Howard Jacobson for the JC published July 4 2019
By his own admission, Howard Jacobson is not “a planning” sort of writer. Things take him by surprise, he says. Just the same, the Booker prize-winning author has been thoroughly swept off his feet by the female protagonist of his latest novel, Live a Little.
Beryl Dusinbery, a cackling 90-something, emerged “fully-formed” on Jacobson’s desk, high up in the eyrie of his Soho loft. “She truly sprang like this. And the minute she did, I thought, I can hear this person, I can see this person. That’s never happened to me before. I didn’t have to excavate for her, I didn’t have to work at her… I knew what she was going to say. I thought, I’ll give her her head, she’ll be very rude about everything, and funny, particularly about men”.
Beryl is indeed rude and funny. Her brain is haemorrhaging memory but she keeps her hand in by equal opportunity abuse of her two carers, whom she calls — and we will never know their real names — Euphoria and Nastya, one from Africa and one from eastern Europe.
And Beryl’s opposite number, the one to whom she exhorts “Live a little”, is the buttoned-up, somewhat preposterously named, Shimi Carmelli, a man who, also in his 90s, can do up his own fly buttons, walk without a walking frame or stick, and speak without spitting. Obviously — and Jacobson has great fun with this — Shimi is the darling and adored focus of a slew of north London widows, each desperate to have one more throw of the romantic dice.
Unlike Beryl, however, Shimi remembers everything. Shimi, indeed, might almost be another name for “shame”, for throughout his long life, Shimi believes he has done many shameful things.
“If I remember rightly”, says Jacobson, “I began by writing about Shimi. But he was younger and more me. I was doing something about what it was like to be a geezer my age. And then I thought, no, this is naff, every novelist when he turns 65 (Jacobson is 76) wants to do the old age novel, the incontinence…I thought, no, it’s funny, but the jokes come too easily.
“And then I thought, what would happen if I made him older? Because I happen to know quite a few people in their 90s and beyond and I am always struck by how impressive they can be”. In fact Jacobson’s own mother is 96, while his mother-in-law is 106 and one of his good friends is the journalist Donald Zec, who turned a scarcely believable 100 in March this year.
The age idea appealed to Jacobson. He decided to make Shimi “unashamedly not young, someone who has lived a long and interesting life and isn’t there by virtue of his relations to anybody else”.
Mainly, says Jacobson, he writes about the past. And he acknowledges that he is “obsessive” about memory. When he introduces characters, “I have to know who their parents are, where they came from. As a person, I am an obsessive rememberer. I can’t leave the past alone. And I was sitting at my desk and I thought: ‘Yes! A man who can’t forget and a woman who can’t remember’. That’s so simple, so neat”.
Originally Jacobson had planned “a history of men, told by a sarcastic woman. Just thinking about how hopeless men are: how hopeless I’ve been as a man, how useless most of the men I know are… and then I thought, her, Beryl, and Shimi.” Both his characters have a lot to say but “I didn’t want anything to happen, I’m not very interested in action. There’s lots of story in my books but no plot, no bang, no revolver, no mystery, there’s very rarely any secrets. What I saw was these two people meeting and talking.”
As for Shimi, “the story of a man who can’t get over his shame and embarrassment, I’ve been writing a version of that all my life. I’ve always argued that if you don’t know shame you won’t be a writer. Shame is what writing is born out of. When I was young and wanted to write — the spur was always humiliation. Every time I thought I can’t bear what I’ve just said or what someone’s said to me, I wrote it.”
In this way, Jacobson says, he achieved mastery over shame. “It’s the Jewish thing, isn’t it? We make the best jokes about ourselves. We beat anyone who wants to attack us. You think you don’t like Jews? I’ll show you what not liking Jews looks like. So I have my own system for dealing with that stuff, which is very good for writing”.
He insists that Live a Little is not a Jewish book although Shimi, his anti-hero, is described as “half a Jew-boy” and Jacobson believes that the unsuccessful — though hilarious — pursuit of Shimi by the North London Massive of Jewish Widows fails precisely because, to Shimi, they are way too familiar. Only with Beryl can he form a connection because they are so different.
Jacobson is properly indignant at suggestions of misogyny in his earlier work and says it simply isn’t true. So I ask whether he found it difficult to write in a woman’s voice. But he says he knew immediately how Beryl would respond and what she would say. Perhaps, I suggest, Shimi and Beryl are past the age of gender stereotypes and Jacobson laughs. “That might be why I felt so comfortable writing about them. Indeed, I’ve gone around telling people that I don’t intend writing about anybody young ever again”.
He’s not altogether joking. “I was never a young man. I didn’t like being young or young people. When I was a young man, out on the town, chasing women — the women I was attracted to were older women. I revered what comes with age, experience. I hated being callow, naive, not knowing.”
Somewhat improbably Shimi does card tricks with which to astonish and perplex the widows and we fall to talking about Jacobson’s parents, elements of whom appear, subtly, in the book.
“I can’t stop writing about my father as an entertainer”, says Jacobson but he denies that he has drawn on him to create Shimi — “because my father was incapable of shame. He wasn’t embarrassed. Things would go wrong and he didn’t care. I would have died but he wasn’t bothered.”
Friends would come round to the house and Jacobson’s father, a magician as well as a market trader, was instantly “on”, doing magic tricks — and the friends loved it. Not Jacobson. “I spent the first 25 years of my life cringing and the following years thinking about cringing. Wincing and cringing, that was me. I’m much more like my mother than my father. My mother was reserved; my father was not”.
He believes that children are their parents’ battleground and that he himself sits at the confluence of two kinds of Jewishness. His father’s family was from the Ukraine, “the kind of Jews where rabbis did somersaults in the street. They were wild, charismatic Jews. My mother’s lot were from Lithuania, the kind of mitnagdim who said no. And who they mainly said no to was my father, the cartwheeling, performing Jew.”
Not that his father actually cartwheeled but, he says, family weddings when he grew up were noisy, consuming affairs in which his father would happily have wrestled with a bear if one were available, whereas his mother’s family sat and… watched.
Jacobson reckons he took after his mother while a little part of him thought it might be quite fun to join the dancing, entertaining side of things. Perhaps, I say, Shimi and Beryl represent his parents, too — Shimi reserved like Jacobson’s mother, Beryl full of devilry like his father. The idea seems to appeal.
Jacobson draws my attention to the fantastic jacket of the book, an embroidered sampler with the words Live a Little picked out in blood- red thread inside a border of hearts and skulls. The thread, followed to the back of the book, leads to a ring-bedecked woman’s hand, complete with scarlet nails, needle poised, This is the work of Jacobson’s sister-in-law, Janet Haigh, one of Europe’s foremost embroiderers. She asked about the book and he told her that his anti-heroine, Beryl, was a mouthy, sardonic woman who did embroidery. “She said, ‘It’s me!’ and she came up with this cover”.
So stunning is the image that the original is framed and on display in Jacobson’s home; and foreign publishers, who normally use their own artwork, are using the Haigh design, too.
Given that this novel is about great age I wonder if Jacobson is keen to achieve it himself. Only, he says, under the following conditions: “I want my wife, I want my physical health, I want my sight, I want my wits. Anything else…!” and Jacobson throws his hands up, shrugs, and laughs.
Howard Jacobson will be in conversation with JC literary editor Gerald Jacobs at Alyth Gardens Synagogue London NW11 on July 9 at 8pm. Live a Little is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99)