Friday, 24 September 2010

Howard Jacobson at the Guardian Book Club

As part of the Manchester creative writing MA, we’re occasionally posted off en masse to literary events, which are a little bit like gigs held by  really awkward people who can’t afford backing bands. The first, happily falling on the first day, was Howard Jacobson talking about Kalooki Nights as part of the Guardian Book Club.

I’ve read The Mighty Walzer fairly recently, and mostly fell for its melancholy, often hilarious coming of age tales, its story and sub-stories of family, friendship and community. Kalooki Nights is similar in many ways, but with the characterisation inverted. Its protagonist, Max Glickman, is a disgruntled, cynical cartoonist, entranced and repelled, and certainly obsessed, by being Jewish, with the grand horror of the Holocaust never far from his thoughts. Where Oliver in The Mighty Walzer hid inside himself, Max lashes out, whether in self-deprecating cartoons or out loud, in vicious arguments with his string of anti-Semitic wives.

Although also a meandering story of maturation, uneasy friendship, troubled families and Mancunian Jewishness, Kalooki Nights feels very different to The Mighty Walzer. This is due less to their differences of activity (ping pong in Walzer, the monstrous crime of an old friend in Kalooki) than to the characterisation – both narrators have their own styles of humour and storytelling, despite superficial similiarities.

Overall I prefer The Mighty Walzer, because I’m more attracted to its withdrawn, put-upon narrator obsessed with the idea of making something of himself. Also, in Kalooki Nights I was sometimes frustrated by Max’s insistence on understanding all of Jewishness and Jewish life as a single entity – his own obsession with his race, culture and religion often lead to him speaking about it in absolute terms, as one unified mass of humanity. It’s essential to the novel, and it’s part of the point of Max’s character, but sheer enjoyment of first-person narratives often rests on how likeable (or monstrous, I suppose, but that isn’t a relevant approach here) the speakers are, and I think that’s a big part of my preference for young master Walzer.

Anyway, the event.

In person, Jacobson is just as entertaining as his books, revelling in his expansive hand gestures and in exchanging playfully barbed comments with his interviewer (the calm, dry John Mullan, a sort of literary John Peel). What I found myself admiring most was his willingness to talk about the underlying ideas of his novels. They read as stories of real people’s lives, full of incident, accident and humour, but they’re also novels with depth of meaning – novels that engage with debates. In Kalooki Nights that debate is over the power, significance and appropriateness of comedy. Jacobson argues, convincingly and sometimes uproariously, that humour is an essential part of literature that’s too often overlooked. He says that comedy is essential to the darkest, most serious subjects, and points at the Holocaust jokes in Kalooki Nights as a way of reclaiming loathing – to take in and invert evil, and so to render it harmless.

He also viewed this as an area where bravery was required: we must bring ourselves to laugh at things, or at least be willing to laugh at them, so that we can deal with them. There’s only so far you can get by being relentlessly grim, gritty and grumpy. Fair point, I think, and one that’s also visible in writers like Michael Chabon, who’s someone I keep returning to these days.

One topic that was interesting from a creative writing perspective was his engagement (or rather, argument) with plot. Jacobson’s books wander through their protagonists’ lives in pursuit of anecdote and character. They don’t relentlessly pursue challenge and achievement – they don’t follow clues, evade peril, or follow tragic or comic narrative structures. They just happen. He describes this as the pursuit of story, not plot. He enjoys telling stories, but is profoundly uninterested in getting stuck into mechanical, insistent plotting.

I certainly don’t agree with this wholeheartedly, since I reckon there are many fascinating things that can be done with plots, but it’s an important point when you consider taht Jacobson’s books work. They aren’t barbed and hooked with tricks and twists that assume the reader is a hyperactive nine-year-old who’ll get bored unless something explodes on every other page. They saunter on by, and yet are engrossing and entertaining. While plot-heavy approaches have their fans and their advantages, Jacobson shows that they aren’t necessary: there’s no fundamental need for every book to be built like an airport thriller.

But back to the event. There were some great lines, and some intriguing insights – I recommend popping round to have a listen to Jacobson if you get the chance. The one that sticks in my head is his old claim that he isn’t the British Philip Roth – he’s the Jewish Jane Austen. Writing that down makes it sound arrogant, but he made it sound mischievous. Like the grandeur of Oliver’s father in The Mighty Walzer, Jacobson isn’t one to do himself down – his humour is big – as expansive as his hand gestures – and he isn’t afraid to get stuck in.

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