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)