Interview: Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson explains the issues he has with rabbis, Philip Roth and Woody Allen - and why that makes him feel more haimishe than ever.

Howard Jacobson quite reasonably describes himself as "entirely and completely Jewish". Put him in a room together with a rabbi, and you will get Jewish electricity - an especially intense connection.
Jewish electricity can emanate from the most private or public of sources. Think Friday-night candles (Jewish electricity is permitted on Shabbat); the bottle dance in Fiddler on the Roof; a family broiges; Jonathan Miller gesticulating; Jonathan Sacks articulating.

As it happens, the Chief Rabbi officiated at Howard Jacobson's 2005 wedding to Jenny de Yong, his "third and final" wife. Since then, the eloquent novelist has intermittently found himself enclosed with the odd rabbi, and sparks have flown. It was just such an encounter, Jacobson explains, that inspired him to write his highly praised 2006 novel, Kalooki Nights.

"It was fuelled by going to a Shabbos dinner at the home of a rabbi," he says. "I am frightened of all ritual, but I revere it. Here was a man with his wife and family, covering their eyes, covering their heads, speaking, as it were, to God. Fantastic! Then, when that's all done, comes the conversation: ‘Went to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang last night with the family,' the rabbi tells me. I wanted to kill him! It's the one thing I can't forgive Jews for - philistinism."

Serious - that's how this writer, most widely admired for his comedy, wants his Jews. Funny, yes, but seriously funny, as in the title of his 1997 book and TV series. Jacobson's own comedy is always central to his themes, however tragic, dark or profound. In this context, he describes further rabbinical clashes - over the most serious and tragic of all Jewish themes: "It was very important to me in Kalooki Nights to try and broach the whole business of the Holocaust. Not to re-evoke the Holocaust, but to think about the way we talk about it. Not because I think it's funny. Not because I feel we need to ‘lighten up' - if anything, I felt we needed to go on darkening down. Occasionally I find myself on the radio with a rabbi, and I'm the one saying: ‘Never forget.' They say: ‘Well, we've got to move on.' You move on, rabbi, I'm not.

"But I do want to change the language in which we go on thinking about this. We can't all go on being Primo Levi. We've no business trying to be. Comedy is one way to change the discourse. I believe in taking up the challenge of Hamlet in that wonderful scene, holding the skull of Yorick and confronting him: ‘You were a jester'.

"I still think Philip Roth is the most wonderful writer but he has essentially stopped being funny. He is perfectly within his rights to have stopped being funny, but I feel: ‘Now more than ever I want you to be funny... now that you are in the toils and at any moment you're going to die and you are fed up with everything and everybody.' I feel the same with Woody Allen: ‘Fine, it was easy before. Joke now.' It's never too serious to laugh."

Comedy is characteristically woven into profundity in Jacobson's new novel, The Act of Love, to be published later this month, a searching examination of that most unhinging of human emotions, sexual jealousy. His narrator, Felix Quinn, a bookseller, pushes it to its logical conclusion: complicity and pleasure in one's lover's act of betrayal.

It is also, its author says with relief, not a Jewish novel, freeing him of irritating challenges, questions, defences and explanations. On the other hand, he does concede that, in Felix's persistent intellectual curiosity, his refusal to be satisfied with face value, his story could be said to display an inherently Jewish quality.

Such constant, intellectual probing is one-half of how Jacobson views his positive Jewish identity. "What I celebrate about being Jewish, in equal measure, is the emotional warmth, and the rigorous intellectualism. I have no difficulty in feeling that covers all the Jewishness that I need.

"It is hard to explain the emotional warmth, but it may be to do with exile. Before Christ, Jews didn't care about marrying out. Moses could marry out. But go into exile, and you have no place. So your identity is your genetic make-up... in exile, you want to protect your sameness to one another. Every time aperson marries out, that genetic sameness is imperilled.

"We get scattered all over the place and then, at the first sight of recognising one another, across a room, a continent, our hearts go out. Your heart goes out full of warmth because you're full of longing. You're full of longing because you're in exile. The poetry, the narrative of Judaism is of being sent away. That makes you an emotional being. I couldn't say goodbye to a girlfriend for a weekend without sobbing. At every departure, I was being shlepped out of the Land of Israel and taken into slavery in Egypt."

