Howard Jacobson began writing novels late in life. As he tells it, the life was nothing much to write about. He was born in Manchester in 1942. His family was Jewish with a modest upward mobility track leading from Salford to Whitefield via Prestwich. The Jacobsons evidently made it to Prestwich. The young Howard went to grammar school and read English at Cambridge. His subsequent academic career started at Selwyn College, diverted to Sydney University and ended, fifteen years on, at Wolverhampton Polytechnic: a downward mobility which Jacobson seems to have seen as a fit destiny for such as him. Feeling critically middle-aged, he wrote and published at the age of 41 his first novel, Coming from behind (1983). The book caught on slowly but had a notable word-of-mouth popularity, particularly in paperback (where it now sells in its fourth edition). Since then, Jacobson’s career has been expertly promoted by his agents and various publishers. His second novel, Peeping Tom (1984), was well received – both here and in America, which is a notoriously hard market for the English comic novelist to crack. (Changing Places and Stanley’s Women, two of the funniest novels ever written, were initially turned down by a series of US publishers.) And with Redback, his third offering, Jacobson can almost carry off his publisher’s assertion that he is ‘the most devastatingly funny novelist writing in English today’.
‘Devastatingly’, one apprehends, is ad-man code for ‘filthily’. Coming from behind opens with a scene which encapsulates the grimy essence of Jacobsonian comedy. The hero, Sefton Goldberg (Manchester born, Jewish, Cambridge-educated, critically middle-aged etc), lecturer at Wrottesley Poly in the West Midlands, is discovered begowned (it being graduation day) screwing a begowned finalist on his office floor. It is not a joyous coupling. Sefton’s mind is not on the job, but on his office door which he fears may be unlocked. His mind slips back to an earlier occasion when he was teaching at the University of Woolloomoolloo in New South Wales. There, in mid-act with another student, Helen Burns (namesake of the saintly pupil in Jane Eyre – Jacobson loves a literary in-joke), Sefton had the college postman blithely open the door and insert a letter between his buttocks. His most embarrassing moment, as the late Wilfred Pickles might have said. And the letter? ‘A bill from Heffers for the latest book they had sent him – F.R. Leavis’s Nor shall my sword.’ The story, as it continues, traces Sefton’s rise to the top of the greasy pole of academic life, represented by the Disraeli Fellowship at Holy Christ Hall, Cambridge. He succeeds. But throughout, Sefton comes from behind, not like the victorious dark horse, but like the furtively libidinous dog, taking his pleasures in dark and dirty places.
Peeping Tom is set in Cornwall, a place Jacobson has oddly chosen to live in over the last few years and where, it would seem, he conducts a relentless feud with the National Trust and all it represents. The plot of Peeping Tom is more intricate than that of Coming from behind, and as the title indicates centres on sexual voyeurism. It also has running jokes about ‘Tom’ Hardy so deep that it will help the non-specialist to have Millgate’s life and letters to hand. Again the hero, Barney Fugelman, is Jewish, and being Jewish (a favourite Jacobson modifier) knows nothing about beer, sport, the English class system, the Wessex countryside, wildflowers, rucksacks, walking boots, or Ordnance Survey maps. The novel opens with Barney morosely stalking the Cornish cliff paths clad ‘in my long sleek-piled fur coat (resembling ocelot and bought on an Austin Reed charge account) and my Bally slip-on snakeskin shoes decorated rather tastefully I’ve always thought, with a delicate gold chain and having the added advantage of slightly built-up heels’. He is, as who knows better than he, a blot on the landscape, an alien, a monstrous excrescence, Jacobsonian man.
Redback is a novel of Australia and it will be some way into the narrative before most English readers get the full Antipodean force of the enigmatic title. But to begin with, it’s enough to register the suggestions of painful sunburn, humiliation and pom gaucherie. The peculiarly nasty nature of Anglo-Australian relations (as conceived by Jacobson) is outlined in a symbolic prelude to the action. In 1958 an unnamed Oxford undergraduate meets a wholesome young Australian girl with powerful mandibles and an MA in fine art – ‘let’s give her an ordinary Australian name, say ... Desley.’ Desley and the undergraduate initially hit it off. But in his rooms later that evening after a heavy supper of pasta and fish, the chemistry goes wrong and the sexual act misfires. He wakes in the morning ‘relieved to discover that the girl has gone; but an odd feeling, an unaccustomed tingling of the skin, a sensation of discomfort and unease around the heart, causes him, still on his back, to cast an eye over his person, whereupon he finds that she has left a little memento of herself – a Freudian gift, hard, compact, warm, in its own way perfectly formed, a faecal offering smelling of fish and pasta (of tagliatelle marinara) – nestling among the soft hairs of his chest, only inches from his gaping mouth.’
The befouled young Oxonian, we discover on page 262, is actually the hero, Leon Forelock (of Cambridge). Why the deception? Forelock rounds on the reader with a bitter question by way of reply: ‘Would you have been able to show the proper intellectual regard for the spiritual history of a man, who, on the very first page of his confessions, confessed that he’d been shat on by an Australian?’ For less specifically xenophobic victims, the national origin of the turd would, one imagines, be irrelevant. Too cruel from anywhere, as Banquo would say. But such details matter to the demented hero of Redback.
Redback is not, the reader will immediately appreciate, a novel for those with an easily tickled gag reflex. Like swimming, it should for safety’s sake be undertaken at least two hours after eating. To his credit, Jacobson makes this clear from the first page. The nauseating tone of the work established, it continues in the form of an envenomed monologue, following the random progress of the hapless Leon. The Forelocks hail from ‘Partington’, the wettest spot in Europe: ‘since records had been compiled, some rain had fallen somewhere in Partington. The only time it hadn’t rained was when it snowed’. Leon goes to Malapert College, Cambridge and wins a double starred first in moral decencies (hackneyed Leavisite jokes are almost as dear to Jacobson as Manchester jokes). As the only non-homosexual attending the university he is recruited by the CIA (in the person of Father Dinmont Manifest) for covert service in Australia. There it is his mission to dam the creeping tide of ‘Tristanism’, cultural sophistication that is sapping the country’s robust philistinism. It’s also an opportunity to crap on Aussies, which Leon enthusiastically does by setting up front organisations such as CACA – ‘Campaign for A Cleaner Australia’. Through CACA Leon contrives to have banned: ‘Ulysses (Tennyson’s poem as well as Joyce’s novel), The Rape of the Lock (Pope’s), Venus and Adonis (anyone’s), Leviathan (it sounded like Decameron) and Self-Help by Samuel Smiles’. He also devises a literary test for immigrants comprising the opening lines of Piers Plowman. ‘You’d be surprised,’ he observes, ‘how many Indo-Chinese don’t know the average May mornynge temperature of the British Isles or where the Maluerne hulles are.’
The climax of Leon’s Australian ordeal comes in a second encounter with his fatal woman Desley on the Bogong High Plains, where she is building a feminist ski lodge. Desley is now a national celebrity, having publicly stripped naked during a class on Remedial Relationship Enhancement Studies for non-Australian-speaking migrants from mountainous areas of Southern Europe. But again the chemistry goes wrong. Having fortified himself with three bottles of Shiraz, Leon bursts, Mellors-like, into the lodge and announces: ‘I have come back to fuck you, Desley.’ She is nothing loath, but tells him first to use the non-sexist locution, ‘fuck with you’. Leon finds he has an inbuilt cultural incapacity to make the necessary verbal adjustment, so she tells him to ‘fuck off, then’. Lest she again leave her calling card on his chest, Leon stumbles out of the lodge into a storm. He takes refuge in a wooden dunny where, patiently, the redback’s mandibles await him. The redback, we at last learn, is a poisonous spider, sister species to the better-known black widow. She (the sex signifies – only the females are venomous) bites Leon’s exposed and unrequited member. The symbolism is later explicated by Jacobson’s ubiquitous Lawrentian, Gunnar McMurphy: ‘You chose to sit where you sat. A bite is a transaction between two parties – a biter and a biteree.’ The physical consequences of Leon’s self-willed encounter with the redback are three weeks’ massive priapism. The spiritual effect is longer-lasting. Lying in the sting ward of Wangaratta hospital, his testicles swollen to the size of melons, he now has the balls to tell a visiting princess of the blood royal exactly what satyriasis syndrome is (‘having a hard-on as long as a polo stick’). It is, for Leon, a momentous disinhibition: ‘I had been rude to someone who was pretty and I had been rude to someone who was rich.’ The end of the novel finds the hero possessed of a dangerous Conradian freedom, ‘a poisoned Partingtonian, a flesh-and-blood Molotov cocktail’. Every year, on the anniversary of his bite, the uncontrollable erection returns like stigmata and he becomes a raving anarchist, throwing off the constraints of his habitual serfdom.
‘Funny’ is the term repeatedly applied to Jacobson’s fiction. Redback is as funny as its predecessors but less evenly so. For most of its considerable length, the narrative shapes (or resists shape) as a fantasia moving episodically and fitfully across vast areas of time and space. Some of the episodes work better than others. Professor Orel Rosenfeldt’s seminars on the Tragic Condition at Noonthorungee University are moderately amusing, as is Leon’s evening at the Ultima Thule Pub (tiled for easy hosing down from floor to ceiling). Somewhat more surreal is Leon’s three-way live-in situation with a couple of synchronised swimmers, Venie Redfern and Maroochi Ravesh, whose pubic areas it is his happy duty to keep shaven for public appearance. Most amusing, in my judgment, is the hero’s epic struggle with an iguana which invades his quarters and merely flicks its tail at attempts to expel it with an aerosol fly spray. This leads to one of the wry ruminations on the oddness of things at which Jacobson excels:
It was the movement of the tail that caused me to lose my nerve altogether and to throw the can at him. The tail has always seemed to me the most frightening part of any animal. Partly because of its apparent capacity for independent action and partly, I presume, because I haven’t got one myself. Call it a form of penis envy if you wish. Though I suspect that women would have even more vexed relations with the penis than they already deny they do if men carried it behind them and could thump the floor with it.
Jacobson cites Tony Hancock (together with Arthur Askey and James Thurber) as his principal literary influence, and one detects the glum eloquence of Anthony Aloysius in passages like the above. It’s probably not coincidental that it was Australia which brought the other comedian to his final suicidal extremity. In between falling off stages dead drunk (soon to be drunk dead) Hancock was, apparently, never funnier than walking among the beautiful tanned nakedness of Bondi beach, jaundiced, scowling and bundled up against the sun in his great woolly cardigan. And doubtless in his last days he too philosophised on the queerness of the continent’s unique reptile life.
Some parts of Redback work less well than others. Jacobson has, for instance, a marked tendency to overload his one-liners, as in: ‘We weren’t middle-class or even lower-middle-class, but we weren’t riff-raff either. I’d say we were upper-lower-working with aspirations to lower-upper-lower-middling-white-collar.’ There are, by my count, too many characters in Redback with not-very-funny funny names, such as: George, Bernard and Shaun Cooney, Ruddles Carmody, Lobelia Sneddon, Norelle Turpie, Vance Kelpie, Montserrat Tomlinson, Bev Belladonna, Hartley Quibell. In fact, for ease of reading (and who wants a hard-to-read comic novel?) there are altogether too many characters popping in and out of the narrative. Even Sefton Goldberg is drafted for a fleeting appearance, wearing the leather tie he’s reputed to sleep in. Given the abundance of laughs offered by the novel, one shouldn’t perhaps complain at the odd lapse. But it may be that his present output represents too fast a rate of production for Jacobson.
Despite his ritual disclaimers on the matter, it’s impossible to disconnect Jacobson from his heroes. Charles Griffin, who illustrates the paperback covers of the novels for Black Swan, offers caricatures of Goldberg and Fugelman which actually look more like the author than do his accompanying publicity photographs. With this in mind, it is worth speculating how Jacobson the novelist will cope with the critical acclaim, large advances and wide readership that he now commands. Coming from behind was a novel written from the pits of failure (about which Sefton is preparing the definitive monograph) and boundlessly corrosive envy:
He envied television announcers, disc jockeys, sprinters and politicians. He envied Mick Jagger and Herbert Von Karajan and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stockhausen and the panel of Any Questions. He envied Bruce Forsyth, Henry Cooper, Chairman Hua, and even Virginia Wade for winning Wimbledon. He didn’t have a clue who Barry Sheene was, but he envied him.
Now, Sefton would have to add to the list of enviables ‘the most devastatingly funny novelist writing in English today’. Like Stephen Pile, Jacobson finds himself in the odd situation of having made a whopping success out of the anatomisation of abject failure. There are any number of reasons for wanting to read his next book, but just how he will wriggle out of the embarrassments of having made it is one of the more intriguing.