Illustration: Dave Anderson
Illustration: Dave Anderson
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Writing Jewish

How Sefton Goldberg saved my life

Howard Jacobson
September 05, 2019
Illustration: Dave Anderson
Illustration: Dave Anderson

I’d best begin by owning up to a lie I have been responsible for spreading about myself when explaining why I was such a late starter. It’s true that I wanted to write like late Henry James—very late Henry James—at an age when other boys with literary ambitions were trying Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald on for size, but it isn’t true that I wrote the following in my 14th year:

For Hugh St John Vereker the day had gone, all things considered, swimmingly—though he was himself no swimmer, not a man of water, truth to say, of any sort—well. He contemplated, in all their too subtle efflorescence, the gardens which the night before—was it only one night?—had borne mute witness to the first and so far only indiscretion of his young, and still all too beautifully untouched life.

I composed that fragment of an unfinished novel much later as a pastiche of a pastiche, a joke at the expense of the earlier me, though the years spent trying to write sentences I had no business trying to write, about matters of which I knew nothing, in flat refusal to confront matters of which I knew at least a little more, now strike me as too wasteful to be funny.

People who know I read English literature at Cambridge under F.R. Leavis assume that that was where it all started to go wrong, that’s if not writing novels when you’re 20 can be called “going wrong.” Leavis set a high and sometimes unforgiving standard as a critic all right, but it was because I was already an unforgiving and hypercritical boy that I wanted to be taught by him. Most of my fellow students were the same. We weren’t there to scribble. We were there to be discriminating. Which didn’t mean I was shutting the door on scribbling altogether

I had wanted to be a novelist from the moment I was old enough to know what a novel was, but it took me until I was almost 40 to write one. Aspiring to be Henry James had been only part of the problem. Dickens and Conrad had also blocked my way, no matter that all I knew of the sea was the crossing from Dover to Calais. D.H. Lawrence, too, in whose novels I was alone in discerning a wild humor. And that’s to say nothing of the European novelists I sought to emulate, in particular Stendhal, Tolstoy, and, in fraught moods, Dostoevsky in whose novels I was at least right to discern a wild humor.

But I don’t accept that Leavis inhibited creative genius. What he did was make us see what a rare thing creative genius was, and how it needed to be distinguished from creative mediocrity. He was not to be blamed if many of us came also to see, under his tuition, wherein we were deficient. Though it goes against the grain of “creative writing course” culture to say such a thing, the world is hardly the poorer for not being overrun by pygmy penmen. Besides, falling silent before great works is the best of all apprenticeships for a writer. Just because we didn’t emerge as fully formed George or T.S. Eliots from Leavis’ teaching didn’t mean we wouldn’t “produce” something of note later on. And if we didn’t, it was surely because we couldn’t.

I can’t leave it quite at that. There is, undoubtedly, a sort of reverence for great literature that will make all but the bravest, or the most foolhardy, morbidly reticent. And, whatever the arguments for diffidence, it can oppress you, as time passes, to feel that “an ox lies heavy on your tongue.” You write down words you think are as much your own as words ever can be, only to realize that it’s still Dickens and D.H. Lawrence—a queer concoction under any circumstances—talking through you. And it isn’t as though it takes you 500 pages of manuscript to discover that; it’s horridly evident before you’ve cleared the hurdle of the first sentence. Would that be all I’d achieve, then—a crammed folder of single pages that ended almost before they’d begun?

Meanwhile, time was running out. I ticked off the names in my calendar of late starters. Anthony Burgess. George Eliot. Conrad himself. The Marquis de Sade …

The discriminating reader—to disinter a phrase from 1960s Cambridge—will by now be asking whether there wasn’t some other obstruction to my finishing a page. Missing from my canon of dead weights is any writer with a Jewish name. It’s true there were not that many to reach for in my beloved 19th century. Disraeli, yes, but it was chiefly for his contribution to the “social novel” that I read him. Later English Jewish writers such as Israel Zangwill sat unread on my bookshelves, filed mentally as “peripheral.” As for the extraordinary flowering of Jewish literary culture in America that coincided with my Leavis discipleship, I was wilfully ignorant of it. A gentile friend recommended Henderson the Rain King, but I had a Dickens paper to prepare for—every novel, was the task I’d set myself, in a single term—so I had no spare reading time, and Henderson the Rain King hardly sounded Jewish anyway. In brief, it never crossed my mind to wonder whether there might be Jewish writers out there from whom I might pick up something—I still don’t know what the word for it would be—exemplary? Not how to part company from the non-Jewish greats, but how to coexist with them in full and cheerful knowledge of one’s difference.

And why was that?

The quickest answer is that I didn’t feel different. Or, more accurately, didn’t know I felt different.

How about: didn’t want to feel different?


Yes, yes, I see now that I was in flight from what made me different. The generalities of Jewish flight are common enough. Getting away is imprinted in our history and reprinted on our psychology. But we find our stories in the specifics. I was in flight very particularly from Jewish Manchester. Philip Roth found Jewish London at worst supine, at best underwhelming. I know of no report of his encountering the Jews of Manchester or even of his ever bothering to travel that far north. I hadn’t heard of Philip Roth when I left Manchester for Cambridge—at that time he had only published Goodbye, Columbus—but I knew what I thought about English Jews without him. Supine and underwhelming.

