Novelist Howard Jacobson. Picture Credit: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images.

Very essence of a Jewish writer’s life

Howard Jacobson stands his life on its head


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Nine decades ago, in the introduction to the Hebrew translation of Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Freud addressed (though not in Hebrew) the gulf between his atheism and his Jewish identity. He reaffirmed that he did not believe in any religion — “including Judaism” — and that he deplored all forms of nationalism — “including Zionism”. In the light of these declarations, he rhetorically pondered: “it may then be asked, what is there left of me that is Jewish, to which I would reply: ‘a very great deal and probably its very essence.’”

“I came out of the womb in every sense the wrong way round,” he writes, “which includes being Jewish”

For many, this is still a live issue, and if a few articulate, secular Jews were gathered together to define and discuss that “very essence”, it would surely be a mentally enriching, stimulating, humorous — and argumentative — occasion. And the Booker laureate novelist, Howard Jacobson, would be an ideal participant.

If he couldn’t attend, a copy of his memoir, Mother’s Boy, supplied in advance to each of the other contributors, would do the trick. For this is a work whose author was obsessed with being Jewish and has decided that reaching the age of 80 is the right time to give this internal condition a salutary airing.

Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 and his detailed description of his childhood in a working-class Jewish family in Manchester resounds with Jewishness, and this continues throughout the memoir until its endpoint in 1983 after the publication of Jacobson’s first novel, Coming From Behind. In case we still haven’t got the message, one of the closing chapters is called Being Jewish.

Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings Howard Jacobson (Vintage, £18.99)

At first, in portraying his infancy and boyhood, Jacobson plays the role of comic entertainer whose material rests largely upon negative stereotypes. He seems to have arrived in the world through a breech birth. “I came out of the womb in every sense the wrong way round,” he writes, “which includes being Jewish.”

He sets his young self up as his principal target. Taking self-deprecation to the borders of flagellation, he characterises himself as the classic Jewish male who, even if highly intelligent — especially if highly intelligent — cannot tell a spanner from a pair of pliers.

This is perhaps the central division between the young Howard and his father, Max, who was spectacularly practical physically — he even repaired the neighbours’ plumbing — but was not mentally inclined to read books. Max Jacobson careered between tailor and upholsterer, market trader and coffee table- maker, taxi driver and children’s party magician and, as a sideline, could twist balloons into animal shapes. His own shape was short, muscular and compact and whenever he heard of a fascist rally taking place (in his day this was not unusual), he was, as his son now puts it, “off with his friends to disrupt it”.

On one such rally, of the British Union of Fascists in London, Max Jacobson managed to make his way to where Oswald Mosley was sitting on his horse and threw a punch at the wannabe Hitler but missed, connecting instead with the horse.

It was Jacobson’s mother, Anita, who introduced him to books. She took great pleasure in well crafted middlebrow fiction. She also loved poetry and had a talent for writing it. And she is the first among several vivacious women who appear in the pages of her son’s memoir — and in her case eponymously on the cover. She died in 2020 but was still alive when her son Howard was writing the book and her presence remains vividly in it.

The level of her maternal care is established early on in Mother’s Boy when Jacobson recalls the day he was leaving home to start at Cambridge University: “She reminded me to take enough toilet paper.” “What, for three years?” he responds. “Until you settle in,” she suggests. “I think Cambridge will have toilet paper,” he says. Then he confides to the reader with tender reassurance: “But I took a roll just in case.”

In all of Jacobson’s accounts of the lives lived by his immediate and extended family in Manchester there is a thoroughness of perspective — the lingering link with Russian and Lithuanian roots, the self-consciousness when out of the Jewish family circle, the comedic confidence when inside it, all of it viewed through the prism of his tentative attitude to life, notably apparent in his early inability to fulfil his ambition to become a novelist, which he eventually achieved at the age of 40.

Jacobson remains a secular Jew, a “very essential” one

The most surprising part of Jacobson’s story is in his description of his time at Cambridge. It should have been glorious — the brilliant, creative and witty Howard Jacobson studying at the feet of F.R. Leavis. But Jacobson paints a picture of desolation and misery. He had few friends in the university and received a less-than-starry degree. “I went through Cambridge without merriment or joy,” he writes.

During a break in his second undergraduate year, when he was back home in Manchester, Howard met Barbara Starr, a local hairdresser. They wrote lavishly to each other when he returned to Cambridge. She visited him whenever she could and they fell in love. In the course of time — overcoming the obstacle of Howard’s father objecting because Barbara’s mother was not Jewish despite being a typical balaboosta running a Jewish home — they married and Howard put the sad experience of Cambridge far behind him when he landed a teaching job in Australia. He and Barbara left for Sydney with alacrity.

Australia opened Howard’s eyes — but a bit too widely with pretty young students in view, and his marriage foundered on the Great Barrier Reef. There is a degree of irony in that the second Mrs Jacobson, Ros, was an Australian who came to Britain to live with Jacobson in Wolverhampton.

The combination of Ros and Wolverhampton, where Howard taught at the Poly, finally pushed him into writing that first novel. Ros because she was an insistent force of nature (that ultimately overpowered Howard), and Wolverhampton because it killed off Jacobson’s dreams of Henry James and provided an original and workable setting for a work of fiction.

It is said that fiction writers’ autobiographies reveal much less about themselves than their fiction does. But this is certainly not the case with Howard Jacobson. Be it in Manchester or Melbourne, Cambridge or London, his recollections are forensic. In Mother’s Boy, he has exposed his family, his faults and his failings. And it is still funny.

As for that obsession, he has clearly found a balance. He has reassessed his relationship with his late father and, in his powerful condemnations of antisemitism, has inherited Max’s fighting spirit. And his third marriage to TV director Jenny de Yong, conducted in 2005 by the then Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, no less, has proved happy. But, while recognising the religious foundations, Jacobson remains a secular Jew, a “very essential” one.

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