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Interview: Declan Burke
“I could never have written a book about the ‘agonies’ of writing,” says Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Finkler Question. “I’ve never wanted to write a novel about a novelist, it’s just a thing you don’t do.”
Except Jacobson’s new novel, Zoo Time, is a book about an author, Guy Ableman, who flails around in failure, wallowing in self-disgust as he pursues an affair with his mother-in-law.
Jacobson smiles and shrugs. “I thought I’d allow myself to write about a novelist,” he says, “so long as it’s absolutely not taking the art of novel writing seriously.
“The first few lines set the tone, where the comedy is screwed just beyond the likely. The shooting of the publisher, for me, is the one that sets the tone. It says, ‘Look, we’re not taking this tragically — a publisher shoots himself and we’re all laughing.’ So that’s the kind of novel it is.”
Jacobson is wonderfully engaging, as erudite as he is crude, as funny about his foibles as he is scathing about contemporary culture.
Jacobson was born in 1942, but could pass for a man 15 years younger. He is vital and passionate. The author of 12 novels and five books of non-fiction, including criticism, some an exploration of his Jewish heritage and culture, his gruffness gives him the presence of a thoughtful bear, albeit one with a strong Lancashire accent.
Winning the Booker Prize has not mellowed him, nor changed his unfashionable view — which gets hilarious treatment in Zoo Time — that intelligent reading is a dying art.
“If you’ve ever been invited to a book club reading,” he says, “you’ll have encountered this notion about the hero being ‘likeable’. People saying that they can’t identify with the hero. Likeability?” He rears back, as if startled. “What is this? Where did this come from? I don’t remember this when I was first writing books.
“Certainly, when I was a young man reading books, ‘likeability’ was not a criterion. Or ‘identifiability’. In fact, non-identifiabilty was a criterion. ‘I am not Raskolnikov, therefore I am interested in Raskolnikov.’ You used to read to experience something that was not you. Now it’s a complaint.”
At Cambridge, Jacobson studied under the renowned literary critic FR Leavis. Are readers sufficiently educated or is the notion elitist?
“It is a valid question,” he says. “There are statistics you can quote to show that reading has never been more vibrant. More books, more novels than ever were published last year, but what were they?
“You get into elitism in the end, whether you like it or not, because you do have to say, ‘I do not see the virtue in anybody reading 50 Shades of Grey’. There is no virtue in that. A lot of women who shouldn’t be are defending that book on the grounds that it empowers women. Nonsense. It doesn’t empower a single woman to read a stupid book and not acknowledge that it’s stupid.”
Intellectual rigour is as important to Jacobson as his Jewishness. When it comes to the arts, Jacobson has long since embraced his heritage. Once described as “the English Philip Roth”, Jacobson retorted that he was “the Jewish Jane Austen”.
Intended as a throwaway remark, delivered at a literary festival, the line is, in retrospect, as important in terms of its humour as it was in referencing his devotion to Austen.
“Jewish humour is highly, highly self-conscious and highly wrought,” he says, “always curling in on itself. But it’s also blacker than anyone else’s sense of humour. There’s no mistaking in Jewish humour that life is bleak.
“Jews make jokes because life isn’t funny. So the joke is, in fact, not truly redemptive. There is no light at the end of this joke. We do not feel that we laugh ourselves into good, benign health, because there is no such state. That’s the kind of Jewish humour I like to write — it’s black as hell.”
That mood pervaded his Booker Prize winner The Finkler Question, which Jacobson says was misread by the critics, in terms of its tone, at least. “People said it was the first comic novel to win the Booker Prize since way back when, but it wasn’t even a comic novel,” he says. “It was sad, it was melancholic. The word ‘plangent’ was being kicked around.
“And I thought, with Zoo Time, I don’t want to sit on my hands. I want a book where every joke I’ve got in me to make I will make. And that’s what this is.”
The post-dated punchline is that the writing of Zoo Time, a tale of a failing writer mired in self-doubt, was interrupted by the announcement that Jacobson had won the Booker Prize.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to finish it,” he says, “and it’s a gag I make now, that while I was writing this I was laughing my head off, feeling low and thinking, ‘This is really bloody good.’ And then, y’know, I win the Man Booker Prize and I have to ask, ‘Can I go back to writing about failure after this? Will the great irony be that the greatest novel I was ever going to write was screwed by the Man Booker Prize’? But, then, it was also bitterly funny that I was able to get back to this book after a few months, once there was time, because, retrospectively people would say, ‘You can’t write that now, you’re a winner’. And I said, ‘Do you really think I can’t remember how it felt to fail?’ I am a person for whom retrospective rage and bitterness is very close to the surface. So it wasn’t hard to access that feeling of failure at all.”
Jacobson approves of Samuel Beckett’s notion that in life, as in writing, we fail, fail again, fail better.
“Every successful writer has an unsuccessful writer inside,” says Jacobson. “He either begins that way or winds down that way. And if you have any wit as a writer, you think every day, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.”
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