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In defence of the comic novel

Howard Jacobson's Goldsmiths Prize lecture: from Ulysses to Herzog, the comic novel unlocks the “meaninglessness of everything”. 

By Howard Jacobson

I have always thought of Shakespeare as a sort of novelist-in-waiting, impatient for the novel to happen. It isn’t just that it’s hard to read any novel without hearing him or bringing him; it is also that by taking us to the brink of the novel – and, if you like, expending all of its dramatic alternatives – he shows us its necessity. He confers a sort of blessing and obligation. “Now my charms are all o’erthrown” – let’s see what you’ve got.

I recall an Australian academic colleague forever pulling out King Lear’s words calling on the all-shaking thunder to “smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world” to demonstrate the way that Shakespeare’s language enacts meaning, in this case the impossibility of ever smiting flat something as manifest and linguistically unassailable as the thick rotundity o’ th’ world. He was a great arguer for the thingness of literature and once wrote an essay on Middlemarch entitled “Fred Vincy’s Grilled Bone”.

Matthew Arnold could similarly have called his essay on Anna Karenina “Konstantin Levin’s Shirts”. To Arnold, for whom the highest form of expression was poetry, the scene in which Levin is late for his wedding because he can’t find his dress shirt is utterly bewildering in its apparently aimless true-to-lifeness. “It turns out to import absolutely nothing,” he writes, uncertain whether that’s a bad thing or not.

And I, while we are on Anna Karenina, once wrote a lecture on the absurdly inappropriate giant pear that the philandering Stepan Oblonsky presents as a drunken peace offering to his neglected wife, Dolly. But far from importing nothing, I argued, the irrefutability of the pear speaks for those qualities in Oblonsky that make it impossible for us to judge him only negatively. Before the thick rotundity of that pear, ­morality trembles.

For a long time, the phrase “the curse of actuality” clattered about my mind as something I recalled reading in Saul ­Bellow’s great novel of cuckoldry and cogitation, Herzog. It was only when I went looking for it that I discovered it wasn’t there at all, except as a marginal note made by me. Bellow writes: “As soon as Herzog saw the actual person giving an actual bath . . .” Whereupon I, wanting to be in on the act, leapt into the margin with a pencilled “Ah, the curse of actuality!” punctuated with an exclamation mark that I take to denote irony – actuality being no curse at all, unless you want to commit an act of murder, which, in this instance, Herzog does. Or says he does. Or thinks he does. Or thinks he ought to. Herzog/Hamlet. The conjunction is not accidental.

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Post-T S Eliot, there is a sort of weary ­intellectual obligation on the likes of us (readers and writers) to accept our tragic limitations – that is to say, our limitations as to tragic potential – and acknowledge that we are not Prince Hamlet, nor were meant to be. But wasn’t not being Prince Hamlet precisely Hamlet’s problem?

Long before Prufrock, Hamlet was wondering whether there was more of the fool in him, more of the rogue and peasant slave, than the prince. There is further evidence in the plays that the question of playing the fool when one should be acting the hero preoccupied Shakespeare – if not as a personal matter, then as something indicative of changing times. A consciousness of clownish inadequacy might be a mark of modernity, but we haven’t got there in a single, clumsy leap.

It is, however, my contention that the novel is never more itself – certainly it never has more fun being itself – than when its heroes fall drastically short of that heroism whose function is to right wrongs, settle scores and put the fractured times back together again.

Returning to the specifics of Herzog, let me remind you of the heroic action on which Moses Herzog is hell-bent and into which I, brandishing my pencil, leapt Laertes-like. Herzog’s rage has been a long time brewing. The failure of his marriage to Madeleine, in particular his angry thraldom to her, is rendered with an immense comic verve of the sort that is sometimes called misogynistic, though it comprises such attention, not to say attentiveness, to her every movement and inflexion – from the way she applies her lipstick to the way she bends her knee at church – that it also deserves to be called rhapsodic love. A person has to be, or has to have been, deeply in love to attend with such lingering detail to what is infuriating in the beloved.

It is, however, well past all that, now that Madeleine (you can choose whether to hear a Proustian allusion in her name) has left him for Valentine Gersbach, an overdemonstrative, one-legged radio announcer and erstwhile friend. It’s a Hydra-headed, bitterly ludicrous betrayal that includes, as Herzog sees it, the usurpation of his young daughter’s affections, too. Herzog won’t be the first man who, in circumstances such as these, sees murder as the only self-respecting response.

Bellow allows Herzog ample opportunity to muse on this but then goes further, arming him with the gun that, long ago, Herzog’s father pointed at him – though he failed, in a maelstrom of Jewish tears and recrimination, to pull the trigger. Herzog pockets the gun and drives to the house – the family home that has been snaffled from him, along with his wife, his daughter, his good name and his sanity – where he imagines his wife and her lover to be engaged in acts that would make the Devil blush. “Heaven and Earth . . . Let me not think on’t.”

