom-tomming, and an individual keeping a private journal, journalism has burgeoned into an enormous, amorphous creature, indefinable except in journalism schools.

I’ve always been fascinated by the delicate demarcation between fiction and journalism, and the movement that began with New Journalism where fiction was cleaned up to look ‘real’, while journalism crossed over, pulling in atmosphere and flavour. Howard Jacobson, the 2010 Booker winner, wrote a column for 18 years, 1,000 words a week, for the Independent in the UK until it folded up gracefully, missed by many, and its closure “proof that we no longer read in the expansive, altruistically curious manner we once did.” This is the second collection of his columns.

An author sees the world and speaks his mind in his column; he cannot do that in a novel, where he’s bound by the logic and evolution of a story. Ergo, you’ll find the author in his column, not in his fiction.

But for anyone looking for the author in his columns, Jacobson has this to say (There’s Always Another Dark Lady): “...what is wrought by the imagination vies with actuality, transforming beyond recognition any ‘truth’ that might have been lurking in its lees. I am not the I of my novels. I am not even the I of these columns.” It’s another matter that, wading through this vast range of subjects and opinions, the reader forms an idea.

The ‘Jewish Jane Austen’, as Jacobson called himself, traverses a vast and layered canvas, his mission being to “entertain in a spirit of high seriousness”. Armed with (at times crusty) humour, a curious range of rigidity, irreverence and acceptance, of nostalgia for his past and a philosophical interest in the new, he doesn’t cease to entertain. He picks up mostly from the week’s world around him.

The first essay, which gives the book its name, is poignant. Out shopping with his wife, they stop to rest on a bench and witness the last moments of an old Labrador. As it lies helplessly, its owner lays her hand upon its head, and “we get up and leave.” He speaks on sexism (“it feels too small a concept for the errands it is sent on”), and thinks that social media “adds to its savour”; even if we shouldn’t look away from it, “some of it thrives on the knowledge it is being communicated.”

Jacobson takes up an issue, walks around it, his mind busy exploring, mediating, ruminating. The author’s image I conjured up while reading him matches startlingly with the images you find on Google. The tired, often uncertain, eyes, the honesty, the preoccupation with his age, the nostalgia, the humour and belligerence, you’ll see what I mean.

His Italian tailor’s death affects him (“I’m a conjugal sentimentalist”), and he reminisces: encounters and conversations, and memories people have of the man who has made Soho ‘the poorer’, each one different. His New Year tears as he listens to the Vienna Philharmonic. His concern with growing violence and knee-jerk responses on the street (arrogance and bluster that swell, and become unbearable as one ages), his preference of experience over innocence (and so, old age against the very young), his irritation with the “mere automatic drudgery” and ugliness of Internet porn (“the universal urgency of the before and the inevitable melancholy of the after.”)

We have here close to a 100 essays, and at times he returns to stir the same subject to a different spin. One week, his 13th novel has been published, and he’s upbeat: “a new spring in my step, a new insouciance.” But still. There’s some “fretting”, which is the “necessary condition of making something that requires approval.” About the writing itself, he says it’s the work itself and not an idea which is the inspiration of writers. “Inspiration doesn’t precede the work, it finds itself in it.”

The happy thing about writing, he says, is the diving into darkness, unsure - being not yourself, but “just a thing that burrows.” That’s what makes the art. When you finally see the light and applaud yourself, and wonder whether others will applaud as well, your creative role is done and a mechanical one takes over. The title of the piece is telling: Advice to a Young Artist: Don’t be Yourself.
The last piece, And it’s Goodnight from Him, is about writing his column, the novelist who can’t have an opinion, and the columnist who is expected to. The columns don’t interfere with his writing because he sees them as “little novels”. When he signs off, it’s like a final (Shakespearean) bow from the columnist: “And so I leave you.”

And so we mourn afresh the end of the printed Indy, grateful for this present collection, which “is likely, ” says Jacobson, “to be my last.”
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