The Plot Against England
Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson talks about English anti-Semitism, ping-pong, and the seriousness of Jewish jokes
Can someone who actually makes you laugh win the Man Booker Prize? I don’t know how good I am, that’s not for me to say. But I can say I am as serious as anybody else. I am serious in my intentions as anybody.
We say in America you’re supposed to “dress British and think Yiddish.”
[Laughs.] That’s good. I don’t know the expression. That’s good.
How did you first meet ping-pong champ Marty Reisman, the subject of the profile Tablet Magazine is publishing today?
I was in Manchester, my hometown, where my novel The Mighty Walzer, which came out 10 years ago, is set. The World Table Tennis Championships were being held there, which was very fortuitous for me. I kept running into people I’d not played with or seen for 40 years, and when table tennis players meet after 40 years, they don’t say, “Hello how are you?”; they say “God, that point you won, 22, 20 years ago, that was amazing.” So, I was wandering around enjoying all that, and met a guy, a very good player who had played for England and lived in Manchester, and he introduced me to Marty Reisman. He said, “This is the great Marty Reisman.” I’d read of Marty Reisman, and even seen some film footage of Marty Reisman, and he was a table tennis hero, so to meet Marty Reisman was fantastic. To see him play was thrilling. And then I thought, it would be really fun to write about him.
Are you any good at ping-pong?
I was a very good junior player. I was in the top 10 junior players of England, and I thought I would play for England as a junior player, but I just missed out. I used to play for Manchester and my county, and I played for Cambridge and all that, but I never made it as a grown-up player, because I lost interest, really. I wasn’t good enough. But I’m good enough to be able to stand at a table and get back 10 of Marty Reisman’s smashes, until he’s decided I won’t, and then, that’s that.
I’m tempted to take The Mighty Walzer, which is about a ping-pong player, as a reflection of your own history in the sport.
I dreamed of being a great table tennis player. And was good enough to have a bit of a life as a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old boy. That was what I did. I wandered around and I played table tennis, not international table tennis, but county table tennis, city table tennis, city-to-city table tennis, and it was my whole life, and it mattered. And when you meet someone like Marty, of course, you meet someone for whom it’s mattered but it didn’t stop mattering, and that’s what’s wonderful about him, he didn’t stop. For most of us it’s 16, 17—it’s girls, it stops. It still hasn’t stopped for Marty.
The other person I met when I played with him in New York—this now is years ago—was Dick Miles, who I talk about in the piece. Did you know Dick Miles has written a novel? Dick Miles has written a novel and it’s very good. I mean really good. Witty and sexy and atmospheric.
What are the deeper connections between ping-pong and literature?
I think in America, literature and sport are more associated with each other. You think of some of the great baseball novels like The Natural, Malamud’s novel, but in England sport and writing don’t mix. Cricket a little bit, maybe. But a lot of people who write play table tennis, and a lot of the people who play table tennis write. I think it is to do with the quiet introspective nature of the game. You’re obviously an indoor person if you write, unless you’re Hemingway. And you’re certainly an indoor person if you play table tennis. You need to be fit. When I played table tennis, I trained like an athlete. People couldn’t believe their eyes: There was me, running down the street in a track suit, skipping and training like a boxer.
And it goes with wryness, shyness, quietude. Not that any of those things are true of Marty. He’s the least characteristic table tennis player I’ve known, which is what makes him so wonderful. He brought showmanship into table tennis, and there’s very rarely any showmanship. Dick Miles was a great table tennis player and he went everywhere with a copy of Ulysses, apparently. You can imagine Marty staring at the copy of Ulysses and wondering, “What the hell?”
And I should say, too, when we talk about writing and table tennis and how one moves from one into the other, that where I came from in Manchester, it was a very Jewish game. Every Jewish boy I knew played table tennis, some better than others, me better than most. But everyone played table tennis. It was just something that we did. Our mothers liked it. I’ve made this joke a million times, but it’s true: Our mothers liked us to play table tennis, because they felt we wouldn’t get injured. My mother didn’t like the idea of my being out there on frozen cold playing fields in winter in northern England, kicking balls around. Cricket bats and balls are dangerous. Table tennis, that seemed safe.
Is it fair to say that the Jews dominated 20th-century ping-pong until they were bested by the Chinese?
It’s Austro-Hungary, that’s where. Austro-Hungary would be the perfect place for table tennis, these melancholy deracinated men, with a wry sense of the ridiculous. Philosophical, pessimistic, the game suited them. The clever, the quick-witted, the game suited them perfectly. The majority of those people were Jews, but not all. I mean the great [Viktor] Barna wasn’t Jewish, was he? Berger was Jewish.
Altogether Jews have stopped playing table tennis, I think. When I went back to Manchester to research The Mighty Walzer and met Marty as the visitor there, I couldn’t find Jewish boys playing in large numbers. Certainly it was no longer a game that all Jews played. It was a game that poor Jews played. It was a working-class game. We were all still—our fathers were poor. Our fathers were market men, taxi drivers, small upholsterers, professional men. Their children went on, and our lot became much more professional, and now our children don’t play. They have more money and a more sophisticated sense of games. Some of them would even imitate the goyim and play football.
Another plot for one of your novels would be the Miliband story—Ed Miliband was just elected Labor party leader, beating out his older brother, David, among others. It just seems like—it’s biblical, the younger son taking the birthright of the older son.
I wrote it 20 years ago, nearly. I wrote a novel called The Very Model of a Man, which is the story of Cain and Abel, actually. I set it in the Bible times, which is why nobody reads it.
I am the oldest boy in my family, and I have intense sympathy for David Miliband. I actually rather like Ed Miliband, and for the country he might be better, but for the family, that’s quite a shocking thing he’s done. Shocking thing. I couldn’t have taken it. When my younger brother was born, I tell it a million ways and I tell it funny, but it was a terrible, terrible shock. I love my younger brother, we get along fine, we’ve gone in our own directions, he’s a painter, I’m a writer. But he stole my birthright! He did. He stole my mother’s love for a little while, he stole the love of my aunties, my grandma, everything. It’s a serious thing to lose that.
What about the idea that sometime in the near-medium future Britain will probably have a Jewish prime minister?
That will be something, won’t it? That really will be something. That could be a great thing. Of course let’s not forget we’ve already had a Jewish prime minister in Disraeli, even though he’d given up his Jewishness, or his Jewishness was given up for him by his father at birth. He was still referred to as a Jew and stood for Jewish things.
I’d love for it to happen. I think every Jew would love it to happen. It could backfire. The interesting thing is how little—and this is what gives me pause around the whole anti-Semitic business in this country. Gentiles in this country don’t seem to give a damn about the Milibands. I know that other journalists who are Jewish can’t stop talking about the Milibands being Jewish. I tell you something, half the people in England, they wouldn’t know.
So, then that asks the question: Is this whole bloody thing brewed up in the Jewish imagination? It isn’t that we don’t have enemies enough. Are we now so conscious of the whole damn thing that in their absence we create them? It’s a proper question to ask, anyway.
That’s what makes it seem like it would be a perfect plot for one of your novels.
Actually, that would be a good one, do it the Philip Roth way, you know one of those good Roth novels in which he goes bad. The Plot Against America. The Plot Against England and set it forward—hey, you’ve given me an idea!
All the best with Booker Prize.
It’s a long shot.
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