In Howard Jacobson’s 1998 novel No More Mr Nice Guy, a newspaper columnist, Frank, is approached on the street by a female reader wanting his autograph. She is flustered by her own boldness, and to his mind she has good reason to be: he thinks that asking a strange man for a signature shows no less temerity than asking him for sex. But what really adds spice to the encounter is the fact that the woman’s husband is loitering a little way off. Frank wonders why the fellow doesn’t slink away entirely, but then he understands: ‘A man has to be unusually lacking in masochistic curiosity not to want to grab a glimpse of a stranger fucking his wife in the middle of Oxford in broad daylight.’ When the husband produces a camera, Frank starts to feel as though he’s being exploited by a couple of perverts.
This episode could be a thumbnail sketch of Jacobson’s tenth novel, The Act of Love, in which we see the lecherous triangle from the perspective of the willing cuckold. Felix Quinn’s life is devoted to masochistic curiosity. ‘Contrary to what the great man said, all happy families are not alike,’ he tells us (as a narrator he is prone to self-justification and literary allusion): happiness for the Quinns means Felix manoeuvring his wife, Marisa, into the vicinity of a hunky man and then fading expectantly into the background. He turns up late to their dance lessons, hoping to find her tangoing ‘like a mare in heat’ with a stallion of an instructor, or he invites a distant relation to stay, but makes sure he has work to catch up on in the evening while she entertains the handsome youth. Whatever Marisa may think of this, Felix sees himself and his wife as sexual adventurers. His obsession is ‘eroticised fidelity’, while she, reciprocally, is a married libertine: ‘She followed her fancy, drank hard, declined motherhood with fervour, doted on no man, and wasn’t averse to being looked over in the street. Only in actuality was she kept as more feminine, less ambitious women had been kept for centuries.’ Actuality is a minimal distraction, thanks to the Quinns’ acutely civilised circumstances. They exist in the rarefied space of the classical adultery-novel, never more than a few hundred yards from ‘everything the soul and body of man requires: art galleries, concert halls, good restaurants, suppliers of wine and cheese, infirmaries, bordellos’. He is an antiquarian bookseller in Marylebone; she prices art books for Oxfam and volunteers as a guide at the Wallace Collection, which leaves her plenty of time to disappear on more mysterious errands while he stays at home in a jealous swoon.
Only sexual betrayal will do for Felix. Is this because of his father’s philandering, or because the first time he took a girl to the cinema she left with someone else, or perhaps because, when Marisa fell ill on their honeymoon, a Cuban doctor placed his hands on her breasts and smiled at him with long brown teeth? Another explanation is that he has read too many novels. ‘I draw no distinction between literature and life,’ he says. ‘That I too would be spurned, left to pine away like the heroes and heroines of my reading, I never doubted.’ This style of reading naturally leads to confusion, but Felix knows what he is doing: his jealousy is a writerly condition as well as a readerly one. He polishes its phrasing (‘The precise locution was important to me. She didn’t have a lover, she had taken a lover’) and coaches us in close reading, as when he imagines Marisa’s first kiss with another man, instructing us to ‘hear the deranging sibilants in it: first kiss’. Conniving in your own cuckoldry makes you exquisitely receptive, a martyred artist: ‘You are alert or you are nothing when you choose submission to your wife’s caprice as your vocation. You are Henry James’s novelist on whom nothing dare be lost.’
Felix is not actually writing a novel, but evidently the novel we are reading is the one he isn’t writing, since his sex life, and Marisa’s, are ‘a salacious fiction I wrote in imitation of all the salacious fiction I’d ever read (and what fiction isn’t salacious?)’. He is that dangerous creature, an artist manqué. ‘A great endeavour lures me on,’ he says, eager to frame himself as a Nabokovian pervert, and the endeavour begins in earnest when he unearths Marius, who is just the right sort of tall, dour, satanic, moustachioed, classically educated, nihilistic rake he needs to complete the adulterous triangle of his fantasies. Although Felix is less concerned with the reality of Marius than with the pornographic possibilities he represents – his ‘archetypal role in that book-fed theatre of riot and melodrama that was my sexual imagination’ – he soon conceives the dizzying notion that Marius and Marisa might be induced not just to betray him physically, but actually to fall in love. He scents an artistic triumph.
Felix’s account of their affair and of his own delighted torment is the only version of events to which we have access. In one sense Jacobson evades the typical double bind of first-person narration, in which verisimilitude of voice is achieved at the expense of the author’s own style, because Felix is the sort of narrator who is even keener than his author to work on his prose. On the other hand, we could say Jacobson has imposed a highly polished, hyper-articulate style on himself by making his narrator an over-educated aesthete with a neoclassical bent. Felix loads the chapters with epigraphs from Bataille, Sacher-Masoch, Great Expectations, Montaigne, Joseph Roth, The Winter’s Tale and so on: the impression is of a glove-like fit between the narrator’s linguistic and allusive range and the author’s. Felix is not so much an unreliable narrator as a sinisterly ubiquitous one, smoothly present at all times, managing each facet of his fiction until we find ourselves suspicious of almost everything he says. When Marius and Marisa first meet, passing in the fromagerie and exchanging ‘just a flicker of acknowledgment between them, such as high-bred cats exchange when they pass on the common street’, it’s unclear whether Felix is supposed to be witnessing this as a character or whether he’s present only as a narratorial ghost. He insists that ‘as an expert on them both, I saw what they saw,’ but is quite prepared to tell us things he couldn’t know, for instance that ‘they didn’t notice what they ate.’ ‘I lived inside her head, that’s how I knew,’ he says, asserting a husband’s special knowledge of his wife, but sounding as though he might be inventing her entirely.
We soon have to wonder whether his account of things has much relation at all to an outside world. Inside his bubble of intrigue, everything is suspiciously elegant, and readily interpretable in terms of this or that canonical novel. Everyone talks too well. He claims that Marius’s language, ‘as I now imagine it’, is ‘somewhere between Gatsby’s and Schopenhauer’s’. One doubts whether anyone has language like that outside Felix’s imagination, but when the girl in the cheese shop asks Marius ‘will there be anything else?’ he replies: ‘Will there be anything else? I certainly hope there will, but when there will, or what there will, I’m damned if I have an earthly. Time being unredeemable, what else there will be, no less than what might have been, is an abstraction remaining a perpetual possibility only in a world of speculation, as the poet he say.’ This is a long way from ordinary speech, and not so far from, say, Gormenghast. Maybe Felix is making it up, or maybe Marius really is that odd, but either way it starts to seem as if the novel is taking place in an esoteric, rather fantastical world.
Certainly Felix has no time for the 21st century. The wretchedness of contemporary culture hovers at the edges of his notice, where it is occasionally deplored for its effect on the male sense of self: he regrets the ‘castrating times we live in’, and says he won’t begrudge Marius sexual happiness with Marisa because ‘these are hard enough times for men already.’ Professionally, he acknowledges what he calls ‘the age of Amazon’ just enough to register his disdain; erotically, he sees himself as a rebel against modern affectlessness, pursuing ‘that last adventure left to modern man – ecstatic, immoderate, unseemly, all-consuming love’.
Felix’s questionable self-justification is Jacobson’s exercise in wily, calculated irony, and if the narration doesn’t convince, the novel does. Part of the tease is being made to wonder how much author and protagonist do have in common: emotional masochism is not new to the Jacobson male. In Who’s Sorry Now? (2002), Marvin Kreitman finds himself falling in love with his best friend’s wife, while the friend neatly falls in love with Kreitman’s. An excruciating scenario, but then Kreitman ‘knows that he never is and never will be happy unless he is suffering the pain of hope gone begging, of thwarted desire and of unbearable loss’. Things are messier still in Kalooki Nights (2006), in which Max Glickman ends up swapping wives one evening with his sleazy childhood friend Errol. Max’s sexuality is entangled with his Jewishness in such a way that he only ever falls for anti-semites with umlauts in their names, so perhaps it’s fair to say his marriage to Zoë is something of a sadomasochistic contract. ‘I seem to excite something in you people,’ she says, soon after meeting and not long before marrying him. She suspects that, because he’s a Jew and she’s a Gentile, he wants to turn her into ‘a stubby shikseh passed like a roach from Jewish hand to Jewish hand’.
Kalooki Nights is much concerned with the snarling-up of sex with the ‘Five Thousand Years of Bitterness’ of Jewish history. (At one point Max proposes that ‘women are Christians, men are Jews,’ which catches the mixed-upness of the categories Jacobson is interested in, as well as the idiosyncratic account he gives of them.) Its main narrative is intercut with a fantasy or flashback in which Mendel, an artist imprisoned in Buchenwald, is carrying on a kind of affair with Ilse Koch (familiar to Max from the porn film She-Wolf of the SS). Koch abuses and humiliates Mendel while he revels in the knowledge that ‘every Jew in the camp, every Gypsy, every Communist, is her property.’ But eventually even she is a disappointment: too conventional, not nearly enough of a deviant to satisfy his feverish longings. She can’t think of anything more interesting to threaten him with than shooting him. The anticlimax is exemplary: ‘In general the Germans have been a terrible disappointment to the Jews. They have not lived up to Jewish expectation. Such music! Such writing! Such an elaboration of myth! All for this! The great bathos of National Socialism.’
The relationship between the Nazis and their victims, Kalooki Nights seems to suggest, is echoed in the slippery power relations of sadomasochism. The Act of Love doesn’t try for that kind of explicit analogy. By setting the new novel inside Felix’s miniature Marylebone universe of civilised perversion, where suffering is a voluntary matter, Jacobson seems to be sidelining the horrors and large-scale questions of Kalooki Nights, but it’s more accurate to say that he’s carrying on the same conversation more obliquely. Felix’s topic, the compulsively self-lacerating libido, is intrinsic to all of Jacobson’s perennially knotted themes of Englishness, Jewishness and maleness. (‘Felix’ means the same thing as ‘Glickman’.)
Indeed the lust for suffering arguably goes all the way to the roots of comic writing. Jacobson has said of Jewish humour:
It’s a masochistic strategy. The masochist accepts whatever criticism is made of him. He not only accepts it but gets there first. You tell a joke against yourself, you’ve achieved an intellectual moral superiority. We make more fun of ourselves than anybody else could. In the act of doing that, we appear to be on the back foot but we’re winning. The masochist then becomes a sadist, so they say, having shown himself to be superior and quicker – the joke then turned against the person listening. I think that’s how Jewish jokes work.
So in telling his story, is Felix telling a joke against himself? The Act of Love doesn’t at first appear to be a comic novel in the way most of Jacobson’s novels are comic: it’s not a head-on satirical barrage. Instead, Felix comes out subtly as a comic figure, precisely because he is determined not to be funny. His great endeavour is ‘to make the case for cuckolds’, but, he adds, ‘I have to say I hate the comicality of the word.’ He can be humourless to great comic effect, as when he is lecturing us about his wife’s breasts:
The beauty of her chest was frontal not abysmal, a matter of the harmonious interrelation of thorax and abdomen, of arms and back and shoulders, not the mere shape and protuberance of her mammaries. I stress this because I have never been particularly moved by breasts as discrete objects, to be enjoyed independently of the woman to whom they belong. It was the way Marisa carried her chest as a sort of introduction or frontispiece to herself – at once soft and sculpted, the breasts themselves not large, though the general effect luxurious – that moved me.
Laying out Marisa’s attractions for us, as he frequently does, is another way for him to cuckold himself, with the reader conscripted as the third party. But he won’t countenance any kind of laughter that might break the erotic trance, so a passage like this becomes a joke at his expense if, at any point during the writerly rapture, the reader gives a snort of sceptical amusement. He is appalled by the suggestion that his desire to be cuckolded is less than a unique experiment in deviancy, an ‘austere religion’ (he dreads to think that he has anything in common with ‘hot wives’ or wife-swappers), and so there’s always a risk that a chink of comic irony will break through. There are funny scenes in which he hassles the reluctant Marius in bookshops and cafés, and we realise that, mellifluous though he is on the page, out in public he comes across as a creep.
One comparison The Act of Love suggests is Sabbath’s Theatre, although tonally it’s the least Roth-like of Jacobson’s novels. Felix is like Sabbath in that both locate fucking at the centre of their lives and fit everything else in around the edges (even if Felix is more interested in other people’s fucking than his own), and each is sustained by a heroically unconventional woman. Sabbath’s devotion to lechery is tested inside the novel’s first thirty pages, when, after arguments about fidelity and sexual arrangements, he learns that Drenka has cancer and we learn that she’ll die of it. The erotic life collides with the anti-erotic universe, and the rest of the novel is the fallout from the reaction. The collision takes longer to arrive in The Act of Love, but the elements are the same. Felix, inventing his salacious fiction, is determined above all to be indecent; part of that project’s attraction is that, if you’re being indecent, you must avoid worrying about anything terrible enough to drive you to decency. So there’s a brittleness or a hidden desperation beneath the obvious desperation of the erotic mania. If masochism is, somewhere down there, a strategy for responding to Buchenwald, then convincing the reader of the singular delightfulness of your wife’s breasts is pretty much a matter of life and death. Maybe that’s why it’s funny.