Mother’s Boy A Writer’s Beginnings, by Howard Jacobson, Jonathan Cape, 280 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1787333802
According to novelist Charlotte Mendelson, when she ran into Howard Jacobson at a party and told him that she was writing “this really Jewy book”, his response was “Don’t be a fool, don’t do it.” Mendelson is just one of the new generation of British Jewish writers, many of them women, who in the field of contemporary Anglo-Jewish fiction and memoir, are fronting what Jewish Renaissance magazine called “A New Jewish Cultural Wave”. Academic Ruth Gilbert has credited Jacobson, now the grandaddy of Anglo-Jewish writing, with having “set the tone for a new generation of British-Jewish writers by confronting the interface between Jewishness and ‘Englishness’ in his work”.
Arguably Jacobson has spent a whole lifetime writing “really Jewy” books, both fiction and non-fiction if you count Roots Schmoots. He has ploughed a sometimes lone, indeed lonely, furrow, aware of the obstacles, subtle and not so subtle, which prevented him being a published fiction author till he was forty, in a cultural environment where English Jews were once regarded as, well, not quite the full English. As he pithily puts it: “After all if it was being Jewish that held me back, it was being Jewish that got me going.”
Indeed Jacobson came of age as a Northern working class Jewish boy at a time when there were still quotas – “Quotas were common in those days: only so many Jews at this or that school or university; only so many Jews at the BBC; no Jews at all at the golf club.” (In Ireland the clubhouse ban also pertained, which is why the Edmondstown golf club was founded in 1944.) When Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize in 2010, he was the oldest novelist to have done so. He spoke at the time how that prolonged lack of recognition had seeded a certain bitterness. And yet there he was, at sixty-eight, socking it to the naysayers. However as his memoir Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings unfolds, charting his tortuous road to becoming a published writer, it is clear he still feels his achievements have been hard-won, and his work not always appreciated.
He has earned mixed critical reaction all his writing life, from the endlessly lazy reductive comparisons to Philip Roth to more waspish assessments of his comedic novels. Some of the nastiest maulings have come at the hands of American critics: from James Wood, “The book is also full of the facile asides and riffs for which Jacobson has been praised and spanked.” Ouch. This writer’s progress memoir then is a surprise, given its degree of self-reflexive contemplation. More than anything, it, or the rather the best of it, is an affectionate and touching tribute to the early generation of Jewish immigrants to England. Jacobson has vividly recreated a time and place and its people. Now a vanished world, it is portrayed with tenderness, yet without cloying nostalgia.
Jacobson was born in Manchester in 1942. The extended Jacobson/Weisberg clan had transplanted to England earlier than the seismic 1880-1901 period of Jewish mass migration. Both his great-grandfather and grandfather served in the British forces in the First World War. Jacobson cherishes as both talisman and warning a photo of them side by side in their khaki army gaiters: “The photograph spoke eloquently to me of the complex nature of loyalty.” It acts as rebuttal and pointed rejoinder to accusations of Jewish disloyalty ‑ a poisonous strand of anti-alien polemic. Jacobson’s parents and extended family still harboured living or transmitted memories of the shtetl and East European Jewish life. His mother’s people came from an area of Lithuania Jacobson satirically dubs Novoropissik, while his tough Jew father’s family migrated from the Ukraine. The substantive emotional and psychological differences in his parents’ temperaments and attitudes to life have, in essence according to Jacobson, constituted a tug of war for his soul and sensibilities almost from day one. “I consider myself lucky to have been tugged this way and that – now my mother’s quiet, agonisingly shy, studious, disapproving boy, later, as my father’s influence grew, a yay-saying entertainer and show-off in his likeness.”
Yet it is clear that Jacobson felt to the core the disapproval of his father, a beefy practical open-hearted man, who once took a sock at Oswald Mosley, a Mr Fixit, with friends aplenty and a winning way with carpentry and human beings alike. As Jacobson tells it, at times ruefully, at times humorously, this man frequently observed his melancholic bookish non-muscular son and wondered where he got him from. If his father, according to Jacobson junior, regarded him as weak and unmanly with his dreamy demeanour and intense relationship to books, in adulthood Jacobson has not shied away from a pugnacious approach to sensitive topics, most notably anti-Zionism and Israel.
Life was not kind in the long run to Jacobson père, who despite business failures in later life would rouse himself to travel the highways and byways of England flogging whatever he could. In one vividly memorable scene Jacobson recalls the household “anarchy” that reigned, when the tsotchkes that had been his chief merchandise gave way to mountains of mechanical toys as his father embraced a newfound love for conjuring, scarves flowing from sleeves, rabbits emerging from hats. Indeed in his accounts of his father’s ramshackle market trader life, with its camaraderie and japes, long crippling hours and tedious car journeys, young Howard tagging sourly along, Jacobson reminds us of the affectionate comic creations of Dickens. Except of course that his father is a real flesh-and-blood man rather than one plucked from the subconscious and fashioned from the imagination. As Jacobson puts it: “My father, without ever reading a novel, made me a novelist because he himself was a novel.”
Yet it is women who dominate young Howard’s cultural education and foster his painfully slow publishing progress. The teacher who told his mother “Howard will one day be a great writer”; his mother and his Aunt Joyce, twin custodians of his cultural development, his grandmother quietly at hand in the Feelings department; his second wife, Roz, astutely identifying what was wrong with his first fiction manuscript. Jacobson can recognise the insurmountable barriers of class, gender and religion that constrained his mother and in particular his Aunt Joyce. The women who lit the fire of creativity and imagination for him found it impossible to even articulate their own ambitions. What would be the use? Joyce’s fate in particular is deeply sad: a clever girl with the intelligence, and the marks, for university. These bustling energetic women ravenous for culture and literature, which in the case of Joyce, could not compensate for the abandonment of her dreams. Meek, timid Joyce who gave Jacobson a long-playing record of Laurence Olivier Shakespeare soliloquies, escorted him on tours of stately homes and Gothic cathedrals, taught him French and introduced him to classical music concerts. Joyce who, as Jacobson puts it “Barely into middle age, was diagnosed with a cancer that was surely operable, and promptly died of fright.” That legacy of barely contained anxiety and fragile hope inherited from the older migrant generation is most poignantly illustrated by the family’s reaction to his acceptance for a place at Cambridge ‑ by any assessment a remarkable achievement for a working class Yiddishe boy in 1960.
Possibly it is a letter but my memory is insisting it’s a telegram. I open and read it out to her. Yes, I have a place. A silence falls on us. We aren’t a whooping family. My mother extends a hand, not to pat my cheek or ruffle my hair or shake my hand, but to retrieve the envelope. She is reading the address. ‘I just want to be certain it’s for you,’ she says.
Jacobson’s journey is also about language: the barely audible cadences of Yiddish, the vertiginously twisty syntax of the market trader’s patter, imbued with cunning and humour and pathos; the Jewish boy entranced by the language of Shakespeare – that Olivier-timbred- soliloquy ‑ enamoured of the waspish observational acuity of Jane Austen; the sorrow and melodrama of “The Lady of Shalott”. One of Jacobson’s most revealing assessments of himself is in fact buried in a footnote. Of “The Lady of Shalott”, the poem that his mother recited to him over and over, he deduces its influence thus: “I was simultaneously the victim and hero of my own narrative, a boy doomed to introversion like the Lady of Shalott but redeemed by the other person I was, Sir Lancelot of the ringing armour and flashing wit …”
When Jacobson’s wistful yet steely mother and the market-trader-cum-magician father – Jake and Neetie ‑ and other family members disappear from the narrative the emotional engine of the text disappears and it flags a little. Jacobson seems to lose interest in tracing his own very uneven progress, from unhappy years at Cambridge to frustrating polytech days which provided the comedy for Coming From Behind, his first novel. He seems reluctant to return to the dank playing fields of failure or to summon up the energy to invest it with insight; perhaps those years are too painful to revisit with sustained attention. Cambridge and the Land of Oz are galloped through, marked by a return to trademark Jacobson humour and self-deprecation. Even hand-wringing has a walk-on part, as he surveys his Men Behaving Badly Down Under years, recognising that turning himself into a cliché of the Hemingway school of hard-drinking hard-living male writer, with women left as casualties on the battlefield, was reprehensible, though hardly unusual. There is a sense of the last third of the book racing on without much time allowed for precision whereas the earlier sections had been lovingly crafted, a tender and affecting tribute to Jacobson mère et père, imbued with acute insight into the complexities and ambivalences of acculturation ‑ what is lost and what is gained ‑ together with searing observation and some marvellous set pieces, some of which have found their way in different guises into the novels.
