Howard Jacobson's Diary: The theatre delusion, Labour’s anti-Semitism mess, and why I dodge reviews

No play is ever as good as people say it is, let alone a match for the high farce of Chris Williamson's on/off suspension.

Publication week. My 16th novel. As always I struggle against the impulse to read my reviews, knowing I won’t be pleased even with those my publishers assure me are “terrific”. For no praise can ever satisfy that hunger for confirmation that makes a person write novels in the first place. I once insulted the novelist Frank Moorhouse by telling him he was Australia’s greatest living writer. “What about New Zealand?” “OK, and New Zealand.” “Couldn’t we agree the Pacific Rim?” “OK, and the Pacific Rim.” I could see he still wasn’t content. “Why only living?” “OK,” I said, “the greatest dead one, too.” I left him eyeing off his place in futurity. I knew that because I was eyeing off my place in futurity too. So I won’t be reading my reviews.

Madness of crowds

Talking of publication, I’ve just come across a folder of notes I took on tarantism and other instances of medieval mania for my novel Redback, published in 1986. Manifestations of public hysteria have always fascinated me. They confirm my suspicion that the minute three or more people get together and agree about anything they lose their minds. See, for example, the outbreak of crazed dancing in the German town of Aachen in 1374. Thousands of normally restrained citizens took to the streets in acts of mass disinhibition that lasted months. Many, if my notes are to be trusted, were seen to froth at the mouth as All Hallow’s Eve approached and throw themselves into the River Wurm crying “Brexit! Brexit! Wo ist mein versprochen Brexit?”

Chris Williamson’s second coming

I see, speaking of unreason, that the Labour MP Chris Williamson has been un-suspended from his suspension for saying that the Labour Party capitulates too readily to charges of anti-Semitism. Since many of those charges were made against him you can understand his position. I debated against him last year. Quite a pussycat, I thought, once he’d given voice to his own medieval manias. I told him he had an unexpectedly nice smile, whereupon he flashed me an unexpectedly nice smile. If I could just have six or seven years alone with him I might be able to persuade him that Jews have better things to do than invent anti-Semitism where it isn’t.

Speak, memory

The book launch is tinged with sadness. My editor, Dan Franklin, is stepping down and makes a melancholy speech recalling our 21 years together. Who do I blame now when things go wrong? And Tessa Jones, the widow of a man I loved deeply, happens to be over from Melbourne. I haven’t seen her since before Terry died 11 years ago. He spoke to me by phone from his hospital bed. He was urgently optimistic. The next day when I rang, there was no answer for an eternity, then a nurse picked up…

I stay off the red wine knowing that otherwise I’ll start blubbing. I warn guests that if they want me to sign a book they’ll have to remind me who they are. Given the charged emotion and my advanced age, I am sure to forget even my best friends’ names. Some think I’m joking, most know I’m not. My brother introduces himself. “Is that Stephen with a ph or a v?” I ask.

Drama deficit

I fall asleep three times during The Lehman Trilogy in the West End. It’s three acts so that’s not a bad count. I don’t love plays the way I love novels. The words whizz by too quickly. And because this is a chronicle, charting the symbiosis between America, capitalism and the Jewish immigrants who found their way in both, the years whizz by too quickly as well. It lacks heart, somehow.

That money is a frenzied, delusional dance that will not let you stop is the play’s central truth. But more of what starting out is like – the enthralment of small business, the joys and disappointments of running a corner shop – would have deepened the tragedy of the family’s capitulation to that group hysteria we call finance.

The final recitation of the Jewish prayer for the dead is affecting  – a goodbye to the moral earnestness with which it all began. Otherwise, The Lehman Trilogy isn’t as good as everyone says. No play ever is. The theatre is another example of St Vitus’s Dance. Sit people in rows and they go mad. The bravura acting merits warm applause but the standing ovations are excessive. Not wanting to be curmudgeonly I give a sitting ovation.

Suspending disbelief

All do the hokey cokey. You put your left arm in, your left arm out, in, out, in, out…Chris Williamson, I’m talking about. The suspension of his suspension has been lifted and he’s suspended again. Who says Corbyn’s losing it? Williamson’s future is now in the hands of those over-initialled bodies so dear to Labour Party apparatchiks. The PLP, the EHRC, the NCC, the RSPCA. I think the NSPCC will finish him off. I know of at least two children who cry when they see him on television.

Audience approval

I take my novel Live a Little for its first public outing to a book festival in Queen’s Park, north London. The festival is only in its second year so still retains the blessed atmosphere of a garden fete. We really are in a park. The ground is sun-warmed. Parakeets dash screaming from tree to tree. And writers sign their books in a bandstand. Everything is so lovely one could almost forget that the art of reading is in decline. My publisher turns up and tells me there have been some terrific reviews. Oh yeah – best novel since the day before written in English by a man over 60 published anywhere in the world excluding the Pacific Rim. I cover my ears. The audience laughs when I read and so for a moment the hunger for confirmation is satisfied. My audience is the exception to the rule that people go mad when they sit in rows. But for the screaming parakeets, this is an oasis of sanity. 

Howard Jacobson’s new novel “Live a Little” is published by Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion