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I wrote an extended version of my interview with Jane Birkin in which she talked about Serge Gainsbourg, motherhood, and the subversive legacy of Je T'Aime. https://open.substack.com/pub/alastairmckay/p/histoire-de-jane-birkin-an-english?r=695tp&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web

THE SPITZFINDIGKEIT OF HOWARD JACOBSON: AN AUTHOR IN A MELANCHOLY RAGE

 

The early reviews of Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights have focused on the anger. There is a lot of it. There is anger about the Holocaust, about casual anti-Semitism, and the refusal of English Jews to make a fuss. But actually, anger doesn’t quite do justice to the complex of feelings conjured by Jacobson’s prose, because the fury is wrapped in black comedy. And while it is intensely specific about the Jewish experience, the novel is also a fond and melancholy evocation of a post-war childhood. 
The story follows the attempts of Max Glickman, a satirical cartoonist, to discover why his childhood friend, Manny Washinsky, gassed his parents to death. In trying to understand it, Manny – and Jacobson – pull the reader into dark territory, where the crimes of the Nazis blur into the confusions of adolescence. 
Jacobson is keen to stress that Kalooki Nights is not a work of autobiography, but he does concede that some of it does reflect his own experience. The kernel of the story was a childhood memory of an orthodox Jew, on the fringes of his family, who fell in love with a German girl. “I had an image – I could have invented it – but I believe that I met the man, and I believe I met the German woman. And I believe I thought the German woman was very beautiful. And suddenly the German woman wasn’t there anymore and I knew there’d been lots of fights. And she was gone never to be seen again, and it broke my heart for the man. I would have been seven, and for all I know they didn’t like each other and they broke up, the way people do every second of the day, but in my mind it was the model of a heartbreaking romance, and I’ve always been looking for a way to tell it.” 
One of the most unsettling parts in the book is the way Lord Russell of Liverpool’s book The Scourge of Swastika – a documentary account of Nazi atrocities – stirred erotic feelings in the minds of young readers when it was published in 1954. This observation was drawn from Jacobson’s experience. He would have been in his early teens when he saw the book; an age, he says, “when you’re having every kind of problem. You do not divide how you feel ethnically, how you feel about your identity and how you feel about sex. It’s all one mess.” 
It was in Russell’s book that Jacobson first encountered pictures of naked Jewish women, and the thrill of the flesh was horribly complicated by the context: the women were prisoners in a concentration camp. His schoolyard education was also coloured by stories about Ilse Koch, “the Bitch of Buchenwald” who was known for her cruelty towards prisoners in the camp run by her husband, Karl Koch. Jacobson explores this sado-sexual cruelty to grim effect. “When Auschwitz is liberated, I’m four years old. So when I’m 10 and capable of having thoughts, this happened only a second ago. I also think of it as past history. But as the years go by, I think, this is so soon, and we’re all talking about forgiveness and reconciliation. 
“I’m not saying we should be going out and bombing Germany. And some of my best friends … are German.” 
He recalls his father returning from a visit to Germany and saying that he didn’t like seeing German words. “I was very struck by it. I go to Germany a lot and have no trouble with it, though sometimes when I see myself being eyed by someone who is 70 or 80 and I eye them back, I feel there’s a little electricity. An ‘Are you still here? Are you still here?’ kind of look.” 
Jacobson was initially reluctant to write another novel about Jews. Non-Jews weren’t interested, he reasoned, and neither were Jews. But as he thought about it, his anger rose. In the US, he says, the Jews are central to the culture, because they were able to influence its formation. In Britain, the culture was fixed, and they assimilated. 
“This isn’t a complaint. I think of myself as very English, I used to teach English literature, I’m an English man. The American Jews, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, they turn to Kafka, they turn to Joseph Roth. I turn to Jane Austen, Dickens. I’m not a Kafka man, I’m a Dickens man. 
“But a culture that produces Dr Johnson and Jane Austen doesn’t really have room for a Jewish voice. So you fight your way in.” 
