Novelist Howard Jacobson thrived on aggression, alcohol, late nights and infidelity



by Howard Jacobson (Cap £16.99, 288pp)

Did comic novelist Howard Jacobson (now in his 80th year) become a writer because he was always moody and morose? Or was it being a writer that made him moody and moody?

This is the conundrum he explores with wonderful verve in Mother’s Boy, where the somewhat boastful and certainly self-satisfying paradoxical conclusion seems to be that “the wretched use a wider vocabulary than the happy because they have more to express”.

Howard Jacobson (pictured) shares his upbringing as a Jew in Manchester and how his life experiences became comedy gold in a memoir

Jacobson has a lot to say, of course, starting with his upbringing as a Jew in Manchester.

His parents’ heritage, quite topically, was Ukrainian – but the ancestry was never mentioned. “Think of something else,” young Howard was told if he broached the subject. “We are English now.”

There was an exotic relative, an ill-tempered, drunken grandfather, whose fingernails were so obnoxious and gnarled that cutting them was a task for an arborist.

Jacobson’s father, full of “Ukrainian audacity”, rings a case. Known as Jakey, he was always busy, fixing cars, rewiring houses, fixing washing machines. “He was a great neighbor to have when your pipes burst.” He also worked as a tailor and upholsterer, and had a stall at the market selling candle-wick bedspreads, nonstick pans, and spoons that bend in boiling water.

And he was also a semi-professional magician. The house was filled with wands, capes and white rabbits.

Although a practical man, Jakey was not the most observant of Jews. He once thought the Passover table was his surprise birthday party.

Neetie, Jacobson’s mother, was perhaps too protective. When he went to Cambridge, she got him a supply of emergency toilet rolls. She always encouraged her son’s love of reading and recited Tennyson’s poems. “She had a thrilling voice, full of warm liveliness. She enjoyed ballroom dancing with off-duty police officers.

As for young Jacobson himself, he was a holy terror. He stripped the wallpaper from the walls, gouged out the eyes of stuffed animals and scribbled everywhere with his crayons. He couldn’t — still can’t — climb, draw maps, wrap packages or ride rear-facing in a cab or bus. At school, he couldn’t sing, play the recorder, or use the restroom if other stalls were occupied.

Howard (pictured) emigrated to Australia to become an academic in the University of Sydney's English department after studying at Downing College, Cambridge.

Howard (pictured) emigrated to Australia to become an academic in the University of Sydney’s English department after studying at Downing College, Cambridge.

Nonetheless, his high school got him into Downing College. The first time he took the train to Cambridge, the man sitting opposite fell dead – an omen of sorts. When Jacobson arrived, he spent a term trying to impress the college doorman with intellectual conversation, mistaking him for FR Leavis.

Somehow, Jacobson learned that “a judgment was a richer thing than an opinion, and that tone could tell us what literal statements could not”. Fair enough – but he got a bad degree.

The only option was to emigrate to Australia to become an academic in the University of Sydney’s English department, where the staff were ‘sarcastic, cruel, alert, libelous’ – as they reliably are in all departments of English.

Married after graduation in 1964, Jacobson was accompanied by his wife, Barbara Starr. Jacobson says that, Down Under, ‘I forgot to be shy. I forgot to be depressed. I forgot to be Jewish.

Instead, he became a loud-mouthed drunk. Far too often, Barbara had to “scratch me off the floor, drive me home, and arrange to get me up the stairs.”

Carelessness was confused with odiousness. Jacobson admits he went for “assault, alcohol, cigarettes, late nights, infidelity and falling in love with a student”, an offense that would cause a person today to “cancel” without mercy.

We are told, however, that “the heart is a rogue organ, and it will love and betray at the same time, if you allow it.” I don’t think the organ we’re talking about here is the heart, but as the saying goes, the past is another country and they did things differently there, especially in Australia.

Howard's (pictured) book Coming From Behind was successfully published in 1983, making the author a worthy successor to Tom Sharpe

Howard’s (pictured) book Coming From Behind was successfully published in 1983, making the author a worthy successor to Tom Sharpe

Returning to Britain after three hedonistic years, Jacobson taught English to hairdressers and sold handbags at the market. Because of his Mancunian accent, people thought he was selling pranks.

“I slept badly and I woke up worse.” He separated from Barbara, although there is now a son, Conrad, named after Joseph Conrad, Jacobson’s favorite novelist.

Returning to Australia on his own, he taught at a technical college in Melbourne. Here Jacobson met Ros Sadler, a swimmer, sailor and cellist who, in 1978, became his second wife.

Returning to England once more, Jacobson was employed as a lecturer at Wolverhampton. He really couldn’t get over the “total desperation of the place”. . . the total negation of natural beauty”.

Living in Wolverhampton, he says, would today be ‘called self-harm’, but he stayed there for seven years.

Meanwhile Ros, who also dislikes Wolverhampton, has settled into running a craft shop in Boscastle, Cornwall, where she has sold novelty paperweights, made in China, and unisex bunting pirate smocks.

MOTHER'S BOY by Howard Jacobson (Cap £16.99, 288pp)

MOTHER’S BOY by Howard Jacobson (Cap £16.99, 288pp)

Jacobson shuttled back and forth between Cornwall and the West Midlands for 12 years because while he “hated Boscastle a bit”, he “hated it less than Wolverhampton, which I absolutely hated”.

What hatred and agitation there is in this man, who goes up to the end.

Jacobson is ruthless to many of his teachers, as well as “angry with myself for wasting my college years.” The relationship with Ros was filled with resentment – his sulks were matched by his “withering sarcasm”. The marriage only took place so that she could obtain British citizenship. During their honeymoon in Paris, neither spoke.

Of course, the torrent of “disappointment, degradation, frustration, animosity, envy, futility” spoken of in Mother’s Boy was waiting to be turned into comedic gold. Lightly imagining his experiences, Jacobson sat down and wrote Coming From Behind.

Its potential was immediately spotted by Chatto editor Jeremy Lewis – my late cousin. But when new feminist broom Carmen Callil arrived at the publishing house, she took issue with the novel: “If you ran naked down Bond Street, I couldn’t sell this book,” she told him.

It was successfully published in 1983 and, along with Peeping Tom a year later, marked the new author, already in his 40s, as a worthy successor to Tom Sharpe. Jacobson won the Booker in 2010.

Callil was, he recalls, a harbinger of how “the fun was starting to come out of everything”. Presumably we’ll hear more about it in another volume, which I look forward to.