Howard Jacobson has been around for a good while, a student and creator of fine literature, but it seems as if he burst onto the literary scene only recently with a spate of rollicking novels about quotidian life in modern Britain, mostly as lived by men of a decidedly, well, shlimazel tenor. Those novels, among them No More Mr. Nice Guy, The Mighty Walzer, and The Finkler Question, have been famously well received both commercially and critically, the last earning Jacobson the Man Booker Prize.
His newest, Zoo Time, continues Jacobson’s travels into the picaresque that lies behind the periurban doors of London. Funny and elegiac at once, Jacobson explores the world of a writer, Guy Ableman, that is visibly crumbling on all sides, a condition that he does his best to contend with by adapting to the times to be bigger, faster and better—writing to beat the market if not always the band. The change exhausts Ableman, but it pays off in the end, even if it finds him apologizing at times for moral shortcuts in his work along the way: “I had cheat a bit to get the Holocaust in, but a dream sequence will always make a chump of chronology.”
Read our recent interview with J.R. Moehringer about his acclaimed debut novel, 'Sutton.'
Yet Guy Ableman, our Everyman, endures. And Howard Jacobson thrives, a master of that old-fashioned thing called the comic novel, spruced up for the new century. Kirkus caught up with him at home in England to ask about his work.
You once called yourself “a Jewish Jane Austen.” Granted, “a man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has,” a lovely line of yours, has a nicely Austenian sense (and sensibility). Since your characters don’t usually turn up in manor houses or fret about marrying into society, what do you mean by that?
“How do you feel about being described as the English Philip Roth?” I was once asked. “Flattered,” I said, “but I am more accurately the Jewish Jane Austen.” A spontaneous, reactive quip, designed to release me back into English Literature—for I am more English than anything else—though I guess the “Jewish” didn’t exactly help drive that home. You’re right about manor houses, but if you hear Austenian sense (and sensibility) in my periods I’m happy, sentences being more important to me than setting or story. Jane Austen’s description of the novel in Northanger Abbey as a work in which “the greatest powers of the mind are displayed… the most thorough knowledge of human nature … the liveliest effusions of wit and humour” is one to which I enthusiastically subscribe. She is at her most serious when funny, and never light. May that be said of me.
The Finkler Question turns on the idea of what it means to be Jewish in a time when “the Holocaust had become negotiable,” as you put it. Do you think of yourself as a specifically Jewish writer? Perhaps better put, if Sholem Aleichem (or Philip Roth, for that matter) is at one end of the fulcrum, Isaac Babel in the middle, and Franz Kafka at the other end, where does your work fit into the great tradition of Jewish literature?
I see myself as first and foremost an English writer. The Jewish writers you mention matter to me, but Dickens has influenced me more, as have Doctor Johnson, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry James (who counts as English when it’s either that or being Jewish). That I often feel at war with English sensibility—in particular that over-refinement that makes the comedy of the grotesque, the obscene, the satirical, etc., such a trial for them—makes me no less an English writer. I recognize and do battle with that timidity in myself. Some of my novels are that battle. I like to think that the Jewishness of my subject matter, like the Jewish hyperbole and exuberant fatalism of my comedy, is my gift to the English novel. An addition rather than a departure.
Frank Ritz, of No More Mr Nice Guy, is a fellow who finds himself surrounded by “winking red and green lights … digitized all-knowingness, like the cabin of a jumbo jet.” He lives in a world of gadgetry and electronica. How about you? Are you a fan of e-readers, e-books, and RAM, or do you prefer an old-fashioned printed book?
I own a Kindle, occasionally use it and fully comprehend its virtues, but it doesn’t suit reading as I understand reading, which is a sometimes physical struggle with a book, whether as an expression of distaste for it or love. I have always marked books, bent pages, scrawled in margins, shoved pieces of paper between pages, taken notes on inside back covers, etc., and frankly don’t know how anyone reads otherwise. It’s a great pleasure, years later, to pull a novel from the shelf—remember shelves?—and reconnect with this physical evidence of the history of one’s reading it. So it isn’t only the sensuousness of the book I fear for, it’s the sensuousness of reading.
Many of your stories turn on miscommunications, or perhaps mismatched priorities, between men and women. Zoo Time adds chimps and other critters to the mix. Is Guy Ableman an alter ego of Howard Jacobson? Are there clefs to be found in your romans?
I probably find myself more interesting than I should. Call it solipsism if you must, but don’t call it vanity; I am not enamored of what I see when I look within. But there is nobody one knows better than oneself, and if one would be a student of “human nature,” the self is the best place to start. You’re in trouble, though, I accept, if that’s all the human nature you allow yourself to encounter.
Guy Ableman isn’t me. He’s reduced to writing sentimental pap, and so far I’ve been able to resist that. And I’ve never thought about having an affair with the mother of my wife. But I have burdened him with all I know of the indignities of the writing profession, while denying him—because Zoo Time doesn’t pretend to be a balanced novel—its privileges and satisfactions. He is worst-case writer working in worst-case situation, i.e., the dying of the word.
Worst-case or not, I concur with many of his prognostications. This is not a novel about the death of the novel. I happen to think the form is in good shape. But who in the future will care or know how to read it? Who will have the time? Who will have the education? Who, in an age of ideology, attitude, and blunt statement, will be able to get a joke, attend to tone, or remember what a work of the imagination is? Sounds gloomy, but it’s exhilarating to touch bottom, and only comedy can do it.