When John Updike created Henry Bech, his alter-ego and protagonist of a series of books satirising the minor celebrity of the modern American author, it was natural enough to make Bech Jewish. Updike, not being Jewish, is recently something of an anomaly in the ranks of major American writers of fiction. Take your Bellows and Hellers and Mailers, your Malamuds, Salingers and Roths, and the postwar-American canon has something of the appearance of a Jewish racket. Add our own Howard Jacobson to that august company—here is, to my mind, no doubt that he belongs there—and the mainstream of English-language fiction begins to look a little like an international Jewish conspiracy.
Tasteless? But the reader will forgive me, I hope, when she considers I’ve been reading Kalooki Nights, a book of such glorious and exuberant tastelessness it’s difficult to imagine any reader—Jew or Gentile—putting it down without finding something to be offended by. Don’t believe me? How about the description of the narrator Maxie Glickman’s wife’s hand as ‘a vexed crisscross of Judaeophobia like the railway lines running in and out of Auschwitz’? Or Maxie’s erotic fantasies of masochistic submission to Ilse Koch, wife of the Camp Commander at Buchenwald, who among other cruelties would make lampshades out of the skin of Jewish dead? Or Maxie finding himself aroused on viewing, in an illustrated history of the Holocaust, a photo of naked Jewish women being paraded for medical inspection?
If all this eroto-literary brinkmanship sounds a lot like another great Jewish writer—I mean, of course, Philip Roth—that’s because it is. As a boy Maxie Glickman’s best friends are the gauche, ultra-Orthodox Manny Washinsky and the violent, decidedly unkosher Errol Tobias; all three are connected by an unhealthy interest in the Holocaust (is there such a thing as an entirely healthy interest in the Holocaust?). Like Roth, Jacobson likes to structure his novels by pairing characters who represent conceptual opposites—a trait half Talmudic paradox and half continental dialectics—and then confounding them. For it is not Errol but Manny who inexplicably grows up to murder his once-beloved parents by gassing their bedroom. So when, as an unsuccessful cartoonist in late middle age, Maxie receives a call from a TV production company seeking to investigate this most emphatic contravention of Commandments Five and Six, he sets out to try and understand, in retrospect, the nature of Manny’s offence. (One of the many joys of this book is structural: the way Maxie not so much circles his subject as orbits it elliptically, with a thousand wonderfully garrulous digressions.) Holocaust pathology and matri-patricide: not the stuff of uproarious comedy, you might think, but Kalooki Nights is a darkly hilarious tale about the legacy of what Maxie calls ‘Five Thousand Years of Bitterness’—that is, the sum total of all the indignities visited on the Jews throughout history. ‘I was the fruit of Five Thousand Years of Bitterness,’ says Maxie; ‘which meant I was heir to Five Thousand Years of Jokes.’
Jacobson’s pugnaciousness, his relish for the socially and sexually inadmissible, his eye for the paradoxes of Jewish identity, and most of all his wit—all these are reminiscent of Roth in the great comic mode he rarely now uses. Even Jacobson’s prose style—rangy, limber, at once unabashedly intellectual and bitingly colloquial—has more than a whiff of Roth about it. (Also of Kingsley Amis: figure that one for a Jewish paradox.) Roth once wrote a novel—Operation Shylock—that included two characters called Philip Roth. Do we really need another one?
Would that we had more Howard Jacobsons. The author of eight previous novels and four works of non-fiction, Jacobson is British fiction’s great ungarlanded comic genius. Most of his books remain in print —just—but over the course of a writing career that began in 1983 with Coming From Behind, he has somehow failed to command the reputation—a value calculated by some equation of sales, column-inches and prizes, on a calculus known only to broadsheet journalists—accorded to the literary Premier League. This is, I think, partly a consequence of Jacobson’s humour: if you’re too funny you risk being labelled that literary pygmy, a ‘humourist’. Do we inevitably suspect the comic of a certain servility in his desire to make us laugh? Never mind that comedy is much harder to pull off than solemnity, the comic always appears before us in the pose of a jester, a brief and slightly contemptible diversion before the serious business of state begins.
Jacobson wears the coxcomb and bells with admirable chutzpah. He is a master of the wry aperçu, as when he notes that, on the bookshelves of the holy, ‘everything is written by God or Enid Blyton’; or when he imagines his shikseh wife, during coitus, silently wondering ‘How long O Lord, How long’. And he can do caricature in wonderfully thick strokes, as in this vignette on his first words as a child:
‘Sounds to me that he was imitating the train,’ my father guessed when my
mother excitedly told everybody about it later. ‘Am I right, Maxie? Was that the
sound the engine made? Choo choo, choo choo?’
Jew Jew,’ I said, clamping my teeth around the Js. ‘Jew Jew, Jew Jew . . .’
‘What about the whistle, then? Whoo whoo! Whoo whoo!’
I shook my head. ‘Jew Jew,’ I said. ‘Jew Jew, Jew Jew.’
But for all its overstatement and travesty, Kalooki Nights is also an eloquent argument for the seriousness of comedy. By making Maxie a cartoonist who must constantly defend his art against the disdain of the pious and high-minded, Jacobson can be reflexive about his own comic mode without ever seeming tendentious: ‘Caricature is a methodology for telling a greater truth—that’s where I stand—but even I accept that what the artist caricatures, the ordinary eye must recognise as just.’ Characteristically Jacobson can make a joke about the evil of an Ilse Koch, and then make another joke about the joke:
‘Oh, is she the one who made the lampshades?’ my mother asked. It’s the obvious joke, but she made it sound like an interior design query. And even if she hadn’t, it’s my obligation as a cartoonist to make out that she had.
The justness of a caricature like this lies in the way it nimbly draws attention, not so much to the banality of evil, but to the way in which evil inevitably becomes banalised after the fact. And Jacobson’s irony is the perfect instrument for taking the measure of those who, rather than banalise evil, would deny it: ‘There is an intriguing contradiction in the position of those who question whether anything as terrible as Ilse Koch and her lampshades ever happened, in that they invariably let you know they wish it had.’ This is no less funny for the fury with which it bristles.
Beneath the fury, this book floats a discomfiting argument about the Jewish psyche—which Jacobson diagnoses or hypothesises as essentially masochistic—and its equivocal role in the punishment it has endured: ‘Do we make it all up, this anti-Semitism? Is it a fire in us we need to feed? Could we possibly have called the Nazis down on us because we couldn’t exist without them?’ This doesn’t necessarily represent Maxie’s decided opinion—he soon snaps out of it to get on with the business of being persecuted by his veritably anti-Semitic wife—nor, obviously, should we assume it is Jacobson’s. But there are quarters where even to have a fictional character suggest that the Jews may have some psychic complicity (Maxie’s word, not mine) in their suffering is considered such bad taste as to be tantamount to crypto-Nazism. But, as Maxie observes, ‘Bad taste narrows the gap between the sentimental way you see yourself, and the scorn with which others see you. Half of what’s for sale in Israel you’d consider anti-Semitic if you saw it anywhere else.’ This is subtle, and it is daring to try and be subtle about so incendiary a subject as mass murder; much safer simply to howl in blame or lamentation—and Maxie, by the way, is noble enough to know that he’s not too noble for his share of both. Masochism, in any case, isn’t an uncomplicated impulse for Jacobson, who writes subtly and passionately on the subject; it is the thin line where active complicity meets enforced submission. It can even be, with a kind of ambiguous heroism, an affirmation of defiance in itself.
In the furore that followed the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, a New York Times reporter contacted Philip Roth’s mother and asked whether she was a ‘Jewish mother’. ‘All mothers are Jewish mothers,’ was the reply: a very good and, in its paradoxical logic, its inverting of the particular and the universal, very Rothian quip. Unlike Roth, Howard Jacobson is happy to accept the label ‘Jewish fiction’ for his work; it’s difficult to argue with his own description of Kalooki Nights as ‘the most Jewish book written by anyone, ever’. But if Jewish fiction is writing that explores, with great panache and insight, the messy, contradictory stuff that we call selfhood, perhaps all great fiction—figuratively if not literally—is Jewish fiction.
Matt Hill recently completed a BA in English Literature at Jesus College, Oxford, and is now a night porter at a hotel in Bristol.