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

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition