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Jane’s Heir

Taking his comedic cues from the Victorian tradition, Howard Jacobson invokes an even older one to parse his pugnacity and masochistic itch.

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Howard Jacobson’s 1999 autobiographical novel The Mighty Walzer, about a teenage ping-pong whiz, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for best comic novel of the year. His seventh novel, The Making of Henry, hits U.S. bookstores as a paperback original this month. Where Oliver Walzer takes refuge from the world by throwing away his talent and burrowing into his clique of Jewish buddies, Henry Nagle’s talent is simply sealing himself off from the world and trying to ignore the fact of death. Always “expecting a blow, not a windfall,” Henry meets a waitress and finds it may be time to regroup. The Manchester-born Jacobson, who has also written four works of nonfiction and contributes a weekly column to the London Independent, talks about the art of the Jewish joke and why his peers in America have it easy.

Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson

Is there a relationship between Oliver Walzer and Henry Nagle?

Both are related to me. The kind of person I like to write about, he’s a man, and has troubles with being a man. Hasn’t found anything easy, wonders if his life would’ve been better if he’d been clever. He adores women, and is sometimes angry that he’s spent too much time wanting women. Someone who has a voice—a voice is very important to me.

They’re both Jewish. You’ve written about a Jew having a taste for “oversubtlety and quibbling.” How do you know you’re Jewish?

I’m not by any means conventionally Jewish. I don’t go to shul. What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence. I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past. I don’t know what kind of trouble this gets somebody into, a disputatious mind. What a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that’s what shapes the Jewish sense of humor, that’s what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness.

Can writing be Jewish?

This is not watertight, of course. You don’t have to set a story in a shtetl. It’s about the quality of the intelligence, in the errand the intelligence is on. I’m talking about the Jewish male writer and Jewish female writer. A strong, disputatious voice. You feel you’re listening to ethical argumentativeness that reminds you of the Talmud—pedantic disputatiousness. Jews love the meaning of language. They’re seeking clarity, seeking to make a law, make a distinction between a law—how does this thing differ from that thing. For a Jew, language is always at the service of intelligence.

You also have notions about how Jews use comedy.

It’s partly to do with the seriousness of the Jewish imagination, which can turn a joke against itself. Jewish writers are sadistic toward their readers, not only Jewish readers. It’s a masochistic strategy. The masochist accepts whatever criticism is made of him. He not only accepts it but gets there first. You tell a joke against yourself, you’ve achieved an intellectual moral superiority. We make more fun of ourselves than anybody else could. In the act of doing that, we appear to be on the back foot but we’re winning. The masochist then becomes a sadist, so they say, having shown himself to be superior and quicker—the joke then turned against the person listening—I think that’s how Jewish jokes work.

This is the only area in which you can say, “Only a Jew can do this.” Not every Jew can tell a Jewish joke. You need tenacity, patience, cruelty, intelligence, timing. A Gentile could have any one of them.

And the Jewish novel?

When you think of the Jewish novel, you think of the patriarchal voice, the voice of demanding, the buttonholing voice. Jewish women haven’t aspired to write this kind of novel—Doctorow, Delmore Schwartz. Racy, obscene. It is like a male club. Women don’t like doing giant monologues. A woman struggles against the lawmaker who would bind her, restrain her, confine her.

Why does this make me think of Oliver cutting up photos of his Polish grandmother and pasting her head on another body. Does he fear women?

What I thought was how the women of his family had crept into his sexuality. He has an excessive love for them—whatever you say about lawmaking voice, you have to take into account his reverence, his crippled devotion to his mother and grandmother and aunties—cutting them up to include them in his adolescent sexual life.

Is this cutting anti-woman?

He’s cutting them out of family life, so he can include a part of them in the ordinary porno life of a child. I don’t think it’s mutilation.

Do you keep an eye out for female Jewish writers?

An invidious question. I know and like Bernice Rubens and Linda Grant, both of whom write well, but I can’t say I know what’s going on.

What is it like to be Jewish writer in England?

You do feel you’re fighting for your space. I feel in a hurry all the time, trying to get to the front of the queue. If I don’t elbow my way, I won’t get there. I feel that an American Jewish writer feels more leisure. I don’t suffer as a Jewish writer. They read me, but I feel they don’t always get it. They’re bemused by the comedy and then they worry about it. And then if it’s screamingly funny, they think it’s not as serious as it should be. I think a Jew knows that very funny is very serious. It’s part of my errand, something I feel I have to propagandize.

Do you consider yourself a comic writer?

As long as it means I’m a serious writer. Comedy is a very important part of what I do. I sometimes say I’m a Jewish Jane Austen.

Who are your literary heroes?

I love the comedy of Dickens and Thackeray and Austen. American Jewish writers are rooted in the European tradition—Dostoevsky, Kakfa, Babel. I like 19th-century English writers in whom one hears the 18th century. I am a great admirer of 18th-century prose. I like the sonorousness and sententiousness. I like the booming ethical seriousness, shot through with wit and satire. I wish it were possible today to write as well as Dickens and still be a popular writer. But it’s over. Partly the fault of the serious writer, who sees himself occupying a different role, but also the fault of the general readership which no longer has an ear. I wonder why I don’t have readers in America, maybe this is why.

You don’t have readers in America?

It turns out that the specifics of my English Jewish voice can be problematic. In the Land of Oz—my fourth book, a travel book—nobody in America would publish it. They thought it was too ironical. I talk about a Jewish sense of humor, but if you add to it an English sense of humor, it’s a bewildering mix.

Why wasn’t The Mighty Walzer published here?

The response from American publishers was that the very thing that made it good—the evocation of Jewish boys in Manchester growing up in 1950s—made it too foreign. The feeling I got from American publishers is they felt interest in ethnic life had passed. Augie March had already covered it. I didn’t touch a contemporary nerve.

Over here, we hadn’t done that, written about Jewish life overtly, the actual day-to-day life in England, the feel and touch. We have not had that flowering that you’ve had with Bellow, Roth, Mailer, the Catch-22 man. We have Jewish writers but they’re embarrassed about overtly Jewish themes, not wanting to appear conspicuously Jewish for fear it will make them look provincial.

Provincial?

Not possessed of the center of English culture. Jewishness is not at the heart of English culture. This is one of the things cultured Jews in England feel every time we write or make a play or music. But we’re not disrespected or disregarded. American culture is already Jewish culture. It’s yours, it’s ours. American Jews have altered the complexion of the American language. So when a Jew writes in American, he’s already writing something which is Jewish. Here, we’re still making space for ourselves.

How does your childhood compare with Oliver Walzer’s?

I was a shy boy, became a novelist because I was afraid of the world and wanted to remake it. I played table tennis, some bars and coffee bars, and Manchester was like the second city, second to London. But every single of one of us, none of us ever went back there. We went to London. At school we tried to get out of gym. Where we went to school we were the smart ones. We picked up girls, because I got over my shyness around 16, and then we went to discos. And because we were Jewish boys, we looked a little different. It gave us cachet. Then the Italians came.

Tell me about your father’s business. It’s like Oliver’s father’s.

He was a pitcher, like a mock auctioneer. He was up on high on the van. My job was to take things out into the crowd and collect money, and I was embarrassed by that. By the time I was 16 or 17, I was starting to enjoy it. We’d drive off to different towns and meet girls in Nottingham and Sheffield. Sometimes we had a big van, sometimes a small van. At 11 o’clock at night, I’d drive around and pick up girls—what a boy’s life was meant to be.

When you toured the United States for Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews, did anything remind you of growing up in England?

L.A., around Pico Boulevard, reminded me a bit of Prestwich, the Jewish suburb of Manchester where I grew up: a similar parochialism invigorated by swagger. The Catskills, or what was left of them, I loved—nothing in my experience prepared me for those hotels. Partly size, partly the sentimentality—in the Catskills every Jewish man seemed to dote on his wife and offspring—and partly the confidence. Jewish life over here was, and still is, much more circumspect. We are still not sure whether the non-Jews are ready for us yet.

Are your characters ever accused of being woefully self-absorbed?

Yeah. I don’t know about woeful. There need be no conflict between self-absorption and creativity. You can newly create the world even though you may be the center of it. The hero of the most self-absorbed novel ever written—Ulysses, one day inside one man’s head—was Jewish. If you are going to stay inside a head, you’re better it being a Jewish head you’re staying inside. More moral to-ing and fro-ing there than anywhere.

In The Making of Henry, you write: “In America the Jews had taken on a version of the national identity, had made the American cause their own, had even shaped it.”

I simply mean that because of the relative newness of America, Jews were able to feel they had a hand in the founding of the culture, the creation of the language and the sensibility. There are many ways in which America is Jewish. You cannot say that of England. Here, we hang on to the edges more. The thing we mean by Englishness, and to which we seek to make our contribution, long predates us. It tolerates us, yes, and makes a little room for us. But it is its own thing and sometimes, not least because we English Jews are few in number, intimidates us. English Jews make a huge contribution to the cultural life of this country, but rarely as Jews, rarely making overt reference to their Jewishness. Implicitly, we feel we shouldn’t. And our highest achievement is to pass as English.

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Jane’s Heir

Taking his comedic cues from the Victorian tradition, Howard Jacobson invokes an even older one to parse his pugnacity and masochistic itch.

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