To say that Herzog “drives” to find them in the act is to understate the violence of his purpose. “He gunned his motor at the stoplight,” Bellow writes. We are in a thriller novel now. Moses and his motor, the weapon and the man who’ll fire it. The image of his daughter rises before him – the one genuine thing in his life, born “out of cowardice, sickness, fraud, by a bungling father out of a plotting bitch”, but still “something genuine”. And with the image of his daughter comes an unquenchable sense of justice. “It’s not everyone,” he muses wildly, “who gets the opportunity to kill with a clear conscience. They had opened the way to justifiable murder. They deserved to die. He had a right to kill them.”

He parks around the corner from his old house, advances on it by foot, steals into the yard, sees his wife’s underwear and his daughter’s dresses on the clothes line, looks into the kitchen where Madeleine is cleaning up after dinner, then into the bathroom where Gersbach – yes, Gersbach, the one-legged radio announcer and his old friend – is bathing Herzog’s daughter.


Herzog saw the hair-covered heavy soft flesh of Gersbach’s breast. His chin was thick, and like a stone axe, a brutal weapon . . . And that hearty voice with its peculiar fraudulence and grossness. The hated traits were all there. But see how he was with June, scooping the water on her playfully, kindly . . . Steady and thorough, he dried her, and then . . . he powdered her.


That powdering is quite a touch, enough to make the most pacific father itchy on the trigger finger. There are two bullets in the chamber of the gun – one for Gersbach, one for Madeleine – but (for it would seem we are not in a thriller, after all): “They would stay there . . . Firing this pistol was nothing but a thought.”

The thinking man, alive only in his own head or in the letters that he voluminously composes – “Meet it is I set it down” – ­resumes control. “As soon as Herzog saw the actual person giving an actual bath, the reality of it, the tenderness of such a buffoon to a little child, his intended violence turned into theatre, into something ludicrous. He was not ready to make such a complete fool of himself.”

Resemblances between Herzog and Hamlet have been coming thick and fast, and there are distinct echoes here of Hamlet’s finding Claudius at prayer, believing this to be the ideal moment to avenge his father – “Now might I do it pat” – but drawing back because to kill a man at prayer is to save his soul, not send it to perdition. That, at least, is his excuse. The joke is on him either way. Claudius cannot pray. He acknowledges himself too wedded still to the things he killed to gain – his queen, his throne (substantial rotundities, both) – for his words to reach heaven. For the moment, at least, Claudius is the more theologically subtle of the two men, showing a keener understanding of what is required to be the recipient of grace. Religious faith and actuality, he grasps, are not always compatible.

It is not because he better understands the subtleties of Gersbach’s character that Herzog holds back from killing him. It is his own aesthetic dignity that he cares about. In refusing to make a complete fool of himself, he does, of course, make a complete fool of himself. Actuality turns resolution into absurdist theatre, whether you go on or you turn back. If that is not an invariable law, it is the law of Herzog’s nature. No less self-aware than Hamlet, he embraces in himself the absence of urgency or grandeur, for the voices that he honours are unable to declare for either.

Between Hamlet and Herzog, Leopold Bloom – cuckold, sensationalist and wanderer – has happened. That, to me, is a decisive intervention. Yet Shakespeare is forever at Joyce’s shoulder. And it was Shakespeare who brought literature part of the way to what we understand by modernity in the matter of contemplating heroic action and refusing it. “Hates any man the thing he would not kill?” asks Shylock, though when he has the chance to kill Antonio he doesn’t take it. It’s part of the frustration of The Merchant of Venice that it ends – at least, the interesting part of it ends – with the normally eloquent Shylock having nothing to say for himself.

I see him as the modern hero in embryo, gunning his way to the penultimate act only to watch his intended violence turn to theatre, and deciding that he is not, after all, prepared to see the logic of the drama through. Shylock decides against exchanging his life for Antonio’s, asks in vain for his money back, accepts the spite of his Venetian tormentors, complains of feeling ill and quits the stage defeated. I would like to argue that this is an act of anti-heroic existential heroism, a piece of bitter acquiescence in the way things always turn out, a definitive refusal of grand action in the face of the absurd actuality of Venetian justice (not to say all justice) – the last echoing laughter of the joke he initiated when, in merry sport, he offered Antonio the 3,000 ducats in return for a useless pound of his flesh. Did he half-know then how all of this was going to end? Did he want it to end this way?

But that might be to fill a silence with more matter than it can contain. Shylock is as sardonic as any character in Shakespeare, most of the time in the face of insult, which he is able to bat back with expert mimicry and finely tempered impudence. In the face of utter ruin, though, he is given nothing to say. The play, it would seem, cannot further contain him. He needs a novel.

