Interviewed by Sue Leonard
Howard Jacobson is in ebullient mood. He’s extolling the merits of Dublin’s Brooke’s Hotel, saying it’s a far cry from the dump he was put up in on his last visit to Dublin, in 2005.
“I vowed, then, I’d never come back to Ireland,” he says, laughing.
Jacobson isn’t averse to changing his mind. He’s denounced the Man Booker Prize over the years, both for the ‘light’ quality of some of the winning books, and for the lack of literary prowess of some of the judging panels. But he admits with élan that his win this year, at 68, after decades of waiting, has, quite simply, changed his life. And he couldn’t be more pleased.
“It changes everything,” he says. “It changes your name and it changes your previous books. It’s like a vindication really. I was getting very sick of being described as an underrated writer. I was perfectly well known but there was this question mark.
“The Finkler Question,’ will probably end up selling more copies worldwide than all my other books put together. It’s sold to 23 countries so far. It’s sold to China. And to Israel, who, until now, have considered my books too Jewish.”
Jacobson is often compared to Philip Roth – and his literary comic-tragedies do have echoes of the American master, but once, in a fit of pique, Jacobson said he thought of himself more as a Jewish Jane Austen.
“I was bored with the comparison,” he says now. “I consider Roth the greatest living writer, but I’ve studied and taught English Literature all over the world. I’m a Dickens man; a George Eliot and Johnson man.
“A clever American once said, ‘what you are actually is Philip Roth and Jane Austen’s love child.” He smiles fondly. “I quite like that.”
Although fascinated with the Jewish faith in all its connotations, Jacobson wasn’t brought up as an orthodox Jew.
“Far from it. I didn’t know what faith was, and for a long time, I wasn’t interested in it. At Cambridge I would entertain gentile friends with Yiddish isms, but I got on with the business of being English and teaching literature.”
He didn’t mean his first novel to explore the Jewish faith, either. But writing a comic novel, he realised making his hero Jewish could emphasise his feeling of being on the outside of things. It helped the joke.
He’s written about it extensively ever since. Yet he feels as much of an outsider in the faith now, as he did when he was at Cambridge.
In ‘The Finkler Question,’ Julian Treslove, an ex BBC man, who has a chequered history with women, examines his friendship with his old school friend, the Jewish philosopher Sam Finkler, and their one time teacher, Libor. Watching his two friends cope with the death of their wives, Treslove turns from having a suspicion of Jewishness, to an envy of his friends religion. He starts to enmesh himself in the traditions, acquiring a Jewish girlfriend along the way.
“I can’t remember how that idea came about, but it is, I think, what makes the book work. It has made the Jewish stuff much more accessible to non-Jewish readers. It’s an easy road in.”
It’s an astonishing book; mesmerising, inestimably sad, yet laugh out loud funny. How did Jacobson get the idea for the book?
“I’m worried about getting old,” he says. “A lot of my friends have died. I’m worried about how I would cope with a really close loss, and with my own, when the death sentence comes. It could be tomorrow and I’m extremely scared. I have a fear of lying in the earth and a fear of burning. And I’ve no faith to help me out.
“I wanted to explore that, but I didn’t know how. Then two things happened. I was walking home from having dinner with friends when I saw a shadow in a doorway. It was a woman and I thought she was going to attack me. I wondered how I would protect myself – would I have the strength to? I decided to play with that.
“At the same time I was introduced to a man of 90 who had just lost his wife. He spoke with immense feeling about a woman he had loved for sixty years and made it sound such a desolating experience that you find yourself asking the questions that Julian Treslove asked Libor. Is it better never to have loved so much and have such a loss, or is it wonderful to have had that great love?
“He told me he’d had a piano teacher in so he could learn his wife’s favourite pieces. He then filled the house with her music. I stole that story, with permission, from him.”
Jacobson raises serious issues. He wrote the book when there was a backlash about the atrocities in Gaza. Jews in London were worried that this political issue would lead to Jew hating.
“There was an atmosphere of paranoia at the time. Jews were worried.”
The real strength of the book for me, though, was the enlightening way he describes the friendship between the men.
“I like to say the unsay able about men.” he says with a chuckle. “And their unreliability towards one another, their envy of one another, and the dirty tricks they play on each other. What’s your definition of a friend?” he quips. “It’s someone who sleeps with your wife. And what is a good friend? Someone who sleeps with her twice and buys her flowers.”
Jacobson is now married for the third and final time. He met Penny when she produced a programme for him at the BBC. His wives, he says, were all loyal and loving.
“They were better wives to me than I was husbands to them. But I did buy Penny a Mulberry handbag when The Finkler Question got onto the shortlist,” he muses.
The Booker was never an ambition.
“My aim was to write good novels that people read. I always wrote good novels. I now have readers and people like the books so that is fine.”
So he’s happy?
He nods. “But don’t say it! I’m like Treslove. I think if I go out walking I’ll bump into those pillars. I’ll slip on the ice, tumble into the traffic, and that will be the end of me. I have that fear, and I have it more when something good happens to me. Because God is spiteful, and will pay you back with one hand what he has given you with another. So, yes I feel life is very good, but I mustn’t say so.”
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson is published by Bloomsbury at €17.67.