Truth is stranger than satire

22 April 2017

9:00 AM

22 April 2017

9:00 AM

I think we’re all agreed about Donald Trump — by which I mean all of us who read the literary novel, buy hardbacks and take pleasure in good writing. The novel as a form is interested in different points of view; is protean and humanly various; listens to different voices patiently; does not shout down. As Auden said, the novelist ‘in his own weak person, if he can, /Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.’

Donald Trump is not much like that. He shouts down; he evidently does not see much in other people to recommend them, other than their opportunity to proffer sycophancy; and the range of his vocabulary has been assessed as equivalent to a ten-year-old (in American education, moreover). It is fair to say that Trump’s world and the world of the literary novel have no point of comparison. Let us permit the form to have its way with him.

Howard Jacobson ought to be the ideal writer for the task. He is exceedingly clever, and has no hesitation about defending the values of intelligence and knowledge. Trump, on the other hand, is stupid — no question about it — and defends ignorance. ‘I love the poorly educated,’ he has said. If satire is the statement of opposition, then a book by Howard Jacobson about Donald Trump sounds intrinsically compelling — not by the attitudes it chooses to take, but by its very nature.

It’s been a long time since intelligence assaulted stupidity, though the position has produced some of the masterpieces of satire. The Dunciad never doubts that it is better in every way than its pathetic subjects: its writing is more inventive, elegant and compelling than anything those idiots could contrive, and its attitudes, beliefs and values are in accordance with long established literary and political values.

Since then, subjectivity has crept into literary evaluation, and we may decide that we like Pope, or say instead, ‘Actually, I really like Leonard Welsted better.’ The poem of Pope very much to the current purpose is the ‘Epistle to Augustus’, nominally a free translation of Horace’s panegyric to the emperor. In Pope, the statements of flattery towards King George Augustus Hanover grow increasingly extravagant and inappropriate until even George II must have wondered why he was being praised for his learning and love of the arts, and why it ended in such a pile of waste paper, disintegrating garbage and the wreckage of Soho. It is one of the funniest and most awe-inspiring poems in the language: a work in which a great mind calmly surveys the work of an idiot.

I suppose we are out of love with intelligence asserting itself, which tends to get dismissed as snobbery or elitism. And we may not be very sure about formal satire. But all the evidence points to the Americans having elected a comically inappropriate person as their President. In these circumstances, as Juvenal said, difficile est saturam non scribere.

Pussy, however, doesn’t really work. It looks at first like a fairy tale parallel to Trump’s career, in which the principal figure is Prince Fracassus of the walled republic of Urbs-Ludus. His parents are the Grand Duke and Duchess of Origen. This sort of thing is a familiar approach, and in some ways the education of Fracassus deserves to be set out, deprived of the cultural circumstances:

He failed to see, since his tutors had words, and they could do nothing better with their lives than teach him, just exactly what words had to recommend them. Did he want to end up like them? He believed himself to be complete. Ineducable because there was nothing more he would need to know — and certainly nothing more these failures could ever teach him — for the life he intended to live.

But the subject matter of the satire is easy. Anyone could talk rudely about Trump’s education. The art is in finding the satisfying satirical framework in which to explore the subject. Private Eye’s ‘Dear Bill’ letters, and Catherine Bennett’s ‘Mrs Cameron’s Diary’ in the Guardian, worked beautifully as views of the Thatcher and Cameron governments from the golf club and fashion PR. Other attempts to depict governments as church parishes or public schools were forced and unfunny, requiring the constant creation of unlikely parallels. I would say that the obvious approach to Trump would be a Pale Fire-type pastiche of a ghosted management how-to book, through which the man’s true nature would emerge.

There are immediate problems with Jacobson’s scenario. How can the heir to a Grand Duchy ride a populist wave, where celebrity joins with electoral democracy? He is never going to win an election. The republic has a large wall from the beginning — how are we going to find a parallel instance for Trump’s rallying cry? But a bigger problem is the novel’s confusion about what sort of world we are in.Television and the internet are present from the start, and some of the cultural phenomena that Fracassus deals with are real enough — he is on Twitter, named as such, likes Caffè Nero and reads a book by Bear Grylls. So how can his world remain ignorant of Britain and America — as it must?

Similar incoherence affects Fracassus’s speech. The novel rests, in a conventional manner, on mock-heroic elevation — ‘Mighty would be the pen, and nimble the hand wielding it…’ As opposed to this tired mannerism, however, the tweets in the novel are the best thing in it, Jacobson beautifully pastiching the characteristic Trump nonsense. ‘Lunch with Caleb Hopsack. He paid. Classy gesture from an incredibly classy guy.’ But as if to limit the effectiveness of this characteristically American style, Fracassus soon drops into another conventional manner of English comic writing, weirdly reflecting ‘They can’t half talk, these Gnossians.’

God knows, I wanted this novel to work. There is enough material in a Trump presidency to keep writers, comic or otherwise, busy for decades. An allegorical parallel will always be an inadequate and tamely conventional version of the mad reality. How poor the name ‘Fracassus’ sounds compared to ‘Trump’ — a Dickensian conflation of winning and a noisy fart. But if Jacobson were to return to Trump as a subject in a couple of years’ time, that book could be worth reading.

As if to reassure ourselves about Jacobson’s excellence, his latest journalism is published, though sadly this will be his last collection from the Independent, which has lost interest in good writing. His columns were always one of the best things in the paper — funny, argumentative, contrary and stuffed with ideas as well as a big, sympathetic personality. They were on the right side of the argument, even when they were obviously wrong.

He is an excellent writer to disagree with — and an even better one to agree with. I utterly recommend his column on why Noam Chomsky probably means ‘and’ when he habitually says ‘but’. I don’t mind his occasional pieces about cygnets and old dogs, and the confident way he feels able to write 800 words about D.H. Lawrence now and again is admirable. He is the last of the Leavisites, and now that the decision to disagree has turned into the insistence on the right to silence other opinions, I don’t see another one turning up.

All too often, newspaper columnists write in order to elicit the established response from a coterie whose beliefs and prejudices they already know. Jacobson was satisfying because he always gave the impression of writing to start a discussion at least, an argument on a good day, even a proper fight. Buy both books: see what you think.

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