As a woman well into her 90s, Beryl Dusinbery’s memory is not quite what it once was, resulting in her forgetting everything – including her own sons.
But Shimi Carmelli, at the ripe old age of 91, is a man who forgets nothing, even though he desperately wishes he could be free of the shame that has clung onto him from happenings in the past.
“She’s a woman who can’t remember and he’s a man who can’t forget – that’s what they call a ‘couple fit’ in psychology,” muses Howard Jacobson about his latest novel, Live A Little, which was published this week.
Jacobson’s familiar wit and whimsy combine with verve and tenderness in this narrative of nonagenarian love found along Finchley Road and the constant shimmer of hope that even in advanced years, one can still enjoy life.
Speaking about his latest protagonists, Jacobson – who has penned 16 novels and won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question – reveals the character of Beryl, a former English teacher to girls of refinement, “came fully formed out of the sea like a Venus de Milo aged 90.”
He enthuses: “What was remarkable about her was not particularly her beauty or her shape – though she’s a good looking woman – but her intelligence, her experience, her humour, her wit.
The opening of the novel is what I heard in my head. Her ringing up her son, or her son ringing up her – and just being rude to him. She’s a woman who doesn’t like her children, a woman who isn’t a mum or a gran or defined by any of that nonsense of nurturing roles, she’s a woman who is a woman.”
As the character formed in his writer’s mind, Jacobson reveals that he hadn’t known anyone quite like her in real life, but had instead drawn upon years of “listening in to women’s conversations about men.”
The Manchester-born writer adds: “I’ve always found women very funny about men’s inadequacies, what men are like as companions, their vanity and self-engrossment.
“How men are as sexual beings and how hopeless they are. How they’ve got no sense of timing, are uncourteous and unreasoning. I’ve listened to that and laughed and laughed. That’s all spilled into Beryl.”
His heroine, apart from affording Jacobson with much of the novel’s comic tone, has also allowed the 76-year-old author a vessel through which to “express opinions freely” in the current climate.
“A woman can make fun of a man, but a man can’t make fun of the woman, that is the rule of it at the moment. At one time, if it was the hero of a Phillp Roth or Saul Bellow novel, the males could be very contemptuous of their wives, but that’s had its day.
“If I was going to express things freely, I knew it would have to be a woman and I really enjoyed writing Beryl, because she’s not careful or correct. In an age of correctness, she’s a goddess of incorrectness.”
Her liberation is in many ways the perfect remedy for Shimi, who feels constrained by his memories.
By Jacobson’s own admission, Shimi is also something of a catch – he can do up his own buttons, walks without the aid of a frame and speaks without spitting. He even has a troupe of north London widows after him, a light-hearted scenario inspired by Jacobson’s own real-life situation.
“My mother is 96 and my wife’s mother is 106,” he muses on increasing life expectancy. “With everyone living longer, I see a future where there’s a widow, behind her is another widow, and another, and soon there’ll be an eternity of caring going on.”
As for Shimi’s obsession with memories, that is something that Jacobson is painfully familiar with.
“I didn’t have to look much further than myself for that,” he laughs. “I have always lived in the past. I was nostalgic about the past when I was born. My wife tells me that I romanticise about this morning. I’m very sentimental and have always been in that condition.”
The more we talk, Jacobson’s sharp repartee becomes all the more apparent and I’m curious to discover where his deeply dry humour comes from.
“Well, from being Jewish,” he laughs. “My father wasn’t fast talking, but he was amusing and my mother was quick-witted and the Jewish boys I grew up with were as well.
“Today, most of the men I meet are built like body builders, spending hours in the gym, but no Jewish boy I ever knew growing up wanted to spend a minute there. We read, we told jokes, we made excuses so we didn’t have to do football, athletics or cricket. We lived in the mind, the source of quick wittedness.”
That witty banter and enjoyment of conversation is at the very heart of the novel, not only in its writing, but in the way that Shimi and Beryl enjoy conversing with one another.
“Talk is life and at the heart of the best relationships,” Jacobson tells me. It’s also firmly on Jacobson’s own little bucket list of things he wants to keep in the years still ahead of him.
Aside from writing more books and “keeping my wits reasonably about me,” Jacobson looks forward to enjoying life with his third wife, Jenny “and keep talking like Shimi and Beryl.”
“I’d like to keep talking forever,” laughs Jacobson. “But you can probably already tell that from this conversation.”
Live A Little by Howard Jacobson is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £18.99 (hardback). Available now.
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