By Howard Jacobson
Readers who buy Howard Jacobson because the press tells them that he is "the first comic writer to win the Booker" are likely to be confused. Not disappointed - I cannot imagine anyone regretting reading him - but faintly baffled by the labels journalists paste on authors.
The critics were right to an extent: The Finkler Question was the first comic novel to win the Booker in years. However, it was also a quietly pathetic story of how old men cope with the death of their wives, so it was a novel of loss and regret, too. On top of that, Jacobson dissected Jew-hatred and Jew-obsession, so one could say that it was the first anti-racist novel to win the Booker, although it would take a braver man than I to slap the "anti-racist" label on a writer who treats multiculturalism's language of "inclusiveness" with the hostility of a detective examining a prime suspect at a crime scene.
Collections of journalism rarely work because nothing feels as dated as yesterday's news. What seems of the utmost importance one day is dead the next. I say with envy as well as admiration that this collection of Jacobson's columns from the past 13 years survives republication, and not only because the Man Booker has made him something of a star. Jacobson bounces off the stories of the day to examine the human condition - a state that is anything but transient.
Unlike so many modern writers he is not frightened of profundity. He says he wants "to take comedy into the very heart of desolation, to affirm life when it is most threatened". That unembarrassed and ambitious statement of intent explains his ability to make you explode with laughter and then sigh with agreement in the space of paragraph.
The title - taken from the Marx Brothers - is misleading, as he acknowledges. Jacobson is not a mere contrarian whom editors can count on to strike provocative poses for the sake of manufacturing a controversy. He re-mains the student F R Leavis helped mould in 1960s' Cambridge: a militant for the cause of excellence in art, music and literature. Although these are disparate pieces, the importance of understanding high culture - in particular your own high culture - dominates this book. The prime cause of his anger is the vacuity of the "indulgent ideology of selfhood" that insists that art must be "relevant and inclusive" rather than good; that artists must bow before the audience rather than the other way round. The stupidity of those who denigrate the best of British culture and then wonder why immigrants cannot assimilate runs it a close second.
There are dangers in being the last of Leavisites, and on occasion Jacobson sinks into banality. When he describes his problems with newfangled technologies or bemoans the manners and morals of the young, he can sound like a jolly Radio 4 essayist or an op-ed writer filling a comment editor's "light, trite and bright" slot.
For 95 per cent of this book, however, he is anything but fey. Funny, serious iconoclastic and wise, almost whatever he writes, I do like it.