Howard Jacobson: Senescence and Sensibility
Howard Jacobson is now a pillar of English literature and society. But this was never anything he would have predicted.
Howard Jacobson is a celebrated writer of fiction and nonfiction. Admired for their witty style, his novels have received the Wodehouse Prize for comic writing and the Man Booker Prize, among other plaudits.
Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, England. Educated at Cambridge University, he later taught English there and at the University of Sydney in Australia. His experiences as a lecturer at a polytechnic school in England inspired Coming from Behind (1983), his first of nearly twenty comic novels. Jacobson’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and this heritage plays a key role in much of his writing, as with The Finkler Question (2010), which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. His 2014 work J: A Novel was also shortlisted for this award.
Jacobson has also written for several television programs and published seven books of nonfiction. He regularly contributes commentary to the Guardian, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.
Howard Jacobson is a celebrated novelist and an iconic figure in his native England. A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, his writing is intelligent and self-assured. But as a young boy growing up in 1950s Manchester, Jacobson took much more after his reclusive housewife mother than his father, a natural showman.
Howard Jacobson: I think my father knew how to belong. He was a market man, he’d have gone on, he became a magician and he went on the stage, all he wanted to do was entertain and was a very bad magician but that didn’t bother him. He could stand on the stage and every trick could go wrong and it didn’t matter. He had the charm to pull it off. And my mother would be sitting watching him with her head in her hands and I would be sitting next to my mother with my head in my hands.
Jacobson continued to feel like an outsider throughout his young life, carrying a profound loneliness that would later fuel his work.
Jacobson: Your shyness is a kind of measure of the way you’re not getting on with everybody. You feel everybody is looking at you. You feel everybody sees your weakness. The earliest experience of the social world, for me, was that everybody else knew one another. When I went to university, and there we’re all freshmen together, they all seemed to know one another. Where had they met?
AJC: Well, was it private schools? It was Cambridge, so.
Jacobson: Yeah, but they weren’t— And there would have been colleges where that would have been the case, but we were doing English literature at Downing College under F.R. Leavis, which meant that we were very serious, working class, almost certainly working-class boys, and we’d all gone to small grammar schools. That was where we came from. So, it’d not have been that. And this has been a recurring metaphor for something throughout my life, that somewhere or other, people go, there’s a little meeting place where people go and they kind of form bonds and they change and I’ve not been there and I am outside it. How does it happen? Will death be like this? Will there be a little, you’ll go to hell or you’ll go to heaven and they’ll all know one another?
Much of Jacobson’s fiction grapples with the social anxieties of strong Jewish men, and though he says his characters are not exact representations of himself, they do share his tendency to question life, the world, the very meaning of existence. Take for instance his 2010 Man Booker Prize winner, The Finkler Question, in which three old friends navigate their lives in modern-day London. One wrestles with the significance of his Jewish identity, the sole gentile constantly feels like the odd one out, while the third reevaluates his faith as he mourns the death of his wife.
(Excerpt from The Finkler Question)
He wished he’d been a believer. He wished they both had, though perhaps one of them might have taken the other along. But belief had its underbelly of doubting, too. How could it be otherwise?
Though faith is a recurring theme in Jacobson’s novels, he has never subscribed to any rigid set of beliefs.
Jacobson: I was quite interested in being Jewish, but not for one moment did I or any of my friends buy into the religious part. I never bought into politics. I’ve never believed in anything in that sense, which doesn’t mean I disbelieve in anything, but in the practice of that skepticism, you do feel very free and clean and you feel your breathing, you’re on the heights. Skepticism is a high place to be. I am not at the mercy of any ideology or belief, and therefore I cannot be hurled upon the rocks of disappointment.
A skeptic like Jacobson might consider himself to be above the banality of the party political. Instead he applies his sharp critical perspectives in essays for The Guardian, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, among others. His latest book, 2019’s Live a Little, takes a new, sweeter approach, exploring the relationship between a man and a woman in the autumn of their lives. She suffers from memory loss, he can’t let go of the past.
Jacobson: Accidents bring them together. So, it starts to become really, for me, a very warm and sentimental story about two people in their 90s who realize what they can give each other. She who can’t remember and he who can’t forget can fill in many of the gaps, or soothe many of the pains. And it’s about each doing that for the other.
(Excerpt from Live a Little)
“Such powers of recall you have,” she says. “You are welcome to them.” “That’s a tactless thing to say to someone who can’t plug the holes in her memory fast enough.” “Don’t wish away the most precious thing you have.” “What if it doesn’t feel precious to me? “Then you’re a fool.”
Today, Howard Jacobson is a bona fide literary celebrity, and although he now seems comfortable in the public eye, he admits he hasn’t completely left his childhood insecurities behind.
Jacobson: My wife thinks I’m an obsessive party-goer and that I love going to parties. And I do love going out to parties. Maybe without even thinking about it, I like it because I’m being my father. But it wouldn’t take much, it wouldn’t take much, if someone were not to come up and talk to me, the nice thing about being well-known is that people come up and talk to me, so as a shy boy who wouldn’t know how to go up and talk to other people, that’s now overcome, they come up and talk to me. But I guess if I was to stand in a party for 10 minutes and no one were to come up and talk to me, I would feel all the old feelings would come flooding back. I don’t belong here, I don’t belong anywhere. We perform balancing acts.
Howard Jacobson has walked this tightrope for a lifetime, and though he is, in truth, now part of the establishment, for the sake of his literature, part of him must forever remain an outsider.