What Will Survive of Us by Howard Jacobson review: How smart word play can conceal an inner emptiness

David Herman relishes the comic energy of Jacobson’s new novel


Man Booker Prize-winning novelist and journalist Howard Jacobson. Photo: John Nguyen/JNVisual

There’s a great exchange in Howard Jacobson’s recent memoir, Mother’s Boy. “I was forty before I wrote anything,” he tells his mother. “So what was stopping you?” she shoots back. “That’s one of the questions I’m asking in my memoir. But the short answer is being Jewish.”

You could hardly accuse Jacobson of not making up for lost time. In the 41 years since his unforgettable debut, Coming from Behind, he has published 17 novels and seven books of non-fiction. Perhaps more important, he has found an Anglo-Jewish literary voice like no other: funny, smart, thoughtful, Jewish.

The central characters in his new novel are Sam Quaid, his wife, Selena, and his lover, Lily. Sam is a playwright, “the Once-Wunderkind”, “an arts-page celebrity”. He’s an odd sort of playwright and an even odder sort of celebrity. He doesn’t seem to write many plays or talk about actors.

Quaid is a classic Jacobson hero middle-aged, moody, sarcastic, very literary, not sure whether he is in love, either with his wife or his younger lover. He likes to quote great literature. “I am nothing if not literary,” he tells Lily. This line is curiously double-edged, like many in the novel, which is what gives it its energy. If he is not “literary”, what is he? Could he be “nothing”? Is it possible that such an energetic and clever man could have a hollow centre? This might be the most interesting part of the book.

Later, Lily has an equally fascinating line: “Us, us, us! Is that it?” Could there be something strangely true about this line? What else are they interested in apart from each other? Take away their clever dialogue, their flirtations with S&M, all the travelling to exotic places, and what is left? Could all this delightful word-play be a way of constantly circling around a dark emptiness?

There’s another question which the novel neither raises nor answers. Quaid is not obviously Jewish. Take Jacobson’s greatest creations: Sefton Goldberg, Barney Fugelman, Oliver Walzer, Max Glickman, Simon Strulovitch and, of course, Shylock. They couldn’t be more Jewish. It’s not just the names. Everything about them is Jewish. But is Quaid Jewish? If not why not?

There is one thing absolutely certain about Quaid. He’s smart and his conversation twists and turns. His wife is bothered that he doesn’t have any friends. “It’s not natural,” she told him. “Friends aren’t natural,” he retorts. “Enemies are natural.”’

Lily, a young TV arts programme maker of the kind that vanished more than 20 years ago, is more than a match for Quaid. He calls up at a loose end. ‘”What are you doing?”’ he asks. ‘“Snacking.” “Smacking?” “Snacking.” “Does that mean that you’re on your own?” “Ish.” What does ‘ish’ mean. Is she or isn’t she?’ Another time, Sam kisses her on the lips. ‘”I’ve been wondering,” he says. “What?” “What you taste like.” “And?” “Now I know.” “No, you don’t. Now you only know what my lipstick tastes like.”

Selena also seems a match for Sam. “He no longer loved her but was reminded why he had,” writes Jacobson. Exactly. One evening he tells her he’s tired. ‘”I’ve been writing hard,”’ he says. ‘”You’re never tired when you’ve been writing hard,”’ she replies. “You get tired when you’ve been writing nothing.

What’s biting you? Mistress troubles?” “I don’t have a mistress.” “I suppose you tell her you don’t have a wife.”’

What Will Survive of Us has two tremendous virtues. First, the comic energy of the dialogue. Second, a fascinating question. Is that energy, and the love that goes with it, enough to make the central characters happy?

Jonathan Cape, £20

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