Hamlet, too, won’t play the part required of him until he returns from England, where he appears to have left his sense of humour. A pale shadow of himself, more stoic philosopher than comedian now, he finally finds a way of littering the stage with bodies. He has risen to action’s challenge at last – but so inordinately that it seems to mock the very concept of the heroic.




Perhaps the only tragic figure in Shakespeare who is able to scoff at heroic action at the same time as lauding it is Cleopatra. Against all the evidence to the contrary, she goes on imagining an ­Antony whose legs bestride the ocean. Her great speeches defying the actual would be inconceivable in the novel. They speak to the group longings of an audience hungry for transcendence.

No such assault on concrete reality is possible in a Jane Austen novel. It’s true that a happy ending is rescued from the near certainty of despair in Pride and Prejudice, and that Persuasion closes with the heroine balancing felicity on a tray so precarious that we can barely turn the final pages for fear of causing her to drop it: but these are intimate accommodations to the expectations of readers, quiet contracts to hold out temporarily against the cruelty of things, not philosophical assaults on the nature of reality.

Similar accommodations are made in novels throughout the 19th century, with Clennam and Little Dorrit descending into a modest life of usefulness and happiness while the noisy and the eager and the arrogant and the forward and the vain fret and chafe and make their usual uproar; and those disappointed that Dorothea Brooke never made it as another St Theresa are consoled with the thought that “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts . . .”

Does the 19th-century novel abandon the idea of heroic action, or heroic imagination, altogether? Hardy’s heroes are failures before they begin. The moral successes of Henry James’s characters are circumscribed and ironic. As are those of Conrad’s, no ­matter that his melancholy sea captains venture into bigger and more physically testing terrains. It takes Lawrence to remind the English novel of its tragic, Shakespearean antecedents, by which I mean that we count the cost of his heroes’ failures not only personally, but societally and even metaphysically – Gerald Crich dying high and cold in the Swiss Alps; Rupert Birkin, salvator mundi and windbag, overcome by sexual and ontological frustration, stoning the reflected image of the moon into fragments. Lear was content to destroy the terrestrial world; Birkin can’t rest until he has taken apart the universe. You have to admire the ambition. But the indifferent moon re-forms the minute that Birkin stops stoning. Were there not so much of Birkin in Lawrence, the scene might have been funny. Maybe it is funny.

“Ours is essentially a tragic age,” Lawrence wrote at the beginning of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, “so we refuse to take it tragically.” That “so” is teasing. Does it point to some perverseness in us? Is it a wilful blindness, or is it its own sort of courage? Either way, the actualities are small, the rebuilding envisaged modestly. “The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats . . .” Gently does it, and Lady Chatterley is a novel of surpassing gentleness. It could be one of Shakespeare’s late plays . . . minus the clowns.

But with Ulysses, so full of Shakespearean echoes and unequivocally funny, a hero for our tragic times is finally given legs. Leopold Bloom is a Jew, and it might be that after the long wait since Shylock, a Jew is precisely what’s needed: one forced by historical necessity into sufferance and accommodation, an outsider looking in. A joker whose jokes not everybody gets. A done-to, not a doer.

Bloom’s Jewishness apart, if we collate the several diagnoses made of his physical and spiritual condition, the result is a sort of reference written in support of an application for the position of quintessential modern hero. “Professor Bloom is a finished example of the new womanly man”; “Many have found him a dear man, a dear person”; “Dr Bloom is bisexually abnormal . . . the funniest man on Earth . . . He is prematurely bald from self-abuse, perversely idealistic in consequence, a reformed rake, and has metal teeth”; “He is about to have a baby” – qualifications that, whatever else we make of them, don’t fill us with confidence that he’d do a good job of killing Claudius at prayer. But the great thing is that, finally, it doesn’t matter.

One of the best jokes Joyce makes about Bloom is that he was once a traveller selling blotting paper. He is, above all things, absorbent. “Try,” Henry James advised aspiring novelists, “to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Bloom, though not an aspiring novelist, is one of those in whom everything is incorporated. He has a genius for passivity. A vocabulary of voluptuous detumescence – acted upon, not acted – ­embraces him in his 24-hour journey from the bed-warmed rump of his unfaithful wife and back again. Soft and watchful about his day he goes, limp-languid, gentle, solitary, mutable, abnegated, yielding – a real man, in Joyce’s provocative phrase, strong to the point of weakness.

Whatever Bloom and Herzog owe to Shylock and Hamlet, they owe much, too – as ignoble heroes of democratic narratives, inheritors of those spoils of a war fought long ago when prose split from verse – to Rabelais and Cervantes. We could say that they are the children of mirth, whose role, in Milan Kundera’s words, is to “reverse the false consolations that tragedy brings” and reveal the “meaninglessness of everything”.