The difference was that I knew why. We had been expelled from England once and we didn’t want to blow it a second time. The first waves of Jewish immigrants to America found a malleable culture. We found closed doors and sealed windows. Very well. We were lucky to be here at all. We kept our heads down and stayed shtum.

A word or two about Jewish Manchester. Speaking roughly, there are two Jewish Manchesters. The first of any substance—first in the sense of earliest—is Germanic. Attracted by business opportunity and religious tolerance, well-educated German industrialists and scientists, a number of them Jewish, migrated to Manchester in the 19th century. It is no exaggeration to say they shaped the city’s cultural life, whether as philosophers, musicians, academics, benefactors. Without Charles Halle, born in Hagen in North Rhine-Westphalia in 1819, there’d have been no Halle Orchestra. By the mid-20th century many of the German Jewish migrants had acculturated so successfully that they were not to be distinguished from other members of the northern haute bourgeois—living to the south of the city in rural Cheshire, sporting names that concealed their places of birth and faith, and riding to hounds.

The next wave of Jews that broke on Manchester was quite different. My grandparents and great-grandparents arrived from Eastern Europe with few possessions and little money, not seeking business opportunity but sanctuary. By the time I was born they had been in Manchester half a century, and while some had prospered in commerce, show business, dentistry, or the law, the more common story was of modest industry, dutiful gratitude and not a little of the apprehension they’d brought with them. There had been good reason not to attract too much attention from the start, but after what had happened just a few miles across the Channel it made more sense than ever to be invisible. When the doorbell rang in our house, we jumped. Later we made jokes about it—I would tell friends that we hid under the table—but we still jumped the next time someone rang our bell.

Manchester had a distinct, abrasive character that was to the liking of the gloomily funny Poles and mistrustful, acerbic Lithuanians who made up this second Jewish community. A city of low clouds, incessant drizzle, and blunt manners, Manchester added salt to our stylized self-denigration. I liked being a Manchester Jew. I enjoyed our restless joking and the fact that Southerners were bamboozled by us. We were dryly matter-of-fact, unimpressionable, and had the strut of savages—a rough exoticism that was only to be eclipsed when Italians started to arrive in Manchester in the late 1950s, singing “Volare” and opening espresso bars.

But our bluntness was tacit admission that we knew our limits. We weren’t quite at the center of things. Our flat and sunless Manchester accents—imagine thick droplets of tepid rain falling into puddles of machine oil—betrayed our provinciality, and provinciality is the great dread of Jewish writers, even those who are yet to write anything. I didn’t change my name or try to alter my accent when I went to Cambridge. I didn’t conceal where I was from. But I was on a journey into another sort of Englishness. What that Englishness would comprise I didn’t know; but I knew what it wouldn’t. If I was going to make some contribution to the English novel I had to put the parochialism of the doubly ghettoed Jew—strapped into his musty tefillin and trapped in an uncouth industrial city—far behind me.

Inevitably, as it now seems to me, I overdid it. Not personally. If anything I played the Manchester card deliberately, roughing up the sensitive worlds of letters in which I moved after Cambridge and even, like many landsmen and chaverim before me, employing my Jewish way with words and arguments to complicate, befuddle, and sometimes disgust. But on the page I was still Hugh St John Vereker and remained Hugh St John Vereker until eventually a single paragraph of such dissembling could no longer fool even me.

I began reasonably well as an academic, lecturing at Sydney University and then tutoring for a while back in Cambridge, but didn’t take the necessary steps, or simply lacked the wherewithal, to progress further. In my 35th year I found myself lecturing in a polytechnic—originally an institute for technology—in a notably unattractive town in the West Midlands. I had by that time co-written and co-published a book on Shakespeare but that, if anything, only made me feel that my ambitions had floundered and that I was going in the wrong direction—worse, that I was going in no direction at all.

In a spirit of half-hysterical black mirth I began a novel that was nothing like any of the novels I’d imagined I would write. For the first time my subject was what lay before me—the polytechnic, my colleagues, English for business students, the dismal town, and a figure not entirely unlike my dismal self. Hugh St John Vereker-free, I got somewhere. Page followed page. And they were funny, I thought. Funny in a way I’d never tried to be as a writer, but as I’d been as a teacher and a man.

Yet still not funny enough. Something was missing from the comedy. The smell of blood and metaphysics. Some crowning humiliation that explained why my hero felt as preposterously suicidal as he did and, more than that, lifted him out of the dimension of mere self.

As yet he had only a provisional name. I can’t even remember what it was. The important thing was to keep it unassociated. Nothing Jamesian or Conradian. Nothing that sounded like Raskolnikov or Julien Sorel. A name with no literary baggage. But you can’t have an entirely baggageless hero. Without even a provisional name he could barely speak for the particular let alone the general. Then it came to me—the person washed up in a hell more provincial than Manchester, more out of the swim of things than I’d been in Cambridge, the splenetic, self-lacerating failure whose miseries I couldn’t adequately render until I’d plumbed the dankest depths of absurdism, was called Sefton Goldberg.

