howard's way: the new booker winner opens up
When Howard Jacobson won the Booker prize in October for his novel The Finkler Question, there was some debate as to whether the book was a comedy or not.
Tackling the subject of Judaism through the three characters of Treslove, the desperate romantic; Libor, the grieving widow; and Finkler, who is also recently bereaved, the book contains as much sorrow as humour. But tragedy, as the best authors know, is the illuminating agent, the camera flash that exposes comedy.
Jacobson is now 69, and cuts a dapper, if hang-dog, figure in a large overcoat and tweed Ralph Lauren pants, front-pleated (flat-fronted trousers, he says, are the realm of the young man). He came late to writing. Born and raised in a working-class Manchester family, he was classically educated at Cambridge and finally wrote his first novel at the age of 38 through "sheer desperation".
"I was panicking. I was moving through my 30s and I thought even if I finish this novel fast I'm going to be nearly 40 when it comes out, which I was."
But there were other factors blocking his path too. "The problem was trying to be Tolstoy and Dickens and DH Lawrence all rolled into one."
And emotional barriers too . . . "It was only when my father died that I felt, 'at last I can admit to deep feeling; I know what it's like to feel loss.' My father had also stood in the way of me and life in many ways; he had overprotected me. I had an overprotective mother who liked me playing table tennis because it was safe and my father used to literally cover my eyes.
"I'd be walking along the street with my father and a house would burn down in front of us or a car would crash and my father would be the first on the scene bringing the bodies out and ripping the car door open but with another hand covering my eyes so I never saw it.
"It was metaphorical and also true that he stood in the way of me and suffering. After his death, I dared to think of life as sorrowful and serious."
He says he will always remain that coddled boy to a degree. "I am one of those men that's never quite made it properly into the responsibilities of manhood. I have a child from my first marriage. I get along with him very well now -- he's a grown man -- but I wasn't a good father. It was as if I never felt ready to be a father, I never felt I'd given up properly being a child and still I have to be married to be looked after, I need looking after."
He is married to Jenny, a former television producer, who is his third wife.
While The Finkler Question's foremost subject is Judaism, it also deals with ageing and loss -- two subjects Jacobson has had recent experience of. The book is dedicated to three close friends, all of whom died during the writing of the novel. He is not, however, pessimistic about being older. "I wish I could just hold it at this age for life . . . I'd rather be this age than young but don't move it beyond this age, this is a perfect time. From a writing point of view, one dares to be funny and serious at the same time, one dares to take some emotional risks, one isn't embarrassed at feeling.
"I used to be embarrassed at feeling. I would lock myself in my room and, like Treslove, listen to the music that Treslove listened to."
Treslove is a pathetic romantic, constantly searching for large-scale love. Is Jacobson himself a romantic in that Italian opera sort of way? "Yes, absolutely, the big swell, taking love hard, wanting it, wanting to be in love and loving the state of being in love.
"I wanted to be in love from the age of about six, erotically in love. I know my parents worried about me, 'why isn't he listening to pop music?' I loved tenors longing for women.
"I did have that consumptive prostitute thing. I saw myself on my knees like Adolpho before the bed of the dying courtesan before I knew what a courtesan was. A lot of those have been played out now, but I still am a man in love."
How he feels about having won the Booker prize is charmingly direct. "I don't want it to stop. It feels like a vindication."
It feels like a vindication for language, too, as Jacobson's use of words is almost as pleasurable as the plot and the characters. "A good reader will know in a second that a sentence is alive because it's a thinking, feeling sentence. And, of course, it will have laughter and tears because to be alive is to have all those things in play."
The Finkler Question is published by Bloomsbury