The Plot Against England
Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson talks about English anti-Semitism, ping-pong, and the seriousness of Jewish jokes
The British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson’s eleventh novel, The Finkler Question, was awarded the Man Booker Prize today. On the eve of the announcement, Jacobson spoke to Tablet Magazine about English anti-Semitism, Israel “swaggering around,” and why Jews used to be good at ping-pong. Plus: The first U.S. publication of Jacobson’s 1999 profile of table tennis champion Marty Reisman.
You described your 2007 novel Kalooki Nights as “the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody anywhere” and we agree—
It certainly uses the word “Jew” more than any other novel.
So what do you mean by that?
I suppose I meant that its preoccupations are unrelievedly Jew talking to Jew thinking about Jew. This was deliberate. That’s what I wanted to write. Jew, Jew, Jew, joke, joke, joke, the world as seen entirely through the eyes of Jews for Jews. There are some Jews who live like that. To a degree, there’s a possibility in every Jew I ever met, for them to live like that. That you ask the question “Why?” and then back you go to the Holocaust and back to the pogroms before that, and everyone wants to know what it is that’s made this particular kind of Jewish morbidity into a positive feature now of the Jewish imagination. So, the book was really about that. Jews thinking about Jews talking about Jews to Jews written by somebody who is a Jew, who is obsessed by the subject, has some crazy obsession, who wants to get to the bottom of this obsession and wonders where this obsession comes from. And will deploy every kind of act of the mind to think about it, including, primarily, what Jews do best, which is make jokes. No one makes jokes like Jews.
So, it’s not only the most Jewish book ever written, it’s got more Jewish jokes in it, good or bad, than any book ever written. Certainly more about Jews and more jokes in it than the Old Testament.
That leads us directly to Shylock. What do you make of him?
I don’t have as many problems as others do. Shakespeare does no wrong for me. I think he’s thinking about what it’s like to bear that stereotype. To have to wear that stereotype as a badge and how hellish that is. That doesn’t stop him thinking that in the end Shylock is Shylock and doing Jewish things. Shakespeare is about as humane about it as you could expect for that time and given his knowledge.
You are most often described as an English Jewish novelist, but you might feel you have more in common with post-colonial literature, Indian writers, Irish, or others. Or do you see yourself and other Jewish writers in Britain doing something more like a regionalism, something more like Scotsmen, or cockneys, or people from Wales?
Funny, I don’t think of myself like that. I’m an “Eng Lit” man. I gave up my table tennis, and I went to Cambridge, although I played a bit there, and I studied English literature, and I went to Australia and I went back to Cambridge, and I taught here for 20-odd years English literature. I’m an absolutely English Literature Man. English literature is what I read. When my first novel came out and people said he’s like Philip Roth, I hadn’t read any Philip Roth then. I was what was called a Leavisite, and if you know Leavis, I was taught by F.R. Leavis, and those of us who were taught by F.R. Leavis believe that D.H. Lawrence was the last great English novelist and he died in 1930 and that was that. I hadn’t read modern books. And I went on to read Roth and I thought, Christ being compared to him ain’t bad—he’s some writer! He’s fantastic! And then I went on to read him more, and Saul Bellow, and I became more consciously working a bit like them, but not in their tradition. Their Jewish roots are in European novels. They’re sort of Kafka and Dostoyevsky and Babel and the better for it. I—and I’ve made this joke about myself—I’m not the English Philip Roth, I’m the Jewish Jane Austen. As far as I’m concerned I’m an English novelist working absolutely square in the English tradition. I’m regional to the degree that I’m Manchester. I try to write the sentences of a centralized, cosmopolitan English writer who has read all the great English writers. The voices in my head are Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, Dickens, George Eliot.
And then onto that, I have laid—and God knows why, it has astonished my parents—this whole Jewish palaver. My parents didn’t get it. “Where’s this from?” my dad said. On his death bed, my dad said, “You’re not going to be a rabbi, are you?” I thought he’d be proud of me. Well, he was proud of me. But I thought, “Look, look at all this Jewishness that you wanted me to go in for. You wanted me to have a Jewish wife, you wanted me to give you Jewish grandchildren, what I’m really giving you now are Jewish books.” And he thought they were great, but he didn’t get it.
I never thought when I was trying to write in my 20s and even in my 30s, that I was going to write about Jews. But I wasn’t getting anywhere not writing about Jews. I couldn’t write a page.
Margaret Drabble wrote an essay for Tablet Magazine and singled you out for your exceptional novels, and then told us that there isn’t much anti-Semitism in England. How are the Jews of England doing these days?
The novel I’ve just published—about which I saw a very interesting review on Tablet the other day—raises this question. Do you know? We don’t know. This is the thing we don’t know. The last time I was in America talking about Kalooki Nights, many people asked me there what’s it like in England. There was a real sense of, “What’s it like on the streets of England for a Jew to go walking without a bodyguard?” That Muslim extremists would attack him; that ordinary English anti-Semites would attack him. It isn’t like that. I don’t need to tell you that. It doesn’t feel like a dangerous country to be Jewish in.
There is a sense that when something like Gaza erupts, the flotilla episode erupted, things get said by the intelligentsia that feed down into the populace, and every now and then you know someone will kick a Jew. At the time of Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza thing, there were probably several dozen, maybe even a few hundred anti-Semitic incidents here, some of them truly violent, people really being physically attacked, sometimes abuse, upsetting things like Jewish kids at school being told by Muslim kids at school, “Your people are killers,” and all of that. How do you measure that? How do you decide what any of that is? There’s always been low-level bits of skinhead brutality: A Jew is somebody you push around. There’s always been a little of that.
What we don’t know and what we’re all trying to figure out and measure, those of us who think this is worth putting our mind to, is how far the rhetoric of anti-Zionism is spilling over into another thing, through the sheer violence and virulence of its own language. Because it might very well be that a person might say, “I’m not anti-Semitic, not at all, my best friends are Jews”—you know the story—“I just think this has to be said.” But it might be that if enough people are saying that, then a kind of linguistic climate is created in which people feel Jews are what they’ve always felt Jews to be: fair game.
Do you find yourself feeling obliged to defend Israel’s right to do all kinds of bad things that other nations do to survive?
Oh, non-stop. I write a column in the Independent, which has some journalists who are known throughout the world for their undisguised, and perfectly well-expressed and declared anti-Zionism and worse, and I have to bite my tongue off each week. Do I now become a person who writes about nothing but Israel? Is there or isn’t there something to complain about? Are we going mad by thinking that there is? Does it make sense to shut up? And sometimes, quite simply, can you afford to go on thinking about this? Can you wake up each morning, and go to the computer, and go to the websites, go to the hate sites and then go to the few sites in which the people are calmer and take a more rational approach to these things. When I was writing The Finkler Question, this is what was happening.
And we’re not just talking about those bloody settlements. I’d go out with my own bare hands and pull them down. I want to throttle [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu for not knowing that you’ve got a golden opportunity here: Stop the bloody settlements. It’s not that kind of thing, which is perfectly fair. It’s the other stuff, that goes from that to “Israel is an apartheid country,” which is rubbish, “Israel is a fascist country,” “Israel is a Nazi country,” to “Zionism has always been colonialist in ambition,” to a whole false re-evaluation of the history of Israel, as though what Israel at its very worst now and then is is what Israel was always bound to be and always had to be. And that’s unforgivable.
I remember very vividly in 1967, the Six-Day War. I remember it vividly because I was at sea. I was coming back from Australia from my first job in Australia and the ships were disrupted and we had to go a long way around. I remember reading the newspapers on the boat—could we have gotten newspapers on the boat? Yes, as we landed—and my sense was that the whole world felt that Israel was about to be beaten and about to be destroyed, and everybody was on its side, poor little Israel. And the moment Israel won, you could almost start to see people’s expressions change. Israel winning became a problem. And Israel winning big became a bigger problem. Israel swaggering around—well, Israel swaggering around is a problem for all of us—Israel not in trouble, not under threat has been a problem for people, and you have to ask, Why is that?
It’s one thing to feel, “Those poor Jews, they’re about to be murdered,” and another thing to feel, “Those bastard Jews have just won.”
How do you see the relationship between Jewishness and Britishness? Is there a connection or affinity, or is it just an accident?
It’s an accident. There isn’t an affinity. Except of course there’s a puritan tradition in English literature, which I quite like, actually. My old teacher F.R. Leavis made bones about his really being in sympathy a sort of Puritan. That’s got its roots in the Old Testament. They read the Old Testament, studied the Old Testament, and a kind of biblical connection between the Jews and the English. But essentially, temperamentally, no. And that’s been my great challenge, really, to try and sell it. Can I sell it to the English? Here’s Jane Austen’s world, I’ll beef it up a bit with some Yiddish expressions, with some Yiddish obscenities, even. But the real way in which this has expressed itself is through comedy.
Continue reading: Ping-pong champion Marty Reisman
Continue reading: Ping-pong champion Marty Reisman
Can someone who actually makes you laugh win the Man Booker Prize? I don’t know how good I am, that’s not for me to say. But I can say I am as serious as anybody else. I am serious in my intentions as anybody.
We say in America you’re supposed to “dress British and think Yiddish.”
