Howard Jacobson finally won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 for “The Finker Question”. Photo: Getty
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If you think you know Howard Jacobson, prepare to be disappointed

The author’s new novel J confounds one’s expectations but confirms Jacobson’s reputation.


Howard Jacobson
Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £18.99

Most people, if they know nothing else about Howard Jacobson, know perhaps that he’s that funny Jewish novelist: the English Philip Roth. This is the man, after all, whose first novel, Coming from Behind (1983), opened with its anti-hero, a despairing academic named Sefton Goldberg, “knees and elbows glued with the perspiration of effort and anxiety to the polytechnic linoleum, as naked as Noah but for the academic gown and hood”, was deep in embrace with one of his mature students on graduation day, yet able to think of “nothing but the position of the little metal nipple on his Yale lock”.

In 2010 Jacobson finally won the Man Booker Prize with The Finkler Question (2010), a remarkable achievement for a book containing actual jokes that made actual people laugh. And some years ago, he had the audacity to present a TV series about comedy, based on his serious, funny book, Seriously Funny (1997). This is a man who proudly describes himself as “a Jewish Jane Austen”, a man who is routinely described as “Britain’s funniest novelist”. If you think you know Howard Jacobson – and we all think we know Howard Jacobson – prepare to be disappointed.

J confounds one’s expectations but confirms Jacobson’s reputation. It’s not a funny book, but then The Castle is not a funny book, The Devils is not a funny book, and The Plague is not a funny book – and these are clearly the kinds of models that Jacobson has in mind. Novels of import and ideas. Big books. Serious books. Jacobson turned 70 a couple of years ago. He may have started his career larking around in slapstick but J is no jeu d’esprit. J is also, uncharacteristically for Jacobson, not a book about being Jewish: it is, rather, a book about not being Jewish. Or not being Jewish enough.

The novel is set in some vague, Orwellian post-cataclysmic future. The trouble with novels set in some vague, Orwellian post-cataclysmic future is precisely that: they’re vague and Orwellian, a bit dated and slack. (In Jacobson’s post-cataclysmic future an organisation called Ofnow, “the non-statu­tory monitor of the Public Mood”, rather like Orwell’s Ministry of Love, encourages a form of doublethink. “Smile at your neighbour, cherish your spouse, listen to ballads, go to musicals, use your telephone, converse, explain, listen, agree, apologise. Talk is better than silence, the sung word is better than the written, but nothing is better than love.”) It takes some time for the book to find its shape and form. For the first 50 or so pages it’s like reading through fog: there’s a young woman called Ailinn Solomons, who was adopted as a child; there’s a man named Kevern “Coco” Cohen, who carves wooden lovespoons; they are living in a place called Port Reuben; there’s a woman called Esme Nussbaum who works for Ofnow; there has been a catastrophe, referred to only and always as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED”; and everyone has Hebraic surnames.

The mysteries multiply: the fog gets thicker. Who has killed Lowenna Morgenstern and Ythel Weinstock? Why is Esme so interested in Ailinn’s relationship with Kevern? Why did Kevern’s parents forbid him from using the letter J? What exactly was Operation Ishmael? And who is the ranting and raving Professor Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky, and why is he taking such an interest in Kevern?

As the themes and figures finally begin to emerge, the novel becomes suddenly taut and complex. The reader is in the position of the hapless, nebbishy Kevern, who awakens only at the very end of the novel to a realisation about himself and about the past. “He was past the point of marvelling at how much made sense to him now. He had always known . . . that was to be his defence against the horrors of surprise . . . he had always known really, at some level, below consciousness, beyond cognition, he had always known somewhere . . .”

Jacobson, one has always known really, at some level, below consciousness, beyond cognition, is much more than a messer. He is a moralist – what is comedy, after all, if not a profoundly ethical act, a religious act even, viewing the world, as it were, sub specie aeternitatis? In J he takes a further step back and ascends a little higher, forsaking his usual tricks in an attempt to create something supremely worthwhile.

The result is a book beyond idiosyncrasy and occasionally beyond itself and its own capacities: it is post-shtick Jacobson. If he really is the English Roth, we may be about to witness a Roth-like culmination – an exercise in late great style. 

Ian Sansom’s most recent book is “The Norfolk Mystery (The County Guides)” (Fourth Estate, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories