Howard Jacobson

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Howard Jacobson

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Out 28, 2006, 8:42am

Howard Jacobson's Kalooki Nights was published to good reviews this year. Did anyone else find it a bit of a slog or is it just that my sense of humour is not on the same wavelength?

I'll confess to only getting half way through Saul Bellow's Herzog too.

So, folks, which of Roth's or Bellow's novels should I go for in order to 'get into' these writers/

Out 28, 2006, 10:54am

i am currently reading Philip Roth's American Pastoral, i've always been a big Roth fan. As for Bellow's my favorite is Humboldt's Gift.

I saw the reviews in the Guardian for Kalooki Nights sorry to hear its a dissappointment.

Out 28, 2006, 1:22pm

#2:thanks for the suggestion: I'll get it from the library i.e American Pastoral

Out 28, 2006, 7:29pm

Any of Roth's recent books are a good first read - American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Human Stain, Sabbath's Theater.

If you struggled with Herzog, try Henderson the Rain King or Dangling Man. They are the least typical of Bellow's novels and may provide a way back to enjoying his standard works like Herzog & Humboldt's Gift.

Can't comment on Jacobson, he keeps getting good reviews and I keep meaning to read one of his novels but never quite get round to it.

Out 29, 2006, 4:18am

Thanks, jargoneer (#4). Have made a note of these. Appreciated.

Out 30, 2006, 5:00pm

Great suggestions all around. I'm still getting into Roth myself, but as far as Bellow is concerned, I would like to recommend Seize the Day as a good starting place: not only is it very short, but it contains many of the themes and characterizations that make Bellow so wonderful.

Also, from a different angle, The Adventures of Augie March is not at all short (it's his biggest book) but it makes for easy going, especially compared to Herzog, which is by far Bellow's densest work.

On another note, if anyone here is interested, I started a Bellow group a while back -- and not many people joined. It might still be salvageable, and a good companion to this group.

Nov 16, 2006, 11:27am

Anyone here interested in Naomi Ragen? Not that she's any competition for the big guys, but she does shed some light on what I think of as "Jewish issues." I was especially moved by her play Women's Minyan.
For that matter, what about the distaff side in general? Allegra Goodman, Pearl Abraham, to name but two. I see by the touchstones that they are not--well, let's say widely read.

Nov 16, 2006, 6:18pm

i have read Cynthia Ozick- she is quite good and I loved Nicole Krauss The History of Love.

Nov 16, 2006, 6:20pm

i think Cynthia Ozick is quite good and I loved reading The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

Nov 17, 2006, 3:58am

A good source for jewish writing -


Nov 17, 2006, 5:01pm

another excellent source is

Nov 26, 2006, 9:52am

In the Observer's review section today, Simon Schama was massively upbeat about Kalooki Nights - see #1 above. Oh well , must sharpen my critical faculties.

Editado: Mar 9, 2007, 8:29pm

I noticed that some of my favorite writers on Jewish themes were not in the "touchstones". My favorite is Ida Fink, a polish woman who masqueraded as a gentile with her sister and went into Germany to work and escaped the holocaust. her books are the jouney by Ida Fink, traces by Ida Fink and a scrap of time by Ida Fink. She lives in Israel, but writes in Polish. Has anyone read daniel mendelsohn's the lost, a search for 6 of the six million? He went to poland to find traces of the relatives his family lost in the holocaust. the jouney took him to israel and australia, also. He found out a great deal about his family, and located many relatives all over the world. One of those who stayed had a successful business in the town and didn't want to leave it. when he finally tried to leave, it was too late. I also love the adventures of Gluckel of Hameln which are the memoirs of a jewish woman in germany hundreds of years ago. Also, the israeli poets and novelists aren't mentioned and the yiddish poets are missing too. And what about peretz, mendele mocher sforim, der Nister, I.J.Singer, the Meyer Levin of the old bunch.what about clifford odets of awake and sing ?

Editado: Fev 5, 2010, 12:57am

i didn't realize the title of this group is jewish fiction and not Jewish literature. I was complaining that the poetry and the plays weren't included but i hope you don't mind my mentioning them. My vote for the starting points for Roth and Bellow are their own- goodbye, columbus and letting go, dangling man and augie march. Augie march is so dynamic, funny and fast moving, that i can't imagine minding that it is a fat book. There isn't a better fat book written by any american since Moby Dick. The sentences in Augie March are so idiosyncratic that i believe the word bellovian came from that book. it launched the great career that lasted until his recent death.

Mar 21, 2007, 4:38pm

anything having to do with Literature is fine with me.

I recently picked up In The Image by Dara Horn on BookMooch and it looks interesting, has anyone read this?

Abr 2, 2007, 8:27am

from Nextbook website:

Jane's Heir

Taking his comedic cues from the Victorian tradition, Howard Jacobson invokes an even older one to parse his pugnacity and masochistic itch.

Interview by Elizabeth Manus

Howard Jacobson's 1999 autobiographical novel The Mighty Walzer, about a teenage ping-pong whiz, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for best comic novel of the year. His seventh novel, The Making of Henry, hits U.S. bookstores as a paperback original this month. Where Oliver Walzer takes refuge from the world by throwing away his talent and burrowing into his clique of Jewish buddies, Henry Nagle's talent is simply sealing himself off from the world and trying to ignore the fact of death. Always "expecting a blow, not a windfall," Henry meets a waitress and finds it may be time to regroup. The Manchester-born Jacobson, who has also written four works of nonfiction and contributes a weekly column to the London Independent, talks about the art of the Jewish joke and why his peers in America have it easy.

Is there a relationship between Oliver Walzer and Henry Nagle?

Both are related to me. The kind of person I like to write about, he's a man, and has troubles with being a man. Hasn't found anything easy, wonders if his life would've been better if he'd been clever. He adores women, and is sometimes angry that he's spent too much time wanting women. Someone who has a voice—a voice is very important to me.

They're both Jewish. You've written about a Jew having a taste for "oversubtlety and quibbling." How do you know you're Jewish?

I'm not by any means conventionally Jewish. I don't go to shul. What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence. I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past. I don't know what kind of trouble this gets somebody into, a disputatious mind. What a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that's what shapes the Jewish sense of humor, that's what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness.

Can writing be Jewish?

This is not watertight, of course. You don't have to set a story in a shtetl. It's about the quality of the intelligence, in the errand the intelligence is on. I'm talking about the Jewish male writer and Jewish female writer. A strong, disputatious voice. You feel you're listening to ethical argumentativeness that reminds you of the Talmud—pedantic disputatiousness. Jews love the meaning of language. They're seeking clarity, seeking to make a law, make a distinction between a law—how does this thing differ from that thing. For a Jew, language is always at the service of intelligence.

You also have notions about how Jews use comedy.

It's partly to do with the seriousness of the Jewish imagination, which can turn a joke against itself. Jewish writers are sadistic toward their readers, not only Jewish readers. It's a masochistic strategy. The masochist accepts whatever criticism is made of him. He not only accepts it but gets there first. You tell a joke against yourself, you've achieved an intellectual moral superiority. We make more fun of ourselves than anybody else could. In the act of doing that, we appear to be on the back foot but we're winning. The masochist then becomes a sadist, so they say, having shown himself to be superior and quicker—the joke then turned against the person listening—I think that's how Jewish jokes work.

This is the only area in which you can say, "Only a Jew can do this." Not every Jew can tell a Jewish joke. You need tenacity, patience, cruelty, intelligence, timing. A Gentile could have any one of them.

And the Jewish novel?

When you think of the Jewish novel, you think of the patriarchal voice, the voice of demanding, the buttonholing voice. Jewish women haven't aspired to write this kind of novel—Doctorow, Delmore Schwartz. Racy, obscene. It is like a male club. Women don't like doing giant monologues. A woman struggles against the lawmaker who would bind her, restrain her, confine her.

Why does this make me think of Oliver cutting up photos of his Polish grandmother and pasting her head on another body. Does he fear women?

What I thought was how the women of his family had crept into his sexuality. He has an excessive love for them—whatever you say about lawmaking voice, you have to take into account his reverence, his crippled devotion to his mother and grandmother and aunties—cutting them up to include them in his adolescent sexual life.

Is this cutting anti-woman?

He's cutting them out of family life, so he can include a part of them in the ordinary porno life of a child. I don't think it's mutilation.

Do you keep an eye out for female Jewish writers?

An invidious question. I know and like Bernice Rubens and Linda Grant, both of whom write well, but I can't say I know what's going on.

What is it like to be Jewish writer in England?

You do feel you're fighting for your space. I feel in a hurry all the time, trying to get to the front of the queue. If I don't elbow my way, I won't get there. I feel that an American Jewish writer feels more leisure. I don't suffer as a Jewish writer. They read me, but I feel they don't always get it. They're bemused by the comedy and then they worry about it. And then if it's screamingly funny, they think it's not as serious as it should be. I think a Jew knows that very funny is very serious. It's part of my errand, something I feel I have to propagandize.

Do you consider yourself a comic writer?

As long as it means I'm a serious writer. Comedy is a very important part of what I do. I sometimes say I'm a Jewish Jane Austen.

Who are your literary heroes?

I love the comedy of Dickens and Thackeray and Austen. American Jewish writers are rooted in the European tradition—Dostoevsky, Kakfa, Babel. I like 19th-century English writers in whom one hears the 18th century. I am a great admirer of 18th-century prose. I like the sonorousness and sententiousness. I like the booming ethical seriousness, shot through with wit and satire. I wish it were possible today to write as well as Dickens and still be a popular writer. But it's over. Partly the fault of the serious writer, who sees himself occupying a different role, but also the fault of the general readership which no longer has an ear. I wonder why I don't have readers in America, maybe this is why.

You don't have readers in America?

It turns out that the specifics of my English Jewish voice can be problematic. In the Land of Oz—my fourth book, a travel book—nobody in America would publish it. They thought it was too ironical. I talk about a Jewish sense of humor, but if you add to it an English sense of humor, it's a bewildering mix.

Why wasn't The Mighty Walzer published here?

The response from American publishers was that the very thing that made it good—the evocation of Jewish boys in Manchester growing up in 1950s—made it too foreign. The feeling I got from American publishers is they felt interest in ethnic life had passed. Augie March had already covered it. I didn't touch a contemporary nerve.

Over here, we hadn't done that, written about Jewish life overtly, the actual day-to-day life in England, the feel and touch. We have not had that flowering that you've had with Bellow, Roth, Mailer, the Catch-22 man. We have Jewish writers but they're embarrassed about overtly Jewish themes, not wanting to appear conspicuously Jewish for fear it will make them look provincial.


Not possessed of the center of English culture. Jewishness is not at the heart of English culture. This is one of the things cultured Jews in England feel every time we write or make a play or music. But we're not disrespected or disregarded. American culture is already Jewish culture. It's yours, it's ours. American Jews have altered the complexion of the American language. So when a Jew writes in American, he's already writing something which is Jewish. Here, we're still making space for ourselves.

How does your childhood compare with Oliver Walzer's?

I was a shy boy, became a novelist because I was afraid of the world and wanted to remake it. I played table tennis, some bars and coffee bars, and Manchester was like the second city, second to London. But every single of one of us, none of us ever went back there. We went to London. At school we tried to get out of gym. Where we went to school we were the smart ones. We picked up girls, because I got over my shyness around 16, and then we went to discos. And because we were Jewish boys, we looked a little different. It gave us cachet. Then the Italians came.

Tell me about your father's business. It's like Oliver's father's.

He was a pitcher, like a mock auctioneer. He was up on high on the van. My job was to take things out into the crowd and collect money, and I was embarrassed by that. By the time I was 16 or 17, I was starting to enjoy it. We'd drive off to different towns and meet girls in Nottingham and Sheffield. Sometimes we had a big van, sometimes a small van. At 11 o'clock at night, I'd drive around and pick up girls—what a boy's life was meant to be.

When you toured the United States for Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews, did anything remind you of growing up in England?

L.A., around Pico Boulevard, reminded me a bit of Prestwich, the Jewish suburb of Manchester where I grew up: a similar parochialism invigorated by swagger. The Catskills, or what was left of them, I loved—nothing in my experience prepared me for those hotels. Partly size, partly the sentimentality—in the Catskills every Jewish man seemed to dote on his wife and offspring—and partly the confidence. Jewish life over here was, and still is, much more circumspect. We are still not sure whether the non-Jews are ready for us yet.

Are your characters ever accused of being woefully self-absorbed?

Yeah. I don't know about woeful. There need be no conflict between self-absorption and creativity. You can newly create the world even though you may be the center of it. The hero of the most self-absorbed novel ever written—Ulysses, one day inside one man's head—was Jewish. If you are going to stay inside a head, you're better it being a Jewish head you're staying inside. More moral to-ing and fro-ing there than anywhere.

In The Making of Henry, you write: "In America the Jews had taken on a version of the national identity, had made the American cause their own, had even shaped it."

I simply mean that because of the relative newness of America, Jews were able to feel they had a hand in the founding of the culture, the creation of the language and the sensibility. There are many ways in which America is Jewish. You cannot say that of England. Here, we hang on to the edges more. The thing we mean by Englishness, and to which we seek to make our contribution, long predates us. It tolerates us, yes, and makes a little room for us. But it is its own thing and sometimes, not least because we English Jews are few in number, intimidates us. English Jews make a huge contribution to the cultural life of this country, but rarely as Jews, rarely making overt reference to their Jewishness. Implicitly, we feel we shouldn't. And our highest achievement is to pass as English.

Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, Wired, and at

Abr 2, 2007, 2:48pm

>16 berthirsch::berthirsch:many thanks for posting this interview. I'm going to cut & paste it so that I can read it at leisure.

Editado: Ago 2, 2007, 10:58am

roth == goodbye columbus, ghost writer, american pastoral, everyman
bellow -- augie march, seize the day, ravelstein
malamud -- anything -- magic barrel, dubin's lives
ozick - puttermesser papers
scribblers on the roof

Dez 1, 2010, 11:10am

I was excited to find out that I was fortunate to get one of the early reviewer's copy of The Finkler Question. Has anyone out there read it yet?

i would be interested to hear some responses.

Dez 2, 2010, 9:46am

> 19

I have bought it to read on a cruise this month. I am the second biggest reader of Howard Jacobson on LT and I have always liked his work but I found The Making of Henry tedious and could not finish The act of Love. I will report back when I am finished.

Dez 26, 2010, 2:01pm

I like Naomi Ragen, especially the Covenant and The Ghost of Hannah Mendez. Also Dara Horne's All Other Nights.

Dez 27, 2010, 6:47pm

I really liked The Finkler Question. I thought it was a terrific, well-written satire and deserved its Booker Prize.

Fev 7, 2011, 6:31pm

just finished The Finkler Question and while I enjoyed it I was mildly dissappointed thinking that some of the characters could have been better developed.

despite this i think it is worthwhile reading and Jacobson refects the jewish experience in England. Now I know why they call him the English Philip Roth.

Editado: Jul 22, 2011, 6:07pm

For those starting on Roth, let me also suggest The Counterlife, a collection of novellas, still one of my absolute favorites--dazzling, comic and serious.
Contrary to much popular opinion, I found American Pastoral among Roth's less compelling--and less authentically Jewish--works. Maybe it is Roth for those who don't especially like Roth? Perhaps I am missing something, but The Swede never did much for me. Too assimilated for my taste? Any thoughts on why it is so popular and won so many awards? Or is that the reason?

Jul 25, 2011, 12:22pm

my take on why American Pastoral was so widely acclaimed is that it captured a unique historical time in USA. The 1960's changed everything and effected the assimilation one jewish generation had suceeded at.

In this book and certainly The Human Stain Roth proves that he is more than a jewish writer and in fact he is a literary observor of the American culture with all its problems-radicals, racial politics, etc.

Editado: Jul 26, 2011, 11:29pm

Thanks for the quick response.
My own view is that Philip Roth is one of the finest novelists of our time (at least from a male perspective--my wife and many other well-read women can't stand him), and I fully agree that he should not be narrowly "typed" as limited to "provincial" Jewish topics. Most of the key figures in American Pastoral are, in fact, Jews--but not very Jewish Jews, religiously, culturally, intellectually, or otherwise. Perhaps my difficulty in warming up to them, and my disappointment with the book more generally, is precisely what made this novel in particular appeal to a different audience, and positioned it for a variety of literary awards. I still consider it somewhere in the middle of Roth's oeuvre, not among his best.

Editado: Jul 29, 2011, 3:58pm

#24> Wow! That's the first time I've seen The Counterlife referred to as a collection of novellas. I really don't think that's what it is. I think it's a metafictional novel that plays with time and narrative to a great degree. I'm using the term "metafictional" to put it on the same shelf with writers like John Barth, for whom the writing process becomes part of the actual story. So in The Counterlife, Roth starts the characters off in one direction and then suddenly comes at you with, "Well, how about if we switch this up and say this happened instead of that. So while the book jumps around a lot, in terms of time and place and even happenstance, I really think it's meant to all work together in concert. You wouldn't, for example, find any of the chapters anthologized separately. They're meant to stand together rather than alone.

So my own firm belief is that The Counterlife is quite definitely a novel that tells a fractured story about Nathan Zuckerman at a particular time in that character's life.

But as importantly, the book also puts you in a very revealing way inside the mind of the novelist Nathan Zuckerman as he tries to figure out the best way to tell the story. So the dips and twists and changes represent the novelist as he's writing trying out different narrative strategies and different ways of treating the characters.

This is not to disagree with your assessment of the book as
wonderful. It's at the top of my own list of Roth's works. He's always been a literary hero of mine, and in fact I did a very close study of his works during my graduate school days in the late 80s. But I'm not sure I'd recommend The Counterlife as a first Roth novel. It presupposes, I think, a working knowledge of the protagonist Nathan Zuckerman's background, as provided in The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson.

My own recommendations for where to start with Roth are Portnoy's Complaint, The Ghost Writer, and The Human Stain. Although my own assessment of American Pastoral is much higher than yours, I would agree that The Human Stain is a bit better.

My personal favorites of Roth's novels are Portnoy, The Ghost Writer, The Human Stain, The Counterlife and Sabbath's Theater, but I don't recommend the latter two as initial Roth reads for people whose tastes I don't know well.

And by the way, baseball fans will love Roth's The Great American Novel.

Jul 29, 2011, 4:03pm

It might be interesting to contrast the male libido evident in Portnoy with Roth's short novel on the aging body, Everyman.

Shop Talk is a nice collection of interviews with mostly Eastern European authors.

For Ozick, I'd like to mention The Messiah of Stockholm as a fine novel.

Ago 2, 2011, 8:36pm

I just ran a book club discussion of Finkler today at an area synagogue and the participants, with a single exception, *hated* it. It was bruising! Hostility all around. I ended the meeting early because after a while no one had anything else to say!

Ago 3, 2011, 5:10pm

>29 bostonbibliophile: did anyone in the group acknowledge the satire that dripped throughout the book. Above all Jacobsen is a humorist.

also i believe it was meant to provoke the jewish reader in particular- to question themes of assimilation, the political landscape in Israel, the gentile's envy of jewishness.

I'd be interested to hear more what they hated about it. what were their specific comments?

Ago 4, 2011, 3:33pm

One person acknowledged the satire. Everyone else felt that it denigrated Judaism and Jews; they hated what they saw as the anti-Israeli stuff, they hated that Finkler was so anti-Jewish then became more Jewish later (said kaddish after Libor's death, oops spoiler alert). Julian made no impression whatsoever. A clergy member who attended said that the book wasn't "written from a place of love" and other members echoed what they felt to be mean spiritedness on Jacobson's part. They couldn't think of it as a satire because it wasn't "funny" to them. By the end of the meeting I wasn't even comfortable to discuss my feelings about the book. "Pffft" seems to be most common sentiment expressed. I tried asking some questions to draw them out but it was really incredibly challenging. They said it only won the Booker because England was such a small country they couldn't find anything else that year (ha!!!).

Ago 4, 2011, 7:40pm

>31 bostonbibliophile:- thanks Boston. sounds like a painful experience. i do think that in the current Jewish environment a "political correctness" has developed and anyone, jew or gentile, who questions Israel's politics is seen as a self-hating jew or non supporter.

thankfully there are several Israeli literary giants who speak to the Peace Now movement: David Grossman, Amos Oz.

maybe you should let others suggest books for awhile.

i look forward to hearing more about your book discussion group.

Editado: Ago 4, 2011, 9:01pm

The book wasn't my idea- I was just the "guest moderator." I used to work at the temple and the regular librarian asked me to fill in because she was on vacation and I had read the book. Not my fault! :-) And anyway, it's not the librarian's fault when a book doesn't work out, and doesn't mean she should let someone else do it. It happens!