Sunday 22 September 2019

Live a Little: Howard Jacobson's soft-hearted and optimistic tale of ageing

Fiction: Live a Little

Howard Jacobson

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 288 pages, €26.59

Writing to relish: Jacobson adds to his extensive repertoire of acute descriptions of unenjoyed sex
Writing to relish: Jacobson adds to his extensive repertoire of acute descriptions of unenjoyed sex

I expected Howard Jacobson's latest novel, which follows the mazy path by which two nonagenarians embark on a kind of romantic understanding, to be a chilly corrective to the usual soppy portrayals of late-life love. Jacobson tends to set down the unvarnished truth about the world he sees, and if, at 76, he is not quite in a position to send back dispatches from the battlefield of extreme old age, he is close enough to be able to hear the screaming.

Even by his standards, there has been a particularly violent, Swiftian vein in his most recent novels: the dystopian satire J, the Shakespearean update Shylock is my Name and the Trump-bashing squib Pussy. So I assumed that Live a Little would be a fuming indictment of the way we treat the old, in which two Struldbruggs would form a connection as a way of clinging on to their humanity in a cruelly indifferent world.

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It is not like that at all, however. Despite the gloomy commentary on modern life and the beady observations on how readily human beings hurt themselves and each other, this is a soft-hearted novel, warm and optimistic. It reads as if Jacobson is cheering himself up with a bit of wish-fulfilment, conjuring up a vision of old age in which his protagonists do not allow senescence to make them one whit less themselves - although he is too sharp a novelist to ignore the fact that this may be a mixed blessing.

The heroine is Beryl Dusinbery, a serial widow and retired headmistress within spitting distance of her century, who lives in a grand house in north London in which she merrily bullies her two carers. The hero is 90-year-old Italian-Jewish bachelor Shimi Carmelli, who lives in a flat above a Chinese restaurant opposite Beryl's house and spends his days impressing the local widows with his skill in cartomancy - the art of divination using playing cards. Despite their proximity, the pair have never met, and the novel is more than two thirds done before they do - the meeting taking place, inevitably, at a funeral.

Before that, we accompany Beryl and Shimi on many voyages back into the mists of their pasts. Beryl reflects on her heyday as a bewitching beauty ("It wasn't infidelity she conjured, it was oblivion. The man who woke up in Beryl Dusinbery's arms hadn't betrayed his wife, he had forgotten he had a wife"), allowing Jacobson to add to his extensive repertoire of acute descriptions of unenjoyed sex. Her Who's Who's-worth of distinguished lovers is in sharp contrast to the love life of Shimi, who has endured eight decades of emotional and sexual sterility following a shameful episode involving his mother's underwear.

Although there are horrifying glimpses into the reality of old age - there is a vivid passage describing how Shimi's tame widows care for their even more ancient mothers, kept cruelly alive by technological advances - Shimi and Beryl do not seem circumscribed by their years. Shimi has an embarrassing condition that means he has to memorise the location of every public convenience in London, but is otherwise fit as a flea; Beryl has a form of dementia that does not prevent her from being as hyper-articulate as only a Howard Jacobson character can be.

The novel lacks, therefore, the sense of the claustrophobia of old age conveyed in such masterpieces of comic gerontology as Muriel Spark's Memento Mori and Kingsley Amis's Ending Up. It often reads more like a fable or a gentle attempt at magical realism, not least because some of the characterisations are thin. When Jacobson writes dialogue for Beryl's Eastern European carer, Nastya, it comes across like one of those anonymous letters in an Agatha Christie novel in which the writer is pretending to be ill-educated, yet has to make his point laboriously clear at the same time.

But, as always in a Jacobson novel, the characters primarily exist as a support mechanism for the nimble, chewy sentences, and there is writing to relish on every page. There is also a pleasing sense of the author being infected by his story's optimism against his will, nuggets of positivity breaking through his bleak carapace.

"'Better late than never' has always struck him as such a tragic phrase. He smells the dry desert of wasted years in it," Shami reflects. "But it beats 'Better never than too late'. By a whisker." By Jacobson's standards, that's worthy of being made into a positive-thinking meme.

© Telegraph

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