While Howard Jacobson’s prose works are renowned for their wit, energy, and self-deprecating, priapic jokes, his latest book, Zoo Time, is perhaps his most light-hearted to date.
The protagonist is a struggling novelist, Guy Ableman: a red-blooded male with a penchant for the filth-merchants of English literature. Ableman has two predicaments: the first is his inability to sell any books. The second is his wish to sleep with Poppy, his alluring and sophisticated mother-in-law.
Although the book is meant to be read with the smarmy, tongue and cheek tone that Jacobson has become famous for, the novel also passes judgment on a more serious matter: the crisis that has befallen the world of literary fiction.
In 2010, Jacobson won The Man Booker Prize, for his novel The Finkler Question: a deliberate intervention into contemporary discourse surrounding the rise of European anti-Semitism. The book raises many questions about identity, and asks if British anti-Zionism constitutes anti-Semitism.
Jacobson spoke to The Spectator about why the masses don’t appreciate literature anymore, why he always returns to the subject of failure, and why he believes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is pathetic soft porn.
In Zoo Time, Guy Abelman takes a fancy to his mother in law, what made you write about this subject?
I have been married three times, and I have liked all my mother-in laws. I’ve not had affairs with any of them, but sometimes I think I actually get married for the mother-in-law, rather than the wife. I certainly have gotten on much better with them than I have with some of the wives, so that has its own comedy.
Zoo Time is also a commentary on the declining literary world, are things that bad?
The novel still has its importance for those that care about it, but you just won’t find very many people left who do. It’s wonderful that people are reading and talking about books, but in general, they don’t know how to do it. Or that the mere expression of an opinion is worthless, that half the time they are describing a book, they are describing their inability to read, the shortage of their own imagination, and a lack of wide reading.
Could you give me an example?
Well look at the fuss that is being made over Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that is just pathetic soft porn, for which the sex should hang its head in shame. Give these readers real pornography and they will run a mile, give them Story of O: an erotic novel published in France, by Anne Desclos in the 1950s, about love, dominance, and submission. Pornography is about death, taking sex to its ultimate extreme, and the ultimate extreme of sex is death. Let them read that, but they won’t, they are frightened of it.
So is your new book meant to be shocking?
No, it’s partially a joke, one that I have been making about myself in many a book: wanting to be a bad boy, loving the idea that behind my hero is me, and how wonderful it would be to be lawless, to do something terrible, or to write a book in the same style as Henry Miller. Those books are not written anymore, because people have terrible trouble with comedy nowadays. They don’t want to laugh in a book, they want to get off a bit, or they want to cry, it’s pathetic.
Jewish identity is a theme you explored in The Finkler Question, what exactly does it mean to be Jewish in Britain?
Well, being an English Jew is very different from being an American Jew, there are very few of us here, about 300,000, so we are much less visible. Jews were thrown out England in the 12th Century, and weren’t let back for another 400 years. When we did come back it was very warily, into a culture that was firmly set. That meant we were quiet, and very marginal to the culture.
Did you notice this reluctance to embrace Jewish culture, growing up in Britain?
Well I wasn’t raised in an environment that was religiously Jewish, and I knew almost no one who was. We were circumcised, had a Bar Mitzvah, and our parents hoped we would marry a nice Jewish girl, that was the end of it, we didn’t spend much time at synagogue. Nor did we like to see Jews driving around in fast cars, smoking cigars, we thought, oh that is going to start another pogrom. My Dad used to have a little phrase, which was to “keep shtum”.
So did you feel you weren’t able to express yourself as a child?
Well I was shy anyway, and unhappy in the way that you are kind of meant to be as a child. I wasn’t well adjusted, I didn’t want to go out and play football with the other kids, I felt slightly different, more introverted. My mother was very quiet, and my father was essentially a song and dance man, an extrovert. I was my mother for the first half of my life, and my father for the second half.
As a British Jew how do you feel about Israel as a country?
When I was in Israel if I saw soldiers pushing around Palestinians, I didn’t like it. But most of the time we talk about Israel it’s not as a real place: it’s a symbol, a myth, an emblem or a fantasy, especially for the anti- Zionists, who don’t know what they are talking about, or know what Zionism is. It’s just an opportunity for many of them to feel like they are back on a Marxist bandwagon, in which they can hate America, and throw in the hatred of Jews. Even for many Jews, Israel is a fantasy, it’s the lifeboat argument: where will we go when we are kicked out of everywhere. In part of our hearts, we think, well we will never be kicked out of anywhere, and then we think, we could be, and where would we go?
When you write a book is there a theme you feel you keep returning to?
As a writer you are meant to write about failure. The great joy of literature is that it celebrates what the world normally thinks of as failure. Writers like failure because we know failure – as the world judges it – is probably another kind of success. Somehow we feel as though literature is meant to save that which the world has knocked around and bruised, and we who write it are people who feel we have been knocked around and bruised, and those that read it feel the same.