Conversation: Howard Jacobson, Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize

BY Jeffrey Brown  October 14, 2010 at 2:35 PM EDT

Howard Jacobson at the 2010 Man Booker Prize dinner at Guildhall on October 12, 2010 in London, England. Photo by Dave M. Benett/ Getty ImagesHoward Jacobson is a writer and journalist whose novel, “The Finkler Question”, was named winner of the Man Booker Prize in London on Tuesday. Jacobson had previously been considered for the prize in 2002 and 2006.

“The Finkler Question”, a novel about three close friends experiencing grief, has been noted by many for its vibrant sense of humor and its depiction of Jewish life in Britain.

I spoke to him today by phone in London:

 
 
[A full transcript is after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: Now this was considered a bit of a surprise, I gather. Was it a surprise for you?

HOWARD JACOBSON: It was a surprise for me. I mean, it’s a bit strange talking about it as a surprise really, since, you know, there were six of us on the shortlist, and there was no reason to suppose once you’ve made it all the way to the shortlist that you are not in with a chance. But I had decided I was in with a very slim chance, and was fairly convinced actually that it wasn’t going to happen given, given…given all sorts of things. Given the nature of the books that I write, which are not books which normally win prizes, because I’m funny and I’m controversial, and I’m— you know, you sometimes you think of yourself as a prize winner or not. So yes. A long answer to a short question — it was a surprise.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I want to talk to you about the books you write and why you might not usually think of that as a prize— in the prize category. I mean I’ve seen the Finkler Question described as a “comic novel about anti-Semitism.” Now is that an acceptable description to you?

HOWARD JACOBSON: Well, it only gets a very small part of what the book is about, but it is a comic novel in that it makes you laugh. Sometimes. It’s also been described as a tragic novel about anti-Semitism, in that it makes you cry sometimes. But it’s not only about anti-Semitism. It’s about three friends, actually, and the way they cope with loss. Two of them are Jewish, one of them is not Jewish. The one who isn’t Jewish wants to be Jewish — thinks it would be lovely — and the two who are Jewish— Well, at least one of them is sick of being Jewish, and another one feels that being Jewish such a long time, and in such pain for all sorts of reasons, that he feels he is at the end of his tether. And as these three friends meet and discuss their lives together, then various issues are discussed, anti Semitism being part of, but by no means the center of, the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is it — but as you start — so is it, for you, the starting point a tale of three friends? Is it thematic in the sense of exploring Jewish identity or anti-Semitism? Or is it really about a friendship and three characters?

HOWARD JACOBSON: It’s about— the story is about a friendship, but the friendship has a Jewish element in that two of the men are Jewish, one of them that isn’t, and that the Jewishness is an element that runs throughout the novel. There is no question of that. It isn’t really so much a novel about Jewish identity. I have written novels about Jewish identity. This really is more about how you tell true feeling from false feelings. Who are the people who feel things honestly and deeply, and who are the people who pretend to have feelings. So for example, there is a group in the novel who I called the “ashamed Jews,” and these Jews meet— and it’s satire — these are Jews who meet in a sophisticated art club in the middle of London every couple of weeks to discuss how ashamed they are of being Jews because of Israel. And they come in for comedy and they come in for satire in the novel, because I see them as representing false sentiment. They are — nothing to do with what they believe, it’s nothing to do this isn’t a novel about belief, actually — but that they are ostentatious in their belief. They wear their beliefs on their sleeves. They are self-righteous and sanctimonious. And I am very interested in this novel about the amount of self-righteousness. There is in the air at the moment about the subject of Israel and Jews in their relation to Israel and non-Jews and their relation to Israel. That is one of the subjects, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the use of humor and comedy in the novel— I just got to read the essay that you wrote recently in the Guardian decrying this notion that comedy somehow makes a novel not a piece of serious literature. Tell me…tell me what your concern is.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Well, I mean, people argue about this, and many people since I wrote the letter have said, “Hang on, lots of comic books have won prizes.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah.