Meaninglessness, as Kundera uses the word, is not to be confused with nihilism. Until he finally got away from Prague, Kundera wrote under the restrictions of a communist regime. Meaninglessness, to him, is the artistic resistance to system, a refutation of the terrible illusion of divine harmony. Meaninglessness resists the imposition of meaning. The novel’s great contribution to this resistance resides, according to Kundera, in its “daily, concrete, momentary aspect”, its refusal of myth, the war it wages, moment by moment, against our tendency to lose the “concreteness of the present” – what is there, and what is of now – and transform it into abstraction. And the mode by which it most successfully wages that war is comedy.

This is from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “Things deprived suddenly of their putative meaning, the place assigned them in the ostensible order of things . . . make us laugh. Initially, therefore, laughter is the province of the Devil.”

If we were to collect Kundera’s arguments in favour of the novel, we would see that the “concreteness of the present”, the refusal of “consoling myth” and the laughter that comes with realising that things are looser than they seemed are as pearls upon a single diabolic string. Yet Kundera invokes the Devil only as an antidote to the angels who want to persuade us “how rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on Earth” is.

There is nothing particularly diabolic about Oblonsky’s pear, or about Gersbach’s powdering of Herzog’s daughter. As object and as act, both are morally neutral. It is only when they come into collision with appropriateness or expectation that they work their comic magic. What is released in us, when Oblonsky’s sweetly inane love offering misfires, or Herzog’s violent schemes collapse before the mundane reality of a one-legged radio announcer tenderly powdering a child, is a sort of exhilaration. In being excused the rigidities of moral judgement or stern justice, we experience a gleeful and maybe even guilty relief.

It is no small thing to be liberated from the idea that we are here for some sacred purpose, or that we have an obligation to heal the distempered world in which we find ourselves. There can even be a loveliness in accepting our unlovely inadequacies – “a certain nobility”, D H Lawrence calls it, in reference to Paul Morel’s rival, Baxter Dawes, having the courage to “own himself beaten” and “like a beggar take what [is] offered”. Sons and Lovers ends with Paul Morel’s determined refusal to own himself beaten in this way. Fists shut, mouth set fast, he heads off from the last page of the novel – “No, he would not give in.”

That harks back to an earlier idea of the indomitable hero, ready to confront the world. It feels old-fashioned now. It wasn’t Paul Morel but the defeated Baxter Dawes who was the coming man of the 20th-century novel. Without, that is, the exuberant farcicality of a Herzog, or a Yossarian, or a Bardamu – heroes of non-heroism sacrificed to the high indignity of comic narrative.

Call this narrative the atheism of the real. It is the great achievement of the novel in prose. I mean no disrespect to those whose imaginations take them to fantasy in any of its forms. The novel can and should do anything. Yet there can be a bias among those of us who love novels nearly as much as we love life (and sometimes even more) in favour of the flight-of-fancy novel, the introspectively other-worldly, let us call it, as against this worldliness, except when what is of this world is to airy thinness beat, as luminescent as angels’ wings, so exquisite in its quiet dailiness that we can see right through it.

By the terms of this bias in favour of the novel as convalescent home for fraught nerves, robustness is mistrusted, as though we fear that wild rejoicing in the incoherent mess we make of this world would cause our imaginations to stumble before the creation of another – or as if there’s something limiting about the actual. Popular and even not-so-popular culture revels in fantasy at the moment. So what is it that our own times don’t provide – deities, grandeur, heroism, illusion? God Himself? Are we, in the name of modernity, hankering for the ancient? Is it the anti-naturalism of Shakespeare’s late plays that we covet? Miracle? Magic? Romance?

Whether Shakespeare took that route out of the grinding determinism of tragedy only because the novel was not yet to hand, I can’t say. I’m not sure if anyone knows the extent of his familiarity with Cervantes, who died the same year he did, or Rabelais, who died half a century before; but, for whatever reason, his imagination was set upon a different, less rotund, more anorexigenic course. It is, to my mind, perverse to want to follow him there when we have the invigorating examples of Rabelais and Cervantes to follow instead.

To talk of actuality, the momentary and the concrete is not to define a mode or style. Yet whatever we’re saying, if we’re saying it in prose in the 21st century, we would be fools not to avail ourselves of the freedom that comedy by its nature gives us to rejoice in our ungodliness; to refuse system in any of its forms, whether moral or political; to tell the offended to go hang – because ­taking offence, too, constitutes a system – and to exult in the meaninglessness of things.

Howard Jacobson delivered a longer version of this New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize lecture at the prize shortlist announcement on 28 September 2016

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph