Howard Jacobson admits that he has been practising his acceptance speech for the Man Booker prize since he published his first novel, in 1983. Now 68, he suspected his time would never come. But this year he surprised many by taking the prize for "The Finkler Question”, a funny-sad novel about three old men in north London. So he can finally shake off the distinction of being an under-rated author.
He has since been experiencing the inevitable post-win whirlwind; one that few authors are prepared for. Jacobson was due to deliver the annual speech for “26”, an association that champions the written and spoken word, at the British Library on October 21st. But in order to preserve his voice after relentless interviews, instead of a lecture we were treated to a lively and often laugh-out-loud funny conversation between Jacobson and Martin Clarkson, chairman of 26. More Intelligent Life recalls five moments of insight from Jacobson on his life as a novelist and his thoughts on the art of writing.
“We are all thin-skinned, otherwise we would not be writers…we don’t know where we are, so we re-shape the world with words. If we weren’t thin-skinned we would be footballers or hockey players.”
“I don’t think of myself as a comic novelist. I write comic novels. It is important to me to be funny because I was a shy boy. But I like to find comedy where it should be, within the tragedy of everyday life. My humour doesn’t tickle you, it hurts you - it’s not like being pinned to the ground and being tickled, it’s like being pinned to the ground and stabbed in the heart.”
On being Jewish:
“Before I started writing, I knew I was Jewish but I wasn’t really that interested in it. At the time I was teaching English literature in Wolverhampton, and my life had ended. Then I thought I’m the only Jew in Wolverhampton—or I felt like it—and I realised, that’s the funny part, the preposterous comedy note. So I started writing ‘Coming From Behind’ [Jacobson’s semi-autobiographical first novel].”
“I do write about sex, but I never write to arouse, I’m not a titillating writer. Jewish people are puritanical. Sometimes I write graphically but I always write intellectually [about sex].”
“Oh bloody plot! It is a story; there is no plot. Who cares who did it? For me, character is plot. I never know who my characters are before they are in the novel, I never plan a novel. As a writer your touch must be light, if you have a light touch then something makes them appear, they go and say things before you know it, they fall in love before your eyes and it is the most wonderful thing.”
Picture credit: © Jenny Jacobson