Howard Jacobson Biography
Howard Jacobson comments:
Nationality: British. Born: Manchester, 1942. Education: Stand Grammar School, 1953-60; Downing College, Cambridge, 1961-64, B.A. in English 1964. Career: Lecturer, University of Sydney, New South Wales, 1965-68; supervisor, Selwyn College, Cambridge, 1969-72; senior lecturer, Wolverhampton Polytechnic, West Midlands, 1974-80. Presenter, Traveller's Tales television series, 1991; currently freelance book reviewer, the Independent, London. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, England.
Coming from Behind. London, Chatto and Windus, 1983; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1984.
Peeping Tom. London, Chatto and Windus, 1984; New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1985.
Redback. London, Bantam Press, 1986; New York, Viking, 1987.
The Very Model of a Man. London, Viking, 1992; New York, Overlook Press, 1994.
No More Mister Nice Guy. London, Jonathan Cape, 1998.
The Mighty Walzer. London, Jonathan Cape, 1999.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Travelling Elsewhere," in Best Short Stories 1989, edited by GilesGordon and David Hughes. London, Heinemann, 1989; as The Best English Short Stories 1989, New York, Norton, 1989.
Shakespeare's Magnanimity: Four Tragic Heroes, Their Friends and Families, with Wilbur Sanders. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1978.
In the Land of Oz (travel). London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987.
Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews. London, Viking, 1993; NewYork, Overlook, 1994.
It is an irony not lost on novelists that though they inveigh against all characterizations of their work in reviews, in profiles, and even on the covers of their own books, the moment they are invited to describe themselves, they say they would rather not.
I too, would rather not. Except to say that an argument about the nature of comedy—an argument I go on having largely with myself—is at the back of everything I write. The familiar formula, that comedy stops where tragedy begins, is unsatisfactory to me. The best comedy, I maintain, deals in truths which tragedy, with its consoling glimpses of human greatness, cannot bear to face. Comedy begins where tragedy loses its nerve. That's the sort of comedy I try to write, anyway.
* * *
"You know what novelists are like—they spill their guts on every page and claim it's plot." So Barney Fugelman is told by his second wife Camilla in Howard Jacobson's second novel, Peeping Tom. That fiction writers must draw on their own experience in order to give their work a ring of truth is something of a truism, but Jacobson's easy familiarity with Lancashire, Wolverhampton, Cambridge, Cornwall, and Australia, and his sharply observed portrayals of academic life and the urban Jewish psyche give his bawdy, scatological books a piquant verisimilitude. The themes that pervade his novels—ideological duplicity, cultural self-consciousness, sexual ambivalence, and gnawing self-doubt—could make some readers uncomfortable as they recognize themselves within his glass, were it not for the verve and aplomb of the humor with which they are relayed. And although Jacobson's protagonists often share the same individual afflictions and obsessions—identity crises, failed relationships, self-conscious Judaism, robustly masculine sexual preoccupations—and inhabit similar milieux (characters occasionally put in appearances in one another's novels), the underlying issues have universal appeal and are dealt with in a way which is simultaneously reassuring and thought-provoking.
Sefton Goldberg, the subject of Jacobson's first novel and only third-person narrative, Coming from Behind, is a man with a great future behind him. Manchester born, Cambridge educated and now doomed to ignominy in his post at a Midlands polytechnic which is in the throes of merging with the local football club, he spends his days applying unsuccessfully for every available academic post and skirmishing with colleagues. He is jealously obsessed with the success of these colleagues' publications while he himself, as yet unpublished, plans to write a tome on failure, which trait in himself is another obsession. Doggedly leading the lifestyle of a transient visitor, his condition is aggravated by his refusal to make the best of his situation and environment. He is finally granted an interview for a post in Cambridge, only to discover that he is to be in competition with, and interviewed by, his former students. The result is a success which is so thoroughly compromised on all sides that it is practically a Pyrrhic victory: a success achieved through a failure to fail consummately.
In Jacobson's most ribald book, Peeping Tom, Barney Fugelman discovers under hypnosis that he is somehow reincarnated from (or possibly related to) Thomas Hardy and, it transpires, the Marquis de Sade. Incest, voyeurism, troilism, and autoerotic hanging all feature in the plot as the sexual predilections of the narrator's alteregos manifest themselves through him, helping to precipitate his downfall and the ruin of his two marriages. What is being examined is the confusion of sexual and personal identities: Barney has two unwanted guests in his psyche and cannot tell if he is loved for himself, for Hardy, or for de Sade. Nor is it made easy for him to get a purchase on his real self in terms of his psychological make-up or his personal history. His parents swap spouses with their neighbors and so, compounded by his mother's intimations and revelations, Barney is never sure of his true relationship to Rabika Flatman, his father's paramour and the object of his own erstwhile voyeuristic fantasies. The discovery that Mr. Flatman is in fact his real father merely completes the symmetry, it is the resolution of the comic mechanism.
Redback is remarkable not least of all because the logistics of the plot neatly mirror Clive James's semi-autobiographical trilogy, Unreliable Memoirs. But James—himself namechecked within—tells a vastly different story to that of Leon Forelock, who leaves Cambridge with a degree in Moral Decencies and is assigned by the CIA to purge Australia of its non-conformist elements. Castigating homosexuals, drug-takers, and anyone voicing an opinion remotely left of the far-right, he censors and bans his way through university campuses and bookstalls. But Leon practices much of what he preaches against and relishes the privileges of the Englishman abroad while setting obscure questions on Langland's Piers Plowman as a test for prospective immigrants. The narrative is informed, however, by Forelock's epiphanic conversion, the occasion of which is a bite inflicted by the venomous redback spider of the title. Given a new outlook on humanity, doomed to suffer a myriad of recurring symptoms which include priapism, and kept under surveillance by his former employers, Leon overtly embraces all that is radical and bohemian in the world. His priapism is a metaphor for the contradictions of his moral condition: the rampant impotence of his own self.
The protagonist of The Very Model of a Man is no less than Cain himself, who bemoans a series of misfortunes that pepper his long life, from his parents' unfortunate decision in the Garden to the Tower of Babel. Jacobson's work has been compared to that of Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Bradbury, and David Lodge and rightly so, for he exhibits many themes, nuances, and preoccupations in common with them. Certain elements of his work do lack finesse: tendencies toward stereotypical characters and meandering narrative are apparent on occasions, as is what some might claim to be an unhealthy dwelling on all things phallic. Nonetheless, his characters evoke pathos even in their more grotesque or puerile moments, his plots are thoughtful and rounded, and his wit is dry and infectious. After less than a decade spent writing in his chosen genre, Jacobson seems set to become a major force in English comic fiction.
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