Sefton Goldberg. Not Sefton Hugh St John Goldberg, but simple Sefton Goldberg.

And he was born in a verbal afterbirth of the most disconsolate simplicity. “Being Jewish,” the phrase that bore him went, “Sefton Goldberg …”

That was that. I was to repeat the faux-naïve phrase again and again throughout the novel. “Being Jewish, Sefton Goldberg …” And on the wave of that deceptively innocent refrain the novel got itself written. Aiming for an assonance of demoralization in character and title, I called it Coming From Behind.

I think we’ve got the point by now that Sefton Goldberg is Jewish,” I remember some grudging reviewer writing. But the point was that the person who needed to get the point was me. Was I, despite myself, writing a Jewish novel? And if I was, why was I? I know the answer now. The idea that I’d put Jewish Manchester behind me was a fantasy. Cambridge hadn’t ironed out the moral convolutions, the dark self-denigrations, the destructive cleverness, the bloody provocations, that were native to me. Trying to express myself some other way—letting English sunlight into my prose (even an American version of English sunlight, a double fraud)—had proved impossible. Being Jewish, I had contradictions to resolve that necessitated my sending a far more fraught language—at once feckless and reverential—on a far more overwrought mission. And the unlikely captain of my tremulous craft, if only for this maiden voyage, was an unhappy, unsuccessful, thin-skinned (and yes, all right, overeroticized) teacher of English Literature called Sefton Goldberg.

Remember the critic Ba’al Makshoves, castigating the shtetl Jews of Mendele’s Yiddish novels for the obscure lives of repetitive ritual they consented to lead while all along believing themselves to be the Chosen. He could have been describing Sefton Goldberg—a self-appointed Parnassian Jew, destined by his birthright to achieve remarkable things, reduced to teaching The Golden Bowl to largely reluctant students of business in a West Midlands polytechnic. The polytechnic was his shtetl.

Well, he got me out of mine. You can’t stay as a teacher in an institution you’ve pilloried. I was up and, I dare say, running. I had put my Jewish voice into an English world that located it, on account of its unfamiliarity, as American. I was an English Woody Allen. The novelist and critic Malcolm Bradbury described the anger of Coming From Behind as having something of “the bellow of wrath”—a learned allusion one couldn’t be certain everyone picked up.

The bellowing or the wrathfulness were not to everybody’s liking. There was a code word for Jewish in polite English literary circles: “Noisy.” At that time “spare” was what everyone was after. Prose with few words and only the gentlest of inflections. I didn’t try. I hadn’t broken the ice in order to sink back under it again. But even after a handful of these “noisy” novels, Jewish Manchester still figured only sporadically. Being Jewish, the world didn’t look to me quite as it did to people who weren’t Jewish, and if I saw differently I had to use words differently. But the words made their escape before I did. England still held me.

I envied Martin Amis having Kingsley Amis for a father and imagined their conversations about literature in Kingsley’s oak-paneled study. That I know of, my father never read a book. He drove taxis, ran a market stall, and was a children’s magician. Uncle Max. He put together a six-page pamphlet on the art of magic once and presented it to me with the words, “See—you aren’t the only writer in the family.” It took me too long to realize that there were reasons why Martin Amis might envy me. It doesn’t fall to every would-be novelist to have a father who is a member of The Magic Circle and knows how to twist colored balloons into the shapes of giraffes and kangaroos.

He danced a better kazatsky than I bet Kingsley Amis could. At ruby weddings he led his sisters in a hokey cokey that sometimes snaked out into the street. He liked performing strongman stunts such as bending a 6-inch nail, tearing a Manchester telephone directory in half, and lifting up a dining chair by one leg, on occasions with one or other of his sisters sitting in it. I wouldn’t have had that had Henry James been my father, and it beat being a Nottinghamshire coalminer’s son, too.

I was never going to join in a hokey cokey, but little by little I relinquished my squeamishness. The world I’d grown up in was the world it was time I wrote about. If there was a sense of duty involved, it wasn’t duty to Jewish Manchester or my father’s Jewish carnivalesque, it was duty to myself. I’m not convinced I’ve fully let go of the other stuff yet. “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.” That, of course, is the second sentence of The Adventures of Augie March. Not my favorite Bellow. Too noisy for me. But he’s right about suppression. You can’t half censor yourself.

For me, things have started to go in the other direction. If there isn’t a line of Jewishness somewhere in the novel I’m writing—some lineage I can follow or be led by, however faint—I fear I have gone back into the suppression business. A thread of Jewishness runs through my latest novel, Live a Little. I couldn’t have said what that thread was doing there until a well-educated Orthodox friend pulled at it and unraveled a complex story of Jewish remembering—exquisite, sacred, self-punishing remembering—which explains what interested me in a drama of not-forgetting in the first place. As a consequence, he describes a more searching novel of Hebraism than I knew I was writing. It would seem that the Jew I once wouldn’t let in is now the Jew I cannot keep out.

Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

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