Howard Jacobson

Shelf Life: Howard Jacobson on five books that changed his life

The Booker Prize-winning author of The Finkler Question and Live A Little on taking refuge in Dickens, bringing Austen to Australia and having a highly disappointing encounter with Philip Roth.

I found a copy of Sons and Lovers by D. H Lawrence in my school library when I was 15. It came with a warning on it, because there’s a bit of sex in Sons and Lovers. And it was the beginning of a passion for Lawrence which I’ve never lost. I think he is England’s greatest novelist. 

I guess what got me going with Sons and Lovers was the son-mother theme. I never felt that I was unhealthily attached to my mother, but we were close. As I’ve read it more recently, I’ve come to understand it’s not only about a typical young man’s fight to be free – to try and find a way in which you are not like everybody else – but about distinctness.

There’s a scene which has become a touchstone of mine over the years, when Paul and Clara are out in the castle grounds in Nottingham. They’ve met for lunch, and they’re both depressed. And in their depression, everything loses its distinctness. The birds are just generalised, there’s an atmosphere of gloom. And then a bell or a whistle goes that reminds them they’ve got to go back, and that jolts them out of it and there’s a lovely sentence: "And all at once things recovered their distinctness". I love the idea that cheerfulness inheres in things when they are distinct.


'I didn't like myself, so I escaped into Dickens'

When I think about the next stage of my life, I’m in Cambridge and I'm reading Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. I had a term in which I just sat in the college library and read Dickens, and that was fantastic. Little Dorrit is a great satirical novel, without having that meanness of spirit that you sometimes get in those. It’s a novel with immense gusto. When you lower yourself into a Dickens novel, it’s such a wonderful experience – you don’t want to come out. But Little Dorrit is also tinged with some real savagery about the institutions of government and the civil service. It’s an upsetting novel about disappointment.

I didn’t enjoy the university experience at all. I allowed myself to be, I suppose, overwhelmed by the class thing: being a working-class Jewish Boy with a northern accent. I was never picked on or made fun of. All the drama of my failure at Cambridge – because it was a failure at Cambridge – was within. It was all to do with what I felt about myself, not liking myself, not feeling I could make a go of anything. So the Dickens paper, which I think was in my final year, was a salvation. I escaped into Dickens.



So I leave Cambridge, and somehow or other get myself a job lecturing at Sydney University. I’m 22, I’ve just got married to my first wife, we’re happy - we’re having a ball – and I feel at last like I can breathe. I turned up when The Beatles had just happened, and they thought I looked like Ringo Star. I had long hair and wore leather jackets so that was my style, for what it was worth. 

I found that my Australian colleagues – very brilliant, very bright, most of them – could not read Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. And the more they couldn’t get it, the more attached I grew to it. So then I became known as this adherent of Mansfield Park, and lectured on it, because I felt it was my job to teach the Australians what moral seriousness was.

It’s a really tragic book, about how society is beginning to totter. One of my favourite sentences in it comes when Maria, one of the nieces, and the villainous aunt, Mrs Norris, are sequestered at the very end of the novel somewhere "remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other, no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment."

My own writing was going absolutely nowhere at this point. Letters would come from my mother saying, "How’s the writing going darling?", because I’d talked about writing from the age of about four. I’d never wanted to be anything else. I loved writers. For god's sake: when I was 14, I had a picture of George Eliot and a picture of Jane Austen on my wall. My father thought: there’s something very very wrong with this boy! Where’s the rockstars? Where’s Dolly Parton? Actually, this was before Dolly Parton. Where are the footballers? Writing was everything.


'I realised I could write a farce – because my life was one'

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer, is to my mind one of the funniest novels ever written. It’s about a guy who’s fallen in love with a woman much older than him. He’s uneducated and uninterested in books, but he writes soaps for the radio that become fantastically popular. In order to satisfy the demand, he writes more and more of them until his mind starts to go and the scripts become part of the novel. It’s a tour de force of narrative madness and yet it all works. 

The book helped me realise I could write a farce, because my life was a farce. I had left Australia, and ended up in what I saw as a dead-end job teaching English Literature at Wolverhampton polytechnic. The snob in me recoiled from having to do that. I was there for several years and in the end, I owed Wolverhampton polytechnic a great debt of thanks because my first novel [Coming From Behind, (1983)] came out of it. I was able to leave Wolverhampton and make a living as writer. 


'I saw Philip Roth in very plain grey flannel trousers and I thought: that’s not what you want.'

In reviews, people started to say my work reminded them of Philip Roth. So I thought: OK, and started reading him. He was a wonderful writer. For a period there, I think he was probably the best writer in the world. Nobody could do a sentence like him; he could move in and out of seriousness and comedy consummately. He was very good at managing to make a private story also be the story of contemporary America. 

I met him once actually and really didn’t like him. I remember vividly where I was – in Westminster at a house owned by Charlie Chaplin’s agent. It was really my first outing into the world of literary celebrity. And there was Philip Roth. I found him a rather cold, priestly presence. I remember he wore very plain grey flannel trousers and I thought, that’s not what you want. What I wanted was him to say, "I’ve heard about you and just want to wish you well… haven’t got time to read you, of course, but it sounds as though what you’re doing is something I’d like". But he was just cold to me. 

But an interesting thing happened. He was married to Claire Bloom at the time and I was excited to meet Claire Bloom because I’d loved her. She’d been Ophelia in Hamlet. She came up to me, she said, "Hello, how are you?" and I said, "I’m well, how are you?" and she said, "It’s lovely to see you again." I said, "But we’ve never met before".’ And she said, "No, I know you." She came back to me about half an hour later to say: "I know what it is – I’ve seen your picture on the back of two books that Philip’s got on his bedside table." I shouldn’t tell this story really, because I should never tell stories of personal pride. 

Anyway, I’d been reading him and got bored of him, when someone sent me a copy of Sabbath’s Theatre to review. I was mad about it – I thought this is it, I’m back with Philip Roth. It’s fantastic – a disgusting, utterly obscene book with a hero as horrible as anybody can be. I don’t know whether anybody would publish it today. A few years later I decided to do my own English kind of Sabbath’s Theatre, which was called No More Mr Nice Guy (1998). 

I worry about Sabbath’s Theatre a little bit though. It’s possible I overvalue it and it’s possible it’s a ridiculous book. So I have a guilty secret about the novel, which is that I really, really love it and recommend it, but it’s possible it’s tosh.

Did I ever, like the young Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers, feel sure I was "going to alter the face of the earth in some way"? I'm still trying! One of the great disappointments for most writers is that your first book comes out and you do think the world is going to be a different place, and to discover it's not is a hard thing to swallow. But you go on, you go on... you chisel away, and occasionally you meet the reader who says "You’ve changed this for me!" And you think: OK, you’ve just got to accept the fact the world is a very big edifice, and the best you can do is take a brick out here and put a brick in there.

Howard Jacobson's new novel Live A Little is out now.

Photo: Getty.

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