Howard Jacobson hates himself for not being a worse man than he is. The once-proclaimed 'English Philip Roth', Booker Prize winner and literary dirty dog - his new novel Zoo Time, revels in its shoe fetishes and lusty ménage a trois fantasies - he still feels he hasn't sunk to the depths he looked excitedly into as a boy. He berates himself, a masochist who couldn't get the hang of sadism. He yearns to write in the spirit of a boisterous, obnoxious Rabelais, pissing all over the upturned faces of his readers. But he still feels inclined to pass round the Kleenex afterwards.
"I always wanted to be more of a bad boy," he says, on the phone from his London home, his voice a blend of amusement and reproach which somehow conjures up a picture of Clement Freud with his back to you. "I had a very extrovert father, he worked on the markets and he was like an auctioneer, he had a lot of personality, everybody liked him and women were attracted to him. He'd tell me, put a suit on, go to the party, have a good time. But I was miserable and shy. He would have preferred me to be bad. I would have too. It's the same with my writing. Novels are places where we should be offensive, lewd, funny, filthy. But perhaps because of that English reserve, not wanting to be noticed.. I've been too much of a good boy."
This may strike some as an odd reproach, coming from a writer who has frequently - often admiringly - been described as 'blasphemous', 'tasteless' and 'pugnacious'. On the other hand, he's also the man who once wrote of boldly requesting The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom at the British Library, signing a form in which he fraudulently promised not to publicly divulge its contents, then enduring weeks freezing with terror every time the doorbell rang in case it was the police coming to arrest him for revealing details of de Sade's dirty derring-do in a novel (1984's Peeping Tom). He can summon up Roth's chutzpah when he's geronimo'ing into an adventure, but his initial drunken brio seems to falter as soon as there's a pause in the swashbuckling. At least that's how he tells it. It's possible that he's found his literary turmoil, and he's sticking with it.
Jacobson grew up in '50s Manchester in what was not, surprisingly, considering his reputation as a novelist who can't suck on a pretzel without composing an ode to self-hating Jewish snacks, a very Jewy Jewish family. "We weren't religious, we didn't do the fringes or the skull caps,' he says cheerfully. "Moseley and the Blackshirts were active then. My dad used to go to Moseley's demonstrations and try to punch him. He did punch him once - it was very exciting, it was on the news. But generally, we didn't make too much noise about being Jewish. That's just how we were brought up."
His young life was defined by his twin loves, table tennis and girls. One he was getting a lot of, the other he wasn't getting any. Although he concedes that he was a funny kid who could make people laugh from around the age of ten, he paints himself as a generally unlovable teenager, sweaty, simpering, wretched, hanging around libraries with his tongue hanging out -'like a devil burning red'.
He nurtured multiple unrequited crushes on girls who, with a nudge of imagination, might fit his notions of ideal womanhood, inspired by those "prostitutes with tuberculosis" he'd seen in his beloved Puccini operas. "Opera made me upset and emotional and lonely all at once," he says, and it's clear he nurses a hint of romantic empathy with his melancholic young self which rescues the memory from being one of a total loser.
"It took me ages to see that I could write about my past and that might be because when I was actually living through it I was so ashamed of it all," he says." Shame was a word I used a lot. The shame of my childhood, growing up in Manchester, the Jewishness .. It went on for years before I realised I could tap into it. The Mighty Waltzer is about a boy who plays table tennis and is looking for a girlfriend; I don't write autobiographies but that's the nearest I've come."
He had early dreams of being a writer but "I wasn't driven or focussed, otherwise I'd actually have written. I had a fantasy that one day I'd be a novelist because I thought like a novelist and lived like a novelist." Instead of getting down to it he read alot - Dickens, the Brontes, Hardy, DH Lawrence (he enjoys berating himself for his 'too prim' reading choices), did some teaching and a bit of travelling. "I remember being on a boat from Australia going home again when I was 25 thinking, that's it, my life is over," he says with understandable exasperation in his voice.
Rather than the divine sense of 'not being free to not write' novelists usually talk about, it was nagging which finally forced Jacobson to work. He was into his thirties, lecturing at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, and his father kept asking him where his book was. He started to panic. He didn't feel he was ready to write a timeless classic yet, but time was clearly of the essence.
"I always thought the book would be profound, it would be Anna Karenina, or The Brothers Karamazov," he says. "But I thought, you can't do it, you're not good enough, you can't do the serious long descriptions of nature. Right, you're going to have to be a satirist. It's not what you hoped you'd be but it's something. So I was funny and angry and sardonic."
Thus, with Jacobson's first book, the academia-based romp Coming from Behind, began his career as a 'comic' novelist. Of course, it wasn't all bawdy comedy. There were equal flares of lust and rage - at the book world, the BBC, Israel, and most notably anti-Semitism, taken on with a battering heart in what is arguably his finest achievement, 2006's fiery, hot-blooded Kalooki Nights. His latest work, Zoo Time, is funny, but still bristles with anger at what he perceives as the dumb-down decline of the novel, and a British literary scene which undervalues comic novels like his.
"A lot of people who write about books have no sense of humour whatsoever," he says with an audible harrumph. "They don't like a joke, they don't get it. Occasionally they'll let one through but they don't trust you. Generally in this country novels are supposed to be sacred, quiet, reverential. We have a particular problem with humour in Britain. It worked better in America because of the huge migrant culture, it found a place in relation to the culture. The Irish, the Italians, the Jews contributed much to that, noisy and vociferous. We just don't have that, our culture won't allow it. The doors are closed, there's a hush inside. I think it's impoverishing.
"The truth is, comedians are often more in the tradition of great novelists than some contemporary novelists. Billy Connolly at his best was like a story teller, moving in and out of comedy - true comedy, the kind that made you scream with laughter. But he was also tinged with sadness; he had someone who was shy inside him."
Jacobson's Booker Prize win for The Finkler Question in 2010 was regarded as a victory for the comic novel, but he himself feels the kind of gleefully disrespectful taboo-testing leap of imagination books he wants to write are a threatened species in the current tippy-toed cultural environment.
"Literature isn't a direct expression of society - it's not a blueprint for how to behave, it's supposed to take you places you don't usually go. But now you have to be so careful of everyone's feelings, you mustn't offend women or Jews or anybody. You're supposed to mind your gender manners and your racial manners . You can't do it. A lot of critics do this - they disapprove of the period, or they disapprove of the heroine because they aren't nice people they'd like to be married to."
Despite his vexations however, the 70 year old Jacobson confesses he is a man at relative peace with himself. On his third marriage, he believes that 'age is something to look forward to', and that he's 'nicer, more tolerant' than he once was. Ironically, it could be that Booker Prize, awarded by the establishment pricks he kicks against, which has given him his new stillness. He doesn't wave it away, but is surprisingly and touchingly honest about how much it turned out to mean to him.
"My self-doubt had stayed with me all my life but winning a big prize meant other people thought I was good," he says almost dreamily. "I could stop worrying about all the extraneous stuff now and just write."
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