A victory we can take pride in

The world has taken notice of our Jewish Jane Austen

By Gerald Jacobs, October 14, 2010

Is it good for the Jews? You bet. Howard Jacobson's triumph at the Man Booker awards this week should reassure those among us who have sensed of late a frisson directed towards Jews and things Jewish from the British cultural establishment.

Not only is Jacobson's winning title The Finkler Question the most Jewish of his 11 novels (including the decidedly heimishe Kalooki Nights and The Mighty Walzer) but the award was made on purely literary grounds. There was nothing political and certainly nothing "correct" in the choice of a book that deals so unapologetically with the subject of Jewish identity and mercilessly lampoons Jews and Jewish groupings who disown Israel and support the Palestinians.

In announcing the verdict at the Guildhall, the chairman of the Man Booker judges, Andrew Motion, ascribed no "ethnic" or "exotic" qualities to The Finkler Question. He didn't even use the word "Jewish". There was no talk of "gaining insights into a closed but hilarious world of ancient traditions and funny, foreign words…"

No, none of that. This was the level playing field of literature, upon which only serious readers tread, none of whom would describe Howard Jacobson's writing as ethnic or exotic. Andrew Motion spoke not of Jacobson's chutzpah but of his intelligence and subtlety. He said the novel was "very funny" but he also said it was "very sad".

Serious readers, too, want to be entertained. They need comic material and Howard Jacobson supplies it. He is wary of being called a comic writer, lest he be lumped together with wisecrackers and joke-tellers.

A Jewish writer doesn’t have to follow the trail of Roth, Bellow or Malamud

That is not what he does. Nevertheless, comedy is the essence of his work. Serious comedy conveying educated humour. Humour that puts life in perspective, that lays bare our foibles and absurdities. He is more ringmaster than clown, more James Joyce than Jimmy Carr.

And more Jane Austen than Philip Roth. Having been so often labelled "the English Philip Roth", he has famously described himself as "more of a Jewish Jane Austen", a remark he explained at the press conference that followed this week's award.

Paying tribute to the great American Jewish novelists, he said he felt no allegiance to their tradition: "I am an Eng Lit man. The Finkler Question is Eng Lit. I studied under Dr Leavis at Cambridge. My favourite writer is Dr Johnson. That is my tradition."

The Great Tradition is what Leavis called it and Howard Jacobson is living proof that you can be steeped in it and still be a through-and-through Jew. A Jewish writer does not have to follow the trail of Roth, Bellow or Malamud.

To me, Jacobson has never appeared more Jewish than when he mounted the rostrum to accept his prize, throwing his arms wide in a "who, me?" kind of shrug, at once both disbelieving and accepting.

And was there not a little of the classic Jewish comedian at the subsequent press conference in Howard's response to the journalist who bizarrely sought to "remind" him that a previous winner, John Berger, had given half of his winnings to the Black Panthers? With the heavy implication that this year's winner might consider disposing of a chunk of his £50,000 in similar fashion (to whom? Jews for Justice for Comic Novelists?), the journo asked Howard what his intentions were.

"To buy my wife a handbag," was the answer.

The straight-faced hack persisted: "And with the rest of the money?" "Have you seen the prices of handbags these days?" said the newly crowned fiction laureate.

As I read The Finkler Question, with its seder and its shiva, its Yiddish and its broiges, its non-Jew wanting to be a Jew in contrast to its Jews wishing they weren't Jews, I kept asking myself, "What on earth are non-Jewish readers going to make of all this?"

On Tuesday night at the Guildhall,
I got a resounding answer.

Last updated: 11:34am, October 14 2010