Home for Howard and Jenny Jacobson is an elegantly converted loft in Soho, a seemingly natural habitat for a sophisticated, art-loving graduate of Cambridge University, where he was a devotee of the legendary literary critic F R Leavis.

But Jacobson's roots are in working-class, Jewish Manchester. His late father was "a market-trading, taxi-
driving magician", an uneducated man who was nonetheless innocent of that unforgivable Jewish sin of philistinism.

"I remember when opera would appear on television, and his eyes would light up. My mother was a self-cultured woman. She read to me from Palgrave's Golden Treasury - Tennyson, Browning. Or we'd sit and listen to a radio play together."

Clearly, the Manchester of Jacobson's youth is a source of benign memories. "My brother was in a Manchester band called the Whirlwinds, with Graham Gouldman, Lol Creme and Kevin Godley. My brother left them to go to art school... and they went on to become 10cc.

"We all read books. Our parents wanted us to be educated. We knew we were Jewish. We were expected to have a barmitzvah, but we didn't know what it was, really. Jewishness was in a very nice state then. There was no sense of the kind of Orthodoxy that is in the air at the moment.

"I was never going to be anything else but a novelist. I did an essay when I was about seven for a lovely teacher called Mrs Herman. She sent my mother a letter, which she framed and which is still on her mantelpiece, saying: ‘I'm sure Howard will grow up to be a writer'. Then when my first novel, Coming From Behind, came out, a letter arrived from Mrs Herman's sister, who wrote: ‘I remember my sister talking about Howard. She died only recently and I'm sad she didn't live to see what she expected of Howard come about.'

"What she didn't say was: ‘So why has it taken so long?' That was because I wanted to be the wrong kind of novelist. I wanted to be Henry James or Jane Austen, to wipe out all trace of where I had come from and write elegantly of country houses. It was only when I was teaching at Wolverhampton Polytechnic that I realised the ridiculousness of the Jew trying these rural pursuits and that in Wolverhampton was the novel. I was 36 when I started writing Coming From Behind, almost 40 when it came out."

That boisterously autobiographical debut put Jacobson on the literary map. Thereafter - apart from The Mighty Walzer in 1999 about a Mancunian table-tennis player not a million miles away from a certain young Howard Jacobson who played for Cambridge University - the autobiographical element has been trimmed. But, to his chagrin, he is constantly asked autobiographical questions about his fiction. "For Kalooki Nights, people were saying: ‘What does your mum feel about what you wrote about her playing kalooki?' My mother's never played kalooki in her life!"

If this continues, Jacobson is likely to face some uncomfortable questions about The Act of Love, given its narrator's startling premise - that "all husbands secretly want their wives to be unfaithful to them". He will doubtless give them short shrift.

"That's what my hero says. Doesn't mean I believe it. The very best -Shakespeare - could know what it is like to be jealous. To be a murderer. To be an aged man raging about his daughters. The better a writer you are, the more ways you find of accessing those parts of yourself. Ibsen talks about writing coming out of the dregs and sediments of his nature...

"And you aspire to that. But that doesn't mean you are telling your own story. At the end of that novel, I was Felix Quinn. At the end, Flaubert says: ‘Madame Bovary, c'est moi' - but he didn't sit down at the beginning and think: ‘I am going to write the story of myself and I'll call myself Madame Bovary and make myself an illiterate provincial woman.'"

As The Act of Love awaits its unveiling, Jacobson is working on a documentary for Channel 4. In January, he will be presenting Jesus the Jew, the first programme in an eight-part series on the history of Christianity, in which he will talk about how Christianity grew out of Judaism. It is an intriguing prospect, not least since, among such landmark documentaries as Roots Schmoots and Seriously Funny, he wrote and presented an entertaining defence of Judas Iscariot for Channel 4, which influenced its choice of Jacobson to open the Christianity series.

Another intriguing prospect would be that of a broadcasting type Jacobson claims to have identified - "a certain kind of Jewish woman who hates Kalooki Nights and other books I've written about the Jew, because she is in denial" - hearing about the provocative theme of his new, Jew-free, novel and attempting to corral him into an appearance on Celebrity Wife Swap. But some Jewish electricity is just too high-voltage.

The Act of Love will be published by Jonathan Cape on September 18

Last updated: 2:02pm, August 28 2014