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Conversation: Howard Jacobson

British novelist Howard Jacobson was the winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for “The Finkler Question.” (I spoke to him about that award here.) Jacobson’s touring now with a novel called “The Might Walzer,” which is being published for the first time in the United States.

He dropped by our studio last week to talk about both works, ping-pong, comedy and the differences between British and American literature:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown, and joining me today is Howard Jacobson, British novelist and the winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for “The Finkler Question.” He’s touring now around these parts with a novel called “The Might Walzer,” which is being published for the first time in the U.S. Welcome to you.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Lovely to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s talk first a little bit about “The Mighty Walzer,” a novel of a young man and ping-pong.

HOWARD JACOBSON: A coming of age novel of a young man dreaming of conquering the world as a ping-pong player and making untold wealth and the adoration of beautiful women.

JEFFREY BROWN: Through ping-pong. Not a great, white whale and not the Napoleonic wars but ping-pong. And why ping-pong?

HOWARD JACOBSON: Ping-pong. Well, I played it and I played it with great seriousness, and I dreamed of untold wealth and the adoration of beautiful women, none of which transpired, but then I wasn’t as good a ping-pong player as my hero is. And I just thought it would be — I should have written about it much earlier than I did, actually, because it’s a perfect subject for a kind of mock heroic novel. It’s ridiculous and yet if you give ping-pong it’s kind of weight, if you treat it as a heroic thing, it can become quite touching. It’s a wonderful game to describe and talk about, and no one else has done it. This has often been described as the greatest ping-pong novel ever written. And I bet you can’t challenge that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hmm, I can’t think of any. What did ping-pong teach you about writing? No?

HOWARD JACOBSON: No, it may have. There is a connection.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m trying to see how much this grandeur, how far you want to take this idea of the heroic journey in ping-pong as a young man and then you write about it as an older man.

HOWARD JACOBSON: My heroic journey in ping-pong and almost anybody’s heroic journey in ping-pong ends nowhere. It ends in obscurity. Obscurity is a very good subject for a writer. Failure is a very good subject for a writer. You don’t want to write about success is not good for a writer— no one really wants to read a novel about somebody for whom it’s all gone right. The stories that we love are the stories that people for whom it’s all gone wrong and may go right, but mainly gone wrong. And ping-pong is all about something going wrong. It’s about having a grand idea that can never be, can’t be realized, it’s a dream that cannot ever be realized.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was thinking about it terms of how you write or how you think of yourself as a writer, because you did this essay in the Wall Street Journal the other day where you said the biggest sin in novel writing, especially in the writing of novels that excavate the self is grandiosity. I don’t want to push the ping-pong metaphor too far, but making that into a grand quest but not taking it too seriously.

HOWARD JACOBSON: And I think that’s essential when you are a writer, too. You can smell it right away if the writer is too grand about himself. Somewhere you must remember you’re writing not for the whole world, you are writing on your own, it’s a small activity, which might swell, might swell in the minds of the people who read you, but essentially it’s you locked away in a little room and no one cares and that’s just like table-tennis. It’s you locked away in a little room, no one’s watching, no one cares, you are on your hands and knees scrabbling for the little plastic ball most of the time. It’s keeps things in perspective. And it sharpens the edge of your sense of the ridiculous.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of the ridiculous and the comic, when you won the Man Booker there was a lot of focus on the idea of a comic novel, not the kind that usually wins prizes, I guess, but I gather for you from reading interviews and talking to at the time, this was a kind of a long-running discussion for you, right? About the role of comedy in so-called serious literature and how you feel like we’ve lost touch with that.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes. I’ve always argued that comedy, always believed that the novel is essentially a comic medium, by which I don’t mean a light medium, by which I don’t mean something trivial. I mean something very serious, the medium in which we show disdain for religion, for our leaders, for belief systems. The novel was the place where everything was up for grabs. Where you know, mistrust —

JEFFREY BROWN: You could poke fun at anything.

HOWARD JACOBSON: At anything, and nothing was sacred. And that was how the novel began, with writers like Cervantes, the author of “Don Quixote,” and Rabalais, they were wild —

JEFFREY BROWN: They were real romps.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, and then the novel was narrowed, become more religious and sacred, and I think that’s a pity. So when I was sometimes attacked as a writer of comedy and people were going, Oh comedy jokes; the novel should be more solemn than this, my argument was always, No, you are wrong. The novel is about making you laugh. Not about nothing. Not about lightness. My argument for comedy has always been that is not about reducing the thing. Comedy actually can make a thing feel very big. You can take a person on a comic journey into the heart of darkness, you can take people on a comic journey where they would not otherwise go. Comedy and seriousness are friends; they’re not enemies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think it narrowed, though? What happened to narrow the scope in tone and also of the scope, I guess.

HOWARD JACOBSON: That’s a tough question, but I think one of the things that happened was that literature started to become a place for the religious. As religion started to lose its hold, I think you can trace this in the 19th century, the novel became the place where people preached. Some of the great 19th century novels like “Middlemarch” by George Elliot — wonderful, wonderful, wonderful things — but the novelist is preaching to people, and people are going to the novel for what they would previously go to church for. And novels instead of being places that destroyed everything, the novel started to become the opposite. And I think it just lost its wild, destructive edge.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, I mean, I presume through time it must have ebbed and flowed. Do you see now any signs of life?

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, I do actually. I see novels being advertised at the moment, and I think, It sounds as though they’re all funny, and I think, Could I have done that? That’s not possible. It’s not possible that in six months I could have changed the landscape, but, you know, the Man Booker Prize is such a big thing that it does affect what people will write next. It might very well be that some writers who have kind of held a rein on their sense of the ridiculous feel that they can let it go now. It might be that literature will begin to allow comedy back in.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you won the prize, we talked on the phone for Art Beat. I went back and looked at that, and you said, I am a very rare bird really. I am someone working absolutely in the Jane Austin-Dickens tradition, but at the same time introducing into that tradition all sorts of Jewish-isms, which would be much more familiar to readers in America but are strange to the English public.

HOWARD JACOBSON: That’s right. They don’t know what they’ve got in England. They really have been bemused by me. As I am bemused by myself, because I thought I was, you know, I’m a conventional Eng-lit man. You know, I read Jane Austin. That’s my tradition. And then I came along and I thought I would write in that tradition. And I can’t. I couldn’t. And I found, you know, Yiddish-isms creeping in. I found kind of the poetry of Jewish speech creeping in. I found that Jewish subjects were things to my surprise that I wanted to write about. So I surprised myself as much as I surprised the English.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’ve had to find a way to negotiate that.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes, and it’s taken quite a long time. With this prize, of course, they’ve now got it. This kind of mix is familiar to you. You have in Philip Roth, you had in Saul Bellow highly literate, skilled users of language, who also had very distinct Jewish voices. You cope with that here; you get it. In England, that was verboten. We didn’t have that. English culture was much more sealed to outside voices than in American culture, which is so welcoming to a disparity of voices, which is why people have said for a long time the American novel is alive in the way that the English novel is not alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, just to end, to come back to where we started, with this novel, “The Mighty Walzer,” does have those echoes. People talk about Roth, you mentioned Roth, Bellow, an American, I guess, coming of the age, a Jewish young man.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Yes and I think anybody — I mean, this is a novel of my middle period, if you like. By that time I had started to read the Americans, and I feel that this novel is a bit, you know, you can hear the voices of those American writers. This novel will not surprise American readers. They will know where they are in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, well, this novel is “The Mighty Walzer,” and the last novel, the prize-winning novel is “The Finkler Question.” Howard Jacobson, nice to talk to you.

HOWARD JACOBSON: Lovely to talk to you. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And once again, I’m Jeffrey Brown for Art Beat. Thanks for joining us.