Howard Jacobson is on a guilt trip
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Howard Jacobson is on a guilt trip

INTERVIEW: Howard Jacobson has been dragging guilt around with him for decades. Now he’s written a book about it

On the face of it, Howard Jacobson’s funny, strangely beautiful and poignant memoir Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings, is a book about writing, family, and his struggle to become a novelist. It’s also a snapshot of Jewish life, Jewish shame and Jewish pride, which will be familiar to many of us who have found the Jewish side of ourselves sometimes rubbing up against the British side. But above all, it is an attempt to assuage his Jewish guilt.

There is a lot he feels guilty about. So much so that both his wife and his publishers told him he needed to not be quite as hard on himself, not apologise to quite so many people in the book when he first showed it to them.

“I’ve done some horrible things, I’ve been quite horrible in many ways and I wanted to talk about the horribleness,’ says Howard, 79, when we meet at a hotel in London, his famous droopy face he constantly complains about in his book looking even droopier as he contemplates his flaws. ‘But everyone was worried that I would not come over as likeable. I argued that it was a book about being horrible but they were right when they said too much horrible is tedious, as was all the apologising to everyone I’d felt I’d wronged.

“In the end I could see what they meant. Normally when I am told to edit a book, I add more but for the first time I realised the joy in cutting. I cut at least a third of the book. I took people out and also cut the thickness of the sentences. I made it more reader-friendly. Normally I’m difficult; books are not mean to be easy but I think the book is the better for it. I just feel a bit sorry for anyone who was expecting an apology in the book and they can’t find it.”

Howard with his mum

Howard’s guilt starts with his parents, who are drawn so perfectly that they feel visceral. His bookish, shy, passive, homely mother Anita who helped him fall in love with words, and his exuberant kindly father Max who was an upholsterer, a market trader and a frustrated magician.

He was, he admits, ashamed of them, of his working-class Manchester background, their immigrant fumblings, their sheer Jewishness. And it took him years – only once he’d realised that if he wanted to write it had be about that background, that Jewishness – to feel ashamed of the shame he felt.

“I’m ashamed of the way I behaved, the horrible things I did,” he says. “My father was beloved by people. I should have just been nicer to my parents. It was only when I saw an old school friend of mine – John Heilpern, who is also in the book and who spurred me on and made me angry because he wrote a book before me – that I realised what a stuck-up little prig I was.

“I saw him a few years ago and he asked about my parents and he told me, ‘I used to love coming to your house’. That surprised me. All I could think about was the bad magic tricks my dad did. And then he said that he wasn’t just fond of my parents but adored them. He used that word deliberately – adored! And it made me think about why I hadn’t adored them; I paid a price for that.”

Howard Jacobson in 1963

That guilt segues into a guilt about his first wife, Barbara, a hairdresser, who he married straight after finishing at Cambridge. He was, he admits, a dreadful husband because of his frustration at his inability to write the great novels he knew he had to put on paper. Working as a lecturer in Australia, he wasn’t writing but instead started drinking and had an affair. Later he left Barbara and their son Conrad, something he says he then spent many decades apologising for.

“I was demented by not writing,’ he says. ‘I had to do it. That doesn’t mean I was or am any good. I just had to do it. For me it was a way of dealing with my inadequacies. I thought, ‘if I can write about something I might feel better about life, particularly if I’ve done something schmucky.”

His problem, he was to later learn, was that he was trying to fit his Jewish life into a gentile way of writing. “I wanted to be Henry James,” he says. “I wanted to write sentences like Henry James because if there’s ever a writer who wrote sentences without a hint of Jew in them it was Henry James. It wasn’t that I wanted to deny my Jewishness or turn my back on it; it was just that I wanted to professionally soar above it. I wanted to produce work that was pristine and austere even though there was nothing pristine and austere about me.”

It was his second wife, Australian academic Rosalin Sadler, who pushed him to actually start writing about what he knew. He regards their 20-year relationship as tumultuous but will never forget that she was able to do for him – get him writing novels – something that he was unable to do for her.

“She was a gifted and strong woman,” he says. “She was difficult to live with, but I was difficult to live with. We fought very very bitterly and haven’t spoken for many years. I don’t know whether she has seen this book; there’s a chance her response may mean she might want to come back to England and kill me. But I don’t think she will because she’s getting on and it’s a schlep from Australia!”

The things that save Howard from his horribleness are his brilliance and his humour. His 2010 book The Finkler Question was the first comic novel to win the Man Booker Prize for more than 30 years. It recognised that phenomenon of the intellectual Jew full of internalised antisemitism; in contrast Howard has been a rare intellectual Jewish voice willing to stand up not only against left wing antisemitism, but also for Zionism. He’s been punished for it but while his father Max fought with his fists, Howard is happy to continue fighting with his writing.

“I first started writing about antisemites in the arts about twenty years ago and I remember going to places like the Wolseley and I’d go over and say hello to someone I knew and the looks from some of the others – if looks could kill – simply because I’d dared to come over. I felt like a disliked person simply because I was against antisemitism in the arts – I think that incident was after I’d criticised the play Seven Jewish Children – but what you can you do?

“I think anti Zionism is antisemitism. That doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of Israel. But the Corbyn thing of saying Zionism is – essentially and by its very nature – racist when it clearly isn’t means you have to wonder, why are they saying these things?

“What I’ve realised more and more is the giveaway that they use the same description of Israel that people used to use about the Jews. They idea that Jews kill children, they have no compassion, they care only about themselves. That was always the playbook and now there is a Jewish country and they say the same things. That’s the giveaway. I can’t forgive any of that; it is medieval hatred.”

Once his purpose was writing a great novel; he has written several of them. Now he sees another purpose in speaking out against the new antisemitism. “I’ve spent far more of my time thinking about and writing about Jews than I ever imagined I would,” he smiles. “My parents were astonished. My dad used to say, “You’re really interested in this?” and I’d reply, “I thought you wanted me to be?” And he’d say: ‘I wanted you to marry a Jewish girl; I didn’t think you’d become obsessive.’ But we are a terrifically interesting subject, and I wasted a good decade of my life avoiding that.”

Howard Jacobson’s memoir Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings is out now

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