Interview: ‘It’s not your job to find someone with whom you identify with in the novel’- Howard Jacobson, author of Zoo Time
WINNING the Man Booker Prize in 2010 has not changed Howard Jacobson. David Robinson finds he still writes comedy blackened by failure and fuelled by rage
I’LL SAY this for Howard Jacobson. You can go to interview him in London and, if you transcribe the tape on the train back to Edinburgh, you’ll be surreptitiously smiling at least as far as Darlington. Trust me, in this business, that’s a record. First, some scene-setting. We’re in a loft apartment in the old Marquee Club, Soho. When the 1960s swung, this was where you’d go to hear the Stones, Hendrix, Cream, the Who; when the 1970s staggered in, you’d go there for Bowie and the Clash. Then the developers moved in, the old tin factory was turned into the coolest apartments you’ll find in central London. From his writing desk six floors up – his wife’s Lowrys on one wall, photos of him winning the 2010 Man Booker on the other, all of London’s skyline spread out behind wall-to-ceiling plate glass between them – Howard Jacobson must occasionally look down at the world and think that, for a market trader/magician’s son from Manchester, he’s not done too bad for himself in his three score years and ten (it’s his 70th birthday on Saturday).
I bet he doesn’t though. Not for a second.
Read his new novel, Zoo Time; catch its tone. “It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever written,” he says, and maybe it is too. Certainly nobody does ingrowing pessimism, cultural despair and Jewish self-loathing, like Jacobson; nobody – on this side of the Atlantic anyway – can write comedy blackened by failure and fuelled by rage with such zest.
When he won the Man Booker with The Finkler Question, his “third and final” wife Jenny wondered whether it would spoil his writing. “I’m good at writing out of gloom,” he says. “I can make gloom zip along. But that was what Jenny thought, that winning the Booker would make me lose that gloomy zip.
“But I don’t forget gloom. And when all those honours follow (an honorary fellowship at his old Cambridge college, a visiting professorship at AC Grayling’s new university among them) I’m thinking ‘So why now?’ Why did it take so long? Fortunately, I did just have enough juice left to relish it all and not think (mock sob) it’s come at the end of my life…”
The mad irony of about Jacobson winning Britain’s highest literary prize in 2010 was that when he handed in The Finkler Question to Cape, who had been his publishers for decades, they didn’t particularly like it. Well, they didn’t actually say that, but they offered him less for it than they had done for 20 years. Even his agent discreetly wondered whether a book that worried away at questions of Jewish identity would have a wide enough appeal. Too polemical, said his American publisher. Not for us, said his Canadian one.
“It was the summer of 2009 and all of these responses were coming in and I was feeling a bit grim about it. It’s over, I was thinking. Bookshops are closing everywhere. You read what people are saying about your books on the internet – yes, I know you’re not supposed to go there – and you go to book groups and hear the most stupid… ” He splutters out the word; beneath the comedy there’s real rage here. “Stupid things. No, you do. Within 20 minutes, I’m giving them a basic class in how to read a novel.
“Lesson No 1. When you read a novel, you are not supposed to find yourself (another angry splutter). If you do, that’s all very nice, but if you don’t, that’s no reason to hate the novel. No 2: It’s not your job to find someone with whom you identify with in the novel or someone you really loathe…
“So that Leavisite, Cambridge-trained part of me is depressed, but that side has always been depressed because I am a Jeremiah, though now it looked as though there was reason enough to be a Jeremiah. Anyway, the upshot was that Bloomsbury published the book, and with enthusiasm, but never-theless the feeling in my heart was that I was coming to the end of something. The feeling that I could prosper as a novelist, or that the profession I was in was highly regarded – that was going.”
When he came across a news story about an American novelist who had been arrested for stealing one of his own books, he latched on to it immediately. He’d have a central character like that in Zoo Time, a writer so deep in despair about a world where everyone wanted to be a writer but hardly anybody was reading, where book groups asked nonsensical questions, where publishers were only betting on bright young things, where quality no longer mattered, where libraries and bookshops were closing everywhere. Oh, and he’d make him infatuated with his mother-in-law too.
The writing was going well, really well. Up there in his Soho mezzanine eyrie, it was all pouring out, that dark comic rage, that trademark gloomy zip. Then he won the Man Booker. “And I start to think suppose Zoo Time was going to be the funniest book I’d ever written and the Booker Prize ruined it.”
He waited for three months before he started writing again. The Finkler Question was selling hundreds of thousands of copies, made No 1 in Pakistan and No 2 on the New York Times bestseller list, the first time he’d ever sold well in America. So, two fingers to his old publishers? “No. Dan Franklin [his publisher at Cape] has always been good, and wrote me a lovely letter. But with one or two others … there was a degree of satisfaction, but I was too large-spirited to show or indeed feel it. (Pause) Much.”
Winning the Man Booker felt wonderful, but it didn’t transform him into a creature of sweetness and light. “I wasn’t capable of sweetness before and am not now. It’s nicer in here”, he says, thumping his heart, “and if you could photograph the inside of my head, it would be calmer. But you don’t write from inside your head – you start there and things happen on the page, and what happens on the page I don’t think is any different. I will still be writing about being pessimistic and on the outside of things. I still don’t feel an insider. I don’t feel in the heart of literary England at all.”
No matter how much praise is heaped on him (The Finkler Question, wrote The Scotsman’s Tom Adair, contains “some of the wittiest, most poignant and sharply intelligent comic prose in the English language”) that’s not going to change any time soon. He is, as he says, a Jeremiah, a nay-sayer. That’s what the Mitnagdim were – the Lithuanian Jews way back in his mother’s family, who poured scorn on those Hassidic Jews from Russia who would come into their village talking excitedly about miracles and mysticism. “They were the refuseniks of Judaism. They thought the value of being Jewish was about the use of intelligence and argument and criticism.
“My father’s family were from Ukraine and they were the opposite. So while he was a magician who did tricks and never read a book in his life, my mother’s family were serious, dour, they read books and played the piano and weren’t at all sure that they liked the vitality of my father’s side. And I … (shrug, hands out, palms up) … I am their battleground.”
It took him far too long, he says, to embrace his inner outsider. “I didn’t realise that my background was full of riches. I was a northern English working-class Jewish boy and ashamed of it. I thought, why can’t I be Martin Amis and have a novelist as a father instead of a market man and a magician, instead of realising how bloody lucky I was.” In novels such as The Mighty Waltzer he draws heavily on this background, which also resurfaces, in a far more cataclysmic context, in Kalooki Nights (his own favourite, the one he wishes had won the Man Booker).
Two things surprised him about winning with The Finkler Question. “First, of all the books that I had ever written, this was the book that I least expected to win anything with. But the other thing was that at the ceremony itself. When it was announced that I had won, a cheer went up. I don’t know where it came from, because it clearly came from more than one table. Isn’t that odd, I thought, because I think of myself as being not particularly liked.”
I think he should get used to it. He won’t, of course. But one of these days, as he writes the next book after Zoo Time in the small hours, looking out at the night-time sweep of London, from the nightclub on the top floor of Centrepoint to his left to the slowly changing colours on the London Eye on his right, pounding at the keyboards in a rage at this, that or the some other thing, I’d rather like it if the thought struck him, if only the once, that to many of his readers, he is already something of a national treasure. A very Jewish, Eeyoreish, disbelieving, Leavisite, argumentative, articulate, passionate, table-tennis-playing, muted Rabelasian type of national treasure, but a national treasure nonetheless.
I’ve finished the interview when the photographer arrives. She asks him to smile. “I can’t,” he says. “Whenever I do, I come out looking smug.”
He makes me smile anyway, even in Darlington. Happy birthday on Saturday, Howard.
• Zoo Time, by Howard Jacobson, is published by Bloomsbury, price £18.99 Howard Jacobson will be at the Edinburgh book festival on Friday 24 August at 3pm
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