Jacobson says that many Jewish writers adopted an English voice, and it had fallen to him to take on the Jewish one, which he did, with some success, most popularly in The Mighty Walzer (also set among the Manchester Jews of his 1950s childhood) which won him the Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing. Before writing Kalooki Nights, he consciously tried to avoid writing about Jews. He even jokes that he considered writing a novel without the letter J in it. 
“Someone said you should write it in Welsh in that case, because there is no letter J in Welsh. How you get called Jones I don’t know.” 
But the story welled up, and he was surprised to find himself upset while writing it. He was reminded of the death of his father, and in the character of the murderer Manny he tapped into memories of childhood friends who had been religiously disturbed. 
“I’m upset about it, partly because I so much outgrew them. I wasn’t brought up in a religious way, so there was never any danger of me not being secular, but I felt I needed to get away, get South, get free of all that stuff. There’s some residual … not guilt. Some tenderness towards them. Some obligation of memory that I owe that world that had such kids in it.” 
Jacobson grew up in Salford, near the centre of Manchester. His mother’s family came from Lithuania and his father’s from Ukraine. “They were peasants. We were looked on askance by the distinguished German Jews who were doing very well in Manchester commerce. They were very frightened of us all coming over in the 1890s and spoiling it for them. So we were carefully shepherded.” 
His father was a remote figure in childhood. “I remember that sense vividly about my father – that he’s somebody who’s very close to you, but you haven’t got a clue who he is.” 
When Jacobson was born, his father was away in the Army. After that, he had a job driving lorries, so he was often away. “He’d send me letters. I’ve seen some that I didn’t even know had been written to me, or to my mother about me. They’re touching, they’re sweet. I had no idea he was capable of writing a letter, because he was not in my mind a person of the feelings, he was a person of action, who I rarely saw. I don’t remember being touched by him. I never sat on his knee, I don’t remember him lifting me up on his shoulders. I don’t remember it, it probably happened. I was fussed over by women. That’s what I recall – when there was intimacy, what a strange thing. And how upsetting it was because it wasn’t familiar – and therefore illuminating because you felt that you knew him in a way that you hadn’t known him before. 
“It’s odd, because I wasn’t close to my father in the way that I was close to my mother, but I think about my father more now. I feel very tenderly towards him, although he wasn’t always tender towards us. He was strict. If we did something wrong, he would actually take his belt, and it was not nice. We were frightened of him. And then as often happens, they get a little bit older and then they love you. 
“Some kids respond differently to that. Some kids think, well fuck you, you had your chance. I didn’t. I thought: fine.” 
Jacobson’s dad, who appears, more or less, in his novel The Making of Henry, was a children’s magician. “All my father’s family were very extroverted and all my mother’s family were very introverted. It was good for me to dance between the two – because novel writing is like that – you are demonstrating things and yet you are talking to yourself.” 
It’s odd to hear that Jacobson – a flamboyant conversationalist – was a shy child, but he claims that he would “flame red and pour sweat” at the slightest prompting. He got over it by making speeches and debating. Writing, he concedes, may have had something to do with it: “being shy and being internal and being unhappy and embarrassed – it was difficult. Always with a long face. People always used to say ‘Cheer up’ it’ll never happen’. I’d say ‘it already has’. It does mean that you like the world of books. What are you doing when you’re writing a novel? It’s another act of creation – you’re making the world if not a better place, the place that you run. I don’t know whether any socially confident, brash, physically assured person who plays football in the streets ever becomes a novelist. Why would you do it?” 
His one attempt at sport, as chronicled in The Mighty Walzer, was table tennis, “the shy person’s game”. He played as a junior for Lancashire, and didn’t quite make it to national level. “I played in shorts, which was something for me. I never wanted to put shorts on any other occasion. But for all that it wasn’t athletic in the way tennis was. No one was interested. No one came to see it. I seem to be very attracted to doing things that no one’s interested in – playing table tennis and writing books about Jews.” 
His medals and trophies littered the family mantelpiece, and he can recall with extraordinary detail the occasion on which he injured his opponent by playing a drop shot which drove him away from the table. “He came charging in - a ludicrous player, an over athletic player – banged his knee on the table, it immediately went out, he lay on the floor screaming. I’m there not knowing what to do, going scarlet – 13 years old wondering what the hell have I done. They cart him off in an ambulance and I was sort of, some way or another, quite chuffed. But I was in a quandary – I didn’t want to tell my mother, because the minute I told my mother you could put your knee out playing table tennis, that would be that, I would never be allowed to play again.” 
