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12 April 2023

The transporting effects of plane reading, how not to adapt Dickens, and why I care only for novels

I rarely see anything on television or in the cinema as adventurous as what can be found in a book.

By Howard Jacobson

Kom op, Charlie, laten we voetballen.” But Charlie’s not interested. He sits on the ground, unmoved by the sound of ball smacking tarmac. When will a certain type of father understand that a certain type of son doesn’t want to join other boys to kick a football around? My father didn’t care about football but wanted me to be a joiner, especially if we were on holiday, because he hoped that joining other boys would stop me saying I wanted to go home. Non-joiner to non-joiner, I’m with Charlie. He’s about ten, with comically wild hair, heron’s legs and a sweet but resolute smile. Holiday or no holiday, it’s “no”. I never had a sweet smile. I just sulked. I am flying home today from the Canaries, where I’ve been finishing a novel. So I’m feeling wistful. Goodbye to this, goodbye to that, and now goodbye to the sweet boy I never was.

Travelling through time

My mood doesn’t lighten when I’m in the air. I travel badly. I always wonder if this is going to be the plane that finally proves aeronautics to be absurd and does what any sane person would expect 800,000lb’s worth of metal, diesel, uncomfortable upholstery, duty-free perfume and the heavy spirits of its passengers to do. In truth, it’s not fear but melancholia I’m experiencing. Not on account of the little Dutch boy whom I imagine to be sitting on the ground still, refusing to play football, but the Australian writer Sophie Cunningham whose new novel This Devastating Fever I’m halfway through.

When I arrived in Sydney in the 1960s, she was blowing bubbles in a cot. Today, Sophie Cunningham is a writer of considerable acclaim. What’s upsetting me more – the unrolling of the years or the fact of how good this novel is? I’ve yet to read a good novel that doesn’t move me, whatever its subject. Something about the power of articulation to lift us out of the mundane. And This Devastating Fever is a very good novel.

But precisely because it untethers time and place so adroitly that Leonard and Virginia Woolf – indeed, the entirety of sex-crazed Bloomsbury – come alive in contemporary Melbourne, I too untether time. I can’t forget that I held its author in my arms in Sydney before her parents, fearing I was drunk – I wasn’t: I just held babies badly – took her from me. Somewhere over Spain, I read these lines from Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out: “No two people have ever been so happy as we have been. No one has ever loved as we have loved,” which is word for word what the lovers in my new novel say to each other. My head spins. How did Virginia Woolf’s novel get to be in mine? And how did my novel get to be in Sophie Cunningham’s?

[See also: A gender-neutral God is far from revolutionary]

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The end of a great writing era

Ian McEwan has recently said that were he starting out as a writer today he would write screenplays, not novels. In so far as that’s a comment on the lowly status of the serious novel in our times, I take his point. But the choice would never have presented itself to me. I cared for novels or I cared for nothing. Only novels don’t know where they’re going and must find their way in the dark. And I rarely see anything on television or in the cinema as adventurous as that. All right, The Sopranos and Shtisel. But it was when the former evoked Dostoevsky and the latter Chekhov that my heart beat faster. For my money, screenplays approach greatness only when they almost turn themselves back into the novels that inspired them.

I can’t imagine such grandmasters of both forms as Michael Frayn and Frederic Raphael agreeing with me. Good. We are of a generation that gorged on disagreement. If Ian McEwan is now taking stock – he who was avant-garde but five minutes ago – he must be feeling the pinch of years. He’s not alone. Suddenly a great age of writing seems to be coming to an end. In his 90th year, Frayn has published Among Others, a book of reminiscences, subtitled “Friendships and Encounters”, before, he says, his “memory goes”. And Raphael, one year older, will soon publish Last Post, letters to people he has loved or loathed. I see there is one to Jonathan Miller, whom he could have loved but, with a fine classical hauteur, loathed instead. Reader, smell the cordite and enjoy. You will not, for some time, smell the like of it again.

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Dumbing down Dickens

The reviews for the BBC’s latest lobotomising of Great Expectations appear to have been uniformly dismissive. Which saves me a job. So let’s look on the bright side: had Channel 4 made it, Miss Havisham would have invited Pip to look up her wedding dress while Estella was sending him naked selfies. LOL.

[See also: Florian Zeller’s The Son review: it is a work of crass melodrama]

This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue