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Friday, 15 October 2010

You Fink He Writes Books for Nofink?

Howard.Jacobson(Howard.Barlow)Howard Jacobson may or may not be the first author to have won the  Man Booker Prize for Fiction on the strength of his comic genius. But he's certainly the first to have written on an exclusively Jewish theme.

David.GrossmanNow I'm as desperate to have a taste of the master of mordant irony as I am to read To the End of the Land, the latest book by Israel's David Grossman. The two are utterly different writers, apart from their Jewishness and inherent if often despairing  love of Israel , but were somehow conjoined this week as Grossman also won a prize - the German Book Trade Peace Prize.   

The Guardian wrote of Jacobson:

" ... Although it's true that The Finkler Question has its moments of high comedy, it also has moments of heartbreaking sadness; the two are, indeed, intertwined. But if there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that The Finkler Question is about Jewishness. Actually, it's not really, as Jacobson himself has said; it's about love; just as it has been remarked that The Act of Love, which to my recollection doesn't have a single declared Jew in it, is his most Jewish novel of all. But these are rather abstruse arguments. So let's just say that The Finkler Question, whose (Gentile) hero tries, in effect, to become Jewish, has an awful lot about Jews in it.

"As do many of Jacobson's novels. Kalooki Nights, he once said, in an off-hand remark which has come to haunt him, was intended to be the most Jewish book ever written. But the whole corpus is pretty Jewish. His protagonists are often Manchester-born Jews, as he is; one of them is even a gifted ping-pong player, as I understand Jacobson is, or was ("Is it too much for you to bear, you yiddenfeint, you antisemitic piece of ***p, that we should be good at a game and win scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge? Is that more than an erstwhile ****ing Church of England grammar school can swallow? Well, prepare to swallow more, ****head. Meet the master race. You're looking at a double-starred first and the next World Ping-Pong Champion"). When it comes to describing Jews in this country (the U.K.), it's as if Jacobson has cornered the market".

Meanwhile, Grossman warned during his prize acceptance speech that Israel would be without a "home and a future" until it found peace ... only peace will allow us Israelis to feel something that has been totally unknown to us so far: the feeling of a stable existence."

Grossman, who lost his son during the final days of the 2006 Lebanon War said he hoped  "that my country, Israel, will find the strength to rewrite its history again. That it learns to grasp its past and its tragedies in a new way and to reinvent itself in a new way because of that."

The death of his son inspired To the End  of the Land and he added:

 "I learned that there are some situations where the only freedom left us is to describe  ... describe with the right words the fate that hits us. Sometimes, that can also be a way to escape being a victim."

But as this is a piece about comi-tragedy it's time for me to reveal that as an ex-Mancunian by adoption (for work) I once met Jacobson while reporting for the local Jewish Plod. It was so long ago I think his publisher had sent him back 'oop north' to publicise his first novel, Coming From Behind and I had been due to interview him. But for one reason or another, I passed him over to a colleague who, most presciently it turns out, thought he was the bees' knees.

I also have a personal attachment to Jacobson for a couple of odd reasons and the first is because of  Kalooki Nights.

Back in the late 80s, I once helped my husband to arrange a charity kalooki (cards) evening  for our synagogue. Although it is a favourite Jewish pastime, only one punter turned up!

We apologised, sent her home, packed up and trudged back to our own house and decided to drown our sorrows in a TV movie.

Escape.from.SobiborThe film of the night was Escape from Sobibor, a 1987 British made-for-TV film, directed by Jack Gold, dealing with the most successful uprising by Jewish prisoners of German extermination camps (there were other uprisings, at Auschwitz and Treblinka).

And as the final credits of this heart-searing drama rolled, we sat on the sofa clutching each other like teenage lovers but with tears pouring down our cheeks, misting our bi-focals.

Our dialogue went thus:

"Are you O.K.? Can I get you a schnapps?"

"Yes, yes - please - but I suppose YOU want a cuppa tea!"

The second reason  is the family name. Now, dammit,  why is 'Fink' so funny? I am married to one! In fact, Jacobson will almost certainly remember Brian's late aunt, Sophie Fink , who owned and ruled the dress shop, 'Sophie's' at the bottom of Cheetham Hill Road with an iron fist clad only occasionally in a velvet glove.

Sophie - who bartered  coals with miners in Newcastle and traded igloos with Eskimos- once sold me a dress I so adored that it fell to shreds before I threw it out - and then by sheer force of will made me buy a raincoat I loathed with such passion that I wore it once before it became jumble!

But I'm going to turn this piece into a full tragedy by ending on a serious note:

To be Jewish and to think like a Jew  is to be part of a club who can't see the world without glimpsing it through 'Jewish eyes'. In small ways, in large ways, we are still somehow the 'Kingdom of Priests', not - heaven forbid - ever better than - but always separate from others.

Everything about us from the traditional bitter-sweet-and-savoury foods so popular among Ashkenazim to the constant, often hate-filled internalised debates about Jews, Judaism and Israel is part of the same scenario.

When posh literary pundits ask why there are so few British 'Jewish' writers compared to those in the United States, I insist the answer is both clear and complex:

First, there are far fewer totally Jewish writers, even proportionately in the U.K. than in the U.S. Some British writers described as 'Jewish' are often only of Jewish descent or of one parent and have not enjoyed a full Jewish upbringing as I - or I dare say, Jacobson -would recognise it.

Second, it is only in very recent years that traditional Jews in the U.K. have discussed their Judaism in public. Earlier, it was the custom to be a Jew at home but to be as discreet as possible about one's identity elsewhere. Those who still cherish that  ideal may argue that the current fashion helps to foment  antisemitism. There are plenty who could demolish that view in a second.

I think the Booker judges - like Jacobson himself - have done the Anglo-Jewish community great service. They will have helped, in some measure, to return a little self-esteem to a tiny population which views itself as increasingly besieged by quite illogical, sometimes bizarre hatred from both within and without.

I'll let Sir Andrew Motion, former British Poet Laureate and chair of the judges for this year's Booker Prize  conclude for me. He said the decision was simple:

"It won because it was the best book. You expect a book by Howard Jacobson to be very clever and very funny and it is both those things. But it is also, in a very interesting way, a very sad, melancholic book. It is comic, it is laughter, but it is laughter in the dark." Motion agreed it is a comic novel but said it was much more. It was "absolutely a book for grownups, for people who understand that comedy and tragedy are linked".

 

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