This is a comprehensive and definitive study of the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson. It offers lucid, detailed and nuanced readings of each of Jacobson’s novels, and makes a powerful case for the importance of his work in the landscape of contemporary fiction. Focusing on the themes of comedy, masculinity and Jewishness, the book emphasises the richness and diversity of Jacobson’s work. Often described by others as ‘the English Philip Roth’ and by himself as ‘the Jewish Jane Austen’, Jacobson emerges here as a complex and often contradictory figure: a fearless novelist; a combative public intellectual; a polemical journalist; an unapologetic elitist and an irreverent outsider; an exuberant iconoclast and a sombre satirist. Never afraid of controversy, Jacobson tends to polarise readers; but, love him or hate him, he is difficult to ignore. This book gives him the thorough consideration and the balanced evaluation that he deserves.
whole cycle, but always going for that final invigoration of comedy’ ( 2012a : 270). The comic novels that I will look at in the rest of this chapter run the gamut from light-hearted sexual farce to acerbic political satire, but they do share what Jacobson calls, in another paradoxical formulation, ‘the high indignity of comic narrative’ ( Jacobson 2016c : 48), an anti-pastoral sensibility and a preoccupation with literary politics.
Coming From Behind ( 1983 )
The 1984 Black Swan paperback edition of Jacobson’s first novel gives the distinct impression that it is
outside the white gaze, not against it’, so Harriet Wilson does not write
against pastoral conventions in the way an anti-pastoral does,7 but stands
outside the pastoral’s ‘gaze’ – without it (in both senses of the word). Her
novel oﬀers a close engagement with power and economics in the New
England countryside, illuminating from without the way the pastoral preserves a near-silence on both sides of the Atlantic concerning farm
labour’s exhausting physical demands (though this illumination stayed
unrecognised for over 120 years, whilst the novel
a more general exploration of sexual politics, and in conjunction with the spectre of mortality.
The Very Model of a Man ( 1992 )
The Very Model of a Man is a pivotal book in Jacobson’s career. It straddles what might be thought of as the first two phases of Jacobson’s career, both chronologically (it was published six years after his previous novel, Redback , and six years before his next, No More Mr Nice Guy ) and formally (it can be read both as the culmination of his exploration of anti-pastoral comedy and as the start of his mid-career investment in
occasional visitor to Shakespeare’s
anti-pastoral comedy; rather, that in the interval 1599–1600
Shakespeare wrote As You Like It as an emphatic (if discreet)
memorial for Marlowe; that Shakespeare created the character of
Jaques in the image of Marlowe; and that Shakespeare himself may
have taken the part of Jaques in performance. I will suggest that
the playwright did so in
to turn inward, away from exterior, physical journeying to ‘the depths of
A poetics of environment
space’, away from the annihilation of time by science, not only towards a
realisation of the divine mediated through nature but also towards a distinctly pure form of mysticism, towards what, for him, is a stillness, a waiting, an eternity within.
‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’: Tennyson’s anti-pastoral
The second major characteristic of Thomas’s poetic engagement with
nature, and the one that I will highlight and explore
followed a broadly chronological trajectory across these chapters (as well as within each chapter), so as to provide a sense of Jacobson’s development as a novelist.
My rationale for this structure is that Jacobson’s career can be broadly divided into three phases: the early work, which is concerned primarily with the poetics of what I call the ‘anti-pastoral’ and the literary politics of being a comic writer; the middle period, which sees a shift in emphasis towards questions of masculinity, mortality and sexual politics; and what we might provisionally call late