in Howard Jacobson

An overview of Jacobson’s career, the critical reception of his novels, and the structure of the book, setting out the range of different roles that he performs: novelist; critic; journalist; and public intellectual.


During the course of writing this book, I have read virtually every word written by and about Howard Jacobson; not just the fiction and the articles and reviews of the fiction; not just the non-fiction books, interviews, features and criticism; but every column he wrote for the Independent over a period of seventeen years, and, for shorter periods of time, in The Times, the Guardian and Tablet; every one of the series of travel pieces he wrote for the Sunday Times; every occasional piece of journalism and every broadcast, podcast, debate and interview. I know what Jacobson thinks about everything, from darts to handbags; Australia to Israel; Leonard Cohen to Luciano Pavarotti. At the same time, I don’t really know much about Jacobson at all, partly because, as he has pointed out, ‘I am not the I of my novels’ (2017b: 159) – an observation that might be extended to his non-fiction, on the basis that even in his most opinionated pieces of journalism, there is always an element of performance, signified formally by the fact that he habitually employs the self-conscious ‘we’, rather than the first-person pronoun – and partly because he is a man of many parts and contradictions. Fred Inglis has written that ‘[t]here are two Howard Jacobsons’, the first ‘the author of an unrivalled sequence of . . . high-tensile novels about – ha! – sex and the city’ and the second ‘the newspaper columnist’ and ‘the man at the front of [a number of] television series’ (Inglis 2002: 6). Yet there are arguably many more than two Jacobsons. A Leavisite moralist with a puritanical streak, and a chronicler of dark sexual obsessions and perversions; a highly serious humanist intellectual and a hilariously comic provocateur; a passionate polemicist and an ardent advocate of ‘ambiguity and contradiction’ (Jacobson 2012a: xiii); the author of (in his own words) ‘the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere’ (Buckley 2006: 23), whose literary heroes are Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence, Jacobson revels in ambivalence. These protean qualities are reflected in the range and diversity of his work.

Best known for his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question (2010), Jacobson is, at the time of writing, the author of sixteen works of fiction and five non-fiction books. He is also a journalist, broadcaster and public intellectual who has cultivated a misanthropic public persona, as indicated by the title of a collection of his weekly columns for the Independent, Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It (2011). Jacobson has written many different kinds of books: from academic studies to campus comedies; from travelogues to psychodramas; from social-realist novels to dystopian allegories. Although much of his work revolves around questions of Jewish identity, male sexuality and the nature of comedy (the topics which provide the organising principles of this book), his subjects vary tremendously, from the reincarnation of Thomas Hardy as a neurotic North London bibliophile to the life of the biblical Cain; from a contemporary reworking of The Merchant of Venice to a reimagining of Donald Trump’s story as a modern-day (per)version of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas; from table tennis to the Holocaust. My objective in this book – the first monograph to be devoted to Jacobson – will be to do justice to the rich complexity and nuance of his work, rather than to pin its author down.

Jacobson was a late starter as a novelist. His first book, Shakespeare’s Magnanimity (1978), an academic study focusing on Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus co-authored with Wilbur Sanders, a contemporary at Cambridge, does contain a hint of Jacobson’s creative aspirations in the form of an ‘induction’ titled ‘Please, no more cakes and ale’, in which various allegorically named characters debate the merits of Twelfth Night, offering a number of pithy aphorisms along the way, for example Snipe’s contention that ‘All good writing is comic’ (Sanders and Jacobson 1978: 16). Yet Jacobson’s first novel was not published until 1983, by which time he was forty years old. Its title, Coming From Behind, as well as containing a lewd pun, slyly alluded to his belated arrival on the literary scene and to the accompanying imperative to catch up with the pack. Drawing on his years as a lecturer at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, the novel is a campus comedy that seemed to place Jacobson in the company of other academics who had written comic novels about academic life such as Tom Sharpe, Malcom Bradbury and David Lodge. Whereas novels such as Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue (1974) and Lodge’s Changing Places (1975) are intricately plotted and derive much of their humour from farcical scenarios and satirical characterisation, the comedy of Coming From Behind relies largely on Jacobson’s linguistic virtuosity and the incongruities arising from the divided loyalties and values of Sefton Goldberg, a Jewish academic caught between the Scylla of Wrottesley Polytechnic, with its cheerful philistinism and dogmatic adherence to literary theory, and the Charybdis of Cambridge University, with its arcane rituals and casual antisemitism. Peeping Tom (1984), published the year after Coming From Behind, seemed to confirm that Jacobson was an author in a hurry to make up for lost time, and to mark the emergence of his signature style as a novelist. A heady brew of sexual shenanigans, literary allusions and a comedy of Jewish otherness that has more in common with Woody Allen and Philip Roth than with any of Jacobson’s British predecessors or peers, its central conceit – that Barney Fugelman, a Jewish bookseller living an uneventful suburban late-twentieth-century existence, turns out be hosting the reincarnated spirit of Thomas Hardy – neatly internalises in the person of its protagonist some of the cultural tensions that unbalanced Sefton Goldberg in Coming From Behind.

Rather than consolidating or enhancing his reputation, Redback (1986), Jacobson’s third novel, represented something of a setback. Whereas the relative weakness of plotting in his first two novels was more than compensated for by the comic brio of Jacobson’s prose and the cogency and clarity of his ideas, in Redback the meandering aimlessness of the narrative is exacerbated by a self-regarding, florid, strained voice that seems simultaneously to be listless and hyperactive. The uneasiness and unevenness of tone in the novel may be related to difficulties in negotiating the relationship between narrator and author. Although his first two novels contained autobiographical elements, Redback drew heavily on Jacobson’s years as an undergraduate at Cambridge and lecturer in Australia, so that I wonder whether, in order to distance himself from his material, he felt it necessary to take on the identity and voice of a protagonist/narrator whose own background was very different from his own (his political views are antithetical to Jacobson’s, and he is one of only four non-Jewish protagonists in his oeuvre). Another explanation for the baroque excesses of Redback might be found in the contrasting tone of In the Land of Oz (1987), Jacobson’s non-fiction account of travelling across Australia, published the year after his third novel. Where Redback gravitates towards the grandiose and the grotesque, In the Land of Oz is Jacobson at his most restrained and understated. It is a meditative, measured exploration of a culture at once familiar and alien to Jacobson, a book in which Jacobson seems deliberately to subdue the vivid qualities of his writing, preferring to allow the colour to be provided by the people he meets. In this sense, as well as in their subject matter, Redback and In the Land of Oz seem to be companion pieces, in which Jacobson diverted all his most self-indulgent impulses into the novel and all his self-effacing discipline into the travel book. Both suffered as a result, and it is probably no coincidence that, following a burst of creativity that saw four books published in the space of four years, there was a break of five years before Jacobson published his next book.

If The Very Model of a Man (1992) did not necessarily revive Jacobson’s fortunes as a novelist, it certainly represented an important landmark in his career. It is formally and thematically more ambitious than any of his previous work and in my view is his most underrated book: a largely overlooked novel that stands among his best work. Telling the story of Cain through alternating passages of first- and third-person narration, in Jacobson’s version the first murderer is also the first artist, a professional storyteller whose guilt and self-loathing is matched by his eloquence and intelligence. Whereas Redback strained for its effects, in The Very Model of a Man Jacobson’s prose is possessed of an apparently effortless grace and beauty; whereas in his previous novels psychological complexity was sometimes sacrificed at the altar of the author’s wit, here it is allied to it. The Very Model of a Man is a poetically profound and profoundly poetic novel, one that treats the weightiest of themes (faith, fatherhood, fidelity, fraternal rivalry, the nature of creation and comedy) with an irreverence that is never facetious and a seriousness that is never pretentious. With one or two exceptions, The Very Model of a Man did not receive the reception it deserved and Jacobson was, understandably, knocked back somewhat, raising the possibility in interviews that it might be his last novel.

In fact, it would be six years before he published his next work of fiction. He did publish two further books in the intervening period, Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews (1993), part travel book, part memoir, part ethnographic study, and Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (1997), a study of the history, theory and practice of comedy, but in both cases they appeared as tie-ins to television series of the same name that Jacobson fronted. If it appeared that Jacobson might have decided to focus on an alternative career as a broadcaster, however, this idea was dispelled by the publication of No More Mr Nice Guy (1998). This ironically titled novel – Jacobson’s most scabrous and scandalous to date – grew partly out of the disintegration of his second marriage but was also clearly indebted to Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater (1995) and to the research that had gone into Seriously Funny. Indeed, No More Mr Nice Guy has a similar relationship to the book that directly preceded it as Redback has to In the Land of Oz, which is to say that it explores many of the same preoccupations in fictional form. Although not one of Jacobson’s best novels, it contains some brilliant set-pieces and occupies a pivotal position in terms of his career as a novelist. Prior to its publication, Jacobson’s commitment to the novel form and his place in the canon of contemporary British novelists had seemed uncertain. Since its appearance, however, Jacobson has published at least a novel every other year (eleven in total) and has not published any further non-fiction books, with the exception of two collections of the weekly columns he published in the Independent newspaper from 1998 to 2016, columns which he regards as themselves ‘more like little novels than articles’ (Jacobson 2012a: xiii). In that time, he has won the Man Booker Prize once and been shortlisted a further time and longlisted two further times, in addition to winning the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize twice.

The first of these prizes was won by Jacobson’s next novel, The Mighty Walzer (1999), which was awarded both the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. It is also the only one of Jacobson’s books to date to have been adapted for the stage.1 In my first book, Post-War Jewish Fiction: Ambivalence, Self-Explanation and Transatlantic Connections (2001), I proclaimed my belief that the novel was ‘the nearest thing we have to a great British-Jewish novel’ (Brauner 2001: 77), and although Kalooki Nights rivals it I would stand by that statement. The Mighty Walzer follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Oliver Walzer, focusing on his career as a table tennis player of some distinction in the Manchester area. It is Jacobson’s most autobiographical novel, drawing heavily on his upbringing in Prestwich and his education in neighbouring Whitefield, and its lyrical descriptions of table tennis manage improbably to imbue the sport with a romance which is, however, invariably undercut by the bathos implicit in that term (table tennis) and the alternative (sing-song sounding) ping-pong.

Who’s Sorry Now? (2002), Jacobson’s next novel, was the first of his books to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. A love square, or perhaps pentagon, the novel revisits many of the themes of his earlier fiction but in a new milieu: that of suburban, middle-class, middle-aged London. This is also the setting of Jacobson’s next novel, The Making of Henry (2004), but whereas Who’s Sorry Now? is a sardonic farce with a bleak ending, its successor is an elegiac, meditative novel with the most optimistic ending of any of his books, bar perhaps Live a Little. Whereas Marvin Kreitman, the protagonist of Who’s Sorry Now?, is a serial adulterer, a sentimental masochist whose actions are both self-destructive and destructive to those closest to him, the eponymous protagonist of The Making of Henry is ultimately redeemed by, and in turn redeems, those he loves.

Kalooki Nights (2006) became the second of Jacobson’s novels to be longlisted but not shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is arguably Jacobson’s most ambitious novel and certainly one of his finest. It combines the comedy of growing up Jewish in Manchester, which had been a keynote of The Mighty Walzer and a background refrain in The Making of Henry, with a satirical exploration of the ways in which the post-Holocaust generation of British Jews identified, and in some cases over-identified, themselves with the victims of the Nazi genocide. If Kalooki Nights is, as Jacobson claimed, ‘the most Jewish novel written by anyone, ever’ (Buckley 2006: 23) and also one of his funniest, then its successor, The Act of Love (2008), is the least Jewish and the least humorous of all his books. One of only three novels in his oeuvre to feature a non-Jewish protagonist (three and a half, if we include Live a Little, which has one non-Jewish and one half-Jewish protagonist), the novel is also atypical in terms of its style and tone. Whereas his previous novels had tended to represent male sexuality comically or tragicomically, The Act of Love treats sexual obsession melodramatically, albeit with mordant irony; whereas Jacobson’s prose is characteristically expansive and ebullient – typically, more is more, in Jacobson – the narrative voice of The Act of Love is imbued with a claustrophobic intensity and numbing narcissism. Partly, The Act of Love seems to be a generic exercise: its protagonist, an antiquarian bookseller named Felix Quinn, is an unreliable narrator in the mould of Ford Madox Ford’s John Dowell and the novel is suffused with literary allusions, particularly (and again, unusually for Jacobson) to European novels of sexual obsession.2 Yet it also has a haunting power and a tautness rarely found elsewhere in Jacobson’s work.

Jacobson’s next novel, The Finkler Question (2010), was a game-changer. By the time of its publication, he had a secure reputation as one of the most eminent British novelists of his generation, but it seemed increasingly likely that the most prestigious British literary prize would elude him, as it has so far for contemporaries such as Martin Amis and a number of the next generation such as Will Self and Ali Smith, not to mention younger writers such as Zadie Smith and David Mitchell. If it is not necessarily his strongest novel, The Finkler Question is quintessentially Jacobsonian: it is a novel about male friendship and rivalry, mortality, Jewish identity and the social, sexual and political mores of twenty-first-century middle-class London life. It also tackles the fierce debates over antisemitism, Zionism and Israel in contemporary Britain with the same fearlessness with which Kalooki Nights had critiqued the tendency among some British Jews to fetishise the Holocaust. The desire of its protagonist, Julian Treslove, to believe that he might pass as Jewish and the desire of his old schoolfriend, Sam Finkler, to show his shame as a Jew at the actions of Israel also make it a quintessential post-war Jewish novel, as I defined it in Post-War Jewish Fiction.3

Since The Finkler Question, Jacobson has published five further novels. Zoo Time (2012) is his most self-reflexive, metafictional novel – a book that satirises all aspects of literary culture, including its own pretensions. J (2014) is a dystopian novel set in a future world in which a second Holocaust has occurred and been covered up. Ostensibly a new departure for Jacobson, it actually revisits many of the themes of Kalooki Nights and The Finkler Question, albeit in the form of a Kafkaesque parable. It was deservedly shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and might have won, were it not for a curiously capricious intervention by John Sutherland.4 J was followed by Shylock is My Name (2016), a rewriting of The Merchant of Venice commissioned by the Hogarth Press as part of a special series of novels commemorating the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. It’s an uneven novel – completely compelling when dealing with the relationship between Shylock and the contemporary Jewish art dealer Simon Strulovitch, whose life echoes and ultimately redeems his, but rather less so when indulging in some heavy-handed satire of contemporary celebrity culture.

Pussy (2017), Jacobson’s satire on Donald Trump, is perhaps the strangest book he has published to date: full of topical references and yet self-consciously archaic in form (the book is modelled on eighteenth-century picaresque quests for wisdom such as Candide and Rasselas); extravagant in its conceits and yet muted in tone; ultimately more melancholy than furious. According to Jacobson, it was written very rapidly, as a spontaneous response to the outcome of the US election in 2016, and perhaps as a consequence it lacks the polish and poise of his best work.5

Finally, Live a Little (2019) is the warmest and most touching of Jacobson’s books, and one of his best novels. It tells the story of two nonagenarians – an old man haunted by memories of episodes from his past that he finds shameful and an old woman struggling to remember all the details of her colourful history – and their gradual coming together. It is beautifully written and contains some of Jacobson’s most memorable characters: not just the two protagonists, Beryl Dusinberry and Shimi Carmelli, but Beryl’s carers, Euphoria and Nastya, and Shimi’s coterie of admirers, an informal sorority of North London Jewish widows.

Critical reception

In spite of having one of the most impressive bodies of work of any contemporary British novelist, and having belatedly joined the ranks of Booker Prize winners, Jacobson remains a marginal figure in the academy. There is no mention of Jacobson in most of the major monographs published in the field over the last three decades6 or in the notable collections of essays published over the same period.7 Even in the two most recent (at the time of writing), mammoth volumes in the field – The Routledge Companion to Twenty-First Century Literary Fiction (O’Gormon and Eaglestone 2019) and The Cambridge Companion to British Fiction 1980–2018 (Boxall 2019) – Jacobson is only mentioned in passing, three times and twice, respectively. Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, J.G. Ballard, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Jonathan Coe, Jim Crace, Margaret Drabble, John Fowles, Janice Galloway, Sarah Hall, Alan Hollinghurst, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, James Kelman, A.L. Kennedy, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi, Tom McCarthy, Jon McGregor, David Mitchell, Caryl Phillips, Salman Rushdie, Will Self, Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Irvine Welsh and Jeanette Winterson have all had monographs and/or chapters in books dedicated to them, but not Jacobson.

To date, the most substantial discussions of Jacobson’s work in monographs are to be found in my own Post-War Jewish Fiction: Ambivalence, Self-Explanation and Transatlantic Connections (2001), and in Ruth Gilbert’s Writing Jewish: Contemporary British-Jewish Literature (2013). Whereas I focused on Peeping Tom, Gilbert is most interested in Roots Schmoots, Kalooki Nights and The Finkler Question. Her readings of these texts are perceptive and persuasive, although her contention that Jacobson’s fiction ‘is dominated by a series of hapless Jewish men who suffer repeated romantic and sexual humiliations at the hands of the heartless Aryan women whom they find unbearably cruel and magnetically irresistible’ (Gilbert 2013: 6) applies only to four of his novels at most and is rather reductive even in those cases. She is on firmer ground with her other summary of Jacobson’s distinctive contribution to the contemporary novel – ‘[i]n his presentation of fraught gender relations, messy family lives, and unsettling sexual desires, Jacobson . . . rewrites the English novel of manners, turning it into a particularly British-Jewish comedy of bad manners’ (107) – though even this more inclusive generalisation doesn’t do justice to the range and reach of his work, which extends beyond comedy, beyond manners and beyond the United Kingdom.

There is also an excellent discussion of some of Jacobson’s work in Nadia Valman’s essay, ‘Jewish fictions’, in The Oxford History of the Novel in English vol 7: British and Irish Fiction since 1940 (Boxall and Cheyette 2018). Focusing on the ‘over-determination of post-war Jewish male sexuality’ in Jacobson’s fiction in The Mighty Walzer and Kalooki Nights, Valman argues that ‘the narrative of being Jewish is for Jacobson fundamentally the heroic drama of men engaged in Oedipal struggle with their fathers, and in competition with other men, processes that are profoundly impaired by the legacy of the Holocaust and Jewish assimilation’ (Valman 2018: 357, 359). I certainly recognise the emphasis on ‘competition with other men’, about which I will have more to say later, but I’m not sure how central the Oedipal struggle is to Jacobson’s work; at any rate, the drama of Jacobson’s male protagonists is more mock-heroic than heroic. Like Gilbert, Valman is more persuasive when engaging in detailed readings of texts than when making generalisations about Jacobson’s work. For example, she claims that the narrators of Jacobson’s novels are ‘all middle-aged men reflecting on a lifetime of romantic and professional disaster’, who ‘invariably transform material failure into moral triumph through the sheer force of their wit’ (Valman 2018: 356). In fact, most of Jacobson’s novels are told by unnamed, omniscient third-person narrators who are neither explicitly gendered nor assigned a particular age, while his protagonists, with whom Valman is presumably conflating them, vary in age from their thirties to their nineties, and two of them (Ailinn in J and Beryl in Live a Little) are women, albeit both these novels were published after Valman’s essay and in both works they share the spotlight with men (Kevern and Shimi, respectively). Moreover, Valman’s description of the transformation of ‘material failure into moral triumph’ is fundamentally misleading: with the exceptions of No More Mr Nice Guy and The Mighty Walzer, which have bittersweet endings, and The Making of Henry and Live a Little, which offer a redemption, albeit of a qualified kind, to their protagonists, the denouements of Jacobson’s novels tend to be rather bleak, with their protagonists frequently being punished either metaphorically or literally (as in Redback, Who’s Sorry Now? and The Act of Love), often estranged from lovers and family members, sometimes depressed and occasionally suicidal.

In Michael Woolf’s essay ‘Negotiating the self: Jewish fiction in Britain since 1945’, in the collection Other Britain, Other British (Lee 1995), there is a page-long discussion of Coming From Behind, in which Woolf argues that Sefton Goldberg’s ‘comic fate is without religious or spiritual dimension and is defined only negatively’ and that he is ‘an amalgamation of stereotypes that combine to create a lurid portrait of the Jew which exploits anti-semitic stereotypes and through comedy subverts and transforms them into laughter’ (Woolf 1995: 139). The grammatical awkwardness of this latter clause, in which ‘stereotypes’ are said to combine to create a ‘portrait’ which ‘exploits . . . stereotypes’, seems to betray a semantic confusion: Woolf’s diction (‘defined only negatively’ and ‘lurid’, as well as the aforementioned repetition of ‘stereotypes’) seems to be tending towards a condemnation of Jacobson’s work, but the sentence concludes with an apparent recuperation of Jacobson’s poetics.

In his essay ‘What the porter saw: On the academic novel’, Bruce Robbins reads Coming From Behind as part of a ‘masculinist backlash against feminism, homosexuality and “political correctness”’, which manifests itself in an ‘over-strenuous insistence on the hero’s heterosexuality, or his heroic refusal to be political correct [sic] about homosexuality’ (Robbins 2006: 259, 260). Again, the rhetorical awkwardness of Robbins’ prose – repeating the cliché of ‘political correctness’ in successive sentences, the first time with scare quotes and the second time in the form of a solecism – suggests the strain in his interpretation of the novel.

In The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction 1950–2000 (Head 2002), there is a single paragraph on Peeping Tom but no mention of Jacobson in the brief section devoted to ‘Jewish-British Writing’ or elsewhere, while in Bryan Cheyette’s essay on ‘British-Jewish writing and the turn towards the diaspora’, there are brief mentions of Jacobson ‘rewr[iting] the campus novel in Coming from Behind . . . and Judais[ing] the fiction of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens in Peeping Tom . . . and The Mighty Walzer’ and then later of Jacobson’s ‘comically empty characterisation of Jewishness as the Other to Englishness in his early fiction’ contrasting with the ‘comprehensive account of the myriad versions of diasporic and national Jewishness in his Roots Schmoots’ (Cheyette 2004: 709, 710, 711).

There are also a number of brief discussions of Jacobson in The Edinburgh Companion to Modern Jewish Fiction (Brauner and Stähler 2015). Axel Stähler uses Jacobson’s statement that ‘Israel exists only poetically, in the imaginations of those who cannot adequately describe themselves without it’ (cited in Stähler 2015a: 237) as the departure point for, and one of the structuring themes of, his essays on the representation of Israel in British Jewish Fiction prior to, and following, the first Lebanon War of 1982. In the second of these essays Stähler includes an intelligent reading of The Finkler Question, situating it in relation to work by fellow British Jewish authors Bernice Rubens and Clive Sinclair (Stähler 2015b). In the same volume, Sue Vice’s essay on British Jewish Holocaust fiction has a section devoted to Kalooki Nights, in which she concludes that the novel’s ‘mixture of diegetic and extra-diegetic echoes of Renno’s career in the person of Manny Washinsky presents an overdetermined view of British Jewish responses to the Holocaust’ (Vice 2015: 274).8

In addition to these sections of book chapters, there have been a handful of journal articles devoted to Jacobson’s work, albeit almost invariably in conjunction with another writer.9 Two of these articles have looked at Jacobson alongside the American Jewish novelist Michael Chabon. The first of these, Andrzej Gasiorek’s ‘Michael Chabon, Howard Jacobson, and Post-Holocaust fiction’, explores the ways in which Kalooki Nights and Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) ‘address themselves to the displaced effects of the Holocaust: survivor guilt, the experience of childhood in the shadow of its memory, the sense of devastation that pervades postwar Jewish communities, the unbridgeable gaps between the experiences of postwar children and their parents or grandparents’ (Gasiorek 2012: 881). Gasiorek argues that both novels ‘draw on the resources of realism but go beyond it by turning to the fantastic and the grotesque and by engaging with the ethics of contemporary fictional modes through ekphrasis’ (899), resulting in works in which, paradoxically, ‘the Holocaust is both known and not known, both acknowledged and warded off’ (882). Gasiorek is particularly good on the self-reflexive aspects of Kalooki Nights, pointing out that ‘Kalooki Nights doesn’t try to represent the Holocaust in its totality but rather addresses the question of how it might now be talked about, how its multiple consequences might be faced, and what the political implications are of current depictions of it’ (881) – and he finishes with some brief, thoughtful reflections on how these issues recur in The Finkler Question – but he doesn’t do justice to the sheer comic chutzpah of Kalooki Nights.

More recently, Mike Witcombe, in ‘A comedy of eruvs: (Re)Locating Jewish identity in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Howard Jacobson’s J’ has argued that in these novels ‘the blurring of home space boundaries . . . takes place in an analogous manner to the complex, dialogic negotiations of identity that take place in eruvin’ (Witcombe 2016: 30). For Witcombe, ‘J represents an extension of a playful attitude towards themes of space and Jewish identity that Jacobson has been honing throughout his long career’ (33). Moreover, Witcombe identifies ‘a sense of deliberate excess that has been largely ignored by reviewers and critics thus far; its sense of zaniness prevents the novel from sliding into the polemical critique that many dystopian novels are rooted in’ (32). ‘Zaniness’ doesn’t seem to me quite the right word for what is a sober, and sobering, book, but Witcombe’s point about ‘deliberate excess’ is very perceptive: J is a novel of proliferating texts, paratexts and subtexts that seem to spill over, and out of, its narrative context.

In ‘No laughing matter: Humor and the Holocaust in Woody Allen, Shalom Auslander, and Howard Jacobson’, Chris Madden identifies in all three artists ‘a marked tendency to foreground what Dominic LaCapra calls “empathic unsettlement,” an affective response to traumatic history orchestrated by the stylistic and formal characteristics of an artwork in ways that resist full identification with the experience of the victim’ (Madden 2019: 29). Madden argues that Kalooki Nights ‘complicates Henri Bergson’s assertion that “laughter requires an indifference, a detachment from sensibility and emotion”’, suggesting that irony works in Jacobson’s novel to make the ‘heart . . . dynamically alive’ through laughter, rather than in spite of it (37). Madden is persuasive on the complexity of the novel’s comedy but I’m not sure that LaCapra’s theoretical framework does the work Madden wants it to in relation to Jacobson’s novel, partly because it is predicated on the notion that ‘victims’ of ‘traumatic history’ can be easily identified as such, whereas Kalooki Nights troubles and ultimately destabilises these terms.

Hannah Gallant, in her essay ‘Covenant and female sexuality in Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name and Elizabeth Nunez’s Prospero’s Daughter’, mystifyingly claims that Jacobson’s novel ‘explores Jewish heritage, with a specific focus on female purity and sexuality as a means of maintaining this heritage through bloodline’, concluding that, like Nunez’s rewriting of The Tempest, it ‘expose[s] the potential pitfalls of promoting exclusive identity groups without first considering how these identity groups use racism and gender inequality to perpetuate their existence’ (Gallant 2019: 100). At the time of writing, I have only been able to access what appears to be the abstract for the essay, rather than the essay itself, so it may be that the final piece reveals subtleties that are not immediately apparent, but on the face of it this seems to be a case of a text being crowbarred awkwardly into an over-determined reading in the service of a political agenda. There are many debates that might be staged on the sexual politics of Shylock is My Name, but it is too dialogical and open-ended a text to represent the kind of conservative ideological/theological values with which Gallant seems to want to invest it.

Unlike these other articles, which all place Jacobson in dialogue with American, usually American Jewish, contemporaries, Axel Stähler juxtaposes his work with that of a fellow British Jewish novelist, Clive Sinclair. In ‘Antisemitism and Israel in British Jewish fiction: Perspectives on Clive Sinclair’s Blood Libels (1985) and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (2010)’, Stähler suggests that for Jacobson ‘Israel has been turned into an abstract concept, an abbreviation for, and a transnational marker of, Jewishness, which has an enormous impact on the construction of Jewish identities also in Britain’ (Stähler 2013: 116). Taking his cues from Jacobson’s own comments on the ‘intellectual violence’ of some of the discourse circulating in Britain in recent years over the Israel/Palestine conflict, Stähler situates his reading of The Finkler Question in the context of ‘a pervasive latter-day antisemitism which has indeed steadily grown in the wake of anti-Zionist sentiments’ (122), while at the same time arguing that ‘the British Jewish imaginary of Israel’ (121) needs to be understood ‘not only in the context of contemporary British Jewish cultural creativity but also of the earlier literary engagement with Israel in British Jewish fiction’ (112). This latter point is particularly important: in the other journal articles on Jacobson he is read in a transnational context, but Stähler reminds us that his representations of antisemitism and Israel are part of a tradition of British Jewish writing that is often overlooked.

Why has so little of substance been written on Jacobson? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that his work is not easily accommodated in any of the dominant paradigms of academic discourse on contemporary fiction in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: namely, postmodernism, postcolonialism, trauma theory and the historiographical turn. It might also be partly because Jacobson often seems to stand apart from most of his contemporaries. He is neither a social realist nor a postmodernist; he writes compulsively about ethnicity, but an ethnicity that has, historically, not had much critical currency in the British academy; and he is a comic writer to an extent that does not apply to any of the other writers mentioned in the list at the beginning of this section – with the exceptions of Martin Amis and Jonathan Coe – which is something of a handicap while there remains a reluctance in the literary establishment to take comic writers seriously. As Nick Rennison puts it in his entry on Jacobson in Contemporary British Novelists: ‘[t]he idea persists that no writer as funny as Jacobson is . . . can be thought of, in the final analysis, as a “serious” novelist’ (Rennison 2004: 97–98). To his credit, Rennison concludes by challenging this idea, arguing that ‘his novels . . . have always been seriously funny and any critique of his work needs to take that essential seriousness as its starting point’ (98).

Given the relative dearth of scholarship on Jacobson, the reviews of his work assume particular importance in any consideration of his critical reputation. Rather than attempting to trace the reception of each of his novels, I will draw attention to some of the main trends in these reviews. From the outset, Jacobson has been acclaimed, often even by those who are otherwise grudging in their praise, as a great prose stylist. In the only review of The Very Model of a Man to begin to do it justice, Jonathan Kirsch reflects on the way that ‘Jacobson . . . picks up words as if they were gemstones, turns them over in the light, peers deeply into their structure and shows us how they sparkle’ (Kirsch 1995: 4), writing with alliterative ardour of the way in which ‘our senses are sometimes pricked, sometimes pampered, but we are always pumped along by Jacobson’s throbbing prose’ (Kirsch 1995: 4). Less poetic, but sometimes no less effusive, tributes to Jacobson’s style are to be found in Alex Ivanovitch’s review of No More Mr Nice Guy (‘Jacobson’s prose . . . grapples intelligently with bread-and-butter English and . . . speaks Frank’s endless bad faith in a way that leaves us nicely on our toes’ [Ivanovitch 1998: 86]); Hephzibah Anderson’s review of Who’s Sorry Now? (‘its prose pulsates with fresh images’ [Anderson 2002: 99]); Nicholas Lezard’s review of The Mighty Walzer (‘Jacobson’s cadences, rhythms and vocabulary [are] . . . a particularly rich broth of Mancunian Yiddish’ [Lezard 2000]); Will Buckley’s review of Kalooki Nights (‘prose sharper and brighter than any of his contemporaries’ [Buckley 2006: 23]); Tim Souster’s review of The Act of Love (‘Jacobson’s prose crackles with intelligence and exuberance’ [Souster 2008: 20]); Edward Docx’s and Tom Adair’s reviews of The Finkler Question (‘beautifully written . . . the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect’ [Docx 2010: 37], ‘the wittiest, most poignant and sharply intelligent comic prose in the English language’ [Adair 2010: 7]); Nicholas Lezard’s review of Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It (‘Jacobson is one of the great sentence-builders of our time’ [Lezard 2012: 16]); James Walton’s review of J (‘Sentence by sentence, he remains perhaps the best British author around’ [Walton 2014]); Phil Brown’s review of Shylock is My Name (‘elastic precision’ [Brown 2016: 12]); and Tim Adams’ review of Live a Little (‘virtuoso way with words’ [Adams 2019]).

Other reviewers seem to find Jacobson’s eloquence suspect, suggesting that the facility with which he writes has somehow narrowed the remit, or limited the ambition, of his work. Jonathan Derbyshire calls him ‘a gifted phrase-maker’, but one who ‘sometimes seems addicted to his own fluency and funniness, essentially a voluptuary of complaint’ (Derbyshire 2006: 32). In her review of No More Mr Nice Guy, Mary Loudon argues that there is a mismatch between Jacobson’s linguistic brilliance and his ambition:

[Jacobson is] one of the funniest writers alive . . . When his writing works it absolutely pulsates with nerve and edge; it is colossal in its comic precision; at its best it simply tears you apart. Yet the anger with which it is fuelled is also its flaw, for there is surely self-destruction at work when a writer capable of such parodic breadth and depth cannot pick on a subject his own size, choosing instead something far too small for his mighty talent. (Loudon 1998: 39)

This is an odd judgement that simultaneously makes grand claims for Jacobson and undermines those claims. It is not clear to me what the relationship is between the ‘anger’ that Loudon identifies in Jacobson’s work and the ‘self-destruction’ that she sees as its result. Moreover, the tensions in the passage manifest themselves in some puzzling formulations: ‘parodic breadth and depth’ is something of an oxymoron, since parody is a mode of writing that tends, by its nature, to have a very specific purview, one that is reliant on a particular source text or author; and the imperative ‘pick on someone your own size’ is ordinarily used to reproach a bully who is terrorising someone more vulnerable than themself, so that Loudon’s adaptation of it as a way of urging Jacobson to aspire to a ‘subject’ more commensurate with his ‘mighty’ talent is at best jarring, at worst nonsensical. The other striking aspect of Loudon’s critique is that it contrasts starkly with the complaint of James Wood that Jacobson ‘cannot take his foot off the exaggeration pedal’ (Wood 2010: 86) and the similar claim by Anthony Cummins that ‘[o]verstatement is key to Jacobson’s style . . . hyperbole is just a habit’ (Cummins 2012). At any rate, Jacobson himself would probably not concede that the habit of hyperbole is necessarily a problem for a novelist. In his introduction to the 2004 Vintage Classic edition of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), Jacobson locates Heller in a tradition of comic novelists ‘that begins with Rabelais and gets a second wind with Dickens’, whose work is characterised by ‘inexhaustibility and seeming garrulousness’ (Jacobson 2004a: v) and by ‘extravagance and verbal excess’, qualities of which he says: ‘If those are faults, we say, then hang the virtues’ (vi). There have been other dissenting voices – Leo Robson expresses irritation at what he sees as Jacobson’s fondness for ‘the glib thrill of the one-sentence paragraph’ (Robson 2010: 52), while Noah Richler baldly asserts that ‘Zoo Time is execrably written’ (Richler 2012: W.P.15), without any elaboration – but in general reviewers of Jacobson’s work have regarded his style as his greatest strength and have been more equivocal about his plotting and characterisation.

A common complaint among reviewers of Jacobson’s fiction has been that his novels are not well-plotted. In some cases, this has been cited as evidence of larger failings, as in the scathing reviews of Zoo Time by Theo Tait, who observes that ‘the plot is minimal, and largely circular’ (Tait 2012: 9) and Noah Richler, who finds that ‘[p]lot is in short shrift [sic]’ (Richler 2012: W.P.15). For both Tait and Richler, the alleged weakness of its plot was the least of the novel’s offences, albeit significant enough to note. More commonly, however, problems with the plot have been cited as caveats to otherwise positive reviews. Humphrey Carpenter thought aspects of Coming From Behind ‘flawless’ but felt that ‘in the matter of comic plotting . . . [it] seemed to . . . fail’ (Carpenter 1984: 23); John Sutherland found Redback ‘as funny as its predecessors but less evenly so’, as a consequence of a narrative of ‘considerable length . . . moving episodically and fitfully across vast areas of time and space’ (Sutherland 1986: 13). In his review of No More Mr Nice Guy, Bryan Cheyette observed that ‘[a]t his best, Jacobson’s fiction is pure entertainment, not strong on character or plot, but jam-packed with exuberant wit and comic invention’ (Cheyette 1998b: 6); in his review of Shylock is My Name, Adam Lively praises many aspects of the novel before adding the qualification: ‘Unfortunately, there is also the plot’ (Lively 2016: 47); in her review of The Making of Henry, Helen Rumbelow laments that ‘[t]he plot meanders as much as Henry, failing to deliver a strong narrative’, while at the same time referring to ‘the sheer pleasure of reading a book that is so nearly great’ (Rumbelow 2004: 14). If for Rumbelow the weakness of its plot prevents The Making of Henry from being truly ‘great’, for Michael Bywater the flimsiness of the novel’s architecture paradoxically highlights the brilliance of the book:

The bare scaffolding of the plot is no more than a collection of poles and planks: people working away, the occasional crash, cries of alarm, the laborious hammering of life. Behind the dust-sheets Jacobson is presiding, with absolute authority and control, over the construction of a masterpiece. (Bywater 2006: 24)

What Bywater implies here – that plotting for Jacobson is not so much a weakness as an unnecessary distraction – is made explicit in Eileen Battersby’s review of Who’s Sorry Now?, in which she observes that the plot is ‘tissue-thin’ as a result more of indifference than incompetence: ‘Jacobson’s grasp of [plot] is about as shaky, or as deliberately irrelevant as it could be’ (Battersby 2002: 59).

These sentiments echo Jacobson’s own pronouncements on plot, which he has dismissed as a ‘superfluous distraction’ (Jacobson 1989b: 42), or, as the narrator of The Making of Henry puts it: ‘nothing more than the way things turn out, a mere arbitrary intrusion into the game of life’ (Jacobson 2005a: 268). In a public question-and-answer session as part of the Guardian’s Book Club feature on Kalooki Nights, Jacobson told John Mullan, ‘I abominate plot’ (Mullan 2010: 6), a bald statement on which he has elaborated in a number of interviews, claiming to be not ‘very interested in action’ (Fraser 2019), and to ‘want to write . . . sentences’ but ‘never really . . . to write a story’ (Jacobson 2019b). As he put it in an article in the Guardian: ‘[m]any a trivial novel has been written about an important subject, and many a profound one about nothing in particular’ (Jacobson 2015b: 17). Whether it is the result of a carefully considered credo or a convenient rationale, it is clear that Jacobson is a writer for whom voice, in all its discursive, digressive dynamism, has always taken priority over the imperatives of storytelling.

With the odd exception – Humphrey Carpenter, albeit on the limited evidence of Jacobson’s first two novels, thought that his ‘forte is character-drawing of a lovingly vicious kind’ (Carpenter 1984: 23) and Holly Baxter ‘found [her]self caring deeply for the characters [in Live a Little], and even shedding a tear’ (Baxter 2019) – characterisation has no more been regarded as one of Jacobson’s strengths as a novelist than plot, but again there is no consensus on the extent to which this damages his credentials as a novelist. Jacobson has repeatedly inveighed against what he has referred to as ‘reading-group inanities’: namely the notion that the measure of success when it comes to fictional characters is whether readers can easily identify with them and/or find them likeable (Jacobson 2012a: 263). For Jacobson, ‘[e]ncountering what is not you, indeed what might well be inimical to you, is one of the first reasons for reading anything’ (Jacobson 2012a: 267). Some reviewers do indeed object to his characterisation in these terms but others make more formalist objections. James Wood, for example, detects ‘a second-hand quality to Jacobson’s portraiture’, so that ‘one feels that Bellow or Malamud might achieve in one paragraph what Jacobson struggles toward in an entire scene’ (Wood 2010: 86). The use of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud as a yardstick by which to measure Jacobson might perhaps have been seen as a back-handed compliment, were it not for the fact that elsewhere in his review of The Finkler Question Wood invokes the third member of the great triumvirate of post-war American Jewish fiction to damn Jacobson, claiming that the novel is ‘much influenced by the histrionic pugilism of Philip Roth’s weaker novels’ (Wood 2010: 86). That Jacobson is heavily influenced by Roth is not in question (I will explore this influence in detail in Chapter 3) but there is little, in my view, either histrionic or pugilistic about The Finkler Question. On the contrary, it is a nuanced, profoundly dialogical novel and contains, in the Holocaust survivor, grieving widower and erstwhile Hollywood gossip columnist Libor Sevcik, one of Jacobson’s most moving, complex portraits. Other critics have noted that, as Battersby puts it, ‘Jacobson is not too committed to characterisation’ (Battersby 2002: 59) without suggesting that this makes him a failure as a novelist. Cheyette, as we have seen above, is one example; Adam Lively, who refers to the Christian characters in Shylock is My Name as ‘cut-outs’ while acclaiming the novel as a whole as a ‘sly success’, is another (Lively 2016: 47). Sometimes the criticism of his characterisation is couched in terms of a deficiency of sympathy with women, for example in David Herman’s review of Who’s Sorry Now?, when he claims that ‘Jacobson doesn’t do women terribly well’ (Herman 2002: 29), although Battersby refutes this charge, insisting that Jacobson ‘writes good female characters who invariably attempt to help and/or heal the anti-heroic Jacobson alter ego’ (Battersby 2010: 5). There is of course an ambiguity over Battersby’s use of the term ‘good’ here: does she mean that the female characters are virtuous or convincing psychologically, or both?

This question of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics is one that manifests itself most forcefully in those reviews, of which there are many, that characterise Jacobson as a misogynist. These reviews might be broadly divided into two categories: those for whom Jacobson’s alleged (mis)representation of women poisons his work and those who see it as a flaw, but not a fatal one. Typical of this latter position is Jonathan Bate, who praises aspects of The Mighty Walzer but laments that ‘Jacobson fails to detach himself from the resentment that seethes within his protagonist . . . this takes the form of a misogyny that is more than laddishness in the Amis mould’ (Bate 1999: 19). How exactly Bate knows that Jacobson has failed to detach himself from his protagonist is a mystery (does he have access to Jacobson’s inner thoughts and feelings?), but even more baffling is how Bate reaches the conclusion that ‘resentment . . . seethes’ in Walzer, given that the novel is suffused with a warm nostalgia and that the grievances that its protagonist does voice are invariably self-satirical in tone. Perhaps it is the association with Martin Amis’s ‘laddishness’ (itself also self-satirical, it should be said) that leads Bate down this path, but at any rate it seems to me a blind alley. In an otherwise favourable review of Who’s Sorry Now?, Alex Clark at one point asks: ‘Is the entire novel . . . an apology for adulterers – male adulterers – whose response to accusations of misogyny is that, on the contrary, they love women?’ (Clark 2002). If it is an ‘apology for adulterers’, in the sense of a justification, then it isn’t a particularly effective one, given that, as Bryan Cheyette points out, ‘[i]t is the men who are sorry now, as they continually and heedlessly fail the various women in their lives’ (Cheyette 2002: 21) and, as he might have added, it is the men who end up humbled and humiliated. Yet Clark is arguably onto something when she exposes the disingenuousness of responding to accusations of misogyny by saying that you love women. This is a point forcefully made by Lynn Barber, too, when she points out that Jacobson ‘often says he loves [women] . . . their high-heeled shoes, their frothy underwear, their shiny lipstick, the way they throw their heads back when they laugh’ before ‘wondering how he’d react if I said “I love Jews” in the same way. Would he feel flattered? Or would he feel obscurely demeaned?’ (Barber 2012: 22).10 This is of course a criticism of Jacobson the man rather than Jacobson the writer, but in practice the two are often conflated, particularly in the more damning reviews, such as the vicious one of Zoo Time by Randy Boyagoda, in which he composes a spoof personal ad on behalf of the author: ‘Misgoynistic, child-hating writer with poorly-concealed sexual feelings for mother-in-law . . . seeks sophisticated, sympathetic readers desirous of that rare pleasure of being derided with glee by said writer for presuming to be sophisticated and sympathetic enough to appreciate his degrading situation as manly writer’ (Boyagoda 2012: C.8).

Crude as this ad hominem attack is, the charges of misogyny and of being a narrowly ‘manly writer’ are ones that Jacobson has taken to heart in the later stages of his career. In his interview with Barber, Jacobson conceded that he worried that his ‘voice is too incessantly, even naggingly sometimes, aggressively male’ (Jacobson in Barber 2012: 22). Two years later he told Jason Holmes that when he was writing J ‘that masculinist voice that had driven so many of my novels I suddenly did not want to occupy’ (Holmes 2014). In 2019, in an interview with Katie Gibbons, he championed the joys of inhabiting the character of a woman (Beryl Dusinberry) in Live a Little – ‘It’s lovely not being a man anymore’ (Gibbons 2019) – a phrase that seems archly to reflect on the hostile reception to the sexual politics of some of his earlier fiction.

All this is a far cry from the essay he published in 2003, defending ‘the male writer who does not shroud his meaning in quiet intimations but says his say and unsubtly has his way with you’, a touch of what he calls ‘the old manly’ as ‘a counterweight to all our new-found sensitivity’ (Jacobson 2003: 25). It is an even further cry from a piece he published in 2000 in which he claimed that ‘[w]e were better teachers and better students when we slept with one another’ and earlier that ‘[t]here is a sort of propriety about sleeping with your lecturer’ (Jacobson 2000e: 7). Later, Jacobson retracted, regretting that ‘[i]t took me years to accept that that was wrong’ but then equivocating somewhat: ‘there is still an argument to be made [for sexual relationships between lecturers and students] . . . But they can also be disastrous, and I saw some disastrous things. And I was party to – at least one.’ (Vernon 2008: 46). In the same year, Jacobson confessed that ‘there were pregnancies I had a stake in terminating’ (Jacobson 2008b: 46) and the following year he declared that he had ‘come finally to accept that whatever the temptations of confidently beautiful students with challenging intelligences it behoves a professor to resist them’, before once more qualifying his position: ‘Much good came from these affairs, educationally, and without doubt much pleasure . . . but in the end there was too much damage’ (Jacobson 2009e: 34). When Lynn Barber brought up this history, Jacobson told her that he was for years ‘absolutely convinced that there was nothing wrong with it . . . But you are taking advantage of them, and I saw that it made for some uncomfortable careers eventually’ (Barber 2012: 22).

This is a study of Jacobson’s work, not his life, and I am in complete agreement with his assertion that ‘[a] book is a product of a self other than the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices . . . the writer’s true self is manifested in his books alone( Jacobson 2012a: 229). But I also subscribe to his oft-expressed view that ‘[b]y words, we come to know ourselves’ (Benn 2017); that the language we use – the particular ways in which we express ourselves – always has ethical implications. In this context, it is striking to note the uncharacteristic evasiveness and vagueness of the locutions that Jacobson employs whenever he discusses the subject of sexual relations between students and their teachers. The phrase ‘disastrous things’ begs more questions than it answers – disastrous for whom? what things, precisely? – questions that are not clarified by the consequent admission that he ‘was party to – at least one’. If ‘things’ are a euphemism for abortions, as appears likely from the revelation that Jacobson ‘had a stake’ in terminations, then the odd imprecision of ‘at least one’, coupled with the use of the plural ‘pregnancies’, suggests that Jacobson either knows full well, but does not want to specify, how many abortions his affairs resulted in, or that he cannot recollect just how many of these cases there were. The sense that Jacobson does not wish to take responsibility for this history is reinforced by the passive constructions and circumlocutions he uses when referring to it: he ‘was party to’ and ‘had a stake’ in these events, testifying that ‘there was . . . damage’ but not that he himself inflicted it; similarly, the grammatically curious shift into the second person – ‘you are taking advantage of them’ – seems to deflect blame by turning it into a general phenomenon. There is an unmistakable reluctance wholeheartedly to disavow his earlier position even as he appears to be doing so; a wistful note in his description of ‘the temptations of confidently beautiful students’ and the recollection of the ‘pleasure’ that sex with them provided. Finally, the reference to ‘uncomfortable careers’ seems to conflate the ‘damage’ done to students with the damage done to their teachers, an implied equivalence that might be said to add insult to injury.

It is entirely possible for someone to demonstrate a sensitivity to historical sexism – as Jacobson does, for example, when he denounces ‘[t]he age-old insults women have had to bear . . . that they are shrews, termagants, viragos, even that they are sexually insatiable’ as the product of ‘man’s fear of her power to disparage and discriminate’ (Jacobson 2017b: 7), or in his condemnation of US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as ‘a man so belligerent and thin-skinned, possessed of so grand a sense of entitlement, and so accustomed to getting his own way’ (Jacobson 2018b) that the sexual-assault charges against him seemed entirely plausible – and at the same time to implicate oneself in that history. It is also true, as Jacobson reminds us, that ‘thought in a novel is . . . different from thought in an essay . . . in that it is more intimate and contingent, must chance its luck in the dialectic of the drama, and is forever put to the test of circumstance, just as the novel’s characters are’ (Jacobson 2010h). Does Jacobson’s non-fiction have implications for his fiction (and vice versa)? Yes. Should one determine how we read the other? No.

According to Germaine Greer, Jacobson is in fact ‘less misogynistic than he is misanthropic’ (Greer 1998: 21), and here again the line between Jacobson the man and ‘Jacobson’ as a metonym for the body of work that he has produced is a blurry one. For Terence Blacker, Jacobson’s bleak worldview is the ultimate source of his comedy – he praises his ‘[c]omic misanthropy’, which he claims is ‘funnier than its sentimental, crowd-pleasing cousin’ and ‘contains more truth, heart and genuine humanity’ (Blacker 1999: 4) – whereas Andrew Anthony sees Jacobson’s comedy as offering relief from his misanthropy, ‘a get-out clause from what is otherwise a pessimistic world view’ (Anthony 1999: 13). Yet they both represent Jacobson as a grumpy old man, the poet of the disappointed and the dejected, the laureate of ‘the person who can’t become what he wants to be, who is missing the party, whom the big thing has passed by’, as David Herman puts it (Herman 2002: 29). Jacobson himself has certainly contributed to this notion, repeatedly proclaiming himself to ‘have been miserable – and have prided [him]self on being miserable – for as long as [he] can remember’ (Jacobson 2017b: 151), writing in praise of ‘melancholy’ as something that ‘restores dignity and refuses the tyranny of normative behaviour’ (Jacobson 2012a: 128) and projecting an image of himself as lugubrious and irascible in his columns, broadcasts and even in the poses that he strikes for photographs. In this sense, in Jacobson’s fiction ‘[p]art of the tease is being made to wonder how much author and protagonist do have in common’, as Sam Thompson puts it (Thompson 2008: 37). Yet for many reviewers there has been no ambiguity, no ‘tease’, but rather an unexamined assumption that Jacobson’s fiction is autobiographical.

Time and again, reviews have drawn attention to the alleged resemblance between Jacobson and his characters. Sometimes such observations are made matter-of-factly, as in Bryan Cheyette’s observation that the title of No More Mr Nice Guy ‘refers as much to its author as its anti-hero’ (Cheyette 1998b: 6), Roger Boylan’s assertion that ‘his characters . . . are, mostly, like him: male, English, Jewish, sex-obsessed, and pretty disillusioned with life’ (Boylan 2011), or Matthew Norman’s claim that Jacobson’s heroes are ‘invariably short and Jewish, driven by a misplaced sense of shame, and from north Manchester . . . and the offspring of a lovably noisy, gregarious semi-absentee father and a quiet bookish mother’ (Norman 2004: 3). Whereas Boylan qualifies his generalisation with the word ‘mostly’, Norman does the opposite, using ‘invariably’ to invest his observation with an absolute authority that does not stand up to scrutiny. Other reviewers accuse Jacobson of writing thinly veiled autobiography as a way of indicting him for larger crimes. For Adam Kirsch, ‘Jacobson is too personally implicated in [the] debate over Anglo-Jewish identity to be able simply to laugh at it’ (Kirsch 2010), so that The Finkler Question becomes a polemical intervention into a political controversy rather than a novel. In his review of In the Land of Oz, Peter Craven reads Redback as a roman-à-clef consisting of ‘pen portraits of the various individuals who helped or hindered his academic career during the period when Australia enjoyed full employment and could afford to further the fortunes of bright young men from Manchester’, from which he infers that Jacobson is ‘self-obsessed’ (Craven 1988: 223). Similarly, Theo Tait, in his review of Zoo Time, suggests that ‘Jacobson has a limited talent for invention, and certainly very little inclination for it’ (Tait 2012: 9) and proceeds to launch a stinging ad hominem attack on the author, claiming that reading his work feels ‘like being trapped in a confined space with a particularly garrulous pervert’ (Tait 2012: 9) and casting doubt on his credentials as a writer of fiction: ‘Jacobson has many talents – as a rhetorician, a mud-slinger, a purveyor of fine phrases and sprightly patter, as an indefatigable singer of the song of himself. But is he a great novelist, or even a good one?’ (Tait 2012: 9). The question with which Tait concludes his character assassination is of course rendered rhetorical by what precedes it, an ironic enumeration of ‘talents’ which are in fact evidence of personal vices: narcissism (‘an indefatigable singer of the song of himself’), spitefulness (‘mud-slinger’) and a superficial facility with language that fails to disguise a glib emptiness (‘fine phrases and sprightly patter’). More nuanced approaches to the relationship between autobiography and fiction in Jacobson’s work are offered by Stephanie Merritt, for whom ‘Jacobson offers versions of autobiography through his characters’ (Merritt 2004) and Stephen Abell, who observes that Jacobson’s ‘third-person narrators somehow feel like first-person narrators: their outlook soon narrows to the single perspective of a central figure, in a sort of proxy solipsism’ (Abell 2004: 19).

The refinement made by Merritt is important because it acknowledges that even the most autobiographical fiction is contingent and hypothetical, but it nonetheless partakes in the fallacy to which so many readers of Jacobson have fallen victim: namely, the idea that the dominant mode of his fiction is first-person confessional. In fact, as Abell perceptively points out, most of his fiction only feels like first-person fiction because the third-person narratives are often focalised through the perspective of the protagonists. Even this is only a partial truth, however, for much of the ingenuity and playful ambiguity of Jacobson’s work derives from the ways in which the narrative point of view shifts, sometimes appearing to be in such close proximity with that of the (anti-)hero as to be indistinguishable from it, while at other times establishing an ironic distance between the two. Even in the novels that do have first-person narrators, there is always an implied authorial perspective. In the case of The Act of Love, the novel arguably turns on the difficulty of identifying that perspective. In his review of the novel, Sam Thompson initially recognises the artifice of its first-person voice – ‘Jacobson has imposed a highly polished, hyper-articulate style on himself by making his narrator an over-educated aesthete with a neoclassical bent’ – before suggesting that this artifice is employed for the sake of (autobiographical) convenience: ‘the impression is of a glove-like fit between the narrator’s linguistic and allusive range and the author’s’ (Thompson 2008: 36). Sarah Churchwell, in contrast, wrestles thoughtfully with the predicament presented by the novel, concluding ‘the sly achievement of this tricksy, beautifully written book about the tedium of obsession is that I’m still wondering whether having taken Felix seriously doesn’t mean that the joke’s on me’ (Churchwell 2007).

The biographical fallacy is one of Jacobson’s bugbears. In an essay on a biography of Shakespeare, he denounced ‘the febrile logic of biographical scholarship’ (2017b: 157) and lamented its seductive appeal: ‘Even the most sophisticated readers will forget all they know of the difference between literature and life when biography perchance shows its slip’ (158). For Jacobson, this susceptibility is symptomatic of an imaginative deficit in contemporary culture, in which ‘everyone is . . . convinced that the only story you have to tell is the story of your life’ (2012a: 305) and ‘[o]nly autobiography . . . truly authenticates a novel’ (Jacobson 2009c: 40). When he extols ‘the real truth of the imagination as opposed to the false truth of reality’, and insists that ‘[n]o matter how like the I of reality the I in whose name I write is, he is still a construct’ (2012a: 159), Jacobson sounds rather like the postmodernists of whom he is generally contemptuous. Yet the touchstones for his defence of the autonomy of the novelist’s imagination are closer to home, aesthetically. In his essay ‘Advice to a young artist: Don’t be yourself’ he utilises a metaphor from Kafka’s story ‘The Burrow’: ‘Down you go into the deep dark tunnel which is writing . . . and so long as you are down there, unsure, perplexed, not someone you recognise, not anyone at all, just a thing that burrows, you are happy’ (2017b: 200). This reference also recalls a metaphor that Philip Roth used to distinguish his aesthetic from those of his most eminent peers – ‘John Updike and Saul Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now. I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole’ (Plante 1984: 3) – as does Jacobson’s claim that ‘[i]f we did not need to create alternative selves – counterlives – we would never bother to fictionalise at all’ (Jacobson 1987b: 26).11

If Jacobson has at times felt constrained to debunk the assumptions, and defend himself against the attacks, of unsympathetic reviewers, he has also not lacked for advocates over the years. Often, the praise has focused particularly on his status as a comic writer, as in Alfred Hickling’s suggestion that ‘Jacobson’s true achievement is to take on the mantle of our foremost comic complainant, in the great tradition of Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh’ (Hickling 2004: 26) or John Walsh’s claim that he is ‘the funniest British novelist since Kingsley Amis or Tom Sharpe’ (Walsh 2015: 94). For some admirers, however, no such labels or comparisons are necessary. As early as 2002, David Herman was confidently proclaiming Jacobson ‘one of Britain’s best post-war writers’ (Herman 2002: 28) and Eileen Battersby was drawing attention to the scale of Jacobson’s ambition, which extended to ‘subverting . . . all notions of narrative and fiction itself’ (Battersby 2002: 59). Kalooki Nights was hailed as ‘a masterpiece’ by David Baddiel (Baddiel 2007: 3), ‘a novel of genius’ by Michael Bywater (Bywater 2006: 24) and ‘the most intelligent and important novel to appear in this country in years’ by A.C. Grayling (Grayling 2006: 13). Many of the most laudatory reviews of his work returned to one particular theme: namely, the idea that he had been unjustly overlooked for the Booker Prize. The trend began with Peeping Tom: Robert Nye proclaimed that it was ‘disgusting that this brilliant book is not in the running for the Booker’ (Nye 1984: 22), while Jonathan Keates referred to it, more mildly, as a ‘distinguished Booker absentee’ (Keates 1984: 25). Alan Franks concluded his review by lamenting the fact that it failed to make the Booker shortlist ‘by a whisker’ (Franks 1984: 116–17), a phrase which was taken up and amplified by Norman Lebrecht, who reported that it ‘missed the Booker shortlist by the thinnest of whiskers and The Guardian fiction prize by an honourable mention’ (Lebrecht 1985: 46). This refrain was taken up again with the publication of Who’s Sorry Now?, by which time the prize had taken to publishing longlists of titles before the final shortlist. Jacobson’s novel made it onto the former but not the latter, but in the intervening period it was installed as the early bookmakers’ favourite, with Dalya Alberge reporting that William Hill was ‘offering odds of 4–1 on it winning’ (Alberge 2002: 9). Later, Alfred Hickling offered a colourful explanation for its ultimate omission: ‘to check the veracity of the high-rise denouement . . . the [Booker] judges downed manuscripts, hailed a cab and went for a ride on the London Eye. There, poised 135 metres above the skyline, they decided against the book’ (Hickling 2004: 26).

By now, there seemed to be something of an unofficial campaign to get Jacobson into contention for the prize, a campaign that gained further traction when Kalooki Nights became the second of Jacobson’s novels to be longlisted but not shortlisted. While Jacobson himself expressed ambivalence towards the whole process, telling Rachel Cooke that ‘[p]rizes are for children’, at the same time conceding that ‘as readers dwindle, the only glory comes from prizes’ (Cooke 2006: 23), A.C. Grayling and David Baddiel expressed indignation on his behalf, the former declaring that Jacobson belonged to ‘that small group of writers whose superiority to the average seems to put him well beyond the competence of Booker and Whitbread judges’ (Grayling 2006: 13), while the latter not only felt that the novel ‘should have won the Booker Prize’ but aired the suspicion that it would have won, had it ‘been written about any other ethnic minority’ (Baddiel 2007: 3). When Jacobson’s next novel, The Act of Love, was published, Nicholas Lezard called it ‘an almost frighteningly brilliant achievement’ and wondered aloud: ‘Why did the Booker judges not recognize it?’ (Lezard 2009: 19). By the time The Finkler Question appeared, the narrative of the Booker’s neglect of Jacobson was so well-established that Matthew Syed was able to refer to the ‘consistent snubbing of Jacobson by those who hand out baubles such as the Booker’ (Syed 2010: 11) without further elaboration. Of course, that novel changed the narrative once and for all, Jacobson conceding belatedly that Booker success was what ‘he has measured himself by ever since publishing his first novel’ (Flanagan 2010: 27) and that he had begun to fear that he was destined to be ‘the novelist that never ever won the Booker prize’ (Brown 2010: 3), notwithstanding the greater claims that Beryl Bainbridge, Ali Smith and William Trevor might have to that label.12 The happy ending for Jacobson of the Booker story freed him, financially, to prioritise his career as a novelist, and it is the fiction that is the main focus of this book, but before I turn to Jacobson the novelist I want to consider briefly some of the other Jacobsons.

Jacobson as critic

Before he was a novelist, Jacobson was an academic and a critic. However, it would be misleading to suggest that there was a clear break between his former profession and his current one. Jacobson’s first book, a co-authored study of Shakespeare, begins with a mini-play prefaced by a brief piece of narrative prose. Conversely, Jacobson’s novels are pervaded by an academic sensibility, crammed full of literary references and more detailed engagements with intertexts. Peeping Tom contains some penetrating, provocative criticism (in both the academic and everyday sense of that word) of Hardy; The Very Model of a Man is, in part, a rewriting of parts of Genesis; The Act of Love explicitly situates itself in the tradition of the European novel of sexual obsession, from de Sade to Bataille; J is suffused with references to other dystopian fiction and to Moby Dick; Shylock is My Name is both a revisioning of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and a cogent reading of it.

In addition to the critical engagement with other texts in his fiction, Jacobson has published two non-fiction books that combine memoir, travelogue, cultural commentary and research: Seriously Funny and Roots Schmoots, about which I will have more to say in Chapter 1 and Chapter 3, respectively. He has also devoted numerous newspaper columns and occasional features to reflections on art, literature, television and the practice of literary criticism itself. On this last topic, Jacobson has on occasion expressed his appreciation for what he sees as a valuable and demanding activity: ‘distinguished criticism is rare; not because it is unessayed, but because it is difficult to pull off’ (Jacobson 2002e: 33). More often, he has lamented the way in which, in his view, ‘English as an academic subject has lost its way . . . deconstructing itself into a relativism which leaves its practitioners hungry for anything that looks like an absolute’ (Jacobson 2005d: 16), claiming that

‘[a]mong disenchanted theorists of my acquaintance, there is evident, if uncomfortable, nostalgia for such Leavisite practices as close textual analysis (otherwise known as reading) and holding the conviction that some books more reward study than others’ (Jacobson 2002e: 33). His invocation of ‘Leavisite practices’ as the guarantor of a system of values that has been undermined by ‘theory’ is a theme that runs through many of Jacobson’s interventions in this arena. Whereas ‘close textual analysis’ is an inclusive, transparent process that boils down to ‘reading’, theory ‘has spawned’ a set of insular, exclusive discourses characterised by ‘obscurities – the sense one has of initiates talking to initiates’ (Jacobson 2002d: 47). He has denounced postmodernism as ‘a self-hating pathology’ (Jacobson 2001a: 2.6) and postcolonialism as an enterprise that ‘turned the study of literature into grievance soup’ and destroyed the discipline: ‘[t]he day Eng. Lit. morphed into post-colonialism was the day the Lit. part died’ (Jacobson 2017b: 117).13 One of Jacobson’s favourite aphorisms is that if literature is termed ‘experimental’, then that means that the experiment has failed.

