Monday, April 22, 2019
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“J” by Howard Jacobson (first published 2014)
Six or seven years ago on this blog, I reviewed Howard Jacobson’s travel book Roots, Schmoots, a wry view of his own Jewish heritage which questioned the whole idea of canonising a particular ethnicity.
At the time, I took the opportunity to remind readers that Howard Jacobson is a Jewish, Manchester-born, Cambridge-educated prolific novelist, columnist and writer of non-fiction, who won the 2010 Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question. I have a soft spot for Jacobson, a convinced and polemical atheist who can nevertheless call out the zealotry and potential bigotry of much current anti-religious rhetoric.
Jacobson has been known to criticise (as he did in Roots, Schmoots) what he called “the Holocaust industry”, meaning the way memorials of genocide are sometimes sentimentalised and misused for ideological purposes rather than simply being reminders of, and warnings against, mass-murder. But he has more recently spent time calling out insidious and pervasive modern versions of anti-semitism. Yes, there might be a “Holocaust industry”, but it is not as dangerous as this mental virus. In 2013, Jacobson gave a lecture which was turned into a pamphlet called When Will Jews be Forgiven for the Holocaust? Its essential argument was that non-Jews, feeling historical guilt for the Shoah, resent the Jewish people who make them feel guilty and therefore become anti-semites. The victim is blamed with ingenious justifications. (“I am anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish.” “I am only criticising the state of Israel.” etc.). It is perfectly legitimate to criticise the state of Israel and its foreign policy, as it is to criticise any other sovereign state. But such justifications are often mere subterfuge.
Jacobson has never written a novel dealing directly with the Holocaust (his forte is satirical, and often very funny, novels about Britain’s Jewish community), but the year after When Will Jews be Forgiven for the Holocaust? appeared, his novel J was published. It was short-listed for, but did not win, the Booker Prize.
I approached J eagerly but, with the deepest of regret, I have to report that I was disappointed by it. I can see what Jacobson intended. He is attacking historical amnesia, the tendency to wipe away, not talk about and not directly confront historical realities – in this case the Holocaust. And part of his technique is to set his story in what is a strange sort of alternative version of Britain.
The novel opens slowly. We are in a country where everyone is aware of something designated “What Happened, If It happened”, but what this phrase really means is never discussed. Most of the novel is set in an isolated community, or village, Port Reuben, which reminds me very much of the sanitised, but still sinister, village in the 1960s TV series The Prisoner. People are soothed with syrupy music and only good news is broadcast on the radio. Things are not exactly banned, but they are no longer available. Sentimental ballads are fine, but rougher-edged jazz, with all its improvisations, has disappeared. Again, it could be seen as akin to the world of drugged, soothed people in Huxley’s Brave New World, except that, unlike Brave New World, characters are still able to think, even rebelliously, and there are sometimes outbreaks of violence.
Now what is the J of the title? It could be Jahweh or Jahuwa or Jehovah, the unseen but dominant and controlling god of the Jews - or some parody thereof. There is the convention in this novel that every time people utter a word beginning with J, they have to put their fingers to their lips, which sounds like an echo of the older Jewish convention that one should not speak the [tetragrammaton] real name of God. Or could it be J for Jude (= Jew) as sewn on the yellow stars Nazis made Jews wear? Or is it simply J for Jew and Judaism? Obviously it is all of these things, and we soon suspect that “What Happened, If It happened” is really Jacobson’s satire of those gentiles who accept the reality of the Holocaust, but still somehow want to deny it. And perhaps the tendency of some Jews to avoid the topic and be polite about it.
Characters all have Jewish-sounding names, or names that are odd conjunctions of Jewish and Irish, but it is uncertain if they are really Jews. Kevern Cohen, a wood-worker in early middle age, is thrown together with Ailinn Solomons, who doesn’t know who her parents were, has been raised by nuns, and doesn’t understand Kevern’s sense of humour. Esme Nussbaum is a researcher who is rebuked by Luther Rabinowitz for enquiring too much. Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky (“Phinny”) butts into the narrative every so often with reports on how Cohen and the other characters are behaving. Could these be official reports? Could he be part of the mechanism that keeps this community soothed and ignorant of recent history? After all, “Phinny” (= finny = slippery as a fish, maybe?) runs a Benign Arts Faculty which is in the business of ensuring that art is uplifting, anodyne and comforting. In this society “hoarding” is a crime (which chimes with a society not wanting reminders of the real past) and there are women who take courses in Credibility Fatigue, when they find it hard to cope with unpleasant realities should they surface anyway.
In this case, I will not burden you with one of my notorious plot summaries. Suffice it to say that at a certain point, Kevern Cohen is suspected of harrassing an eccentric woman called Lowenna Morgenstern and is interrogated. Kevern and Ailinn Solomons take off for a while to the larger settlment of Necropolis (is this a version of London?), and are uneasily aware of the cosmpolitan society there, so unlike the blandly homogenous Port Reuben. Later Kevern is investigated over the killing of Lowenna Morgenstern. The love of Kevern and Ailinn may be a sign of hope and something that breaks the pattern of denial of the past. But the arc of the narrative leaves plenty of room for the sense of a daunting and controlling authority in a society that is outwardly calm and peaceful. Death and suicide come into it.
I found this novel intriguing, but also very confusing with its tangled family relationships and the very vagueness of the way its imagined society is delineated. But of course this could be part of Jacobson’s intention. He is presenting a world in which a real view of the past is expunged and real history is smothered in euphemisms. Lack of common memory leads to the very vagueness and uncertainty of which I am complaining.
I would also take it that part of Jacobson’s inspiration was to make a British readership see the Holocaust in British terms. I’m reminded of Humphrey Jennings’ short film The Silent Village (made in 1943), which aimed to bring the Lidice massacre home by giving it a British setting. Jacobson is also taking on the corrosive effect of sentimentality. I have often thought about Keats’ line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. The sentimentalist takes it to mean that only beautiful things are true. Whatever the boy Keats may have intended, I personally take it to mean that only the truth is beautiful – and the truth includes the negative, nasty, sordid aspects of reality and history. You should not fetishize or wallow in these ugly things, but if you ignore them, the “beauty” you create is sentimentality, which is always a lie. In J, the professor purveying “Benign Art” is purveying escapism and sentimentality, as well as ignoring the violence that burns under the sentimentality…. And when he is thwarted, he himself turns psychotic. Also underlying the novel is the sad truth that class or racial or social or cultural antagonisms are necessary for some people’s self-esteem. Few things are as bracing as feeling superior to another group of people.
I think all these things are intended in the novel, and I have absolutely no quarrel with what Jacobson is saying. But I still found J an obtuse novel and therefore very difficult to read.Sorry.