Howard's beginning
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Howard's beginning

Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker prize this week. It may finally bring the author the mass following that has eluded him so far. Soumya Bhattacharya writes.

books Updated: Oct 16, 2010 22:42 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times

Howard Jacobson has lost count of the number of interviews he has given since winning the Man Booker Prize on the night of October 12.

"It seems as though I am in a groove, as if I am on a train of interviews that keeps moving," he says down a sometimes-patchy phone line from London.

All interviews a writer gives after winning a big award are, in many ways, identical. They follow a particular template — because all interviewers want to know the same things.

So I first ask him which is the one question that he hasn't been asked, and wished he had been.

"Oh, that's a good one. I haven't been asked that before certainly." He chortles.

"But, hmm, let me think… Well, given my education in Cambridge and my being a disciple of FR Leavis [Cambridge don and an evangelist of The Great English Novel and the canon], I haven't ever been asked how I manage to accommodate myself to the kind of writing I do."

The funny thing is that he almost managed to not accommodate himself.

"It was partly an effect of that kind of education that you felt you oughtn't to write, really, because you were going to fall so far short of the iconic figures," he has said previously.

The conflict between the desire of always wanting to be a writer and the anxiety about the kind of writing he would do delayed the start of Jacobson's literary career.

After Cambridge, he taught, and published a critical study of Shakespeare. Finally, he stopped being his biggest discourager.

His first novel, Coming From Behind, with a Jewish hero who tries to write a study of failure, appeared in 1983. Jacobson was 41 at the time.

Over the next 27 years, Jacobson has published ten more novels, the latest being The Finkler Question, which has — echo the title of his first — come from behind and won the Man Booker contrary to everyone's — including his own — expectations.

Jacobson — who, at 68, is the oldest winner, after William Golding, of the prize — has always had a truly loyal band of admirers, but that band has not been as large as it ought to have been. The Man Booker will change that, surely?

"You see, I do a lot of things: I write a column, I do an awful lot of TV. I have to do these things because I haven't made enough money from my writing. But I like doing them, and I think I shall continue doing them. The main thing is that the prize will give me readers. I have been losing readers over the years. And there is nothing a writer wants more than to be read."

Jonathan Cape, the publisher from whom he switched to Bloomsbury for The Finkler Question, is reissuing his backlist. So even the non-Man Booker stuff will now reach a wider audience.

This business about his not having a large audience is a travesty of justice, a mockery made all the more laughable given that Jacobson has always considered being entertaining a top priority.

His delightful, catch-by-the-throat-and-don't-let-go sentences ("I love the overgrown jungle of prose, I love sentences that swirl, I hate books that are like manicured lawns"), his mastery of the hyperbole ("I do Jewish hyperbole plus Dickensian hyperbole"), his compassion and humanity, his instinctive sense of how tragedy is merely a beat away from comedy and his very funny, very frequent and very clever jokes make him a top-quality entertainer. Only, he is more Brahms than Britney.

It's a fallacy to pigeonhole Jacobson.

He isn't a "comic novelist". He has written persuasively about how, because the origins of the novel are in Cervantes and Rabelais, the novel is meant to be funny; how, unless it is funny, it isn't doing its job. He isn't an "English Philip Roth", as he is lazily called. And although he says he finds "Austen very funny and very cruel", he isn't really, as he said with a sense of irony, a "Jewish Jane Austen".

He finds himself closest to Dickens.

"I am much more Dickens than Roth. There is that Dickens strand of writing in me, that sense of loving the vitality of life lived. But the other strand of my literary lineage comes from Dr Johnson, Austen, George Eliot, down to FR Leavis."

Read carefully, and you will see how The Finkler Question exemplifies all this. It is a novel about bereavement and thwarted hopes, about Jewishness and male rivalry, concerning three old friends of whom two have recently been widowed. It reprises the tropes much loved by Jacobson's admirers. But there is something else going on here.

The sense of how comedy can so easily elide into tragedy, of the fact that those two things are often so close as to be nearly indistinguishable, is very pronounced.

"Yes, I had the courage to be more tragic in this book," Jacobson says. "It's a very mature book. I will look back on it as my most confident book."

What will he now look forward to? He has been writing a novel (he thinks it is really, really, funny) about the death of the word, about the writer and the death of his world. He has done 65,000 words of it. But he says he will keep it aside for a while now.

"It was about failure. But at the moment, it will be a little hard to get into the mood. What an irony," he laughs.

"I can't write a comic novel about failure because I have now been crowned with success."

First Published: Oct 16, 2010 22:36 IST