Jacobson is similarly scathing, and for similar reasons, about what he sees as the dominance of conceptual art in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. Art features prominently in a number of Jacobson’s novels (a pivotal episode of The Act of Love takes place in the Wallace Collection and the feud which develops between two of the characters in Shylock is My Name revolves around a proposed museum of British Jewish art and the ownership of a particular painting) and in his non-fiction he writes in praise of artists as diverse as L.S. Lowry, Matisse and Philip Guston and in denigration of Gilbert and George, the Chapman brothers, Damien Hirst and other members of the Young British Artists generation. He returns perennially, however, to the Turner Prize, which represents all that is anathema to Jacobson about contemporary art; one of his bêtes noires is Nicholas Serota, who was Director of the Tate from 1988 to 2017.14 In ‘What things are for’, Jacobson quotes Serota proclaiming, of the art shortlisted for the Turner Prize, that ‘I don’t feel any pressure to make it easier for ordinary people to understand’ (Jacobson 2012a: 194), before commenting sardonically: ‘Conceptual art is not the thing you see, it is the strategic placing of a reference in the history of a philosophical idea. Not for you to bother your little uneducated head about, sonny Jim’ (194–95). Jacobson concludes the piece by condemning the way in which, as he sees it, conceptual art hermetically seals itself off:

Marooned in the sterility of his will – decreeing this idea, giving orders for that – the conceptual artist fears the process of change and contradiction which is art’s justification. Hence the inertness of his work when we stand before it – no trace anywhere of what else it might have been or any argument it might be having with itself. (195–96)

There are two main objections here. Firstly, that the conceptual artist is not a maker, but a tyrannical project manager, someone who imposes ‘his will’ through decree and takes the credit for the labour of those who carry out his orders. Secondly, that conceptual art is over-determined: sterile, inert, inflexible, insular.

Such pronouncements might suggest that Jacobson is a reactionary, a cultural conservative who is temperamentally suspicious of, and ideologically opposed to, innovation and radical thought, but this is, again, only one of many Jacobsons. Some of his novels – particularly Zoo Time and J – might easily be categorised as postmodernist, while others – Peeping Tom, The Very Model of a Man, Shylock is My Name – revisit canonical texts with an irreverence that sometimes shades into iconoclasm. Kalooki Nights fearlessly skewers some of the shibboleths that surround the Holocaust, while Who’s Sorry Now? and The Act of Love deconstruct many of the conventional pieties with which marriage, adultery, jealousy and desire are neutralised. His journalism, too, reveals a restless intellect that is, to paraphrase Jacobson’s comments on conceptual art, constantly having an argument with itself.

Jacobson as journalist

For most of his career, Jacobson, in common with most other contemporary ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ novelists, has had to supplement the income from his fiction by other means. While others have taken up academic or creative writing posts at universities, Jacobson has been a prolific journalist, writing a series of regular features and columns for a number of different newspapers, as well as occasional longer pieces. In the 1980s he wrote a regular feature for The Times with the appropriately equivocal tagline ‘However . . .’; in the 1990s he wrote a series of travel pieces for the Sunday Times and began a weekly column in the Independent which was to run for seventeen years; since the demise of that newspaper, he has had more short-lived columns in the Guardian and the American Jewish online magazine, Tablet. In his introduction to the first of two collections of his Independent columns, Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It, Jacobson commented:

Novelists are not here to have opinions; our job is to submit opinion to the comic drama of ambiguity and contradiction, and I have all along conceived these pieces as more like little novels than articles . . . some read like conversations, assuming a commonality of seriousness and exasperation between the reader and the writer that underlies whatever laughter we share. (Jacobson 2012a: xiii–xiv)

It is certainly true that Jacobson’s journalism, like his fiction, is full of tensions, ambiguities and contradictions. It is also characterised by certain rhetorical mannerisms, such as the use of the first-person plural rather than the first-person singular, and the frequent address of the reader, both of which imbue the columns with an arch formality, while at the same time appealing to that ‘commonality . . . between the reader and the writer’ to which Jacobson refers. Moreover, the ‘comic drama’ and ‘laughter’ which Jacobson cites as central to his journalistic practice depends partly on the cumulative details that a regular reader of his columns might piece together to form an impression of the character of the author; on the construction and performance of a persona that is invoked in the title of this collection, a comically lugubrious, opinionated misanthrope in the tradition of Tony Hancock.

Yet not all of Jacobson’s columns are comic in tone or topic. The subject he has returned to most often over the years has been that of Israel/Palestine. In 1993 he condemned the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians by implicitly invoking the Holocaust, asking rhetorically ‘Have we been through the fires and learnt nothing? Do we possess, after all we have undergone, no imagination for equivalence?’ (1993a: 333) and in 2001 he denounced the influence of ‘settlers, mostly American and born-again, garbed in some parody of 18th-century Jewish peasant dress, pointing to the Bible with their rifle butts, finding justification for what they have stolen in holy writ’ (Jacobson 2001b: 13). In the same piece, however, Jacobson lamented the fact that, as he saw it, ‘the partial silence of enlightened Jews has allowed it to be assumed, beyond question almost everywhere, the story of Arab/Israeli conflict is onedimensional [sic], a story of the oppressed and their oppressors’ (Jacobson 2001b: 13). Since then, he has repeatedly called out what he sees as the demonisation of Israel and the ways in which anti-Zionism can be used as an alibi for antisemitism. Although he is always careful to acknowledge that ‘[i]t is assuredly not anti-Semitic to be critical of Israel’, he is clear that the tendency to ‘equate Zionism with the Third Reich’, an increasingly common trope in the discourse of Middle Eastern politics, ‘assuredly is’ (Jacobson 2001b: 13). For Jacobson, criticism of Israel has become increasingly tendentious and disproportionate, a trend exemplified by the labelling of Israel as an apartheid and racist state, and by the analogy between Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. For Jacobson, this analogy is not simply inaccurate (whatever crimes have been committed in the occupied territories, in Gaza and on the West Bank, they do not constitute an attempt at systematic extermination) but disingenuous and insidious, motivated by a ‘desire to hurt Israel in its Jewishness’ (Jacobson 2005b: 13). Ultimately, Jacobson argues, the invocation of the Holocaust in the context of Israel constitutes a sort of Holocaust denial by stealth: alleging that present-day Jews are committing genocidal acts implies that the Nazi genocide was a sort of punishment by anticipation, retroactively ‘mak[ing] the Jews the authors of their own calamity’, thereby cancelling out their own historical suffering (Jacobson 2005b: 13). For Jacobson, this warped logic was exemplified most egregiously in Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza (2009), whose ending – ‘a grotesque tableau of blood-soaked triumphalism: Jews reveling [sic] in the deaths of Palestinians . . . rejoicing in the slaughter of Palestinian babies’ – invoked the blood libel in what Jacobson argued was an example of how ‘propaganda turns sinister when it offers to be art’ (Jacobson 2009d: 6).15

Although Jacobson is certainly not an apologist for Israeli government policy (he has been a vocal critic of Netanyahu and his Likud party in general, and of their escalation of illegal settlements in the West Bank in particular), his interventions in these debates have led to him becoming, or at least being perceived by sections of the media and social media as, a de facto spokesperson for British Jews on other controversial issues, such as the row over antisemitism in the Labour Party during Jeremy Corbyn’s term as leader. As Jacobson has wryly observed, ‘it isn’t in my nature to be non-confrontational’ (Jacobson 2012a: xiii) and his has been one of the loudest voices in the chorus of disapproval of Corbyn’s handling of allegations of widespread antisemitism within the party, appearing, together with the eminent historians Simon Schama and Simon Sebag Montefiore and other Jewish public figures, as one of the signatories of two letters, originally published in The Times in 2017 and the Observer in 2019 but subsequently widely reprinted and reported, denouncing the spread of antisemitism ‘under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism’ and ‘the antisemitism that lies like a pool of poison in the party’s soul’, respectively (Jacobson et al. 2017, 2019).

Jacobson as public intellectual

That Jacobson’s name appeared at the head of the list of co-authors of these letters alongside that of Schama, a ubiquitous presence in arts broadcasting in Britain for many years, testifies to his status as one of the leading public intellectuals of our time. This aspect of Jacobson’s career began in the 1990s when he wrote and presented two television series, Roots Schmoots (1993) and Seriously Funny (1997), based on his books on Jewishness and comedy, respectively, as well as a one-off programme in the Without Walls Channel 4 series entitled ‘Sorry, Judas’, which explored the Christian roots of antisemitism through the representation of Judas Iscariot. His public profile has grown in the twenty-first century as the result of a further series of television broadcasts, from Brilliant Creatures (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2014), his two-part series on four prominent post-war Australian expatriate cultural figures (Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and Clive James), to one-off programmes such as Howard Jacobson Takes on the Turner (Channel 4, 2000), to special editions in long-running generic arts series such as The South Bank Show (‘Why the novel matters’, ITV, 2002) and ‘Imagine . . .’ (‘Shylock’s ghost’, BBC2, 2015), to episodes in specific documentary series such as his account of Jesus as a Jewish thinker for Christianity, a History (Channel 4, 2009), his exploration of Genesis for The Bible: A History (Channel 4, 2010) and his defence of the treatment of the nude in Victorian art for The Genius of British Art (Channel 4, 2010). Jacobson has also become a regular voice on the airwaves, contributing to radio broadcasts and podcasts in series such as Free Thinking (BBC Radio Three) and A Point of View (BBC Radio Four), as well as to art magazine programmes such as Front Row (BBC Radio Four). He has also taken part in a number of public debates sponsored by Intelligence Squared, a media company that organises cultural events.