Ebullient and voluble on many topics, Jacobson is coy or guarded on certain aspects of the personal – yet given that this is a memoir of a writer’s development as opposed to the full gamut of a writer’s life –that is perhaps to be expected. He credits his second wife, Roz, for her role in encouraging him with his first novel and while he is astute about the way intimacy between couples can be acutely weaponised, he skips over the reasons why Roz and he are not now on speaking terms. His son Conrad, from his first marriage, gets a page or so interleaved near the very end of the book. It may be a writerly pilgrim’s progress rather than a confessional memoir but still there are strange and almost inexplicable ellipses. Jacobson wrote some of the memoir in the wake of his mother’s death. Paul Auster began to write The Invention of Solitude three weeks after his father’s death. A kind of Revenant literature, it can easily be understood as a desperate bid to revive the dead, to bring them back from the grey of the grave to the technicolour of full life. Mother’s Boy opens with a tender last exchange between Jacobson and his mother, who died in 2020, conducted on the telephone because of Covid restrictions. It closes with a heart-wrenching discovery. In the very last pages of the book Jacobson leaves off the schtick and delivers a sucker punch ‑ we feel it as he must have. His mother’s diaries from her youth come into his possession after her death. The pages reveal an eighteen-year-old, with all of life before her, sparky and resourceful despite living through war and loss, entertaining literary ambitions and dreams of a bohemian artistic life in a country cottage. She wanted to be a writer. Jacobson detects in her prose ample evidence that she might well have been, in another era, and other circumstances. He understands full well the improbability of that dream, and the way it was both abandoned and transformed as all her creative ambitions were channelled into him.
Jacobson claims to have no truck with the idea that the personal life of a writer is of any interest or importance in assessment of literary merit. He is on record as saying “the worst crime” is “bad writing, much lower down the list is whether or not you said something you’re not supposed to say at the moment”. But it’s hard to ignore the shadow of the online Jacobson, with his irascible shockjock-style statements, contending that: “Male writers don’t have to like women” and kvetching about “a sensitivity crisis”. (Let’s not even go there with the Jimmy Carr endorsement: Jacobson is on record as being delighted that Carr, Holocaust-joke-about-Gypsies Carr, endorsed his book.) He is seemingly well at home with the other literary Victor Meldrews of the Grouchy Club, cultural Canutes casting themselves as brave warriors holding back the tide of cultural progress. This privileged kvetching sounds a bum note right now in a world where writers, in Russia and other authoritarian regimes, face arrest, torture, death or permanent banishment. As David Brauner writes: Howard Jacobson is “[a] Leavisite moralist with a puritanical streak, and a chronicler of dark sexual obsessions and perversions; a highly serious humanist intellectual and a hilariously comic provocateur; a passionate polemicist and an ardent advocate of ‘ambiguity and contradiction’; the author of (in his own words) ‘the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere’, whose literary heroes are Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence, Jacobson revels in ambivalence.”
Brauner, who is the first academic to devote himself to a book-length study of Jacobson’s work, has certainly caught full grasp of the contradictions., and as he puts it “There are many Howard Jacobsons.” As I read Mother’s Boy and carried out accompanying research on an author I had liked thirty years ago and ‑ apart from reviewing The Finkler Question in 2010 ‑ hadn’t thought of since, the many Jacobsons certainly showed up. To say much has changed since 2010, when I last read Jacobson, is an understatement. The MeToo and Black Lives Matters social and political movements have profoundly reshaped Western cultural mores and the politics of cultural representation and with that seismic shift, one’s former heroes may look a little shopworn in the cold light of the new day.
David Brauner introduction Howard Jacobson
David Brauner afterword Howard Jacobson
English Cracker June 2020
Katrina Goldstone’s book Irish Writers and the Thirties: Art Exile and War is available from Routledge Studies in Cultural History