HOWARD JACOBSON: And of course they have, and in England we do have a strong comic tradition. But it comes and it goes, and I think it’s been abeyance in recent years, partly because of what we call political correctness. If you’re living in a time when you have to be careful what you say about Jews, you have to be careful what you say about Catholics, Protestants, black men, white men, women, homosexuals, non-homo— If we’ve got to be careful all the time, then that makes it very difficult for comedy, and it starts to make the novel — which began its life as a scabrous, vulgar affair, you know, in Rabelais and Cervantes — if we are all being careful of one another’s feelings and what you can say all the time that really can be the death of comedy, because comedy has to be fearless. Comedy has to go where nothing else can go. And it has worried me a bit that the novel — literature all together — has been subject to those sorts of political scriptures.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think it’s happened? I mean, the line that jumped out at me in the Guardian essay: you said, “we have created a false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness, between the exhilaration that the great novels offer when they are at their funniest and whatever else it is that we now think we want from literature.” So that last part: what do we think we want— what happened? I mean, what is it that we think we want from literature?

HOWARD JACOBSON: I think we’ve been going through a period when we are frightened of laughing and that we laugh— We all laugh at comedians, because we know where we are with comedians. Comedians are licensed and they can say outrageous things, so we laugh a lot at comedians. And when it comes to literature, we’re not sure whether we should laugh when we come to a work of literature. We’ve made a work of literature sort of holy thing. In a kind of way for many people, with the end of religion for many people, literature has become religion and we approach it almost as we approach a divinity. It becomes a pious, sacrosanct thing. We are frightened to upset it. Prose should have small, gentle sentences. Delicate— literature has become a delicate flower of the thing. This is a generalization, of course, and you can think of many exceptions to it. But I think this has been a dominant mode. And we’ve forgotten, you know, the traditions of Fielding and Dickens, going all the way back to much earlier than that. We’ve become too tender, partly because we are frightened of offending anybody’s sensibilities. We’ve become an offense culture. We’ve become a— certainly in England — I hesitate to talk about America, don’t know enough. But in England, we’ve become a culture that’s frightened of giving offense, frightened of causing offense. And comedy gives offense. That’s the fact of it. Comedy divides people, it affronts people, it disarranges our normal attitude and that’s why I love it, because I think it’s terribly important that we have this in literature. It’s terribly important that we don’t you know all think the same thing. If we have a comedy now, we have a political comedy now, it will be a political comedy now that will make fun of Tony Blair or George Bush, because we all know where we are on that, don’t we? Whereas what I think is a really good comedy, a really surprising comedy would be a comedy that made fun of the people that made fun of George Bush and Tony Blair. Not because one has to heroize them, but because you have to be questioning the pieties all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you mentioned Dickens, Fielding. I mean these are your influences when you— in literature

HOWARD JACOBSON: My influences are very, very, very much English. I am very much an English lit man, and I am, you know— and Dickens for me is one of my great heroes. This confuses people in this country, because I am also called a Jewish writer and I have other heroes, who are Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth and Joseph Heller, and some of the younger writers too, Jonathan Safran Foer, people like that. And I’m very interested in, you know, Jewish literature in America altogether. And I’ve kind of mixed those categories together, I mix those influences together. So I’m a very rare — I can say this about myself — I’m a very rare bird really. I am someone working absolutely in the Jane Austen-Dickens tradition and— But at the same time, introducing into that tradition all sorts of Jewishisms, which would be much more familiar to readers in America, but are strange to the ear of the English public. And that’s why it is so wonderful really, that they’ve been recognized in this way by the Man Booker Prize.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s great. Well just to come back to that before I let you go. I can’t help but I— I was just reading a story about it. Is it true that your mother said that the book might not win the prize because “it might be a bit too Jewish”? Is that true?

HOWARD JACOBSON: Bit too Jewish, yes. Bit too Jewish. She was also being a good mother and not wanting me to build up my expectations, of course. She wants to save me from disappointment. But she did call me just a few days before and she said, “I’ve just read it, just read it, darling, and it might just be a bit too Jewish.” So there you are.

JEFFREY BROWN: So I hope she’s a happy Jewish mother now.

HOWARD JACOBSON: She’s a very, very happy Jewish mother now. Yes, she is ecstatic. Something like this has never happened to our family. Our family is modest, poor, quiet. We don’t come from a family of, you know, professional intellectuals or anything. I was the first member of my family to go to university. To become a writer was astonishing to my family. But for me to have won this, my family is in seventh heaven.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright. It’s very nice to talk to you.

HOWARD JACOBSON: And to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Howard Jacobson is the author of “The Finkler Question,” winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction. Thanks a lot and congratulations.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Thank you again, thanks for talking to me. All the very best. Bye-bye.

Editor’s Note: You can find our conversation with last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, here.