Thursday 22 August 2019

Live a Little: Howard Jacobson's way with sex, memory and mortality

Fiction: Live a Little

Howard Jacobson

Penguin Books €22

'Live a Little' author Howard Jacobson has flair and is a funny writer
'Live a Little' author Howard Jacobson has flair and is a funny writer
Live A Little by Howard Jacobson

Paull Perry

Howard Jacobson recently took to the airwaves - BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking to be specific - to bemoan 'the infinite distractions' there are to the serious study and reading of the novel today. He needn't worry so much. His latest novel is captivating, serious, and whimsical all at the same time.

It will be read, and not least because Jacobson is a funny writer. He has flair. He can write a sentence. More than that, he has won the Man-Booker Prize for The Finkler Question in 2010 for what the judges described as his 'laughter in the dark,' and in Live a Little he has written his 16th novel - a compelling and poignant study of ageing and mortality.

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In it, we find ourselves in North London in the company of Beryl Dusinbery, and Shimi Carmelli who don't have long to go. Shimi is an 'eligible bachelor', and Beryl is a widow who stitches samplers, 'though the only thing her fingers want to stitch is death'.

Jacobson has always tackled weighty subject matters. In Live a Little, his theme is ageing, and mortality. And yet, for all that gravitas, there is oodles of humour. The dialogue sparkles, and because we are looking back on life, life lessons are shared generously throughout, 'No relationship is as pitiless as that between a mother and daughter'.

Live a Little is also a book about memory, about what we remember and what we can't remember. Its two protagonists dramatise these contending oppositions throughout. And indeed, the novel skips about in time, because 'chronology is for the little people'. It's also a novel about language. 'Words fail me', are the opening lines of the novel. And pretty early on, the same character tells us, 'life is only words'. How language is tied up with memory, and one's own identity is at the heart of Live a Little. So even when Shimi's prostate is to be checked 'the old fashioned way', Bernie Dauber also manages to discuss Dickens with him.

Beyond the entertaining machinations of plot there is always a simmering sub-text to a breezy story which rattles along with memorable lines like, 'This is exactly what happened to Shimi Carmelli. He climbed into his mother's bloomers and tumbled into hell'.

Jacobson has been an important chronicler of Jewish identity in Great Britain. Live a Little amplifies such a chronicle. Of the Jewish funeral, Shimi says, 'Die Jewish and you're dead longer than forever'. It's this and the moral dimensions the novel can offer which distinguish Jacobson as an important novelist today.

Sure, Jacobson can spin a great yarn - he knows the ingredients which make up a compelling narrative: intrigue, secrets, regret. And damn good writing. Let's not forget sex either - one of Jacobson's lasting preoccupations. He can take us from the tender to the smutty in the space of a chapter. And so Beryl and Shimi's friendship ends up as a romance as unlikely as it is inevitable, because, 'It's never too late for anything.'

Sunday Independent

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