Jaipur: “I don’t know why anyone who isn’t Jewish bothers to write a novel,” roared Howard Jacobson over the crowd, sitting in somewhat baffled rapture under a darkening sky on Friday evening at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival. A few minutes later, another exclamation: “I’m talking about the Jewish joke that only a Jew can make, ‘cos only Jews have suffered sufficiently to understand jokes.”
One could be forgiven, on the basis of his brash panelist persona, for thinking Jacobson rather an unreasonable man, but his outbursts were made with such an evident hyperbolic delight that what might have been unbearably bombastic became oddly charming. The Jaipur audience certainly seemed to think so, applauding the author wildly.
Either way, the following day in an interview at his hotel, Jacobson delivered a more nuanced version of his argument. Asked about the Jews-as-the-only-joke-makers line he smiled, “It’s a very particular kind of comedy. Of course you don’t have to be a Jew to be funny but Jews make the best jokes because Jews know that life is not funny. There’s a kind of absolute hellishness to Jewish comedy.” The point has been made before, but Jacobson knows more than most about the intricacies of that particularly dark brand of black humour. His dozen novels are redolent with it and his work of non-fiction, Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime, explores the origins, ingredients and uses of comedy, including the mordant.
When Jacobson’s 2010 novel The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize, no one was more surprised than he that a comic novel was picked by the panel of five judges, he said. “The literary world can’t stand comedy because it’s composed of very fragile people,” he said. “A lot of people are frightened of it because it causes offence and it’s very divisive. The fact that The Finkler Question won the Booker astonishes me to this day and will astonish me to the day I die. We (in the UK) live in a culture where the comedian is a hero — they make fortunes — but not in literature.”
The preoccupation of Jewish humour, according to Jacobson, is a perpetual sense of foreboding and a simultaneous worrying about the past (“Not knowing what tense you’re in is very Jewish,”).
The opening line of The Finkler Question is ‘He should have seen it coming.’
Jacobson explains his habit of continually anticipating the worst as almost a moral obligation. “You feel you owe it to yourself to expect something terrible to happen,” he said. “Jews are more morbid, and we carry a consciousness of death. I do. I think about death every day, and when I don’t think about it I suddenly remember, ‘God. I haven’t been thinking about death for a few days, it’s irresponsible, it’s not adult!”
As has been amply chronicled, Howard Jacobson gets angry a lot. The current state of British publishing, the overwhelming popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, that young people aren’t interested in reading and substandard teaching in Britain’s schools all make him articulate with rage. The irritation affects him physically; it makes him unsettled, he fidgets on his chair and scowls at the horizon, he seems to hold it in his hands.
He derides, principally among his reviewers, politically correct males: “the quivering boys, worrying for women, worrying for Jews.” His 2012 novel Zoo Time takes aim at the publishing industry, declining levels of literacy, Amazon, the Kindle. Its protagonist is a failed writer: “He is not me. I invented him to have the opportunity to go through all this stuff.”
Jacobson’s experiences in India (it is his first trip but not his last he says) may have highlighted the problem at home. By contrast with their counterparts in the UK, he said, the students at the Jaipur Lit Fest show an extraordinary interest and excitement about books: “A13-year -old kid came up to me and said, ‘The Finkler Question made me cry, I know the last lines by heart.’ That would be nice from anyone, but a from a child it’s amazing. In the UK that would never happen. I’ve never seen a child read a book in the UK, and if they do they’re not allowed to tell anybody. It’s just a ruined generation.”
Despite his exaggerated irascibility, there is something genuinely pained about Jacobson’s sense of disillusionment. “When I was a 15-year-old boy,” he reflects, smiling ruefully, “I wandered around with a copy of (the D. H. Lawrence novel) Women in Love in my pocket because I thought that would make girls fall in love with me. I really thought that.”
At Friday night’s panel on the Jewish novel, Jacobson claimed that the best way to write fiction was from the position of an outsider or an alien. “The essence of being Jewish is to be in exile,” he said. He also described the English countryside as being saturated by Christianity and aimed a barbed remark at fellow panelist Russian-American author Gary Shteyngart for being an American Jew in the cradle of Manhattan’s Jewish literacy scene, and therefore unable to understand what it meant to be different in the same way he did. “American Jews have no experience of a pogrom,” he said the following day. “I used to long to be an American Jew. I had this fantasy that if I lived in Manhattan I would be at home. Now I love being different.”
There are aspects of his Britishness to which the author remains loyal, he said. “I feel British and I champion Jane Austen, Dr. Johnson (Samuel), George Eliot. They are my heroes. For me, these things are important.” Jacobson was brought up in Manchester, the son of a market tradesman, and spent his youth “hanging around with the boys on the market.” He went on to study English Literature at Downing College, Cambridge, under the scholar F.R. Leavis, an experience that exacerbated his sense of isolation.
“I hated Cambridge. I went shy. I messed about. I didn’t do Footlights. I didn’t write for Granta. I just wandered around like a bad spirit smoking and looking for girls – but in all the wrong places – feeling very, very Jewish. One of my tutors was a Medievalist scholar and I saw myself in the reflection of his eyes, and I saw a devil -- hooked nose, black eyes.” He recoils in remembered horror and adds, “All in my head!”
Whether imagined or not, one effect of his isolation was that it delayed Jacobson in his search to find a narrative voice, he said. “It took me a long time to be a novelist, I wanted to write about country houses and manners, I grew up on that.” The reason? “Snobbery. perhaps, a bit of anti Jewishness in me – get rid of it. It was only with my Manchester voice that I succeeded.”
Jacobson’s first novel, published when he was 40 in 1983, was a campus comedy based on his experiences teaching in a dismal Wolverhampton comprehensive school. The novel he is currently working on is very different, he said, reluctant to give away details because “it’s bad luck.”
“It’s a dystopian novel,” he said. “Zoo Time is too but it’s tomorrow. This is many years hence and it’s a more melancholy book about remembering. It’s wistful, a love story.” Remembering has been the central theme of another of his novels, 2006’s Kalooki Nights, and it is a motif to which Jacobson continually returns.
“There’s a line in Shoah, (a 1985 French documentary film directed by Claude Lanzmann). It’s hours of people talking about the Holocaust -- it’s not fun -- one person says, ‘If you licked my heart, you would die of the poison in it.’ You go on remembering like that and the heart becomes a poisonous object.”
Ineluctably, Jacobson returns to his theme: “We are a remembering people and what we remember is shit happening. With Jews it’s always ‘They didn’t get us that time.’ But they might the next.”