Howard Jacobson’s J convinced me that I’d just read a masterpiece

But on reflection is it really imaginable that Britain will have anti-Semitic pogroms within the next few years?

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

J Howard Jacobson

Jonathan Cape, pp.327, £18.99, ISBN: 9780224101974

At first sight, J — which has beenshortlisted for the Man Booker Prize — represents a significant departure for Howard Jacobson. It’s set in a future Britain where some sort of apocalypse — known only as ‘WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED’ — has taken place several decades ago. It also contains virtually no jokes. Yet, from within this unfamiliar framework, some familiar concerns soon emerge.

In 2010, The Finkler Question was hailed as the first comic novel to win the Booker since Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils. But the book darkened considerably towards the end, with Jacobson unsmilingly warning his readers — and especially any fellow Jews who regard such warnings as ‘hysterical’ — about the continuing, potentially lethal dangers of anti-Semitism.

At one point, with the cultural boycott of Israel gathering pace, a woman finds herself suddenly frightened as to where the protests against her Jewish museum might lead. ‘It was hard to picture herself as a deportee in a thin floral dress, carrying a little suitcase, her eyes hollow with terror,’ she reflects, ‘as she strolled through St John’s Wood with her jewellery clinking.’ But then again wouldn’t the Jews of 1930s Europe ‘have found [their] fate hard to picture too’? After seeing a ferociously pro-Palestinian play (obviously modelled on Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children) another character goes even further, believing that ‘there’d be no settling this until there’d been another Holocaust’.

Well, in J, there has been — perhaps not on the industrial scale of the Nazis, but effective enough. And, as we slowly learn some of the details of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, it’s evident that Palestine was indeed part of the reason — or, more accurately, part of the excuse.

The main characters are Ailinn Solomons and Kevern Cohen, a couple who’ve recently fallen in love, and whose surnames might seem to indicate their racial background. Except that one of the ways the authorities have tried to restore social stability — and increase the confusion about what happened, if it did — is by making everybody take Jewish names. Only gradually do the pair discover that they’re ‘the real McCoy’, Ailinn when she finds some letters home written by her grandmother Rebecca as a young woman, not long before the pogroms began in ‘201-’. In them, Rebecca argued firmly — but as it turns out wrongly — that her parents’ anxieties about growing anti-Semitism were simply paranoia. (In the early 20th century, remember — as Jacobson presumably does — it was often German Jews who were most dismissive of the Zionist idea that the Jews would never be safe in Europe.)

As ever, Jacobson serves up plenty of literary riches here, adding a particularly deft plot to his usual qualities of close analysis and endlessly good phrasemaking. Sentence by sentence, he remains perhaps the best British author around — and even the absence of jokes doesn’t preclude lots of zinging one-liners. (‘When everybody’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness.’) I finished the book, in fact, convinced that I’d just read a masterpiece.

The trouble comes with reflecting on it afterwards. Once you’re not being swept along by Jacobson’s prose, the awkward realisation dawns that he’s not joking, in more ways than one. Nor is he merely trying to write a work of dark fantasy. For the novel to carry the kind of punch he clearly intends, it needs to be at least imaginable that, within the next few years, the British people could rise up against the country’s Jews, who still occupy ‘a particular, even privileged place in the nation’s taxonomy of fear and loathing’. And that once they had, the crime could be buried. And that British Christians still define themselves against the Jews.

Personally, I can’t imagine a novel based on the premise here being any better done. Nonetheless, for a book like this fully to achieve its aim, that premise has to be believable — and in J, for all Jacobson’s skill, it isn’t quite.

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  • Mick Norris

    It could happen anywhere in Europe. Humans are still governed by chimeric base instincts which have never evolved yet. The material world has evolved, medicine, science, technology etc but not human animus.

    The “never again” pledge is empty and meaningless. And pogroms could break out against any minority, but it will probably be anti.Semitic when it happens, as pathological Jew-hatred seems to be in fashion again.

  • Vuil

    Fair chance it will happen in Britain.

    As the British demographic changes – 1 in 10 babies is born Muslim, 1 in 5 within the next 20 years and so on, the whites and their quaint views of freedom of speech and liberty will be marginalized – Britain will not be a nice place for Jews (and whites too, even liberal ones who read the Guardian).

    So Jacobsen’s general ideas seems plausible. All except the idea of taking on Jewish names. Far better to take on Muslim names and call their sons Mohammed (already a very common British name) or Abdul to show you want your son to submit.

  • Boleslaw Bierut

    Just look around and see what is happening.

  • Europe’s Jews are increasingly having to live their lives behind high walls and locked gates. It’s not unthinkable at all.

  • shtiv

    I remember taking The Finkler Question on holiday but was so totally bored by it that I left it in the hotel room at the end. Seriously could not see what was so good about it. As a “comic” novel, I never laughed out loud once. Just seemed a drab piece of navel-gazing whimsy. Just amazes me that something like Cloud Atlas did not win the booker prize, and something so amazingly lightweight as The Finkler Question did.

    “As ever, Jacobson serves up plenty of literary riches here” – as ever? When?

  • Melvyn Lipitch

    I hope your conclusions prove to be true, I do think you may be a little optimistic, the current mood in Europe much fanned by myopic sections of the Western media looks more gloomy than your prognosis.
    With regard to your reference to German Jewry feeling secure within Europe it was the Jews in England who were the most anti-Zionist and were the biggest obstacle to the Zionist project. They thought that assimilation was the key to their security and were sadly disappointed in the years to come.

    To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchins writing a prescient warning….”only a moral thinks that anti-semitism is only a threat to Jews. The memory of the Third Reich is very vivid precisely because a racist regime also succeeded in slaughtering millions of non-Jews including countless Germans on the pretext of extirpating a nonexistment Jewish conspiracy”

    However I enjoyed your review enough to entice me back to Jacobsen whom I had given up on after reading ” The Mighty Walzer”

  • Dina Grossman

    Dear James Walton. I found this on 3 May 2016. Do you still think that the premise is not believable?