Life & Culture

Comedy with a capital J

Brauner does a first-rate job of showing what makes Howard Jacobson such a good writer, says David Herman


Howard Jacobson

By David Brauner

Manchester University Press, £80

Howard Jacobson once said, “I’ve never had a good review. A good review is only: ‘This is the greatest novel ever written.’” It’s especially funny because the premise is not true. Jacobson has had countless terrific reviews; he’s won prestigious prizes and he is rightly regarded as the outstanding Anglo-Jewish writer of his generation.

But, as David Brauner points out in this book, Jacobson has not until now received his due from literary academics. Amazingly, this is the first academic book  (part of Manchester University Press’s series on Contemporary British Novelists) on the work of Howard Jacobson. The good news is that Brauner, author of Post-War Jewish Fiction and co-editor of The Edinburgh Companion to Modern Jewish Fiction, has really done his research. 

He seems to have read everything by and about Jacobson and the book is full of insights and fascinating observations. If you want to know when Philip Roth is first mentioned in a Howard Jacobson novel, or when Jacobson described himself as “the Jewish Jane Austen”, this is the book for you. 

It is presented in three chapters: Being funny, Being men and Being Jewish, Jacobson’s central themes, which, as Brauner argues, correspond to three key phases in Jacobson’s work. 

Howard Jacobson started out in the mid-1980s as a supremely gifted comic writer, who mixed moral seriousness with laugh-out-loud comedy, in keeping with his own observation that, “comedy is the friend of the serious.” Early reviewers tended to place Jacobson in the tradition of the English campus novel, comparing him with Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge. What this missed, of course, was how Jewish Jacobson is. 

Sefton Goldberg, hero of Jacobson’s first novel, Coming From Behind, is one of the great Jewish literary characters and his Jewishness constantly rubs up against the gentile world of Cambridge and the English canon, while Barney Fugelman in Peeping Tom carries with him “the airless odour of ghetto fears”.

Brauner’s second chapter, Being Men, is about masculinity, mortality and sexual politics in the 1990s and 2000s. Jacobson writes superbly about the indignities of a certain kind of middle-aged man. Later, he told an interviewer the subject of his next novel, and indeed of all his writing from then on, was to be “old men feeling melancholic and thinking about the grave.”

It is in the third chapter, Being Jewish, that Brauner analyses Jacobson’s deeper Jewish material: The Mighty Walzer, Kalooki Nights, The Finkler Question, J and Shylock is My Name. These are not just about the dark comedy of Jews in a gentile world, whether Cambridge, Cornwall or Australia. They take on big Jewish issues  — the Holocaust and antisemitism.

David Brauner explores these themes thoughtfully through a series of close readings but, even though the book is principally concerned with Jacobson as a novelist, it would have been still more interesting to have done justice to his career in television, especially in the 1990s, or his non-fiction, notably Roots Schmoots and Seriously Funny, and his written journalism. However, Brauner does a first-rate job of showing what makes Jacobson such a good writer: the thrilling prose, the unforgettable characters and the distinctive mix of humour and seriousness.

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer

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