Featuring twelve original essays by leading Beckett scholars and media theorists, this book provides the first sustained examination of the relationship between Beckett and media technologies. The chapters analyse the rich variety of technical objects, semiotic arrangements, communication processes and forms of data processing that Beckett’s work so uniquely engages with, as well as those that – in historically changing configurations – determine the continuing performance, the audience reception, and the scholarly study of this work. Greatly enlarging the scope of earlier discussions, the book draws on a variety of innovative theoretical approaches, such as media archaeology, in order to discuss Beckett’s intermedial oeuvre. As such it engages with Beckett as a media artist and examine the way his engagement with media technologies continues to speak to our cultural situation.
That one might be a serious novelist while also ‘being funny’ was the great epiphany that launched Jacobson’s career as a novelist. Jacobson demonstrated precocious literary talent as a boy – he likes to tell the story of how a primary schoolteacher wrote a letter to his mother, which she framed, declaring that Jacobson was destined ‘to become an important writer’ (Wintle 2013: 9), and he told James O’Brien that he ‘wrote a little play when I was nine’ (O’Brien 2019) – but in spite of these auspicious beginnings, he felt constrained by his background: ‘being a working-class Manchester boy the omens [for becoming a writer] didn’t feel right’ (O’Brien 2019). As an adolescent Jacobson became, in his own self-satirical account, ‘a stuck-up little bastard who went everywhere with a copy of Women in Love under my arm and an expression of disdain on my face’ (Jacobson 2012a: 200) and after graduating from Cambridge Jacobson wrote his first book, a study of four Shakespeare tragedies co-authored with Wilbur Sanders, but, as he told O’Brien, ‘I never really believed that that was the real thing’ (O’Brien 2019). His early attempts at writing fiction were inauthentic pastiches of his literary heroes: ‘I wanted to be Henry James or Jane Austen and write elegantly of country houses’, as he told Angela Wintle (Wintle 2013: 9). It was only once he realised that these weren’t ‘the real thing’ either – ‘Face it, I’m not living a Jamesian . . . life, I’m in fucking Wolverhampton’, he told himself (Boylan 2011) – that he began to consider material closer to home. Home at this stage of Jacobson’s career was Wolverhampton, and it was in the ignominy of being a lecturer in a provincial polytechnic – ‘I’m ashamed to say that I was ashamed of it’, he told O’Brien – that Jacobson found a subject, and a genre: ‘I found myself writing a campus novel and suddenly, instead of reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I was reading people like Kingsley Amis and Malcom Bradbury and David Lodge’ (O’Brien 2019).
Early reviewers tended to situate Jacobson firmly in this tradition of the English campus novel: Humphrey Carpenter saw him as part of what he called ‘the [Kingsley]Amis-Bradbury-Lodge world’, even straying into ‘Tom Sharpe territory’ (1984: 23), while Peter Craven dismissed his first three novels as ‘jocose fiction of the Bradbury-Lodge variety’ (Craven 1988: 223). Jacobson himself implicitly acknowledged his debt to this tradition and at the same time indicated his sense of alienation from it in Coming From Behind, whose protagonist ‘had an idea that somewhere in Hampstead stood a house (to which he fancifully gave the name Bradbury Lodge) where all the famous literary and academic figures of the English-speaking world came together to discuss eros and thanatos and have a good laugh at his expense’ (Jacobson 1984: 34). Yet for Jacobson the comic novel, far from being a niche interest confined to this tradition, is something of a tautology: ‘Every novel worth the name is at odds with itself. Which is another way of saying that every novel worth the name is comic . . .’ (Jacobson 1999d: 30). Jacobson has been a vocal advocate for what he calls the ‘the primacy of comedy’ throughout his career (Jacobson 2012a: 270).1 Although his first book was a study of Shakespearean tragedy, it begins with a comic prelude and insists throughout that, far from being antithetical to tragedy, ‘comedy is the friend of the serious and seeks to protect it from the preposterous’ (Sanders and Jacobson 1978: 18) and that ‘[a]ll good writing is comic’ (16). In a review in The London Review of Books of the comedian Frank Muir’s 1990 volume The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose Jacobson complains that Muir fails entirely to understand that ‘no dichotomy exists between comic and serious unless we would operate with a diminished definition of each mode’ (Jacobson 1990: 60) and twenty years later he made much the same point in a piece in the Guardian entitled ‘Taking comic novels seriously’, lamenting ‘the false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness, between the exhilaration that the great novels offer when they are their funniest, and whatever else it is we now think we want from literature’ (Jacobson 2010h). Jacobson’s exasperation with the ‘diminished definition’ of comedy that underpins Muir’s conservative selection of texts and his cliché-ridden introduction to the anthology was of course exacerbated by the fact that he has skin in this particular game, just as the timing and tenor of ‘Taking comic novels seriously’ was strategic: published just prior to the awarding of the Man Booker Prize to The Finkler Question, the complaint that comedy has been ghettoised in contemporary culture was arguably a form of covert lobbying. This is not to say that Jacobson’s arguments are purely self-interested, but rather that, as with all statements by artists about the nature of the field they work in, they are not entirely disinterested either, and need to be read in the context of their own poetics.
The fullest statement of these poetics – and Jacobson’s most sustained consideration of comedy – is to be found in Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (1997), a book that combines history, anthropology, travelogue and literary criticism. Like so much of Jacobson’s fiction, Seriously Funny revels in paradoxes. It claims that ‘[f]ew things matter more than comedy’ but also that it celebrates ‘forgetfulness’ and ‘irresponsibility’ (Jacobson 1997: 44); it argues that ‘through comic obscenity . . . we triumph over the body’s mortality’ while at the same time insisting that comedy offers no possibility of transcendence, instead reminding us ‘we are . . . only flesh that falls away’; and it insists that ‘[w]e are able to be rude only where we feel reverence, and we cannot revere without being rude’ (Jacobson 1997: 1, 38, 242, 132). Finally, Jacobson argues, ‘[i]t is of the essence of comedy to kaleidoscope extremes, to jam together opposites so that they are simultaneously true (240). For Jacobson, ‘[t]he sign of a great comic writer is not that he necessarily makes us laugh . . . but that contrariety is able to have its way with him’ (240–41) and the great virtue of the novel as a form is that it promotes ‘contrarieties [that] enhance’ its readers intellectually and morally: ‘we grow mentally the more apparently antithetical views we hold’ (Jacobson 2015d). This Leavisite note of social utility – what Jacobson describes as the conviction that ‘[c]omedy affirm[s] the vigorous and unpredictable livability of life’ (Jacobson 2010h) – seems to me to be at odds with the claim that Jacobson makes elsewhere that comedy embodies ‘the vigorous expression of our scepticism, our refusal to believe that everything is harmoniously conceived, or that a benevolent agency . . . shapes our ends’ (2017b: 6–7), but then again perhaps this should be read simply as further evidence of Jacobson allowing contrariety to have its way with him.
In spite of its enthusiastic embrace of the open-endedness of comedy, Seriously Funny celebrates a very specific kind of comic writing: the grotesque, scatological, phallocentric, Rabelaisian tradition that the Russian critic Bakhtin defined as ‘carnivalesque’; a comedy characterised by excess and, as Jacobson put it elsewhere, ‘relishing hyperbole, repetition, the swell of language’ (Jacobson 1993b: 32). Jacobson’s own comedy is more various than this might suggest. Although there are carnivalesque elements to his fiction, particularly in the early novels, in which ‘[o]bscenity goes with the terrain’ (Jacobson 1999d: 30), they are more reliant on what has been called the ‘incongruity’ theory of comedy.2 Moreover, Jacobson’s comedy becomes darker as his career progresses. As he himself puts it: ‘[o]nce upon a time I just wrote the satyr play, leaving the preceding tragedies to others. Now I try to create the whole cycle, but always going for that final invigoration of comedy’ (2012a: 270). The comic novels that I will look at in the rest of this chapter run the gamut from light-hearted sexual farce to acerbic political satire, but they do share what Jacobson calls, in another paradoxical formulation, ‘the high indignity of comic narrative’ (Jacobson 2016c: 48), an anti-pastoral sensibility and a preoccupation with literary politics.
Coming From Behind (1983)
The 1984 Black Swan paperback edition of Jacobson’s first novel gives the distinct impression that it is a roman-à-clef. The front cover design features a caricature of the author in the foreground, walking briskly, head down, hands in pockets, emerging from a frame in which football hooligans, academics, students and assorted misfits, delinquents and punks mill about. The biographical note on the first page of the front matter informs us, laconically: ‘He has, of course, taught English at a polytechnic’ (Jacobson 1984: n.p.). The title of the novel itself, while containing a sexual pun, also slyly alludes to the belatedness of Jacobson’s debut: he was forty-one when it appeared.
Coming From Behind might have been a long time in coming, but Jacobson announces his arrival as a novelist with a bang, literally and metaphorically. His first novel begins with a brilliant comic set-piece, depicting its protagonist engaging in intercourse with a mature student:
Sefton Goldberg, on all fours above her, his knees and elbows glued with the perspiration of effort and anxiety to the polytechnic linoleum, as naked as Noah but for the academic gown and hood which Mrs Shorthall insists he wears, it being degree day, hopes to God he has remembered to lock his door. While Lynne Shorthall wrinkles up her nose and bites the air and gargles Black Country familiarities, Sefton Goldberg can think of nothing but the position of the little metal nipple on his Yale lock. Is it up or is it down? He thinks he can recall depressing it, but what if some fault in the mechanism, a loose fitting or some over-zealous spring is at this very moment urging and encouraging it up again? . . . What he would like is to get up and check, but such alarmism is inconsistent with his idea of manliness; and he is not well placed even to take the rudimentary precaution of stealing a glance. (7)
Sexually explicit though it is, there is nothing titillating about this scene. Far from revelling in Sefton Goldberg’s sexual prowess or celebrating his sexual conquest, its keynotes are ignominy and embarrassment. The comedy here derives from a series of incongruities: between the dignity implicitly conferred on Goldberg by the invocation of the old testament patriarch, Noah (albeit the allusion is to the episode in which he is made drunk and seduced by his daughters) and the indignities of his position, sexually (awkwardly ‘on all fours’, his knees and elbows sticky and aching) and socially (he is employed by a polytechnic, which at the time had the reputation of being a second-rate university); between the vulgarity of the situation and the fastidious niceties of the prose in which it is described; and between the uninhibited enthusiasm of Lynne and the paralysing paranoia of Sefton. The delight here is in the details: the complex layers of irony that Jacobson interweaves. The potential eroticism of the scenario is immediately undermined by the emphasis on Goldberg’s physical discomfort and psychological unease (‘the perspiration of effort and anxiety’), but what definitively drains this encounter of any sense of pleasure are the references to the linoleum to which his knees and elbows are ‘glued’ and to the grimaces and unappealing noises of his lover. The verb ‘to gargle’ in particular is an inspired touch, suggesting both a guttural noise and – by virtue of its near-homonym ‘garbling’ – a mangling of language which corresponds to the distortion of her features. If Mrs Shorthall is represented somewhat grotesquely, it is Goldberg himself who is the main butt of Jacobson’s comedy. His humiliation is compounded by the fact that he is sporting an academic gown and hood, not, the narrator drily insists, because of any kinkiness on Shorthall’s part, but, on the contrary, out of a sense of academic propriety, this ‘being degree day’, when tradition dictates that graduating students process in front of their families and academics attired in formal robes. And his anxiety is amplified by his fear that he may be discovered in flagrante delicto, since he is uncertain whether or not he has locked his office door. Again, the comedy of the situation is heightened by the specific terms in which this anxiety is described, specifically the way in which inanimate objects in the passage are imbued with sexual associations, so that the ‘nipple’ of the lock recalls erogenous zones, while the ‘over-zealous spring’ he imagines ‘urging . . . it up’ and his desire to ‘get up’ to check on its status alludes to his state of sexual tumescence, while at the same time threatening to deflate it, as he hopes to have ‘depressed’ the lock itself. Finally, the phrase deployed to explain his inability to reassure himself of their privacy – ‘he is not well placed even to take the rudimentary precaution of stealing a glance’ – is comically incongruous in its decorous diction (‘well placed’, ‘rudimentary’) and formal syntax (‘even to take’), while at the same time slyly hinting at the indecorousness of his situation (‘not well placed’ refers obliquely to the sexual position of the lovers and ‘stealing a glance’ connotes the furtiveness which constrains Goldberg’s desire to confirm that the lock is in place).
In the larger context of Jacobson’s oeuvre, the most telling detail of all is the suggestion, in passing, that the other factor, apart from the inconvenient disposition of the lovers, which prevents Goldberg from checking whether he has locked the door is that to do so would be ‘inconsistent with his idea of manliness’. For Jacobson’s representations of sexual relationships throughout his career are inflected by the tension between his protagonists’ ideas of manliness and the emasculating scenarios in which they invariably find themselves. In fact, ‘find themselves’ is perhaps not the best phrase to use in this context, since these scenarios are, more often than not, ones which they have either consciously contrived or unconsciously connived at. In later novels, this masochistic impulse takes a darker, psychological turn, but in Coming From Behind Sefton Goldberg’s self-abasement and self-inflicted pratfalls are played very much for laughs, and in the service of a satirical critique of the Leavisite great tradition of English literature.
Jacobson was himself taught by Leavis as an undergraduate at Cambridge, an experience he has written about repeatedly and ambivalently in both his fiction and non-fiction. At times he represents himself as an unabashed acolyte of Leavis, for example in In the Land of Oz, where he describes himself as ‘still the proud possessor of some residual Leavisite moralizing [sic]’ (Jacobson 1987a: 237), or in ‘The Last Cigarette’, his eulogy to Simon Gray – the playwright who befriended Jacobson in Leavis’s class – where he pays tribute to the ‘intellectual curiosity’ of Gray and another friend, Ian MacKillop, ‘that gave the lie to the supposed narrowness of the Leavis cult’ (Jacobson 2012a: 309). At the same time, there is evidence that Jacobson felt excluded from this ‘cult’, or at least from the larger milieu of which it was and was not a part. In an interview with James O’Brien, Jacobson speaks of his sense of being an outsider at Cambridge. Partly, it was a matter of class – ‘we [he and his friends at Downing College] were all grammar-school boys and we all felt slightly out of it’ (O’Brien 2019) – but Jacobson also felt ‘[t]here was some club, some English club, that these people all had been going to’ into which he had not been, and never would be, admitted. This feeling was reinforced by the sense that he was an impostor intellectually – a ‘fool’ and a ‘fraud’ – an insecurity that was heightened by Leavis’s distaste for what he found ‘nasty’ in literature, which made Jacobson feel ‘common’ and ‘vulgar’ (Jacobson 2011a). Jacobson has also repeatedly referred, semi-facetiously, to the way in which ‘[m]y moral tutor alienated me by thinking that if my name wasn’t Finkleburger it was Grubenstein’ (Jacobson 2017b: 19) and, in variations on the theme, to the fact that he [d]idn’t feel at ease at university where . . . moral tutors called me Abrahamson, Isaacson, Greenberg and Cohen’ (Jacobson 2012a: 265) and to ‘my tutor at university calling me Finklebaum one day and Goldfinger the next’ (Jacobson 2018a).
These experiences find their way into Coming From Behind, which features a running joke in which Sefton Goldberg is repeatedly addressed by other common Jewish names by Cambridge dons,3 for example when he is greeted by the Master of (the fictional college) Holy Christ Hall, Sir Evelyn Woolfardisworthy:
‘So you must be Goldmann.’
Sefton was just able not to agree. ‘Berg,’ he said.
‘Ah, Bergmann, I’m so sorry.’
This is the price of being pedantic, Sefton thought. But he couldn’t retreat now. ‘No, Goldberg’. He was conscious of being a dreadful nuisance.
Woolfardisworthy threw back his head and laughed. ‘Welcome anyway,’ he said, putting his arm through Sefton’s. It was all rather theatrical, not unlike meeting Sir Laurence Olivier, Sefton guessed. With this exception: compared to Sir Evelyn Woolfardisworthy, Sir Laurence Olivier had the elocution of a publican, and the refinement of a drayman and the bearing of an ostler. (Jacobson 1984: 203)
Although it might seem at first glance to be as far removed as it could be from Goldberg’s sexual shenanigans with Shorthall, the comedy in this scene works similarly. Just as Shorthall’s uninhibited ‘Black Country familiarities’ are ironically juxtaposed with Goldberg’s neurotic fears, so here Woolfardisworthy’s merry mangling of Sefton’s surname is contrasted with Goldberg’s incongruous, hesitant insistence on propriety. Once again, the terms in which Jacobson couches this culture clash exploit the tension between Goldberg’s pained awareness of his own absurdity and a residual desire to retain, or recover, some sense of dignity. The surprising diction of ‘just able not to agree’ – through its inversion of the normal sequence of the words ‘not able’ – subtly shifts Goldberg’s response from one of defiant assertion to hard-won, tentative demurral. Goldberg’s reluctance to correct Woolfardisworthy ironically amplifies his embarrassment, since his clipped attempt at putting the Master right (‘Berg’) only leads to further confusion and to Goldberg’s conviction that it is his pedantry, rather than Woolfardisworthy’s carelessness – or perhaps mischievous goading – that is the source of the confusion; that he is ‘being a dreadful nuisance’. Complicit as Goldberg is, through his timidity and deference, in his own humiliation, Jacobson at the same time draws attention to Woolfardisworthy’s casual antisemitism and to the disparity between the urbanity of his manner and the coarseness of his prejudices. Finally, through his description of the Master’s aristocratic bearing, Jacobson suggests, and mimics, the hauteur which it barely disguises: the references to publicans, draymen and ostlers, already archaic in 1983, are more redolent of a feudal era than the Thatcher years.
Episodes such as this might seem to place Jacobson in the tradition of the English comedy of manners: Woolfardisworthy would not be out of place in a novel by his namesake, Evelyn Waugh, and Sefton Goldberg’s discomposure is in some ways reminiscent of that experienced by Paul Pennyfeather, the painfully self-conscious protagonist of Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), who is sent down from Oxford as a result of the hijinks of the Bollinger Club. What distinguishes Sefton Goldberg from Paul Pennyfeather and, for example, from the protagonists of Kingsley Amis’s campus comedies is that whereas the latter are outsiders by virtue of their class, Goldberg’s working-class status is compounded by his geographical and ethnic background.4 This triple whammy of class, region and race once again reflects Jacobson’s own experiences as an undergraduate at Cambridge. Jacobson admired but also envied Gray and MacKillop: ‘To my jealous northern eye, they had an air of aloof sophistication, to do partly with their being handsome, tall, southern, well spoken, fiercely articulate and attractive to other men – no Mancunian was ever attractive to other men, not even to fellow Mancunians’ (Jacobson 2012a: 309). I will return to the theme of men’s attractiveness to other men and to the importance of Manchester in Jacobson’s fiction in Chapter 2 and the Afterword, respectively, but for now I want to draw attention to the characteristics Jacobson defines himself against: sophistication, southernness, height, elocution and eloquence.
These are the very characteristics that are conspicuously absent from Sefton Goldberg and that he covets, because he identifies them as the requisites for entry into a literary establishment that he simultaneously reveres and reviles. The two great symbols of this establishment in Coming From Behind are Leavis and the contemporary novelist whom he championed as the heir to the great tradition which he sought to enshrine as the canon of English literature: D.H. Lawrence.5 The references to Leavis in Coming From Behind are invariably irreverent, and at times iconoclastic. The first mention of Jacobson’s mentor comes in another scene of sexual intercourse between Goldberg and one of his students – one Helen Burns, with whom he is discovered in flagrante delicto by the postman at the (fictional) University of Woolloomoolloo in New South Wales, and who reappears as Director of Studies at Holy Christ Hall where Goldberg is interviewed for a Cambridge fellowship later in the novel. Confronted with the sight of the copulating couple (on this occasion Goldberg has indeed neglected to lock his office door), the unflappable postie inserts the letter he bears ‘between the now motionless, frozen cheeks of Sefton Goldberg’s buttocks’ (Jacobson 1984: 10). The letter turns out to be a bill from Heffers (a famous bookshop in Cambridge) for Leavis’s Nor Shall My Sword (1972).
On one level, this incident is a classic example of the comedy of incongruity: the collision between the high-minded literary seriousness exemplified by Leavis and the ‘nasty’, ‘vulgar’ urges of his protégé is symbolised by the insertion of a demand for payment for the book into the buttocks, the untimely intrusion of the moralist-critic effecting a coitus interruptus, the Freudian superego made manifest. At the same time, Leavis’s book functions as a reminder that the boundary between literary decorum and sexual passion has never been entirely secure. After all, Leavis himself married one of his students: Queenie Roth, whose Jewish family disowned her as a result.6 In this context the phallic connotations of the title of Leavis’s late work (whose title alludes to the line ‘Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand’, from the hymn ‘Jerusalem’) are not simply ironic. Goldberg recalls – with an acute embarrassment reminiscent of Pip’s at the meeting of Joe Gargery and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations – his father (like Jacobson’s own father, a keen magician) ‘produc[ing] an egg from F.R. Leavis’s ear’ (183). Just as Leavis’s book in the earlier scene serves both to humiliate Goldberg and to puncture the pomposity of its author – ‘There could be in our time no more important preoccupation than that which brings us here’, Leavis avows in its pages (Leavis 1972: 103) – the comical conjuration of the egg, though it provokes feelings of social inferiority in Goldberg, also implicitly rebukes the dry, unsmiling sterility of the literary establishment that Leavis had come to represent by the time Jacobson came under his tutelage.7
Goldberg sees himself as an embattled outsider, disadvantaged not just by his class and regional identities, but by his ethnicity and nationality: ‘This was England, not America. Here literature and criticism were still goyische pursuits, tied up with solemn attitudes to marriage and standards’ (Jacobson 1984: 201). Conveniently (and/or pointedly) overlooking Queenie Leavis, Goldberg becomes the first but not the last Jacobson protagonist to bemoan his fate as an English Jew, lacking the status and self-confidence of his American brethren. At the same time, the irreverent formulation ‘goyische pursuits’ and the characterisation of these pursuits as constrained by parochial pieties implies that Goldberg’s position at the margins of the literary establishment is, paradoxically, a privileged one, since it allows him to see it with a clarity denied to those ‘tied up’ – and tied down – by its investment in a conventional, conservative value system. There is an implicit critique here of the humourlessness of Leavis and his acolytes, a critique that is underpinned by the sense that the best antidote to the prim stuffiness of their genteel/Gentile drawing-room culture is a vigorous dose of Jewish ribaldry.8 Hence Goldberg’s repeated references to the female protagonists of canonical nineteenth-century fiction in terms that recast them as the eroticised subjects of his own virile desire: ‘He was harder on those two shiksas, Fanny Price and Little Dorrit, than even their respective families had been’ (178).9 When he penetrates Helen Burns (the namesake of the childhood friend of Jane Eyre), this metaphorical miscegenation is literalised: by fucking Helen Burns he is metaphorically fucking the great tradition, inseminating it with a strain of Jewish levity and irreverence. Jacobson’s second novel, Peeping Tom, can be seen as the hybrid offspring of this coupling.
Peeping Tom (1984)
The seeds of Peeping Tom were clearly sown in Coming From Behind. At one point the narrator of the latter, using free indirect discourse, relays Sefton Goldberg’s distaste for the influence of D.H. Lawrence on contemporary Jewish novelists:
Even the middle-aged Jewish heroes of middle-aged Jewish novelists were eschewing sedentary cynicism and unfolding themselves sensitively to teenage girls and nature, offering their cocks to near babies as if they were prize flowers picked in a goyische garden. They used to be inventive. Now they were tremulous. Behind all this Sefton believed he could detect the hand of D.H. Lawrence. Sefton wasn’t a devout Jew. He drove his car on Saturdays and ate bacon sandwiches whenever he could, even on festivals. But his race had its sexual pride to protect, and he drew the line at D.H. Lawrence. (Jacobson 1984: 167)
Positioning himself as an improbable defender of the faith – or rather of the tribe, since he flagrantly flouts Jewish dietary laws and the prohibition against driving on the Sabbath – Sefton Goldberg implicitly identifies a sentimental attitude towards nature as inherently anti-Jewish, equating it with an unhealthy sexual interest in pubescent girls. Attributing this alleged tendency of ‘middle-aged Jewish novelists’ and their protagonists to the malign influence of D.H. Lawrence, Goldberg manages simultaneously to disown the English pastoral tradition and to distance himself (and his creator, to risk conflating author and protagonist in the same way that Goldberg himself does) from the American Jewish giants who cast such an intimidating shadow over their less celebrated British Jewish counterparts.10
Whereas in Coming From Behind, the tensions between Jewish ‘cynicism’ and Gentile ‘sensitivity’ are staged in terms of Goldberg’s agonistic encounter with authors such as Lawrence and their advocates, such as Leavis, in Peeping Tom this conflict is internalised, incorporated into the dual identity of the novel’s protagonist, Barney Fugelman, a North London Jewish bibliophile who turns out also to be the reincarnation of Thomas Hardy. If Lawrence is the presiding spirit of the English pastoral in Coming From Behind, it is Hardy – Lawrence’s great precursor – who plays that role in Peeping Tom. The incidental observation in Jacobson’s first novel that ‘[n]o one currently studying The Long Novel with Sefton could have been in any doubt as to his low opinion of the works of Thomas Hardy’ (111), and the recurring jokes about Goldberg’s ignorance of, and instinctive aversion to, the natural world, become the foundations of his second novel.11
Peeping Tom begins with a prologue that has as its epigraph an excerpt from the fictional Lance Tourney’s Lad of Destiny: A Boy’s Guide to Health and Confidence that enjoins its readers to ‘keep faith with those three great sources of your strength: Earth, Sea and Air’, to ‘Walk barefoot’, ‘Learn to swim’ and ‘wear as few clothes as possible’ (Jacobson 1985: 7). The alias of Lionel Turnbull, the name Tourney is redolent of medieval jousting, suggesting an ironic counterpoint to the slang meaning of ‘Barney’ (an undignified quarrel), and indeed he represents everything that Barney fears and envies. Whereas Tourney advocates communing with nature as nature intended, so as to experience directly the beneficial effects of the elements, Barney Fugelman carries with him ‘the airless odour of ghetto fears’ and aspires always to be ‘fully dressed and ready for flight’ (15). Yet he also admires Tourney, or at least admires his admirers, ‘watching a group of schoolgirls watching Lionel Turnbull preparing for a swim’ (8), ‘engrossed’ and, by implication, engorged.
As the novel proceeds, this representation – central to the English pastoral tradition – of nature as a signifier of health and wholesomeness is subverted, Fugelman suggesting that the ‘soundness of cities’ provides an antidote to the ‘obsessional neurosis of Nature’ (7). Whereas in Coming From Behind Sefton Goldberg had internalised the antisemitic gaze of the symbolically named, cuckolded husband of one of his lovers – ‘[i]n the reflection of Ray Grassby’s eyes he could see what Ray saw – a twisted, yellow thing, a musty indoor creature that shunned the light and was inimical to all things wholesome’ (Jacobson 1984: 136) – Fugelman resists the association of the grassy outdoors with good health (and the concomitant association of the ‘musty indoor[s]’ with ill health).
Jokes about an inability to identify flora and fauna recur throughout Jacobson’s oeuvre, from the passing remark in In the Land of Oz that ‘I was elated to find a tree at last that I could recognize without help’ (Jacobson 1987a: 96) to the abortive attempt to describe an English garden in Zoo Time: ‘A bird of some description sang in a bare tree in their garden. Winter flowers of some description grew in a wooden trough. Enough with the nature writing’ (Jacobson 2013a: 108).12 Similarly pervasive are references to a Jewish immunity to the charms of nature, from Jacobson’s claim in In the Land of Oz that he ‘cannot see the point of being out of doors on my own’ (Jacobson 1987a: 34) to Ailinn Solomon’s confession in J that she ‘had never been comfortable on a garden seat . . . disliked the damp newsprint smell of damp vegetation, [and] detested snails and worms’ (Jacobson 2014a: 312).
This sensibility and its associated conventions – what I have called elsewhere the Jewish anti-pastoral (Brauner 2001: 74–84) – pervades Jacobson’s work, but finds its most sustained expression in Peeping Tom, in which it is elevated to the status of a moral philosophy. In an essay entitled ‘Bad time of the year’ Jacobson caricatures himself as a wandering Jew figure, excluded from Eden because of his own ignorance of the nomenclature of nature: ‘because I don’t know what anything’s called . . . I’m destined to wander summer parks and gardens like some sorrowing Werther or Melmoth, forever outcast from the consolations of green’ (Jacobson 2012a: 119). He explores this idea of exile from Eden literally later in his career in The Very Model of a Man but in Peeping Tom the ‘consolations of green’ denied to, and by, the Jewish protagonist are the metaphorical green pastures of the English literary tradition. In Jacobson’s second novel the usual jokes about Jewish ignorance of/indifference to the natural world are yoked with allusions to canonical English novels – ‘if I knew what an ash tree looked like or where one was to be found I might easily fall to dashing my head against it’ (Jacobson 1985: 13), Fugelman observes, alluding to the infamous scene in Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff does just that – or couched explicitly in terms of an aesthetic antagonism towards those novels: ‘I had a dislike for the English rural tradition. I didn’t care for novels set primarily in the outside, on moors or under greenwood trees’ (36). Rejecting not only the Victorian pastoralism of Hardy and the Brontës but also the neo-romanticism of modern poets such as Ted Hughes – he ‘couldn’t take one more fucking poem about a pike’ (35) – Fugelman self-consciously inverts the conventional dichotomy between the city as a symbol of corruption and the country as a haven of purity. In common with Marvin Kreitman, the protagonist of Who’s Sorry Now?, who prefers ‘the odours of the city, the fried food, the petrol fumes’ to the atmosphere of ‘a whitewashed cottage on a village green’ (Jacobson 2002a: 7) and Henry Nagel, the eponymous hero of The Making of Henry, for whom it was always ‘[b]etter to be in town, drowned by traffic, pestered by the poor, than [among] vistas of nothingness [and] rolling moorlands which mock time because time has made no impression’ (Jacobson 2005a: 102), Barney Fugelman associates urban life with urbanity and rural life with vulgarity. Like Kreitman and Nagel, Fugelman relishes the sights, sounds and smells of the city because they reflect more accurately the turbulence, disorder and impurity of life itself, whereas the village green and whitewashed cottage invoke a whitewashed, purified vision of existence, what Nathan Zuckerman at the end of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife describes as ‘life in the beautiful state of innocent prehistory, the appealing idyll of living “naturally”’ (Roth 1987: 327). For Fugelman, this is not simply an idiosyncratic aesthetic preference but a moral choice: to live in the city is to embrace life with all its messy vicissitudes; to live in the country is to retreat from reality, to inhabit a nihilistic realm of ‘nothingness’, an ahistorical world on which ‘time has made no impression’.
For this reason, the revelation that he harbours an inner Hardy – ‘a morbid, superstitious little rustic, who confused . . . niggardliness with humour’ (Jacobson 1985: 39), in Fugelman’s estimation – feels like an existential ambush, a violation of his subjecthood and a betrayal of his Jewish roots. Barney’s initial incredulity is couched in terms of his ethnicity: he tells Vilbert, the hypnotist who oversees his regression to his previous existence as Hardy (and whose name is taken from a morally dubious character in Jude the Obscure), that ‘Jews don’t believe in reincarnation’ (83) but feels unable to tell him that his scruples are ethno-racial as much as philosophical: ‘for a start [Hardy] wasn’t Jewish’ (44). At the same time, Fugelman’s indignation at the discovery of his shared history with Hardy turns out to be a defensive denial of fundamental affinities between the men. Fugelman asks ‘[d]id [Hardy] want to be a Jew?’ (86) but he might as well have asked about his own incentive for incorporating Hardy. It is no coincidence that the episode from Hardy’s life to which Fugelman regresses under hypnosis is the infamous one in which the young Thomas is sexually aroused by the spectacle of the public hanging of Martha Brown. Reflecting on the unkosher nature of this experience, Fugelman laments that his parents had cherished the fantasy that he might become ‘President of the State of Israel’, ‘not a no one in a crowd in Dorchester, looking up at a swinging shikse’ (89). This statement is doubly ironic, firstly because Hardy was hardly a ‘no one’ and secondly because voyeurism and ‘swinging’, in the slang sense of swapping sexual partners (in vogue in the 1970s milieu in which this phase of Peeping Tom takes place) – or, more precisely, the practice of pandering your own sexual partner – are very much Fugelman’s scene.
At one point in Peeping Tom, Fugelman decides to exploit his connection with Hardy by giving walking tours on the novelist to the paying pupils of a summer school in Dorset run by his lover, Camilla Martilene. Although – or perhaps because – he imagines that they want him to tell them about the ‘wild flowers and local customs’ (103), he lectures them instead on his pet theory that ‘complicity in your own cuckoldry is a recurring theme in Hardy’ (103). Speculating that Hardy might have had a sexual interest in his cousin Tryphena Sparks and subsequently encouraged his friend Horace Moule to have an affair with her, in the hope that Horace would ‘report [to him] . . . everything that happens in some detail’ (100), Fugelman concludes that even if he didn’t promote the affair, it was only because ‘if he wanted that kind of excitement he didn’t have to live it. He was a novelist. He could always write about it’ (102).13
For Fugelman himself, however, writing about ‘it’ is not sufficient (the affected coyness of the repeated non-specific pronoun and the equally euphemistic phrase ‘that kind of excitement’ paradoxically draw attention to the salacious nature of what is not being described). After having a dream in which his first wife, Sharon, ‘swung from a rope outside Dorset County prison doing her Sophie Tucker imitations for Joseph Poorgrass and Grandfer Cantle’ (98) – a dream in which Fugelman is aroused by the men’s arousal (expressed in a parody of Hardy’s rustic dialect) – Fugelman goes to great lengths to incite an affair between Sharon and his old friend and rival, Rowland Fitzpiers, who shares his surname with a character from Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887). Fugelman’s determination to have Sharon ‘appraised, apprized by one of Horace Moule’s discernment and worth . . . the son of a good Christian family’ (99) suggests either that he has become obsessed with emulating his precursor or that he has, contra his earlier protests, been a kindred spirit of Hardy’s all along, or both. When he climbs onto the ‘Jewish lavatory seat’ of his Finchley home in a vain attempt to catch a glimpse of Fitzpiers and Sharon taking advantage of his temporary absence, he casts himself as one of Hardy’s morally ambivalent stalker-heroes, reflecting that ‘with similarly beating hearts did the Reddleman [Diggory Venn, from The Return of the Native] and Gabriel Oak [from Far From the Madding Crowd] creep about moors and pastures, feeding on exclusion, harmonizing scopophilia with the great pulse of nature’ (128). Once again, Jacobson juxtaposes to comic effect the domestic (sub)urban space of the Fugelmans’ bathroom, with its ‘extravagantly fringed and furnished’ toilet (128), and the wild, pastoral landscape of ‘moors and pastures’, and once again the trope of nature as an idealised, pure domain is subverted by the image of Oak and Venn ‘creep[ing] about’, furtively fanning the flames of their perverse sexual desires. The comparison between Fugelman – awkwardly poised on the loo, craning his neck out of the ‘tiny leaded window’ (128), hoping to see, in the shadows cast on the flags of a side passage, the initiation of an affair between his wife and friend – and Hardy’s rugged rustics, peering out of the undergrowth at the romantic assignations of their future wives, simultaneously confers on Fugelman what Jacobson calls elsewhere the ‘high indignity’ (Jacobson 2016c: 48) of a tortured soul and on Oak and Venn the tragicomic humiliation of bearing witness to the betrayal of their loves.
When his persistent provocations eventually lead to the break-up of his marriage and he takes up with Camilla, it is not long before Fugelman tries once more to pimp out his partner. One night Camilla returns from the local pub the worse for wear, trailing a young man named Tarquin, who, Fugelman proleptically informs us, ‘was to become the best known vegetable dye tattooist in the area, thanks largely to the work he did on Harry Vilbert’s under-age girlfriend’ (Jacobson 1985: 284). Although Tarquin seems to expect nothing more than a snack and a place to crash for the night, Fugelman quickly realises the possibilities, literally pushing the young man in the direction of Camilla’s bedroom, making himself scarce and then repeatedly imploring her to ‘tell me’ what transpired between them (286–88). Even as Tarquin is introducing himself, Fugelman recalls an episode from earlier in the novel in which, having taken some dirty photographs of Sharon to a shop in Soho to be developed, giving his name as Humbert Humbert, he is taken to the back of the shop ‘where someone imitating Peter Ustinov imitating a mafioso delivered me a moral lecture’ (139).14
It will save some time and spare me some painful recollections if I say that I felt precisely as I had on that famous afternoon in Soho when that pillar of Sicilian respectability fingered my photographs of Sharon, scrutinizing them from this angle and that. Now, as then, something old and sweet rose to the back of my throat. Now, as then, the solid ground of my passion – pride, possession, fondness, respect – fell away from under me. Chaos had come again to the life of the affections. Only this time – I was mature now, don’t forget – I knew what to do. (286)
In the original incident, far from ‘finger[ing]’ the photos and ‘scrutinizing them’ minutely, the proprietor of the shop declares them to be ‘diabolical’ and sends Fugelman on his way with a flea in his ear, leaving the precocious pornographer wistfully wishing that the older man had ‘been just that little bit indelicate . . . called things by their coarsest names’ (140). The ironic reference to the man as ‘that pillar of Sicilian respectability’ might suggest that Fugelman believes, retrospectively, that he had regarded the photos with prurient interest disguised as disgust. Yet it is equally possible that the maturity Fugelman claims for himself here is a delusion, founded on a distorted memory. The contrast between the young Fugelman’s playful identification of himself with the notorious narrator of Lolita (1955) and the ‘mature’ Fugelman’s implicit comparison of his predicament to that of Othello (who declares that if he ever begins to doubt his love for Desdemona then ‘Chaos is come again’ [III, iii, 92]) is instructive in this context, the earlier literary allusion suggesting a self-aware sense of absurdity, while the later one hints at an unselfconscious pomposity.
Ironically, however, it is in the latter passage that Fugelman sounds like Nabokov’s protagonist. Like Humbert Humbert, Barney Fugelman is an unreliable narrator who rationalises his perverse sexual preferences, representing himself as the victim of his manipulative behaviour (he can barely bear to dwell on the ‘painful recollections’ of his past), implicating the reader in that behaviour through his intimate confidences (‘I was mature now, don’t forget’) and attempting to elicit sympathy for his suffering through extravagant rhetoric (‘the solid ground of my passion – pride, possession, fondness, respect – fell away from under me’). Like Humbert, too, he has a weakness for puns, particularly sexual puns, as for example in the word ‘fingering’ in the passage above, or when he concludes the prologue to the novel by inviting us to ‘[w]atch how clean I’m coming’ (22); or when, referring to the concerns of Hardy’s family about the nature of his relationship with his cousin, he asks: ‘[w]asn’t that why they had to keep pulling him off?’ (93).
If Fugelman is a figure of fun, a peeping tom whose garrulous fusion of smutty double entendres, prissy formality and lofty lyricism barely disguises a misogyny masquerading as misanthropy, he is also at times a voyeur-poet. These tensions are particularly vivid in the scene towards the end of the novel when Fugelman stages his most spectacular scenario of masochistic sexual humiliation. After going to see a production of Peter Weiss’s infamous play, Marat/Sade, Fugelman drives Camilla and the two principals to Stonehenge, where he watches as they perform a nocturnal ‘spitroast’ against the background of the ancient sacred site where the heroine of Hardy’s most celebrated novel, Tess of the d’Urbevilles, spends her last night of freedom with Angel Clare.
And there, splayed out against this confusion of masonry, careless of discomfort, druidical decorum, or our marriage vows, my own monumental Camilla heaved and twisted and bellowed, as she’d never heaved and twisted and bellowed on a bed of rock for me, her legs thrown apart wider than I’d ever seen them thrown, in order to accommodate the boy de Sade – the steam from whose nostrils ascended into the night like incense, the glint from whose solitary ear-ring flashed amongst the melancholy bluestone pillars like a falling star; while at her other end, in a squatting position above her once more superabundant breasts, the black acrobat and actor Pierre swayed to a monstrous rhythm, his gracefully predacious shadow falling now on this silicified module of sandstone, now on that, according to the extravagance of his movements (or of mine!), his virile member – I didn’t have to imagine it, I had seen it enough times this evening, getting in and out of Marat’s bath – his virile member, I say (if I could look, you can), plunged deep into Camilla’s throat. (326)
This is Jacobson at his most unsettling, most uncompromising and most virtuosic. It is a sinuous, insinuating, single-sentence tour de force combining pathos and bathos, vulgarity and sophistication, beauty and barbarism, self-pity and self-incrimination. The description of Pierre flirts dangerously with racist stereotypes – the adjectives ‘monstrous’ and ‘predacious’ invoke primitivist tropes and the reference to his ‘virile member’ is a pornographic cliché – but this representation of the other is complicated by the fact that Fugelman identifies himself with Pierre (conflating his erotic ‘movements’ with his own) and implicates an implied reader in his ambivalent act of witnessing. Similarly, the description of Camilla is simultaneously degrading – ‘splayed out’, ‘heav[ing] and twist[ing] and bellow[ing]’, with ‘superabundant breasts’, she appears objectified, less than human – and ennobling: her fearless flouting of convention and gymnastic prowess make her, like the ancient stones themselves, ‘monumental’, more than human. Finally, the clash between a high poetic register – for example the zeugma of ‘careless of discomfort, druidical decorum, or our marriage vows’ and the formal use of ‘I say’ (reminiscent of the rhetoric of Victorian novelists) – and the crude subject matter exemplifies Jacobson’s comic modus operandi.
This passage is ostensibly as far from Hardy as one can get, and yet the setting (invoking Tess), the pathetic fallacy of the pillars being described as ‘melancholy’ and of course the morally ambiguous role of the voyeur, both part and yet not part of the proceedings, are quintessentially Hardyesque. The geological references – to ‘masonry’, ‘bed of rock’, ‘silicified . . . sandstone’ and ‘bluestone pillars’ (this last recalling ‘the pillar of Sicilian respectability’) – also function as subtle reminders that Hardy’s father was a stonemason (a profession shared by a number of his characters, notably Jude Fawley) and as an allusion to Henry Knight, the geologist suitor of Elfride Swancourt in A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). Moreover, although this passage is obviously more sexually explicit than anything that can be found in Hardy, it should be remembered that he was the most sexually frank novelist of his generation, and would have been considerably franker had he not been constrained by the censors (infamously so in Tess and Jude the Obscure). Finally, the particular sexual act that is being performed in this scene symbolically represents the sexual dynamic of many of Hardy’s novels.
Camilla has her own pet theory about Hardy’s representation of sexuality, in particular the significance of the recurring motif of male rivalry in his work. Her analysis of the love triangle in A Pair of Blue Eyes between Henry Knight, Stephen Smith and Elfride Swancourt – ‘Elfride takes the caning because, apparently, Elfride wants the caning, but it is Stephen Smith who revels in the afterglow’ (107) – hints at a sado-masochistic, homoerotic subtext that is also apparent in a number of other Hardy novels, notably The Mayor of Casterbridge (Michael Henchard-Lucetta Templeman-Donald Farfrae), Far From the Madding Crowd (Gabriel Oak-Bathsheba Everdene-William Boldwood) and Jude the Obscure (Jude Fawley-Sue Bridehead-Richard Phillotson). Moreover, she believes that the male neuroses of Hardy’s men expose a larger truth about masculine sexuality: ‘the woman is merely incidental – she simply serves as the post box you communicate through. In fact, you’re all just flashing and fiddling amongst yourselves. You’re all queens . . . the whole pack of you’ (228). Camilla’s pointed observation echoes Sharon’s accusation that Fugelman is ‘a latent homosexual . . . employing her as a proxy to have done to her by Fitzpiers what [he] really wanted Fitzpiers to do to [him]’ (163). It is also a pithier, less nuanced version of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s seminal brand of queer theory (avant la lettre), outlined in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), according to which, in a number of canonical eighteenth-century texts, ‘the ultimate function of women is to be conduits for male homosocial desire between men’ (Sedgwick 1992: 99). I have explored extensively elsewhere the possibilities of reading Peeping Tom in this context, pointing to a connection between male homosocial desire and the anti-pastoral in a range of post-war Jewish fiction on both sides of the Atlantic.15 However, if we read the novel in terms of literary politics as much as sexual politics, then it is the English novel itself that is the conduit in Peeping Tom for an allegorically homosocial transaction between Jacobson and Hardy.
Among its many incidental pleasures, Peeping Tom offers astute, detailed readings of particular Hardy texts, as well as more generalised observations about his oeuvre. Like all successful parodies, it demonstrates a certain infatuation with its subject alongside a keen awareness of its absurdities; a desire to possess the original text through an intertextual form of intercourse. There is a moment in Jacobson’s later novel The Making of Henry when the narrator reflects that ‘[a]s a boy . . . Henry had kept the moors in the corner of his eye, a promise . . . of some glimmering Englishness whose quietude was strange to him, and which one day he would try to penetrate’ (Jacobson 2005a: 114–15). This is what Peeping Tom does, metaphorically: through the comic device of having his Jewish protagonist possessed by a canonical English novelist dybbuk, Jacobson paradoxically insinuates himself into the English pastoral tradition, appropriating its ‘glimmering . . . quietude’ and reinventing it as part sexual farce, part Jewish anti-pastoral.
Jacobson’s next novel was another act of ambivalent cultural appropriation; just as Peeping Tom had been both a homage to and a travesty of the English pastoral, so Redback at once pays affectionate tribute to and unsparingly satirises all things Australian. In a preface to In the Land of Oz, a non-fictional account of a year spent travelling across the country with his then-wife, the Australian-born Rosalin Sandler, visiting areas off the beaten track, Jacobson describes it as ‘a country that was at one and the same time magnanimous and cruel, sophisticated and suspicious, self-righteous and free-spirited’ (Jacobson 1987a: vii).16 This sums up nicely the representation of Australia in Redback.
Like Peeping Tom, too, Redback features an unreliable first-person narrator, but in terms of subject matter it is closer to Coming From Behind. Like that novel, it is an academic satire, a connection it slyly acknowledges through the cameo appearance of Sefton Goldberg, described as ‘a world authority on shy girls in Dickens [who] . . . always wore a leather tie’ (Jacobson 1986: 116) and who is ‘having the time of his life in Australia’ (211). Indeed, in some respects Redback might be seen as a prequel to Coming From Behind, since there is a passing reference near the start of the latter novel to Goldberg’s stint ‘teaching first at the University of Coryapundy Swamp Institute and then at the University of Woolloomoolloo, New South Wales’ (Jacobson 1984: 8), both of which appear in Redback, and since Gunnar McMurphy, a minor character from the earlier novel whose ‘ambition was always to refer to the most private parts of women’s bodies in the most public places that would allow him to do so’ (Jacobson 1984: 107), plays a much larger part in the later novel as a scholar who achieves some fame and fortune by ‘giving readings from a new D.H. Lawrence novel that he’d discovered’ (Jacobson 1986: 107).
The parallels don’t stop there. Like Coming From Behind, Redback begins, audaciously, with a scene of sexual humiliation: the story of an Oxford undergraduate who wakes up, after an awkward one-night stand with a ‘well-connected Australian woman with powerful mandibles, an MA in Fine Arts, and special interests in Lorenzo di Credi, Bramante, and Berthe Morisot’ to discover that the lady has left a token of her lack of appreciation in the form of a stool on his chest, ‘only inches from his gaping mouth’ (Jacobson 1986: 7, 8). Towards the end of the novel, the narrator, Leon Forelock, the recipient of ‘a double starred First in the Moral Decencies from Malapert College, Cambridge’, reveals that he himself was the unfortunate victim of this ‘Freudian gift’ (8), explaining that he didn’t wish to disclose the truth at the outset because of his fear that the reader would have been unlikely ‘to show the proper intellectual regard for the spiritual history of a man who, on the very first page of his confessions, confessed that he’d been shat on by an Australian’ (262).
As ever, the comedy here derives from incongruity: between the formidable social and intellectual credentials of the Australian woman and her crude act of defecation; between Forelock’s pre-eminence in the ‘Moral Decencies’, and the indecency of his narrative; and between the prissy formality with which the clause above begins (‘proper intellectual regard’) and the blunt inelegance of the phrase with which it concludes (‘shat on by an Australian’). The lofty reference to ‘spiritual history’ is also ironic, since the nature of Forelock’s confessions are anything but spiritual, and yet at the same time not entirely ironic, since the two foundational texts of the genre in the Western canon – The Confessions of St. Augustine (401) and The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1782) – contain frank accounts of their narrators’ sexual adventures and tastes, including in the case of the latter a pronounced predilection for masochism.
The coprophilic Australian turns out to be Desley, a teacher-turned-spiritual-counsellor who becomes a ‘national celebrity’ in her homeland after exposing herself ‘to body forth a metaphor during a class on Remedial Relationship Enhancement Studies for non-Australian-speaking migrants from mountainous areas of southern Europe’ (261), and her sexual humiliation of Forelock turns out to be a foreshadowing of another sexual humiliation, to which the title of the novel alludes and which is referred to, proleptically, throughout the course of the novel. Bolting from Desley’s tent in the Bogong High Plains in the middle of a storm, after a failed attempt at seduction ends with Forelock waking up to find her ‘about to straddle [his] chest’, Forelock takes refuge in a makeshift ‘country shithouse’, where he is stung by the redback spider, ‘a sister-in-law to the Black Widow’ whom he characterises as a ‘a murderous biting robber-baroness’ (290). The symptoms of the poison emitted by the spider, as enumerated by Forelock, include ‘neuro-toxicosis, lassitude, heartburn, amnesia, irreligion, inconsequential jocularity, dull pain in the soft palate, swelling of the kidneys, the passing of sediment in the urine, and the spasmodic and wholly involuntary ejaculation of spermatozoa, dyed a shocking paraffin pink by the admixture of a little blood’ (295). He might have added logorrhoea.
Redback is crammed full of lists, extravagant rhetoric, baroque formulations and promiscuous wordplay. Whereas Coming From Behind and Peeping Tom were characterised by a vivid stylistic dynamism, Redback is clogged with self-indulgent, self-conscious displays of erudition. A generous reading of the novel might see this as a deliberate ploy – as the linguistic analogue to Forelock’s ‘shameless exhibitionism’ (290) – and there is certainly an ironic distance between the author and his protagonist. Ultimately, however, it feels as though Redback is trying too hard: straining for its comic effects, weighed down by its own excesses. Partly, the problem is that many of its satirical targets feel rather dated and ill-judged – references to ‘open-air group readings of avant-garde Black American homosexual novels’ (27) and to ‘gamboling indigenes . . . honking and hooting and halloing’ at Sydney Harbour (83) seem at best glib, at worst offensive.17
Worse still is the casual racism, from the scene in which Forelock and a group of fellow-travellers indulge in a bout of ‘face-making’, ‘pull[ing] our eyes downwards like Laplanders . . . sideways like Charlie Chan . . . opened wide like Mississippi minstrels’ (157) to the description of the feet of an Indian student, Anorgasmia Ankhesenamen, with whom Forelock becomes infatuated: ‘Charred, musky, independent – with the air of having lived in some dark spicy place for a thousand years or more, Anorgasmia’s toes protruded from the hem of her silk sari like ten little scarabs’ (61). It’s not so much the fetishisation as the exoticisation of the toes that is rather queasy. Similarly, it’s the sexualisation rather than the absurdity of the student’s name that is unsettling. Whereas in his first two novels Jacobson had used names symbolically, allusively and/or for specific comic effects, in Redback they seem gratuitously grotesque or ridiculous. At one point the narrator of Jacobson’s later novel Zoo Time observes that ‘I’d never been a Bill and Mary novelist. Life is banal enough, in my view, without a writer replicating it. But you can also strive too hard. Beaufield Nubeem [sic], for example, or Tyrone Slothrop’ (Jacobson 2013a: 97).18 In Redback Jacobson strives too hard. There is Dinmont Manifest, a Jesuit priest with ‘the looks of the young Henry James’ (Jacobson 1986: 40) who seduces the young Forelock and recruits him for the Freedom Academy International (a front for the CIA), sending him to Australia where he edits a reactionary magazine called Black Sail, teaches a ‘Human Values course for neophyte Australian spies’ (31) and agitates against all manifestations of progressive politics. There is the Marxist Ruddles Carmody and the feminist Norelle Turpie; there are the conjurer Shea Shea Lafam and the CIA operative Hartley Quibell. There are his aunts, Hester and Nesta. And there are Vernie Redfearn and Maroochi Ravesh, the synchronised swimmers with whom Forelock has a ménage à trois for eight years before he has an affair with (the singularly named) Trilby, his deceased father’s lover.
Trilby is also named after the eponymous heroine of George du Maurier’s bestselling novel of 1895, a novel little read now but whose villain, Svengali, has entered the language as a generic term for a manipulative mentor figure who promotes the career of his protégé(e) for his own purposes and profit. Yet this allusion doesn’t seem to have any larger significance in the scheme of Redback. The name of the protagonist – Karl Leon Forelock – seems similarly arbitrary: his first two names may invoke Marx and Trotsky, respectively (ironically, given Forelock’s right-wing allegiances) but his surname seems to be little more than an indication of his instinctive servility (as in ‘tugging one’s forelock’) and a set-up for the inevitable punchline, when a colleague misrepresents his name: ‘that Foreskin’s a subservient little prick’ (48). It is also a name devoid of ethno-racial associations. Unlike the protagonists of his first two novels, and indeed of most of his subsequent fiction, Forelock does not appear to be Jewish. The only reference to his genetic inheritance – ‘eleven-nineteenths citizen of Ruritania, the rest pure Partingtonian’ (45) – encapsulates the generic confusion of the novel. The mention of Ruritania – a generic term given to any fictional central or eastern European country, deriving from a trilogy of adventure novels by Anthony Hope published in the 1890s – seems to confirm the impression given by the characters’ names that this is a fantastical rather than a realistic novel, but Partington is the name of a real suburb of Manchester, albeit one that is transformed in Jacobson’s novel into a semi-mythical emblem of English parochialism and inbreeding:
But for me the most extraordinary fact about Partington was that everybody who lived in it was called Partington. No one who has spent any time in the North of England . . . will have failed to notice a certain tendency towards this sort of uniformity. There are more Chorleys in Chorley than you can shake a stick at, and far more Clitheroe Clitheroes than can be explained by coincidence. The Formbys of Formby are infamous. The Ramsbottoms of Ramsbottom legion. Partington, though, was not just densely populated with Partingtons, it was plethoric with them, it was swollen with a Partington pleurisy of plague proportions. We came into the world with the help of Nurse Partington, said ‘Ah’ for Doctor Partington, and signed our last wills and testaments in the offices of Partington, Partington, and Partington. We voted Partington C. when we wanted a Conservative government and Partington L. when we wanted a Labour one. It was even possible for us to vote Communist, putting our cross against the name of Patsy ‘The Red’ O’Partington, who, when he wasn’t on the hustings, ran the Partington Pie Shop and baked the best Partington Patties in Partington. (14)
This passage exemplifies the problem with Redback. It aspires to what we might call the extrapolation ad absurdum comic strategy employed in the newspaper columns of Charlie Brooker and the stand-up routines of Stewart Lee – beginning with a hyperbolic proposition (‘everybody who lived in it was called Partington’) and riffing on it, creating an elaborate, ever-escalating and increasingly surreal sequence of variations on the theme. Yet what in the hands of contemporary humorists such as Brooker and Lee become wildly anarchic jeux d’esprits feels here like forced zaniness and mannered hyperfluency. The alliteration of this passage is tellingly reminiscent of the excesses of Word Smith, the narrator of Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (1973), a novel that suffers similarly from self-indulgent prolixity. Attempting exuberance, it is instead exhausting. The mixed metaphor of the ‘pleurisy . . . of plague proportions’ in particular is an unhappy one: pleurisy is not contagious and is not a condition with which anyone (or anything) can be said to be ‘swollen’.
This bloated prose also contributes to, and/or is symptomatic of, a rather rambling, lacklustre plot. Plot never feels like one of Jacobson’s priorities as a novelist: the observation in The Making of Henry that ‘a plot is nothing more than the way things turn out, a mere arbitrary intrusion into the game of life . . . but not affecting the overall shape of the contest, or the pleasure you take in playing’ (Jacobson 2005a: 268) reflect its author’s own sentiments, as I noted in the Introduction. In Redback, however, there are few pleasures on offer; the comedy is contrived and the narrative is directionless, proceeding in fits and starts and at times virtually grinding to a halt.
There are clear continuities between the literary politics of the novel and its two predecessors. Like Coming From Behind, Redback is an academic satire, Forelock’s Cambridge education in the ‘Moral Decencies’ recalling the satirical engagement of the earlier novel with F.R. Leavis’s ethical brand of literary criticism. Like Peeping Tom, the self-reflexivity of its unreliable narrator tips over at times into the territory of postmodern metafiction; as the narrated Forelock foils Desley’s attempt to reprise her act of sexual humiliation, exclaiming ‘Oh no you don’t’, the retrospective narrative voice observes how he ‘remember[s] thinking how like a character from a D.H. Lawrence novel that made me sound’ (Jacobson 1986: 286). Yet the playfulness of the first two novels somehow curdles into something rather sour in Redback. After discovering that he has slept with his father’s widow, Venie and Maroochi unsurprisingly sever their relations with Forelock. The terms in which Forelock expresses his disappointment are revealing:
I had supposed that in matters of sexual relations they were equivocalists, ambivalentiers like me . . . But after they’d charged me with deceit, infidelity, incest and gerontophilia, I found it hard to see anything unconventional in them at all. (246)
The supercilious tone of this passage, its sesquipedalian diction and its pride in its own audacious transgressiveness, thinly disguised by a disingenuous profession of a sense of injustice, are entirely characteristic. No Humbert Humbert, or even Barney Fugelman, Leon Forelock’s voice is often alienating and irritating and always rather too pleased with itself, even, or perhaps especially, when it is affecting contrition and humility.
Redback doesn’t so much finish as run out of steam: there is a palpable sense of exhaustion at the end of the novel, which perhaps explains the lengthy interval between its publication and the appearance of Jacobson’s next novel, The Very Model of a Man. That book represented the start of a new phase in his career, to which I will turn in the next chapter, but in the remainder of this chapter I will consider two much later novels that revisited some of the concerns of his earliest work.
Zoo Time (2012)
In many ways, Redback was the end of the first stage of Jacobson’s career as a novelist: the final instalment in a semi-autobiographical academic trilogy of sorts.19 However, it could also be seen as anticipating some of Jacobson’s later fiction, notably Zoo Time. Like Redback, Zoo Time takes place partly in Australia, has a plot involving the protagonist’s fixation on a mother figure, and an unconventional love triangle, and is a profoundly self-conscious, metafictional novel that simultaneously encourages and discourages its readers to read it as a roman-à-clef. It even features a climactic scene involving a confrontation between the protagonist and a spider (on this occasion, the spider is killed before it can do anything other than frighten his mother-in-law).20 If Jacobson’s early novels were, in a sense, about his ambivalent attempt to gain admittance to the club that he wouldn’t want to join if they had had him as a member,21 Zoo Time might be read as his reflection on the literary establishment from the vantage point of an insider, albeit one who retains the temperament of an outsider.
Having inveighed for many years against the circus of the Booker, Jacobson changed his tune when he won the prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, conceding that he ‘was astonished at how validated [he][felt]’ by his success (Jacobson 2014c: 9), and remarking with wry humour that ‘[w]inning changes everything . . . The past is now bathed in nostalgia and forgiveness’ (Jacobson 2010g: 8).22 Finally winning the award gave Jacobson permission to write satirically about literary politics once again, without appearing to be motivated by sour grapes, but rather from the perspective of someone who, like the narrator of Zoo Time, is able to see that ‘[s]uccess is arbitrary and wayward; only failure is the real measure of things.’ (Jacobson 2013a: 298). It also enabled him to explore his own theory and practice as a novelist and his place in the wider literary canon with clarity and confidence. If Zoo Time revisits many of the concerns of his early work, it also represents a departure from anything he had done previously. Although many of his earlier protagonists had been academics, critics or authors manqués, Zoo Time was the first (and so far the only) one of his novels whose protagonist is a novelist; a novelist, moreover, who is writing a novel about a novelist who is writing a novel, and who reflects that ‘this is how you know you’re in deep shit as a writer – when the heroes of your novels are novelists worrying that the heroes of their novels are novelists who know they’re in deep shit’ (22). At once a late-career foray into postmodernism and a parody of postmodernism, a reconstruction and deconstruction of his own career, his most inward-looking and most intertextual novel, Zoo Time is also one of Jacobson’s funniest books.
Guy Ableman is the author of four novels. His first, Who Gives a Monkey’s?, is, in his own estimation, ‘an elegantly profane novel’ (16) which confirmed ‘what the novel owed to sex’ and that ‘prose trumped verse because it celebrated our lower instincts not our higher, except that my point was that our lower instincts were our higher instincts’ (20); comments that echo the argument of Seriously Funny. For his former lover, on whom its narrator is partly based, it is ‘a tasteless priapic comedy’ (20), a paraphrase of a number of hostile reviews of Jacobson’s early fiction. Its publisher, Quintin O’Malley, had taken it on initially, on the assumption that
the narrator was the author: a one-time Orthodox Jewish woman who gave sexual relief to tigers and bred chimpanzees for whom no sexual relief was possible, writing under the pseudonym of Guy Ableman in order to conceal her sex and the fact that her novel was in fact a true story . . . He wanted to show her off and introduce her around . . . ‘Think twice before shaking her hand,’ I can imagine him telling his dissipated friends. (60)23
As well as introducing one of the central concerns of the novel – the relationship between life and fiction – this passage also contains the first of a number of allusions to Philip Roth.24 The joke that Ableman imagines O’Malley making echoes the notorious bon mot that the popular novelist Jacqueline Susann made about Roth on The Tonight Show at the height of the success of Portnoy’s Complaint, when she told the talk-show host that ‘she’d like to meet [Roth] but didn’t want to shake [his] hand’ (Roth 1975: 216–17).
Just as Roth claimed that ‘concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the drama of my life is my life’ and that the novelist is paradoxically ‘most himself by simultaneously being someone else’ (Roth 1975: 123, 124, italics in original), so Ableman acknowledges the autobiographical origins of fiction – ‘you can’t imagine yourself into the “I” of another person . . . without imagining yourself’ – while at the same time insisting on the integrity and transformative imagination of the novelist: ‘I’m always somebody other. Being somebody other is my work.’ (Jacobson 2013a: 23, 31). When Claire, the partner of the protagonist Philip in Roth’s novel Deception (1990), discovers the manuscript of what appears to be the novel itself and expresses her indignation at the sexual infidelities it seems to reveal, Philip maintains that the protagonist is ‘an impersonation of myself’ (Roth 1990: 184, italics in original). When Vanessa, Ableman’s wife, becomes distressed at what she believes to be the representation of their marital relationship, he insists that ‘Us doesn’t mean us . . . I doesn’t mean me’ (Jacobson 2013a: 339).
Who Gives a Monkey’s? is followed by two novels about which we learn nothing other than their titles: Lawless and The Silent Shriek (66). At the start of Zoo Time Ableman is working on a new book: the novel about the novelist worrying that the hero of his latest novel is a novelist worrying about the hero of his latest novel being a novelist. The working title of the novel is The Mother-in-Law Joke and Ableman describes it to his agent as ‘a transgressive novel that explores the limits of the morally permissible in our times’ (75). However, he struggles to make progress on it until he realises that the problem is the nature of his protagonist: Little Gid, a name that alludes, as Ableman points out, to ‘any one of a number of Henry James’s flaccid heroes’ (98), as well as to the title of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and, by extension, to that author’s infamous antisemitism, since Ableman’s abbreviation renders the name a near-homonym for ‘yid’, a pejorative term for a Jew.
By putting too big a distance between us, by not making him a full-time writer or comedian, or at least some version of myself unchained – a chancer, a trickster, a word-risker – I ended up resenting him for getting what I’d laboured hard for without putting in the work himself. (188)
Apart from the implicit equation of writers and their protagonists with comedians, which reinforces Jacobson’s conviction that the novel is quintessentially a comic form and echoes comments he has made elsewhere,25 the significant detail here is the word ‘unchained’. In the context of a theory of autofiction in which the protagonist is a ‘version’ of the author himself, this term invokes Philip Roth’s novel Zuckerman Unbound (1981, later collected in Zuckerman Bound ), in which the predicament of Roth’s perennial version of himself, Nathan Zuckerman, is precisely how much or how little distance he, and others, put between himself and his work. Ableman decides that he ‘needed Little Gid to be a writer’ (135), and so he becomes Ableman’s avatar, as Ableman is Jacobson’s.
At one point, Ableman’s agent asks him why he hasn’t written about his family business, a ladies’ boutique:
‘I’ve written about it often enough . . . ’
‘I thought that was fiction.’
‘It was fiction, told through the false prism of truth.’ (243)
This paradoxical claim that truth distorts reality, refracting it through a ‘false’ lens, while fiction, by implication, offers a more authentic version of its material, again echoes the poetics of many Roth protagonists, pithily summed up by the unnamed English lover of the protagonist of Deception: ‘That’s life for you. Always slightly askew fiction’ (Roth 1990: 191). These implicit references are reinforced by the explicit reference to the protagonist of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint:
We model humanity in our image. Jane Eyre and Alexander Portnoy, Joseph K and Felix Krull, Sam Spade and Scarlett O’Hara – do you think they’re characters? They’re not. They’re writers by another name, feeling life’s stings and disappointments just as a writer feels them . . . (Jacobson 2013a: 138)
Here Ableman invokes Roth alongside two of the latter’s great literary heroes, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann – as well as the provocatively incongruous trio of Charlotte Brontë, Dashiell Hammett and Margaret Mitchell (a canonical Victorian novelist, one of the founders of hard-boiled crime fiction and the author of Gone With The Wind) – to suggest that all fictional protagonists are versions of writers. This cluster of references to Roth is supplemented by the cryptic passing mention of an ‘American novelist friend living in London’ (185) and by explicit allusions to other ‘wild American Jews I admired’ (323–24), such as Saul Bellow (64, 91) and Norman Mailer (64, 80, 103). Moreover, Who Gives a Monkey’s? seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Bernard Malamud’s novel God’s Grace (1982), in which the sole survivor of a nuclear apocalypse creates a new society with a group of chimpanzees, cohabiting and procreating with them, before they turn against him, finally hanging him as they ‘laughed, screamed, barked, hooted’ (Malamud 1983: 196). Ableman himself claims that Who Gives a Monkey’s? ends with ‘a scene of man-on-monkey mayhem in the chimp enclosure’, while his new agent, Carter Strobe, finds it ‘heartbreaking’ when Beagle, the ape-protagonist, ‘beats his chest at the end and bellows’, this last word reminding us of Malamud’s great contemporary, Saul Bellow, even while it echoes the ‘hoots’ of the chimps at the end of Malamud’s novel (Jacobson 2013a: 20, 349).
Implicit in this dense network of intertextual references to Roth and some of his male American Jewish contemporaries – those Ableman describes as ‘the great sperm-chuckers of yesteryear’ (80) – is the recognition that it is these authors, more than his British contemporaries, with whom Jacobson has always been compared, and, increasingly, has compared himself.26 In this sense, they represent part of a larger self-reflexive narrative, a comic reprise of Jacobson’s own career. From the publishers who (mis)quote a review saying that Ableman can’t ‘decide whether . . . [he is] Mrs Gaskell or Rabelais’ (289) to Ableman’s reluctance to ‘go in the direction of the unreliable narrator when there’d never in the history of literature been a good narration that was reliable’ (240) to his lecture on ‘the Faux Confessional Male Novel’ (335), the novel is punctuated with nudges and winks invoking the full range of Jacobson’s work (from sober social realism to grotesque satire to self-ironising solipsism). At times these references seem self-parodic, at once comprehensively and reductively covering the salient themes of Jacobson’s fiction: Jewishness and the Holocaust, comedy, the anti-pastoral, masculinity and sexual deviancy (in particular the impulse to pander sexual partners and the attraction of men to maternal figures).
Early in Zoo Time, Ableman is asked by a member of a book group: ‘[w]hy are there no natural descriptions in your novels?’ (5). Later, when Poppy – his mother-in-law and the taboo object of his sexual fantasies – asks Ableman to bring some mint from her garden so that she can make a herbal tea, he confesses his confusion: ‘[w]hich is mint?’ (313). Poppy responds as any reader familiar with Jacobson’s anti-pastoral comedy would expect her to, immediately identifying Ableman’s herbological ignorance with his ethnicity: ‘Ah yes . . . I forgot – you’re a Jew’ (314). In fact, what Ableman calls ‘the Jew thing’ (313) only becomes prominent in the latter stages of the novel, when he wonders if he has ‘missed a trick’ by failing to trade on his ethnic identity: ‘[w]ould I have done better as Gershom? The Anne Frank I Never Knew by Gershom Ablestein . . . The Boy in the Striped Dolce and Gabbana Pyjamas by Gershom Ablekunst’ (326). Once again, an implicit allusion to Roth, who infamously reimagined Anne Frank as a femme fatale in The Ghost Writer (1979), is accompanied by a reference to Jacobson’s own ambivalent engagement with the history of European Jewry (as well as to John Boyne’s bestselling but critically panned young adult novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ). Later, when he pitches an idea for a new novel, The Good Woman, to his agent, Ableman confesses that he ‘had to cheat a bit to get the Holocaust in’ (365), which recalls debates over the role of the Shoah in Kalooki Nights as well as the passing reference, at the start of Zoo Time, to the fact that the family of Mishnah Grunewald, Ableman’s former partner and an employee of Chester Zoo, ‘had got out of Poland just in time’ (17).
Similarly, in the exchange between Ableman and his agent about his latest novel, Jacobson confronts the phallocentric nature of his work: ‘It’s a winner, Francis.’ ‘Not the way you’d do it.’ ‘How would I do it?’ ‘Masculinistically.’ (51). When he is criticised for the absence of ‘action’ in his fiction, Ableman’s response – ‘[y]ou know I don’t write stories in that sense’ (53) – echoes observations that Jacobson has made about his own work.27 At times these self-reflexive references invoke specific works from Jacobson’s canon. As he engineers a meeting between Vanessa and his old schoolfriend, Michael Ezra, noting that ‘[m]en look at you strangely when they think you might be pimping your women’ (143), similar scenarios from Peeping Tom and The Act of Love spring to mind. Later, when Ezra reproaches him for the outlandish sexual perversity of his novels – ‘[i]t’s not all the way it is in your novels . . . people pissing in each other’s mouths’ (359) – it’s hard not to detect a sly reference to the coprophilia of Redback. When Ableman recounts how ‘[w]e’d been to Australia the year before, to the Adelaide festival . . . in the hope I might get a book about a writer going to the Adelaide festival’ (33), there is a direct echo of the moment in In the Land of Oz when Jacobson is introduced as ‘an English novelist travelling around Australia with a view to writing a novel about what travelling around Australia was like’ (Jacobson 1987a: 112). Similarly, Ableman’s resolution to ‘unbuckle against the forces of the great god Nice and let it all hang out’ (Jacobson 2013a: 73) recalls the title of Jacobson’s fifth novel, No More Mr Nice Guy.
Yet if all this gives the impression of a novelist ‘disappear[ing] right up [his] asshole’ (Roth 1985: 355), as Nathan Zuckerman says of himself in Roth’s The Anatomy Lesson (1983, later collected in Zuckerman Bound ), that would be misleading. If Zoo Time is a playful self-satire, crammed full of Easter eggs for Jacobson fans, it is also an elegiac, at times melancholy, meditation on family relationships, on ageing and on (what the novel represents as) the terminal decline of literary culture. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Ableman, his wife Vanessa, and her mother, Poppy, a love triangle that revisits elements of Redback (the ménage à trois between Forelock and the synchronised swimmer twins, and his secret passion for his father’s lover) but with more sympathy extended to the female characters and a more nuanced representation of the triangular dynamic.
They would shout ‘Hush!’ to each other in their loudest voices, so as not to disturb me – ‘the literary fucking genius is trying to work’ – but the literary fucking genius could go fuck himself if Vanessa had a complaint about her mother’s unreasonable behaviour to voice. Then, she would barge into my room with a list of grievances stretching back to before she was born, not scrupling to ask if I were free to discuss this or any other matter; whereupon, hearing herself traduced, Poppy would barge in behind her to appeal to my impartiality, her hair a storm of electric activity, as though Vanessa, among her other sins, had been wiring her up to the mains. It wasn’t, of course, my impartiality she was appealing to; it was my partisanship on her behalf, a thing I was wise enough to conceal when I could, though on some occasions, as when Vanessa berated her for dressing like a slut, with her skirts ‘pulled up to her arse and her tits half out’, I couldn’t help but take her side. Poppy argued that cleavage had always been a problem for her because her breasts started higher up than most women’s, and I agreed. (Jacobson 2013a: 164–65)
This is set up as a comic, even farcical scenario. The tension between the ostensible desire of the mother and daughter not to disturb Ableman and their obvious delight in doing so (captured in the paradoxical act of shouting ‘Hush!’) is mirrored by Ableman’s own apparent resentment at being disturbed, which is belied by the affectionate tone of the whole passage. Just as Ableman affects irritation at the two women ‘barg[ing]’ in, so Vanessa and Poppy perform their domestic disagreements for Ableman’s benefit, and their own. There is a tacit understanding between all parties – a comic conspiracy – that they will all pretend to be displeased with each other, but in fact the women’s reference to Ableman as ‘the literary fucking genius’ is more teasing than derisive, just as his response to the term (as suggested by his repetition of it) is more indulgent than indignant. He is as flattered to be asked to adjudicate between them as they are pleased to invest him with this power. Yet lurking beneath the joviality are the tensions that will lead to a series of betrayals that in turn will lead to the disintegration of this unconventional family unit.
Ableman’s concern to disguise the nature of his feelings for Poppy foreshadows his discovery that she (and Vanessa herself) have themselves been keeping secret their romantic involvement (whether actual or imagined is never clear) with Ableman’s brother, Jeffrey. Vanessa’s criticism of her mother’s immodesty is only semi-facetious; it also implies a recognition of her mother’s status as a rival for the Ableman brothers’ affections and an anxiety (well-founded, as Ableman confesses) that his ‘impartiality’ may in fact be more partial than it appears. The image of Poppy being ‘wir[ed] . . . up to the mains’ is ambiguous. On the one hand it functions as a metaphor for her vivacity: she is a live wire who emits a powerful sexual charge, a charge that is partly stimulated by her daughter’s rivalry with her. On the other hand, the idea of Vanessa (potentially) electrocuting her own mother also hints at Vanessa’s repressed anger, an anger that is later symbolically articulated in her own fictional account of the events that take place when this unusual trio travel to Australia, in which she betrays both her husband and her mother.
Although both Ableman and Vanessa notice Poppy’s increasingly eccentric behaviour during their time at the Adelaide Literary Festival, they initially attribute it to her characteristic flightiness. It is only when Vanessa’s novel is published and then, shortly afterwards, is made into a successful film by Dirk De Wolff (another of Ableman’s rivals for the affections of both his wife and mother-in-law) that the truth emerges: that Poppy is suffering from pre-senile dementia. This revelation, coming as it does after the death of Ableman’s brother Jeffrey from a brain tumour and the suicide of Ableman’s publisher, Merton, gives the novel a tragic dimension. This last event, in particular, takes on a symbolic significance in the context of a novel that is punctuated with apocalyptic pronouncements about the death of the novel and the larger literary culture of which it had been the last bastion.28 The connection between the death of the publisher and the death of the world which had sustained him is made explicit in a passage that appropriates and parodies Romantic lyricism.
Things dying can have a voluptuous beauty. Only think of the dying of the day or the dying of the summer. So it was with the word. The sicker it grew, the more livid it turned, the more people of an over-refined and morbid disposition fell in love with its putrefaction. Would I be around to see it finally pass away? I wasn’t sure, but I could imagine the scene, like the burning of a Viking hero at sea – the sky, as bloody as a reviewer’s nose, painted by J.M. Turner; the last of the verbalising men looking into the self-combusting sun, hoarsely mouthing their goodbyes; the women tearing their hair and wailing. Foremost among them, atremble in lacy weeds such as those she’d worn to see off poor Merton, my Vanessa. (42)
Ableman begins by invoking Keats and Blake; like these poets, he appears to be ‘half in love with easeful death’ and to fetishise its corruption. At the same time, he satirises the maudlin hypersensitivity of this last generation of ‘verbalising’ men who are moved as much by their own self-pity as by the demise of the written word, which itself might be a projection of that self-pity. Highlighting the absurdity of this demonstration of over-wrought grief even as he implicates himself in it, Ableman’s hyperbolic description of the men rendered mute by their distress and the women ‘tearing their hair and wailing’ conflates the metaphorical demise of ‘the word’ with the fate of the authors themselves. Imagining Vanessa in their vanguard, he implicitly identifies himself with the throng of ‘verbalising’ men. Yet the use of that trivialising word, alongside the comic simile of the sun as ‘bloody as a reviewer’s nose’ and the incongruity of the comparison between the fierce warrior Viking heroes and the snivelling, effete literati make it clear that Ableman’s apocalyptic vision is not to be taken too seriously.
If Zoo Time is a jeremiad about the fate of serious literature in the digital age, it is also a parody of a jeremiad about the fate of serious literature in the digital age. This ambivalence is nicely encapsulated in the final scene of the novel, in which a tramp whom Vanessa had nicknamed Hemingway because whenever she saw him he was always scribbling away, for all the world like a novelist making notes, suddenly keels over in the street in front of Ableman, his papers scattering everywhere. While some onlookers rush to attend to the man, Ableman attempts to retrieve the manuscript, reasoning that if ‘this was the same book he’d been working on since Vanessa and I first encountered him, and possibly for years before that, it was a magnum opus, the labour of many hundreds of weeks’ (375). Yet when he lays hands on the sheets, he soon discovers that each one is identical: ‘What he had to say, he went on saying, for page after page. And what he had to say was forceful, incontestable, not to say beautiful, in its clairvoyance’:
This is an appropriately postmodern punchline to Jacobson’s most postmodern novel. Yet Ableman’s interpretation of this anti-text as an emphatic, prophetic negation of meaning, a nihilistic rejection of the possibility of meaningful discourse in a culture in which language itself has become debased and hollowed out, is not entirely facetious. In fact, it closely anticipates the concerns of the novel that Jacobson wrote in the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump as US president.