A self-confessed ‘elitist intellectual’ (Jacobson 2005f: 36) with a Jamesian sense of the seriousness of his vocation as a writer – ‘[to be] a novelist is to have the highest calling’, he has said (Jacobson 2007f: 38) – Jacobson has nonetheless enjoyed the modest fame and notoriety that his public appearances have brought him. Although it would be unfair to accuse him of dumbing down his views, Jacobson’s contributions to public discourse have tended to be more polemical and less nuanced than his writing, and some of his television documentaries have featured somewhat histrionic flourishes. Of course Jacobson is aware of these issues, which arguably inhere in the somewhat oxymoronic term ‘public intellectual’ itself. When James O’Brien asked him if he was happy to be described as such, Jacobson accepted the label with some reservations, an ambivalence that he explores in more detail in a piece about his experience of taking part in a public discussion at the Southbank Centre in London with the American Jewish playwright David Mamet:

We were due to go onstage together, to talk about writing, being funny, being Jewish, being men. At the eleventh hour, though it had loomed large in the transatlantic briefing, he decided he didn’t want to talk about being Jewish. He wasn’t, he said, a performing monkey. I wished I had the courage to say the same, but as the chairman was more interested in the Jewish part than any other, there’d have been nowhere to go had I too refused to play the monkey. So there we were . . . with me throwing my hands about, making jokes about my Manchester upbringing, anti-Semitism yes and no, Cambridge, Dr Leavis and Talmudic exegesis, and Mamet sitting silent. (Jacobson 2017b: 212)

The keen edge of self-satire here is sharpened by the ‘performing monkey’ metaphor, which brings to mind the monkey references in Zoo Time, Jacobson’s most sustained engagement with the vexed relationship between literary and celebrity culture, and by the representation of Mamet as the high-minded artist who refuses to compromise his integrity in contrast to the crowd-pleasing antics of Jacobson. Yet there is also something endearing, and perhaps even admirable, about the alacrity with which Jacobson unpretentiously and expansively produces his shtick, just as, conversely, there is something a little precious and mean-spirited about the tight-lipped Mamet. Moreover, it might be argued that Mamet’s silence is as much a performance of his public persona – the tough, undemonstrative, phlegmatic Chicagoan – as Jacobson’s ingratiating ludic loquacity is of his (in this context, the title of the piece, ‘American Buffalo’, should be read as referring to Mamet himself as well as to his play of that name). If Jacobson is envious of Mamet’s ‘courage’, he is also less than impressed by Mamet’s last-minute decision not to play ball, which seems at best capricious and at worst high-handed, given that the subject of Jewishness had clearly been highlighted to both writers prior to the event. All of which is to say that Jacobson’s ambivalence here applies to Mamet as much as himself. In this sense, this encounter, and the subsequent disagreement between the two authors over the merits of Dickens (‘He reckoned the problem was [that] the English . . . thought things were funny that weren’t. I told him that Americans thought things weren’t funny that were’) might be read as symptomatic of more profound tensions that run throughout Jacobson’s career: between the ambition to be taken seriously and the impulse to entertain; between different models of manhood and Jewishness; and between the temptation to emulate American Jewish writers (Philip Roth in particular) and the desire to distinguish himself from them (Jacobson 2017b: 213). These tensions have defined Jacobson’s career, and consequently the structure of this book, to which I will now turn.


I have adopted a thematic structure, dividing Jacobson’s fiction into three categories taken from a passage in Jacobson’s essay, ‘American Buffalo’, quoted above: ‘Being funny’ (Chapter 1), ‘Being men’ (Chapter 2) and ‘Being Jewish’ (Chapter 3). However, there are two caveats that need to be made clear from the outset. Firstly, these categories are not mutually exclusive: most of the protagonists of the novels in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 are Jewish men, and many of the novels in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 are comic, so that my discussion of comedy in Chapter 1 involves consideration of the ways in which Jacobson’s comic fiction is inflected by questions of Jewishness and masculinity; my discussion of the representation of masculinity in Chapter 2 also involves questions of ethnicity and comedy; and my discussion of constructions of Jewishness in Chapter 3 takes into account the ways in these constructions are influenced by questions of gender and genre. Secondly, although the main organising principle of the book is thematic, I have also 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 Jacobson, which is dominated by questions of Jewish identity, particularly as it pertains to antisemitism and the legacy of the Holocaust, often refracted through an intertextual dialogue with the work of Philip Roth. Within each chapter, I address the novels in the order in which they were published, but I have departed from the overriding chronological structure in cases where I felt that individual works belonged more to one of the other phases. For example, even though by date of publication Zoo Time and Pussy are ‘late’ novels, and even though the former, in common with the books I consider in Chapter 3, features numerous allusions to the work of Roth, I have placed them both in Chapter 1 because it seems to me that they are closer generically and thematically to Jacobson’s first three novels than to the other ‘late’ works. Similarly, I have included Live a Little, Jacobson’s most recent novel at the time of writing, in Chapter 2, because although it is both a comic novel and one that has elements of Jewishness in it, it is clearly much more invested in the exploration of masculinity and mortality. No More Mr Nice Guy might easily have been considered in Chapter 1 or Chapter 3, given that it is a comic novel that owes debts to Jacobson’s own Seriously Funny and Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, but I have placed it in Chapter 2 because of its thematic affinities with the masculinist novels that follow it in Jacobson’s middle period.

My priority throughout has been to do justice to the qualities that make Jacobson, in my view, an important and underrated contemporary novelist: the richly textured, nuanced prose; the intellectual ambition and reach; the dynamic, dialogical, playfulness; the range and diversity of the fiction. In this sense, this is unabashedly a work of advocacy. At the same time, I have not shied away from distinguishing what works well in Jacobson’s novels from what doesn’t. His is an impressive but hardly flawless body of work and it has been important to me to maintain a critical distance from my subject. It is for this reason that I have not taken advantage of the opportunity to interview Jacobson which might have been afforded to me through the kind offices of two colleagues who know him personally. Rather than attempting to pursue an overarching argument, which might have led to tendentious and/or reductive readings, I have tried to offer close readings of all the novels that allow for their contradictions and complexities, their tensions and paradoxes. As I shall indicate in my Afterword, there are ample opportunities for scholars who wish to situate Jacobson within a particular tradition, or theoretical framework, but in this book I have tried as far as possible to read the work in its own terms, making connections across the oeuvre while at the same time offering a sense of the way in which it is shaped by, and has in turn helped to shape, numerous literary and cultural contexts.


1 It was adapted by Simon Bent and produced at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in 2016. There were also plans to produce a film version, featuring Maureen Lipman, but it never made it to the screen.
2 In his review of the novel, Sam Thompson argues that ‘Felix is not so much an unreliable narrator as a sinisterly ubiquitous one, smoothly present at all times, managing each facet of his fiction until we find ourselves suspicious of almost everything he says’ (Thompson 2008: 36). It is certainly true that Felix is acutely self-aware and concerned to stage-manage every aspect of the narrative – and it is also true that readers might instinctively resist such control-freakery – but ultimately it emerges that he has profoundly over-estimated his own powers and misread himself and everyone else, an irony that is exacerbated rather than mitigated by his sinister ubiquity.
3 In one of the chapters of that book, ‘The Gentile who mistook himself for a Jew’, I discuss the ways in which this has become a recurring trope in post-war Jewish fiction on both sides of the Atlantic and how it is always linked with ideas of self-hatred.
4 In his list of ‘My top 10 unfinishable novels’, published in the Guardian days before the winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2014 was announced, Sutherland placed J at no.1, observing that ‘Passing page 50 is an achievement’ (Sutherland 2014b). Bewilderingly, Sutherland had reviewed the novel favourably two months earlier in The Times, calling it ‘a subtle, topical, thought-provoking and painfully uncomfortable novel’ (Sutherland 2014a: 46). I wonder if this was a case of (deferred) literary payback: revenge for Jacobson’s objection to the way in which Sutherland, in his capacity as head of the panel of judges for the 2005 Booker Prize, had noted ‘almost by way of warning, as though it compromised its victory somewhat – that [John Banville’s] The Sea was a melancholy novel, reading it a “slit-your-throat” experience’ (Jacobson 2005g: 44).
5 In an interview with Sophie Gilbert, Jacobson claimed to have ‘started writing within four hours of it being announced that he’d won the election’ and then to have written it ‘like a diary, day by day, as things dawned on me about the significance of what had happened’ (Gilbert 2017). Arguably, Jacobson might have done well to adhere to the principles he articulated in an editorial for the Independent in 2007: ‘I am a novelist not a political commentator . . . When a novelist does zeitgeist [sic] he ends up doing banal’ (Jacobson 2007c: 1).
6 These include D.J. Taylor’s After the War: The Novel and English Society since 1945 (1993), Andrzej Gasiorek’s Post-War British Fiction: Realism and after (1995), Steven Connor’s The English Novel in History 1950–1995 (1996), Jago Morrison’s Contemporary Fiction (2003), Nick Bentley’s Contemporary British Fiction (2008), David James’s Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space: Style, Landscape, Perception (2008), Jeremy Scott’s The Demotic Voice in Contemporary British Fiction (2009), Peter Childs’ Contemporary Novelists: British Fiction since 1970 (2012), Peter Boxall’s Twenty-First Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction (2013) and Daniel Lea’s Twenty-First Century Fiction: Contemporary British Voices (2016). The exception is Nick Rennison’s Contemporary British Novelists (2004), which has a four-page entry on Jacobson, providing a serviceable, if necessarily limited, overview of Jacobson’s career up to the publication of The Making of Henry, marred by the misspelling of the surname of the protagonist of Peeping Tom as ‘Flugelman’ and the inaccurate assertion that the protagonist of Redback is Jewish.
7 These include On Modern British Fiction (Leader 2002), Contemporary British Fiction (Lane, Mengham and Tew 2003), A Companion to the British and Irish Novel 1945–2000 (Shaffer 2005), The Contemporary British Novel (Acheson and Ross 2005), British Fiction Today (Tew and Mengham 2006), Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction (Onega and Ganteau 2011) and The Cambridge Companion to British Fiction since 1945 (James 2015). I haven’t included in this list the numerous collections of essays on postmodernist fiction, as Jacobson’s work has never been considered within this paradigm.
8 Georg Renno was an Austrian war criminal, whose blithe dismissal of his gassing of Jews (‘[t]urning on the tap . . . was no big deal’) becomes the perverse inspiration for Manny’s gassing of his own parents (Jacobson 2006a: 437).
9 The only exceptions at the time of writing are my own article, ‘Fetishizing the Holocaust: Comedy and transatlantic connections in Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights’ (Brauner 2014) which appears, in revised form, in Chapter 2 of this book, and Ruth Gilbert’s essay ‘“No outlines”: From dystopia to heterotopia in Howard Jacobson’s J’ (Gilbert 2016), to which I refer briefly in Chapter 3.
10 For a good example of the gendered praise to which Barber is referring, see Jacobson 2010b.
11 Jacobson borrows the term ‘counterlives’ from Roth’s novel The Counterlife (1986).
12 Bainbridge was nominated five times but never won the prize; Ali Smith and William Trevor have both been shortlisted on four occasions without winning.
13 He sees postcolonialism, in particular, as symptomatic of a politicisation of literary culture that privileges ethical considerations and ignores aesthetic values: ‘once we start believing that a sombre meditation on the wrongs of African colonialism, say, is ipso facto more deserving than a romp about a knees-up in the University of Sydney’s English Department . . . then we are back in the dark and the novel might just as well never have happened’ (Jacobson 1999d: 30).
14 As well as regularly inveighing in writing against the Turner and Serota’s administration of it, Jacobson also made a polemical film for Channel 4 attacking the culture of the Prize in Howard Jacobson Takes on the Turner (2000).
15 In The Finkler Question, Jacobson reimagines Seven Jewish Children as Sons of Abraham, a play which ‘charted the agonies of the Chosen People from ancient times up until the present when they decided to visit their agonies on someone else’ (Jacobson 2010a: 250).


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 44 22 0
Full Text Views 68 68 29
PDF Downloads 42 42 20