Man Booker-winner Howard Jacobson on being born old, gloomy, and writing to make women laugh

At the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest, Howard Jacobson also talks about being 'anxious' on finding that people do not laugh at what was considered funny 30, 10 or even five years ago, and that this censorship comes at the cost of creators' vivacity.

Arshia Dhar November 19, 2020 18:36:27 IST
Man Booker-winner Howard Jacobson on being born old, gloomy, and writing to make women laugh

Howard Jacobson. Facebook/Limmud.org

On day 3 of the 11th Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest's maiden virtual edition, we learn two very important things about the Man Booker-winning British novelist Howard Jacobson — one, that he was born old and gloomy and "skipped" being young; and two, that he loves to make women laugh.

In conversation with publisher Karthika VK, the session titled 'Living a Little, Meaning a Lot' tapped into the 78-year-old writer's reflections on his comedy and writing, both of which he believes began at the same time in his life. It was in the company of his mother and her "beautiful women friends" that he happened to discover his flair for the funny as a five-year-old, who was otherwise awkward, shy, and fleeing from attention. "When I made them laugh, I felt that I was somebody. I felt I'd come out of the obscurity of being a little boy that was frightened and nervous and timorous. And some way, I could say something, and women laughed." This, he believes, has been his constant and strongest impetus to write and enter the business of communication and thinking. Women were not only his first and primary audience, but also his caregivers and guardians back home, as he was raised by his mother, grandmother, and maternal aunt. "My whole life has been an attempt to have those three women, and in fact all women in the world, laugh at me as those three women did," he says.

It perhaps, then, comes as no surprise that the man has been greatly influenced by the likes of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, whose humour and worldview seep into his often wry, ironic and tongue-in-cheek writing. But he chides himself for being "less amusing", almost boring about comedy than anybody else on the planet, despite having had significant experience with it.

He, however, has a bone to pick with today's lot, especially readers and critics — we do not laugh at what would get the audience splitting their sides 30, 10, or even five years ago. This trend worries him. "I am anxious — I am finding I am having to check myself for the things I want to say that I think are funny." While this censorship — both of others and oneself — has its worthy payoffs, it comes at the cost of a creator's spontaneous vivacity, according to the novelist. It is important for the man to not lose sleep over someone taking offence at what he thinks is funny, because that, he says, would be the worst kind of inhibition to be deterred by.

Jacobson firmly believes that a comic has the right to say what she/he thinks is funny, so people who hate the joke could either throw tomatoes at the comedian, or shut the book and abandon the writer, in turn revealing more about themselves than about the joke or the jokester. "Not to get a joke is not always the joke's fault. Sometimes, not to get a joke is our fault. We might lack the warmth, generosity of spirit, or the intelligence to get a joke. So it's a two-way street," he remarks.

As the conversation rolls on, one notices how Jacobson's quips, despite being equal parts self-deprecatory and laudatory, barely ever border on uncomfortable narcissism. While his prose is appropriately punctuated with pursed lip British humour, his speech is anything but. He attributes a big part of this literary success to British critic FR Leavis, who was his teacher and mentor at the University of Cambridge. "I've never heroised anybody really. I feel too proud. People can heroise me, but I am not going to heroise anybody else. But I did heroise Leavis, and I still do. I thought he was a wonderful reader. He helped teach me how to read. He introduced me to more poetry than novel...He was terrific as a teacher," he says, before adding that Leavis was the only part of university he liked.

He claims to have loathed his time at the university, and takes full responsibility for being a disastrous student who was always in search of his mother's lovely female friends, the audience to his jokes, on campus. Unable to find them or anyone remotely resembling the wonderful ladies, he recoiled into his hole as a "sulky, morose, depressed, awkward-looking, gauche, horrible boy, who was miserable all the time."

Soon after, however, he found his feet again in Australia. Teaching literature at the University of Sydney, he blossomed into his morbidly funny and inescapably old self around women who resembled his mother's friends, at the age of 22.

His deviant gloom, unsurprisingly, has meant a life-long aversion from all things outdoorsy and extroverted (though that's certainly not the feeling one gets while watching him talk from inside his room wrapped in books and shiny wood). Despite being born and bred in Manchester — home to some of the best and oldest football clubs in the world — Jacobson took to watching cricket and playing table tennis instead, "not ping-pong," he clarifies. While the IPL has kept him alive through this extended period of his isolation in London, the writer's obsessive love for table tennis trumps all else, even though he does not practice it any longer. Playing this "introverted" sport meant not having to run about in shorts in the cold wet field — a tribulation he found no sense in undertaking. "I wrote a novel about table tennis, The Mighty Walzer," he says, after informing that he practised the sport seriously and had represented the county of Lancashire, even though he could not make the cut for the nationals. He had, as a player, dreamed of earning millions of pounds by being the best in the sport, while also winning the adulation of beautiful women — both impossible feats, he admits, no matter how good one gets at table tennis. He had later gone on to lend these aspirations to Oliver Walzer, his book's hero, as well.

Man Bookerwinner Howard Jacobson on being born old gloomy and writing to make women laugh

Howard Jacobson's new book Live a Little has been published by Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House

When the conversation steers in the direction of his new book Live a Little — an irreverent tale of a man and a woman in their 90s, who, despite the little life left in them, spin hope out of often withering memories, and at other times, painfully lucid ones — the author takes a detour to remind his audience that he is not, in fact, a novelist "campaigning and crusading" for the old (even if he was born as one). He, however, believes that old people do not write enough about themselves or their unmatched cleverness that comes with experience, owing to a culture that labels them "not sexy". On that note, he harks back to his Man Booker-winning The Finkler Question (2010) for a moment, where one of his more memorable characters, who is seen playing the piano, was based on his friend, British journalist Donald Zec, whom he met a decade ago at the age of 90. Zec is 101 today, and is a man who taught himself piano after his pianist wife passed away only days before his 90th birthday. "I've often said to him, that that prize is yours really, because I won the (Man) Booker for you being in that novel. It is you who people loved the most," Jacobson says.

He calls his newest novel "serendipitous", with its female protagonist Beryl Dusenbery being a character that wrote herself with very little help from him. The book is about falling in love with and through conversations, as Howard treasures nothing more than a hearty chat, being blessed with the gift of the gab himself. "What do I most like about novels? What do I most like in Jane Austen? Talk! What do I like most in Henry James? Conversation! If conversation is the best thing that we do, and I think conversation is the best thing that we do, I'd rather talk to my wife or my friends than do anything else, well, apart from eat and drink. But I'd rather talk to my wife while eating and drinking than do anything else on earth. And if that's the case, then as a writer, I should honour that. Let nothing else happen, let them just talk," he says.

Jacobson also believes in not judging characters in literature for being wrong — even if that means one having an affair with their mother-in-law (as his character in Zoo Time does) — because the pen allows one to venture into spaces one dare not in real life. However, that does not necessarily mean that art and literature cannot be transgressive, which, he believes, they should be in order to qualify as art.

Before concluding the session that garnered many an audience question on love, comedy and their ethics, Howard mulls over what he would possibly name himself if he were a character from one of his books. "It has to be an Old Testament prophet," he says.

"Like who?" asks Karthika.

"Who's the one that foretells doom to everybody? I wouldn't mind Cassandra, though that's a woman's name. But there you are, as you said, there's a lot of woman in me," he answers, before finally settling on Jeremiah Cassandra Jacobson — a fitting nod to his weeping, gloomy self, disguised as a sardonic old man.

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