I’ve had a highly cultural few days. On Thursday evening, the Secretary and I went to see the Donmar production of Chekhov’s Ivanov. The script by Tom Stoppard was a great improvement on the ‘straight’ translation, the set was spot-on, the acting (led by Kenneth Branagh) was excellent. Then on Friday we went to Tate Britain for the Francis Bacon retrospective. I’m not really a fan of Bacon, and the exhibition did little to change my view, but it was good to have seen it. On Sunday, we were due to see Carol Ann Duffy reading just down the coast from me in Deal. But unfortunately the Secretary was under the weather so we didn’t make it.
Yesterday, though, with the Secretary safely tucked up in bed, I went to Folkestone to catch part of the literary festival with my pal Mike. The highlight was undoubtedly the talk by Howard Jacobson.
Jacobson claimed to have been a novelist from the moment he was cast into the world. His father would ask him: So where’s your novel? But Jacobson Senior didn’t get the point. Being a novelist wasn’t necessarily the same as having to write a novel. It was a state of mind; a lifestyle choice. Jacobson Junior avoided writing a novel until he was well into his late thirties.
When he did finally write his novel, it was not the novel Howard Jacobson expected to write. He wanted to be the next Henry James, the next Tolstoy, but instead of writing heavily serious prose, he found he had a natural bent for comic writing. (My own favourite, The Making of Henry, is both witty and wise.)
In discussing the craft of the novelist, Jacobson said he wasn’t a great fan of the plot. Although I agree with his contention that characters are more important, I wasn’t entirely convinced by his argument here. But then, it’s in Jacobson’s nature to be contentious. He is an ex-university lecturer, after all. So although he argued that a reader wanted to know what happens next only because they care about the characters, in doing so he conceded a reader does want to know ‘what happens next’. Isn’t that plot?
He said he doesn’t have much time for J K Rowling or books for children in general. Give them adult books to read, he said. Don’t fill their heads with stories about wizards. What was worse was that these books were read by adults. We don’t read literature any more. Then, in a typically piece of Jacobsonian contrariness, he offered the following quote: ‘History is written by the winners; literature is written by the losers’. He said only losers needed to write (and read) about imaginary victories; the victors had success in real life so didn’t need to fall back on fantasy. Something happens at a formative stage in our lives. If we are losers in reality (e.g. in school sports in his case) we escape into the fantasy of literature. So, people who read (and especially write) are by definition life’s losers (in the nicest possible way!).
There was a lot of discussion about the nature of jealousy, the theme of Jacobson’s new book The Act of Love. The premise is that all men, either secretly or subconsciously, want their partners to be unfaithful to them. The book is also about words, and how words and literature and sex and relationships work. We give names and words to our actions and use the words to justify or condemn those actions. It is the word that distils and describes the action (for example: we made love; we had intercourse; we screwed – different words give a different complexion to the same action). As part of his research into the novel, Jacobson said he went to a sex club to ensure authenticity. It was a tough thing to do, but he went so we his readers won’t have to. And what thanks does he get?
With his tongue firmly in his cheek (or was it?) he claimed that all writers were jealous of each other’s success. When he brings out a novel, he said, he wants it to destroy all other novels. He might modestly say that he hopes his novel joins the Pantheon. Nonsense – he wants his novel to blow away the Pantheon. Jacobson claimed he gets jealous when he hears his wife laughing at the work of another author. It was especially hard for him to bear her laughing at Philip Roth.
Jacobson’s books often deal with Jews and themes relating to Jewishness, but his latest book does not. He was asked why that was. He half-closed his eyes and paused, as if he were giving the question great thought. Then said, ‘Because there are no Jews in it.’
A very funny, thought-provoking talk from an excellent, thought-provoking novelist.