He remembers his mother having communist friends, trade union Jews, and he thinks that if they saw Manchester now, they would hate it. “You see a lot of the black hats, and I hate seeing that. I always like being part of the mix – the tapestry. When any one sort take over it depresses me.” 
He hates fundamentalism because it is closed-minded. “It’s a way of thinking based on fear. It’s bigoted. It’s an utter belief in one thing. It’s not about argument. The joy of anything is about argument. The Jewishness that I’ve always loved is the Jew that wants to argue. The fundamentalists don’t argue. They believe and that’s it.” 
He remembers being stopped by an orthodox Jew in Israel, who asked him why he wrote books. “I thought he was saying ‘when I could make so much more money as an accountant’ or something. ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘why do you write books? We’ve got a book.’ The Jews are called the people of the book, and for them the people of the book means the people of that book. For me the phrase the people of the book means the people of many books. 
“I feel it’s not the best Jewishness that turns to fundamentalism, and I don’t like the garb. I don’t like any garb that announces itself. Why do people have to tell you what they believe by what they wear? What are they dressing up as anyway? It would make more sense if they were dressing up as Old Testament Jews. They’re dressing up like Jews from Polish and Russian steppes in the 18th century. That’s not a particular holy period of ours. The whole thing is a nonsense.” 
There is, though, a German word which sums up what Jacobson considers to be the best quality of Jewishness: spitzfindigkeit – “which means being picky, being punctilious, loving analysis and making fine distinctions. I studied English literature at Cambridge under FR Leavis – that’s what we did.” 
Of course, when you add in the fact that the mature Jacobson is the opposite of shy, this love of argument can lead to some quite peculiar situations. He recalls, for example, going to see The Rapping Rabbi on the Edinburgh Fringe, and challenging the members of the audience who were walking out because they had been offended by the comedian’s anti-German jokes. Jacobson argued that “a Jew can make a joke about a German until the trump of doom,” and the audience reconvened on the pavement outside the venue to continue the argument. But, so coarse has the culture become that the lover of spitzfindigkeit risks being caricatured as a Grumpy Old Man. 
“Oh,” says Jacobson, his rage inflating visibly, “I can’t stand all that.” He then relates a number of complaints – the music kids listen to, the way they look, the litter they drop, the way cyclists jump the lights, before conceding that he can be very bad tempered in public. 
“I tried to start a fight in Tesco’s the other day. I hate Tesco’s. I loathe Tesco’s to death. Queues everywhere. And two sniggering girls were trying to buy along with their sandwiches a little portable umbrella. And it wouldn’t register at the cash desk, so the woman on the till sent the girls to get another umbrella. The girls got another umbrella, that wouldn’t register.” The story rolls on, until Jacobson shouts out from the queue, “forget the umbrella and I’ll stand behind you with my umbrella in the rain. They looked at me as if I was a lunatic. Everybody in the queue looked down. They thought I was just a mad old man. I them assayed another joke. Nothing. I tried something to the bloke in front of me, to try and whip something up: have you got work to go to today, or have you got the next three years off? They just stared at me.” 
It’s the same in the bank, he says, “where you wait for four hours because there’s only one teller, although there are 15 windows. And that teller is counting somebody’s takings in pennies, and you start screaming. Nobody will do anything. The English all look away. You just can’t get a revolution going. And when you see that, you do think people must think you must be a very, very strange weird old man who shouts things out.” 
He inhabits that contradiction, Howard Jacobson. He loves the commotion almost more than he hates the cause of it. He doesn’t want to be grumpy. “The challenge now is to get out of grumpy and into rage. Better to be angry. An angry young man was OK because that did suggest you had something to be angry about, though I can never remember what it was. But grumpy deflates one. It turns one’s anger into just something you’ve eaten. It makes it just a mild case of dyspepsia, and there are things to be in towering rage about.”
(Interview from 2006). 

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