(Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)
On a hot summer’s afternoon, I meet Howard Jacobson in a restaurant in Soho. I am struck immediately by his appearance. If a face can reveal anything about the truth of someone’s character, Jacobson makes for an interesting subject. He looks like something out of ancient history or literature, like an Old Testament prophet, or a character from Dickens. Incidentally, he is a great fan: “Boy, would Dickens have some stuff to say now? Dickens on Grenfell. Wow.”
His novels explore the dilemmas posed by being Jewish – or not Jewish – in modern Britain. They have met with popular and critical success: ‘The Finkler question’ won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. His newest book ‘Pussy’ is a comic satire on the Trump presidency. “When Trump happened, my wife said ‘You’re going to be very difficult to live with if you’re not writing about this.’ So I wrote ‘Pussy’. How could you call it anything else?”
He began writing novels over thirty years ago (which began all those years ago with a campus novel) and has entered his dotage as a novelist. Now aged 74, a little older than Jeremy Corbyn, he notes, he jokes: “There is nothing worse than an old man vindicated.”
And this is the paradox of Jacobson. He marries a tone of high moral seriousness (“I love novelists who preach”) with an obvious delight in paradox, in ironic positions, in dramatic reversals, in the frivolities of language. As I sit down, Jacobson is already talking: “I am Jeremiah. I am here to tell the world that everything is wrong.” Words. He loves words. This is where everything begins with Jacobson. Everything comes backs to language: “By words, we come to know ourselves. By words, we extend our thoughts.”
‘Pussy’ is an attempt to make sense of a President who is unable to talk: “The wordlessness is very interesting to me. His shortage of language, his mistrust and fear of words, is pathological.” The Americans turned away from a President who practically spoke in Latin and elected a man who has no language at all, who tweets what he’s just seen on television: “He is trapped. When he is talking, he looks like a bee trapped in a bottle. He cannot get out, because it is words that get us out. Words help us through. We can sail out sometimes on a sentence.”
All sorts of attempts have been made to understand why Hillary Clinton lost, but for Jacobson, the answer is obvious: “She showed that she had thoughts, and information, and eloquence.”
He hates Trump’s personality. But he doesn’t see Trump in isolation: “There is a kind of anti-intellectualism in the air, an anti-educationalism in the air, an anti-verbalism in the air.”
Critics have pointed to the influence on ‘Pussy’ of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’, and of its debt to Swift. The book is perhaps more playful than that: “It’s meant to remind people of that surrealist play, Alfred Jarry’s ‘Ubu Roi’, which is just knockabout.” So he doesn’t just want to “scourge the follies of mankind”. He wants us to laugh too.
As comfortable with the Old Testament as he is with the nineteenth literature, Jacobson is clearly magnetized by the power of language. You get the sense that any project, whether literary, religious, or political, is only worth its salt so long as it gives into the demands of language, to irony, to paradox, and to questioning.
His Jewishness too begins and ends with language: “Jewishness is about disagreeing and arguing from the very first moment. In the Old Testament, they are always arguing. It is a wonderful Jewish thing. No God, I’m not doing that. No God, I don’t agree.” At its origins, Zionism was a liberating force because it allowed Jewish people to free themselves from rigidity and orthodoxy: “Jews realized that they were not only oppressed by governments, but by themselves. We talked about ourselves as God’s chosen people, but we were living in little villages, living in filth, doing nothing but pray, morning, noon and night.”
Zionism gave the Jews a new story, but Jacobson is disappointed at where it has ended up: “While not losing our religion, we are capable of having a secular vision. That’s what Israel was going to be. It wasn’t going to have Rabbis everywhere. It certainly wasn’t going to have ultra-orthodox Rabbis.”
Jacobson is all the time conscious of the sadness, and ultimate tragedy, of this love of words: it is language that liberates Jews, but it is their love of language for which they are hated and despised. Brought up in Manchester, he retains a soft Mancunian twang. Raised by “uneducated” parents, he has made his career through words. He peppers all his thoughts with references, mostly to the nineteenth century, to George Eliot, to DH Lawrence, but also further afield to Tolstoy and Milan Kundera.
He remains rather self-conscious about this intellectualism: “I was always warned by my parents when I was growing up: don’t be a clever Jew. People don’t like clever Jews. There has always been a fear that the Jew is uncanny in some way. The uncanniness is the magic power of language.” Throughout European history, Jews have been caricatured as creatures of the mind rather than the body. Jacobson explains: “The medieval mind didn’t know what the Jewish texts were. The Jew is therefore a creature of secret spells, incantations and murderous desires.”
And anti-Semitism is back on the political agenda. In central Europe, openly anti-Semitic parties are in power in Poland and Hungary. Hungarian TV channels broadcast anti-Semitic propaganda 24/7. Just this week, posters were found in the capital depicting George Soros, billionaire financier and philanthropist, as a Jew in control of high finance and the media. Jacobson is afraid for the future of Jews in Europe: “If, so close to the Holocaust, there can still be anti-Semitism in those countries that witnessed the catastrophe and were guilty of it, what would ever make it go away? It is there forever.”
He hesitates: “Do we want to talk about Corbyn?”
I hesitate too. But he goes on at once: “We have to talk about it. The Labour Party’s association with anti-Semitism goes back decades. Zionism has always been a dirty word. They turned it into a colonial movement, which it was not.”
Zionism was supposed to free the Jewish people from persecution in their native lands, and free them too from the tyranny of bad language and bad words. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way: no other word provokes as much contempt and hatred as ‘Zionism’, even in modern Britain – hitherto almost immune from the hatred directed at Jews in other parts of the world.
For Jacobson, the anti-Semitism of some in the Labour Party rests on the corruption of language itself: “They have these two gross syllogisms: ‘Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism’ and ‘I am anti-Zionist: therefore I am not anti-Semitic’. There were even people saying that the Grenfell Tower fire was Zionist-inspired: the Jews fund the Tory Party; the Tory Party was responsible for the shortcomings at the Council; the Council was responsible for the fire; so Jews killed those people.”
Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry into anti-Semitism comes in for bitter criticism: “Some of the things that she said were so gross you cannot believe it. I submitted a long essay. There was no sense that it was ever read. I was never talked to. She didn’t talk to many Jewish thinkers or Jewish writers. It is deeply insulting to Jews to be told, as they are, as I am endlessly told: ‘All you are doing is trying to silence criticism of Israel’.”
Jacobson’s art is to mix the sacred and the profane so subtly (or not so subtly) that even the modern, secular mind can find something to believe somewhere in his rattle bag: “I am an Old Testament Prophet. But I am also a novelist, and I don’t believe anything I say about anything. Don’t listen to a word I say. But you’re welcome to read my novel.”
Not everyone writes novels, but everyone has opinions, and everyone – even Trump and Corbyn – must try to move beyond their invariably banal first thoughts (so readily captured by social media) to something approaching mature reflection: “If art is beyond us, then at least we owe it to ourselves to shape our opinion into a judgement, to know that what we are saying has been subjected to self-criticism, to time, to the wisdom of the ages, and to the wisdom of other people. And that is all I have to say on the subject.”
And with that, Jacobson sweeps off into the Soho sunlight. And I am left with a small opinion of my own. Lots of countries have novelists who aren’t ashamed to be novelists of ideas: the Czechs have Milan Kundera; Turkey has Orhan Pamuk; France has Michel Houellebecq; America (still) has Roth.
Britain struggles to produce the same, and when we do manage it, we don’t value them highly enough.
We don’t ‘do’ philosophy – or prophets – very well: but Jacobson could at least be our best alchemist. After an election campaign in which the Prime Minister could only parrot slogans (or remain silent), and Corbyn just seemed to crow, public life could do with a little more eloquence, because the rest is either noise – or silence.