Howard Jacobson's early works show him to be a master of comic complaint and morbid eroticism. But his latest novel is a departure for more complex, compromised territory—and a sobering lesson in the interconnectedness of fidelity, love and furyby Jonathan Derbyshire / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape, £17.99)
Felix Quinn, the narrator of Howard Jacobson’s new novel, is “afflicted” by love. He is a connoisseur of its “agonies,” a veteran of “sexual insult.” The Act of Love is irrigated by Felix’s obsession with “that category of classic novel… whose subject is humiliation.”
This is familiar territory for Jacobson. Writing in Prospect earlier this year, he warned that “you can’t mess around with sex, in life or literature. It is never not serious.” Especially not in literature, you can imagine him wanting to add—and certainly not in his own fiction, which combines extravagant comic energy with a distinctive kind of erotic gravitas. Sex is a serious business for the characters in all Jacobson’s novels—or all of the male characters, at least. They pursue their affairs sedulously, even grimly, and their virility is frequently put in the service of their rage or despair.
A typical example is Marvin Kreitman, the morbidly erotic protagonist of Jacobson’s 2002 novel Who’s Sorry Now?. Kreitman is an energetically and multiply adulterous leather goods merchant (“the luggage baron of south London”), who employs a “discreet semi-liveried Kenyan” to drive him from one assignation to the next in a lurid red Smart car. He is not a “cheerful fucker”—no doubt as a consequence of the sheer amount of fucking he’s doing—but a “melodramatist of sex, as are all dedicated adulterers.”
Sexual seriousness has become a theme here, the subject of narrative commentary. The thought that all adulterers are cheerless melodramatists, that “an excessive preoccupation with sex makes you serious,” is not Kreitman’s; it’s the narrator’s. This leaves the reader feeling that rather than enacting its author’s theory of erotic melodrama (which is also a theory of fiction), the novel is propagandising on its behalf. Jacobson’s insights into his character’s feelings point us more surely to the subtleties of his own intelligence than they do to the autonomous lives of his creations.
This explains why many of Jacobson’s novels sound so similar. Of course, it’s easier to forgive an unvarying voice if the voice in question is as explosive and verbally dextrous as Jacobson’s. One is reminded of Henry James forgiving the shallowness of Tom Jones’s psychology. We see Tom, wrote James, “through the mellow air of Fielding’s fine old moralism, fine old humour and fine old style, which somehow enlarge, make every one and every thing important.”
Indeed, Jacobson (pictured, right) belongs in an English comic tradition that goes back to Fielding and to Laurence Sterne, and in which incorrigibly voluble narrators are forever barging in on their stories—though the air of Jacobson’s moralism (and he is a moralist) is altogether more pungent than Fielding’s. Its dominant note is complaint, a sustained pitch of despair and dismay. Here is the middle-aged Henry Nagel in The Making of Henry (2004) complaining about—what else?—young people’s lack of sexual seriousness: “now that he had begun his headlong decline into the second half of his life he was no longer attracted to the young of any species, least of all his own. He never had been much, now he wasn’t at all. He didn’t like their wet mouths, their casualness, their trainers, the pride they took in everything they didn’t know… and most of all he didn’t like their slack sexualism, born of the pill, loss of shame, the decline of Christianity, and an insufficiency of that bodily fastidiousness without which sex isn’t worth performing.”
The Making of Henry and Who’s Sorry Now? are full of riffs like this—great rippling lists of execration. And these seem to have been what stuck in the minds of reviewers. Alfred Hickling in the Guardian went so far as to say that Jacobson’s “true achievement is to take on the mantle of our foremost comic complainant”; a worthy successor to Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh.
Hickling no doubt meant to praise Jacobson when he described him as the greatest “curmudgeon writing in English today.” But his comments also draw attention to the limitations of the comedy of complaint. In The Making of Henry, for instance, Jacobson’s compulsive kvetching about the depredations of modern life prevents him from properly mining the other of
his twin obsessions: Jewishness. Henry’s acute insight into the distinctiveness of English Jewish identity—that whereas Jews in America had “made the American cause their own,” in England they just fought for the right to be left alone—gets lost in all the noisy indignation.
In his next novel, Kalooki Nights (2006), Jacobson abandoned the garrulous third-person narration of the earlier books, with startling results. The story is told by Max Glickman, a cartoonist with an upbringing in Jewish north Manchester very similar to Jacobson’s own. Writers addicted to a high style often find the responsibilities owed to a first-person narrator
too restricting, but here Jacobson seemed liberated into an emotional and intellectual depth that the earlier books, for all their pyrotechnics, had barely hinted at. Which is not to say that the familiar, scabrous Jacobsonian comedy was absent; it was there, but in the service now of Max’s journey of self-discovery.
The Act of Love is also told in the first person, and is no less of an achievement than Kalooki Nights. If the latter was Jacobson’s most completely realised Jewish novel, The Act of Love is his erotic apogee, distilling the sexual epigrammatism or intellectualism that was uncomfortably contained inside the framework of a conventional marital farce in Who’s Sorry Now?. In that novel, Kreitman’s rage is hemmed in by a plot that involves him ending up in bed with his best friend’s wife, while his best friend, a previously monogamous sexual naif, moves in with Kreitman’s wife, Hazel. The imbroglio is complicated by the presence of a younger man, Nyman. Kreitman becomes convinced that Hazel is sleeping with Nyman too, and is briefly enraptured by the thought: “Kreitman felt desire for his would-be faithless wife race like poison through his body.”
The comic structure of Who’s Sorry Now? means there’s nowhere for this thought to go. In The Act of Love, by contrast, the very medium of the novel’s telling is the “terrible bliss” felt by a “willingly jealous” husband at the thought of his wife sleeping with another man. Consequently, this is the most inward of all Jacobson’s novels. It takes place entirely in what the narrator, an antiquarian bookseller, calls the “book-fed theatre of riot and melodrama that [is] my sexual imagination.”
And it’s a particular kind of book that feeds Felix Quinn’s imagination. In a passage early in the novel that is both a mapping of the contours of his mental universe and Jacobson’s sly way of warning us of what is to come, Felix acknowledges with “bewilderment” that there are “some readers who open books in order to be mystified by extravagant events, or stirred by acts of prosaic heroism. I have been born without a taste for mystery or heroics. Love, that is all I’ve ever cared to read about. Love and love’s agonies.” And that is all we will read about here: Felix’s elaborate plans to fulfil his desire to be cuckolded.
The novel opens in a sodden churchyard in Shropshire, with Felix identifying the man who will cuckold him. It ends in the same place. In between, Felix takes his imagination for a walk around a tightly circumscribed portion of central London: on Marylebone High Street, where he lives, where his shop is and where his wife’s future lover, Marius, holes up, in a squalid flat above a button shop, from which he emerges only to buy cheese and the occasional coffee.
Jacobson’s great provocation here is to treat Felix’s taste for ignominy as a kind of deranged uxoriousness. On the desk in his study is a photograph by Helmut Newton of the French writer Pierre Klossowski and his wife. Newton’s portrait, Felix thinks, celebrates “the heat which can be generated by a marriage… when the husband is sexually uxorious to the point of madness, and the wife indulges him.”
In fact, Klossowski and his compatriot Georges Bataille exert an important influence over Felix. He refers several times to Klossowski’s “philosophical and pornographic” novel Roberte ce soir, which depicts a husband who “suffers” from conjugal happiness as if it were an illness, as well as to Bataille’s treatise on eroticism, which celebrates the “violence of rapture before the beloved.” This provides Felix’s (and Jacobson’s) erotic attention with a kind of philosophical discipline, turning it inwards, not outwards to corporeal surfaces, as happens, for instance, in John Updike’s novels. Unlike Updike’s suburban voluptuaries, Felix is not interested in women’s breasts, say, as “discrete objects to be enjoyed independently of the woman to whom they belong.”
Jacobson has gestured towards this kind of rhapsodic desire before. But this is the first time he has properly inhabited it. He luxuriates in it, unfolding it at what Felix calls a “pervert’s pace”—a delicious deferral of the moment of rapturous abasement that he contrasts with the sadist’s haste towards the “place of pain.” In its excavation of the pleasure buried in betrayal’s pain, The Act of Love is a masterpiece.