12/08/2014 13:19 BST | Updated 11/10/2014 06:59 BST

Howard Jacobson Interview: The Brave New Word of 'J'

The novel, set in a dystopia of the future, is a love story between loner artists, Ailinn and Kevern, and is a dark turn for a writer who has made his name by making others laugh. But behind every joke has not the impetus for its telling been borne of something more desperate and tragic?

The view from his loft takes in all the ash grey roofs of London looking east from the midpoint of Soho and, on the horizon's rim, Howard Jacobson perhaps can see the future galloping towards him, his saturnine countenance searching the distant alleys for the questions for which he has already learned the answers.

"After 9/11, I'd look out over there and think I was going to see it go up," he says. "I was full of an apocalyptic sense. When I looked and saw that very view with the sun at dusk, it looked like blood on the inside of the window."

This sense of impending cataclysm has not left him, as his latest novel J attests. The novel, set in a dystopia of the future, is a love story between loner artists, Ailinn and Kevern, and is a dark turn for a writer who has made his name by making others laugh. But behind every joke has not the impetus for its telling been borne of something more desperate and tragic?

"One of the reasons I began writing in the first place was because of an excessive, morbid fear of death and obscurity," he tells me. "Obscurity became a metaphor for death, so by putting something into the world, by writing, then it was to be there when I was gone. So, I've done that, but God knows whether anyone will read a word after I'm gone. So now, at least, I can't say to myself that I am an invisible man."

And we have laughed with him in books like The Mighty Walzer, Kalooki Nights and The Finkler Question, but HJ is now asking us to put aside what Jorge in Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose called 'the drunkard's license': our laughter. "By writing comedy, I felt I was cheating the reader from feeling certain things, while cheating myself from writing about things that were more touching or upsetting. So it was time to challenge myself."

The writing of an Orwellian tract like J is, arguably, the apotheosis of Jacobson's talent: "You could say I've been writing dystopias for a while. Zoo Time [2012] was a dystopia. But, in truth, novels about the future are novels about now."

The now is a moment of escalating warfare, its attendant horrors heaped upon gross subterfuge that drowns in the blood of the unwitting; J, therefore, is a prescient creation. "I've always said that things are really terrible," he whispers over his coffee cup, the light shifting upon the terrace. "We need voices who feel we're in a permanent state of decline, but with J I needed to go somewhere I hadn't gone before. I felt the challenge was to stop the jokes, to break an intensity of the voice. It has taken me years to be confident enough to try another thing.

"With J, at a deep base level, there is still some comedy, but that masculinist voice that had driven so many of my novels I suddenly did not want to occupy. I wasn't reneging on it, I just didn't want to do it."

Over the course of two and a half years, he allowed the novel to take shape. "I kept thinking it was about one thing, but then it would change and be about another. There are murders in it. And a detective," he laughs, "and I thought, yes, I know what I'm doing, this is a parody of the thriller or the dystopian book. Then I'd catch myself and say, No it isn't. And I'd just let the book go where it was going again."

As a venerable man of letters and the champion of the music of language, Jacobson's work ethic is legendary but, at 72, a change had to come. "I didn't want to be sitting at that desk so intensely. I physically couldn't do it. I'd take a walk from it. Then come back and re-dab it, a bit like visiting a canvas. I wouldn't let the old writing habits back in. I only control the authorial voice, not the characters or events. But this time I had no control over any of it, and it was lovely."

Does he feel psychically lighter having written it? "I do, even though it's a book with tragic conclusions. It was an upsetting book to write some of the time, and there's more tragedy than in my other books, yet it feels lighter. 

"For a lot of readers these days, a book is something you have to agree or disagree with. But you can't agree with a novel. For my generation it was assumed that a book is a dramatic thing, that the eye of the book is not telling you what to think. 

"The novel is a thing of irony and ambiguity. That's at the heart of J, a world that has stopped arguing with itself. We have to keep our equilibrium of hate, which is argument. But on the internet you find a unanimity of response, and in J there's a fear of that, that discourse becomes a statement of political or ideological belief. But isn't that the enemy of art?"

In his role as a defender of the English language, does he possess real power through his writing? "No, I just write stories. I don't think I have any authority. I'm not sure enough, I don't know enough. But occasionally, when I write articles, I feel I have some influence if I think a thing through. Or get rid of some anger."

With the Hogarth Press having recently commissioned Jacobson to retell The Merchant Of Venice, he's once again a busy man. "I'm enjoying it but I'll need a big break after this. I feel less combative now because, really, you are the person you are with. You are changed by the people you are closest to, and this has allowed me to forgive myself for the person I once was."

He says the fretful years are over, and that at his age he needs a bit of quiet, despite being an entirely urban man at home in the heart of the modern capital: "There is no death on the internet, and that's only just occurring to me. That's quite exciting. So, as long as articles can be found and refound, does immortality lie in being retweeted?" 

The eyes twinkle then, suddenly, imbued with the sadness of the silverback, they once more rake the eastern horizon and impute that, were we to listen to wisdom when it is uttered, then might we at last, as a species, save ourselves from a Hadean destiny which, as our newspapers proclaim, lies close at hand.

J by Howard Jacobson is published by Random House

Photograph by Keke Keukelaar