At one point, the narrator of Howard Jacobson’s novel Who’s Sorry Now? (2002) refers obliquely to Lewinskygate, the scandal that nearly brought down President Clinton, wryly observing that, some years after an episode in which one of the novel’s characters convinces herself that her sexual encounter with a lecturer was nothing of the sort, ‘a president of the United States of America would cause an etymological storm by defining fellatio as a performance of something or other entirely non-sexual, and therefore entirely unblameworthy, in its nature’ (Jacobson 2002a: 91). The title of Pussy similarly invokes the notoriously misogynist remarks of the forty-fifth president. Yet if its title suggests that this might be an exuberantly obscene sexual comedy along the lines of Coming From Behind (1983) and Peeping Tom (1984), it is actually much closer, in conception if not execution, to Zoo Time. Like that novel, Pussy is a satire about the (perhaps terminal) decline of contemporary culture – but whereas Zoo Time paradoxically proved that there is still life in the novel through the furious vigour with which it insists on its demise, Pussy announces the death of democracy with more sorrow and resignation than anger. If Zoo Time was, like Jacobson’s first three novels, about literary politics in the sense of the trends, vested interests and values of literary culture, Pussy is about literary politics in the sense of the relationship between rhetoric and political values. It is also, in common with the other novels discussed in this chapter, a book that self-consciously situates itself in a particular literary tradition. Pussy is a political satire but one that has more in common with Voltaire’s Candide or Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (both published in 1759) than, say, Our Gang (1971), Philip Roth’s outrageous skewering of one of Donald Trump’s predecessors in the White House, Richard Nixon.29
Like Our Gang, Pussy has an epigraph from Jonathan Swift (‘How is it possible to expect that Mankind will take Advice, when they will not so much as take Warning?’), but it also has chapter titles (such as ‘In which language is discerned to go backwards’) that allude to the golden age of satire in the eighteenth century (Jacobson 2017a: n.p., 105). In an essay recalling his time at Downing College, Cambridge, Jacobson observes in passing that ‘Leavis is right – the English novel starts with Rasselas not Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy’ (Jacobson 2011a) – and it is Rasselas that provides the structural template for Pussy. Like Swift, Johnson and their contemporaries, Jacobson uses allegory to comment on the contemporary political scene. His protagonist, Prince Fracassus (pronounced, when chanted by his supporters, as Frac-ass-us, suggesting the complicity of those supporters in their hero’s asininity, but also disguising the fact that the word ‘fracas’ is also contained in the name), is the spoiled, cloistered heir to the Grand Duchy of Origen, part of the ‘walled Republic of Urbs-Ludus’ (Jacobson 2017a: 170). Born with ‘every blessing that a fond father, a copper-bottomed construction empire, a fiscal system sympathetic to the principle of play, and an age grown weary of making informed judgements could lavish, short, that is, of a sweet nature, a generous disposition, a sense of the ridiculous, quick apprehension, and a way with words’, Fracassus grows up in the Palace of the Golden Gates, the tallest ‘by at least a dozen storeys’ of all the ‘towering ziggurats’ in Origen, obsessively watching TV, particularly his favourite show, The Life and Loves of the Emperor Nero (15, 14).
The novel follows Fracassus’s development from a sullen, uncommunicative child who spends his time in a ‘flicker-induced trance’ (32), gazing at the giant screens that dominate the rooms of the palace, to a political demagogue whose crude campaign slogans (‘Time to muck out the pig-pen’) and monosyllabic, misspelled, terse tweets (‘Bombs only kill when we’re scarred to kill the killer’) bring him a mass following who soon take to ‘threatening [anyone] . . . who showed the slightest inclination to disagree’ with his views (148, 147, 164, bold font in original).
This is all amusing enough, as are a series of caricatures of Boris Johnson (‘Philander’), Nigel Farage (‘Caleb Hopsack’) and Vladimir Putin (‘Vozzek Spravchik’), among others, but hardly revelatory or radical. Part of the problem is that these figures are so grotesque in real life that they are almost immune to the kind of comic exaggeration on which satire relies. Philip Roth’s complaint in 1961 that American ‘actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist’ (Roth 1975: 120) seems more relevant than ever in the post-truth world of ‘fake news’. The other main problem with Pussy is that the parameters of its allegorical world are inconsistent. On the one hand, it seems to be an alternative universe with a geography and history entirely different from our own – Urbs-Ludus ‘had no weapons, no history of colonial adventurism, and no international ambitions beyond inviting visitors to go up and down in lifts with golden doors’ (Jacobson 2017a: 170), for example – but on the other hand it is a world in which Twitter, Bear Grylls and Jeremy Corbyn exist, precisely as they do in our own world.
Similarly, there is a tension in the novel between the impulse to lampoon Trump himself and the tendency to satirise the culture of which he is both a product and a symbol. Philip Roth compared Trump to an ‘ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon’ (McGrath 2018) and Jacobson seems broadly to agree. The figure of Fracassus in Pussy is more absurd than malicious: ‘a cartoon in words’, in Jacobson’s own formulation (Anderson 2017). His greatest vices are his narcissism – he never tires of looking at ‘image[s] of himself’ (Jacobson 2017a: 33) – and his corruption of language, a corruption that seems to be the result partly of childish naivety and partly worldly cynicism. Once again, there is a parallel between Roth’s comments on Trump and Jacobson’s. In an email correspondence with the New Yorker, Roth lamented the poverty of Trump’s vocabulary, asserting that he is ‘incapable of expressing or recognising subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English’ (McGrath 2018). In a column in the Guardian eight months later (‘I don’t do social media, so why can’t I stop checking my phone?’), Jacobson trumped (or perhaps undercut) Roth, by referring to the president’s ‘six-word vocabulary’ (Jacobson 2017c).
In Pussy Fracassus is ‘not only short of words, he seemed to be in a sort of war with them’ (Jacobson 2017a: 23). Publicly, he issues bald, hyperbolic, Trump-like boasts about his linguistic mastery, claiming that ‘Nobody has more words than me’ (31), apparently unaware of the absurdity, not to mention grammatical inaccuracy, of such pronouncements, while privately demonstrating his contempt for language by watching ‘his favourite television programmes . . . with the sound turned off’ (114). In the course of his presidential campaign, Fracassus discovers the power of unmooring language from its semantic and ethical contexts:
It was as though Fracassus inhabited some some hitherto undiscovered zone between meaning what he said and not meaning what he said . . . one where neither words nor intentions had traction. You could just say a thing, and then unsay it, with no cost to yourself and no repercussions for others, because there were no others. (76–77)
For Fracassus, mendacity is the natural consequence of his solipsism, and indeterminacy and inconsistency are strengths rather than weaknesses. The ‘zone’ that he discovers is an amoral and historical one, where ethics are irrelevant and rhetoric exists only in the present, uninfluenced by precedent and uninhibited by potential consequences. In this realm, whoever shouts loudest and most often is king and forthrightness is more valuable than sincerity, or, as Jacobson’s narrator puts it: ‘saying what one meant became more important than meaning what one said’ (185). The perfect medium for this world is Twitter, as it constitutes ‘an assertion of the tweeter’s will [. . . and] impose[s] no obligation to listen or respond’ (80). Fracassus’s tweets – always printed in bold – pepper the novel and ‘[w]ith each new tweet . . . another clipping was added to that collage of moral force and popular influence known to an age of rapid dissemination of trivia as personality’ (141).
In these last two observations, however, the satirical lines are blurred somewhat: the moral force of the satire shifts subtly from implicit condemnation of Fracassus as an individual to the institutions that facilitate his rise (Twitter) and the ‘age’ that sustains those institutions.
In fact, Jacobson reserves his greatest indignation not for the moral shortcomings of Trump himself but for the complacency and complicity of the liberal establishment who failed to challenge him effectively and for the wilful ignorance of the people who voted for him.30 Early in the novel, there is a reference to Brightstar (for which read Breitbart) as ‘a platform for nativist, homophobic, conspirationist, anti-mongrelist ethno-nationalism which might have caused more concern to people in high places had they only known what any of those words meant’ (16). If Pussy is scathing in its assessment of the philistinism of those ‘in high places’, it is even more acerbic in its representation of the mob mentality of the populace of Urbs-Ludus. The description of the behaviour of the crowds at Fracassus’s rally – ‘[t]hey waved their arms in the air like one great beast with a thousand limbs because they wanted to lose their humanity’ (112) – invokes the Nuremberg rallies but also perhaps contains a trace of Menenius’s scornful condemnation of the ‘beastly plebeians’ in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (II, i, 94–95). The symbiotic relationship between the fractious Fracassus and his capricious followers recalls that of Caius Martius and the citizens of Rome, manifesting what Jacobson elsewhere refers to as the way ‘liars and the lied-to connive in the same unreality’.31 Meanwhile, the Fracassites, Fracassus’s zealous followers, discourage dissent in paramilitary style, their intimidation occasionally erupting in acts of violence in which ‘the odd bone was broken and a little blood was shed’ (164).
If they are violently coerced and ruthlessly manipulated, the masses in Pussy are also represented as masochistic – ‘those at the bottom of an empire expected disrespect from those at the top and even loved them for it’ (39) – and as intoxicated by their own power: ‘The people exercised their power and whatever it was they’d voted for was forgotten in the euphoria of their exercising it’ (67–68). This makes them vulnerable to exploitation by a populist such as Fracassus, who is egged on by fellow despots such as Phonocrates, President of the Republic of Gnossia, who informs him that ‘if they know you to be a liar through and through, and you show that you know they know you to be a liar, they . . . grow fond of your lies . . . [and] come to feel that the lies you tell are their lies’ (110). He also receives professional advice from Probrius, who is the most interesting and morally ambiguous character in the novel. His name recalls Rasselas’s mentor, Pangloss, but whereas the latter is an idealist who famously hopes for the ‘best of all possible worlds’, Probrius is a disillusioned cynic who turns into an amoral opportunist. At the same time, he is the only genuine intellectual in the novel and the only character with an internal life worthy of the name. In an interview on the BBC arts programme Loose Ends, Jacobson observed: ‘He’s a little bit like me: absurd, trying to be high-minded in this world where there’s no mind left’ (Anderson 2017).
Probrius becomes the éminence grise of Fracassus’s empire, dictating strategy in the form of pithy epigrams which focus on the gullibility of ‘the people’: ‘give the people what they want in the full knowledge that they don’t know and then let them give the power back to you’ (137); ‘There is no such thing as the will of the people. There is only the will of those who tell the people what the people’s will should be’ (103). Probrius advises him to ‘claim credit for what he hadn’t done’, to ‘invoke the sacred mysteries of the “deal” and declare himself a master of its arts’ and to ‘take delight in scoring the meanest of triumphs over the weakest adversaries’ (150–51). He also counsels him to present himself as ‘a phenomenon of self-generation’, ‘a penniless child from the shadow of the Wall who had clawed his way out of obscurity to light the sky up with his name’ rather than the privileged heir to an empire (151, 168). As Probrius instinctively understands, Fracassus’s self-aggrandising mythologisation of himself paradoxically empowers – or rather, offers the illusion of empowerment to – his subjects, since the ‘lie that the Grand Duke Fracassus had made himself out of nothing allowed the people to believe that they could make themselves out of nothing too’ (168). The novel ends, darkly, on the eve of Fracassus’s electoral triumph, with the supporters of his opponent, Sojjourner, convincing themselves that the prospect of his victory ‘had all been a fiction’: ‘a salutary warning’ to ‘frighten them out of their complacency’ (190). Meanwhile, Probrius ‘wet[s] his finger’, gauging which way the wind is blowing, and decides not to share his premonition with his partner, since he ‘didn’t have the heart to tell her what he knew’ (190).
It is easy – perhaps too easy – to identify Jacobson’s satirical targets and to sympathise with his critique of Trump’s modus operandi but the implication in his ascent to power of Probius, the public intellectual whom Jacobson has identified as a disgusted self-portrait, militates against any sense of superiority that liberal intellectuals might enjoy. Ultimately, Pussy is a joyless, dispiriting book, somehow stringently sober even in its most extravagant comic conceits, whose keynote is one of lamentation for the dumbing down of public discourse of which Fracassus’s success is both a symptom and a cause. Jacobson’s real target, finally, is not Trump himself or even the racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia that he represents, but the debasement of public discourse: the degradation of political debate to a series of crudely reductive tweets. Like one of its models – Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – its pessimism threatens at times to tip over into misanthropy, its comedy curdling into cynicism. There is also a subtext running through the novel indicating that Fracassus is both the product of, and quintessential symbol of, a culture of toxic masculinity, which manifests itself both in his shameless objectification of women as ‘pussy’ and his homophobia: he admires the practice of the Numa people, who ‘would throw any child showing homoerotic inclinations off the mountain’ and tells Spravchik that he ‘would rather have cancer than a lesbian for a daughter’ (131). In this sense, it might be read as a coda of sorts to the series of books preoccupied with masculinity that Jacobson published in the middle of his career. It is to these books that I will now turn my attention.