The Plot Against England
Novelist Howard Jacobson, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, talks about English anti-Semitism, ping-pong, and the seriousness of Jewish jokes
By Tablet Magazine
The British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson’s eleventh novel, The Finkler Question, is on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, to be awarded on October 12 to the best novel written in English by a Commonwealth citizen this year. On the occasion, Jacobson spoke to Tablet Magazine last week about English anti-Semitism, Israel “swaggering around,” and why Jews used to be good at ping-pong. Plus: The first U.S. publication of Jacobson’s 1999 profile of table tennis champion Marty Reisman.
You described your 2007 novel Kalooki Nights as “the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody anywhere” and we agree—
It certainly uses the word “Jew” more than any other novel.
A Booker Prize finalist profiles hardbat ping-pong champ Marty Reisman, who never lost his taste for winning
So what do you mean by that?
I suppose I meant that its preoccupations are unrelievedly Jew talking to Jew thinking about Jew. This was deliberate. That’s what I wanted to write. Jew, Jew, Jew, joke, joke, joke, the world as seen entirely through the eyes of Jews for Jews. There are some Jews who live like that. To a degree, there’s a possibility in every Jew I ever met, for them to live like that. That you ask the question “Why?” and then back you go to the Holocaust and back to the pogroms before that, and everyone wants to know what it is that’s made this particular kind of Jewish morbidity into a positive feature now of the Jewish imagination. So, the book was really about that. Jews thinking about Jews talking about Jews to Jews written by somebody who is a Jew, who is obsessed by the subject, has some crazy obsession, who wants to get to the bottom of this obsession and wonders where this obsession comes from. And will deploy every kind of act of the mind to think about it, including, primarily, what Jews do best, which is make jokes. No one makes jokes like Jews.
So, it’s not only the most Jewish book ever written, it’s got more Jewish jokes in it, good or bad, than any book ever written. Certainly more about Jews and more jokes in it than the Old Testament.
That leads us directly to Shylock. What do you make of him?
I don’t have as many problems as others do. Shakespeare does no wrong for me. I think he’s thinking about what it’s like to bear that stereotype. To have to wear that stereotype as a badge and how hellish that is. That doesn’t stop him thinking that in the end Shylock is Shylock and doing Jewish things. Shakespeare is about as humane about it as you could expect for that time and given his knowledge.
You are most often described as an English Jewish novelist, but you might feel you have more in common with post-colonial literature, Indian writers, Irish, or others. Or do you see yourself and other Jewish writers in Britain doing something more like a regionalism, something more like Scotsmen, or cockneys, or people from Wales?
Funny, I don’t think of myself like that. I’m an “Eng Lit” man. I gave up my table tennis, and I went to Cambridge, although I played a bit there, and I studied English literature, and I went to Australia and I went back to Cambridge, and I taught here for 20-odd years English literature. I’m an absolutely English Literature Man. English literature is what I read. When my first novel came out and people said he’s like Philip Roth, I hadn’t read any Philip Roth then. I was what was called a Leavisite, and if you know Leavis, I was taught by F.R. Leavis, and those of us who were taught by F.R. Leavis believe that D.H. Lawrence was the last great English novelist and he died in 1930 and that was that. I hadn’t read modern books. And I went on to read Roth and I thought, Christ being compared to him ain’t bad—he’s some writer! He’s fantastic! And then I went on to read him more, and Saul Bellow, and I became more consciously working a bit like them, but not in their tradition. Their Jewish roots are in European novels. They’re sort of Kafka and Dostoyevsky and Babel and the better for it. I—and I’ve made this joke about myself—I’m not the English Philip Roth, I’m the Jewish Jane Austen. As far as I’m concerned I’m an English novelist working absolutely square in the English tradition. I’m regional to the degree that I’m Manchester. I try to write the sentences of a centralized, cosmopolitan English writer who has read all the great English writers. The voices in my head are Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, Dickens, George Eliot.
And then onto that, I have laid—and God knows why, it has astonished my parents—this whole Jewish palaver. My parents didn’t get it. “Where’s this from?” my dad said. On his death bed, my dad said, “You’re not going to be a rabbi, are you?” I thought he’d be proud of me. Well, he was proud of me. But I thought, “Look, look at all this Jewishness that you wanted me to go in for. You wanted me to have a Jewish wife, you wanted me to give you Jewish grandchildren, what I’m really giving you now are Jewish books.” And he thought they were great, but he didn’t get it.
I never thought when I was trying to write in my 20s and even in my 30s, that I was going to write about Jews. But I wasn’t getting anywhere not writing about Jews. I couldn’t write a page.
Margaret Drabble wrote an essay for Tablet Magazine and singled you out for your exceptional novels, and then told us that there isn’t much anti-Semitism in England. How are the Jews of England doing these days?
The novel I’ve just published—about which I saw a very interesting review on Tablet the other day—raises this question. Do you know? We don’t know. This is the thing we don’t know. The last time I was in America talking about Kalooki Nights, many people asked me there what’s it like in England. There was a real sense of, “What’s it like on the streets of England for a Jew to go walking without a bodyguard?” That Muslim extremists would attack him; that ordinary English anti-Semites would attack him. It isn’t like that. I don’t need to tell you that. It doesn’t feel like a dangerous country to be Jewish in.
There is a sense that when something like Gaza erupts, the flotilla episode erupted, things get said by the intelligentsia that feed down into the populace, and every now and then you know someone will kick a Jew. At the time of Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza thing, there were probably several dozen, maybe even a few hundred anti-Semitic incidents here, some of them truly violent, people really being physically attacked, sometimes abuse, upsetting things like Jewish kids at school being told by Muslim kids at school, “Your people are killers,” and all of that. How do you measure that? How do you decide what any of that is? There’s always been low-level bits of skinhead brutality: A Jew is somebody you push around. There’s always been a little of that.
What we don’t know and what we’re all trying to figure out and measure, those of us who think this is worth putting our mind to, is how far the rhetoric of anti-Zionism is spilling over into another thing, through the sheer violence and virulence of its own language. Because it might very well be that a person might say, “I’m not anti-Semitic, not at all, my best friends are Jews”—you know the story—“I just think this has to be said.” But it might be that if enough people are saying that, then a kind of linguistic climate is created in which people feel Jews are what they’ve always felt Jews to be: fair game.
Do you find yourself feeling obliged to defend Israel’s right to do all kinds of bad things that other nations do to survive?
Oh, non-stop. I write a column in the Independent, which has some journalists who are known throughout the world for their undisguised, and perfectly well-expressed and declared anti-Zionism and worse, and I have to bite my tongue off each week. Do I now become a person who writes about nothing but Israel? Is there or isn’t there something to complain about? Are we going mad by thinking that there is? Does it make sense to shut up? And sometimes, quite simply, can you afford to go on thinking about this? Can you wake up each morning, and go to the computer, and go to the websites, go to the hate sites and then go to the few sites in which the people are calmer and take a more rational approach to these things. When I was writing The Finkler Question, this is what was happening.
And we’re not just talking about those bloody settlements. I’d go out with my own bare hands and pull them down. I want to throttle [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu for not knowing that you’ve got a golden opportunity here: Stop the bloody settlements. It’s not that kind of thing, which is perfectly fair. It’s the other stuff, that goes from that to “Israel is an apartheid country,” which is rubbish, “Israel is a fascist country,” “Israel is a Nazi country,” to “Zionism has always been colonialist in ambition,” to a whole false re-evaluation of the history of Israel, as though what Israel at its very worst now and then is, is what Israel was always bound to be and always had to be. And that’s unforgivable.
I remember very vividly in 1967, the Six-Day War. I remember it vividly because I was at sea. I was coming back from Australia from my first job in Australia and the ships were disrupted and we had to go a long way around. I remember reading the newspapers on the boat—could we have gotten newspapers on the boat? Yes, as we landed—and my sense was that the whole world felt that Israel was about to be beaten and about to be destroyed, and everybody was on its side, poor little Israel. And the moment Israel won, you could almost start to see people’s expressions change. Israel winning became a problem. And Israel winning big became a bigger problem. Israel swaggering around—well, Israel swaggering around is a problem for all of us—Israel not in trouble, not under threat has been a problem for people, and you have to ask, Why is that?
It’s one thing to feel, “Those poor Jews, they’re about to be murdered,” and another thing to feel, “Those bastard Jews have just won.”
How do you see the relationship between Jewishness and Britishness? Is there a connection or affinity, or is it just an accident?
It’s an accident. There isn’t an affinity. Except of course there’s a puritan tradition in English literature, which I quite like, actually. My old teacher F.R. Leavis made bones about his really being in sympathy a sort of Puritan. That’s got its roots in the Old Testament. They read the Old Testament, studied the Old Testament, and a kind of biblical connection between the Jews and the English. But essentially, temperamentally, no. And that’s been my great challenge, really, to try and sell it. Can I sell it to the English? Here’s Jane Austen’s world, I’ll beef it up a bit with some Yiddish expressions, with some Yiddish obscenities, even. But the real way in which this has expressed itself is through comedy.