Review: The Act Of Love

By Madeleine Kingsley, September 12, 2008
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By Howard Jacobson
Jonathan Cape, £17.99

Howard Jacobson's new novel presses the delete button on that old adage, "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." The Act of Love explores in playful and provocative detail why, instead, it is better to love and lose, than ever to love and win. Better, at least, for a man like antiquarian bookseller Felix Quinn, for whom betrayal is not undiluted heartbreak but exquisite, addictive, anguish.

Poaching the red-headed beauty Marisa from her perfectly satisfactory husband Freddy is not enough for the sexually cerebral Quinn. He positively needs to see her in someone else's arms and, moreover, to handpick Marius (he of the hawkish handsomeness and predatory mischief), as the adulterous other, before spying on the pair.

Quinn's viewpoint - "For me to burn for her, Marisa had to burn for someone else" - is one that women readers, at least, may struggle to comprehend. But it is apparently an obsession not peculiar to Quinn, who contends that "all men, in secret, seek infidelity in their wives". Should you balk at his perversely red-blooded take on love, Quinn maintains you have only to consult great literature and indeed littérateurs.

James Joyce, Quinn reminds us, hoped Nora would find a cohabitee. Charles Dickens's great expectation was to glory in the love of the woman who first wounds, then tears your heart to pieces. Shakespeare's Othello prized his jealousy as a jewel. Herodotus chronicles the tale of Candaules, King of Lydiam who couldn't contain desire for his beautiful wife and so contrived for a courtier, Gyges, to watch her disrobe.
"What is a husband to do," Quinn muses in response to this, "when his wife's beauty is such that he cannot find enough ways of honouring it?"

Buy her jewellery, you hazard? Ah, well, The Act of Love has a sub-plot in which Quinn's unhappy secretary is enjoined by her husband to wear a gold ankle chain on her rather thick (ouch!) and decidedly reluctant ankle. This apparently advertises her as "hot" to other men, notably an electrician whom her husband has in mind as a surrogate, presumably high-wattage, bedfellow.

But for her libido, Marisa would not be out of place in an Anita Brookner novel: a well-heeled, well-coiffed fine-art expert and denizen of Marylebone. She has sechel enough to set up a game for Marius. If he wants a dinner date, then he must first identify her favourite restaurant from clues concealed in that most civilised Valhalla of sexual encounters, the Wallace Collection.

Quinn, of course, is one step ahead of his chosen rival when it comes to clues of titillation. As a boy, he was spurned by a schoolgirl crush who left him in the cinema and went off with another. "How to survive jealousy" became thereafter "the study of my life" he says.

In this narrative, the act of love owes nothing to good old regular intimacy, and everything to amorous inequity, emotionally dangerous to all parties and doomed to end bitterly, or bittersweet at best. As an act of artistry, however, Jacobson's voyage around the male psyche is stellar. Ideas flow into language with sparkle, confirming the author of Kalooki Nights and The Mighty Walzer, once again, as an extraordinarily sharp novelist.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011