Live a Little By Howard Jacobson
Jonathan Cape Vintage, £18.99
One of Howard Jacobson’s best novels, perhaps his most underrated, is Shylock is My Name, which was published three years ago. Dark and acerbic, it was a brilliant homage to Shakespeare’s creation of a great Jewish character. His latest, Live a Little, also has a Shakespearean feel, but that of a comedy this time, Much Ado perhaps. Fast and clever, it is about relations between men and women, and between mothers and sons — rather than fathers and daughters.
The two central characters are old, living off the Finchley Road. Beryl Dusinberry, known as “the Princess” (not because she really is a princess, it’s “just a bit of fun she’s having with herself”), is in a permanent state of war with her two unlikely live-in carers — one African, one East European — and her sons. “You never permitted gaiety to enter our lives,” one reminds her, reproachfully. “You are the least playful mother who ever lived.”
The Princess is unrepentant. Approaching the end of her life, she has bigger fish to fry. Her hearing is deteriorating. But worse, much worse, “the Princess fears slippage”. Words and names are slipping away. “Names have been going for years… After people, things. What’s that biscuit called? What was that place? Remembering Tangiers delighted her. But what was it a memory of?” But names, she needs: “Names are the key to her past, and therefore to her continuance. Names root her. No names and there’s just her spinning in space.”
She is a former schoolteacher and, to test her memory, she “unscrolls her old school photographs to see how many faces she can recognise and how many names she can give to those she does. Some days she scores highly, some days she doesn’t.”
The other main character is another North Londoner, Shimi Carmelli. He is a sort of ladies’ man. Women chase after him. And what women! The widow Wolfsheim, “who knows what men want”, Shirley Zetlin, and then the most unlikely woman of all.
Closing in on his 91st year, Shimi is a cartomancer and phrenologist. Not a magician, nor a wizard, certainly not a card-sharp. He is also haunted by his past, particularly by a strange scene in his childhood, posing in his mother’s “bloomers”. His father never forgave him for this. And he has a complicated relationship with his brother, Ephraim, which comes to take centre-stage in the novel.
For both Carmelli and the Princess, “memory is a sadist… You can shuffle memory like a pack of cards and the things you don’t want to remember always come out on top.”
It looks as if neither the Princess nor Shimi Carmelli are destined for happy endings. Old age is a relentless foe. Unhappy lives are hard to shake off. But might there still be a possibility of a happy ending for either of them, a chance to live a little?
As the narrative develops, the plot twists more and more, the dialogue gets faster and cleverer, and the past is harder to shake off. Memories, if you can remember them at all, are more tenacious. The novel’s brilliant cover tells it all: hearts and skulls, love and death.
David Herman is a senior JC reviewer. An interview with Howard Jacobson will appear in next week’s JC