[Laughs.] That’s good. I don’t know the expression. That’s good.
How did you first meet ping-pong champ Marty Reisman, the subject of the profile Tablet Magazine is publishing today?
I was in Manchester, my hometown, where my novel The Mighty Walzer, which came out 10 years ago, is set. The World Table Tennis Championships were being held there, which was very fortuitous for me. I kept running into people I’d not played with or seen for 40 years, and when table tennis players meet after 40 years, they don’t say, “Hello how are you?”; they say “God, that point you won, 22, 20 years ago, that was amazing.” So, I was wandering around enjoying all that, and met a guy, a very good player who had played for England and lived in Manchester, and he introduced me to Marty Reisman. He said, “This is the great Marty Reisman.” I’d read of Marty Reisman, and even seen some film footage of Marty Reisman, and he was a table tennis hero, so to meet Marty Reisman was fantastic. To see him play was thrilling. And then I thought, it would be really fun to write about him.
Are you any good at ping-pong?
I was a very good junior player. I was in the top 10 junior players of England, and I thought I would play for England as a junior player, but I just missed out. I used to play for Manchester and my county, and I played for Cambridge and all that, but I never made it as a grown-up player, because I lost interest, really. I wasn’t good enough. But I’m good enough to be able to stand at a table and get back 10 of Marty Reisman’s smashes, until he’s decided I won’t, and then, that’s that.
I’m tempted to take The Mighty Walzer, which is about a ping-pong player, as a reflection of your own history in the sport.
I dreamed of being a great table tennis player. And was good enough to have a bit of a life as a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old boy. That was what I did. I wandered around and I played table tennis, not international table tennis, but county table tennis, city table tennis, city-to-city table tennis, and it was my whole life, and it mattered. And when you meet someone like Marty, of course, you meet someone for whom it’s mattered but it didn’t stop mattering, and that’s what’s wonderful about him, he didn’t stop. For most of us it’s 16, 17—it’s girls, it stops. It still hasn’t stopped for Marty.
The other person I met when I played with him in New York—this now is years ago—was Dick Miles, who I talk about in the piece. Did you know Dick Miles has written a novel? Dick Miles has written a novel and it’s very good. I mean really good. Witty and sexy and atmospheric.
What are the deeper connections between ping-pong and literature?
I think in America, literature and sport are more associated with each other. You think of some of the great baseball novels like The Natural, Malamud’s novel, but in England sport and writing don’t mix. Cricket a little bit, maybe. But a lot of people who write play table tennis, and a lot of the people who play table tennis write. I think it is to do with the quiet introspective nature of the game. You’re obviously an indoor person if you write, unless you’re Hemingway. And you’re certainly an indoor person if you play table tennis. You need to be fit. When I played table tennis, I trained like an athlete. People couldn’t believe their eyes: There was me, running down the street in a track suit, skipping and training like a boxer.
And it goes with wryness, shyness, quietude. Not that any of those things are true of Marty. He’s the least characteristic table tennis player I’ve known, which is what makes him so wonderful. He brought showmanship into table tennis, and there’s very rarely any showmanship. Dick Miles was a great table tennis player and he went everywhere with a copy of Ulysses, apparently. You can imagine Marty staring at the copy of Ulysses and wondering, “What the hell?”
And I should say, too, when we talk about writing and table tennis and how one moves from one into the other, that where I came from in Manchester, it was a very Jewish game. Every Jewish boy I knew played table tennis, some better than others, me better than most. But everyone played table tennis. It was just something that we did. Our mothers liked it. I’ve made this joke a million times, but it’s true: Our mothers liked us to play table tennis, because they felt we wouldn’t get injured. My mother didn’t like the idea of my being out there on frozen cold playing fields in winter in northern England, kicking balls around. Cricket bats and balls are dangerous. Table tennis, that seemed safe.
Is it fair to say that the Jews dominated 20th-century ping-pong until they were bested by the Chinese?
It’s Austro-Hungary, that’s where. Austro-Hungary would be the perfect place for table tennis, these melancholy deracinated men, with a wry sense of the ridiculous. Philosophical, pessimistic, the game suited them. The clever, the quick-witted, the game suited them perfectly. The majority of those people were Jews, but not all. I mean the great [Viktor] Barna wasn’t Jewish, was he? Berger was Jewish.
Altogether Jews have stopped playing table tennis, I think. When I went back to Manchester to research The Mighty Walzer and met Marty as the visitor there, I couldn’t find Jewish boys playing in large numbers. Certainly it was no longer a game that all Jews played. It was a game that poor Jews played. It was a working-class game. We were all still—our fathers were poor. Our fathers were market men, taxi drivers, small upholsterers, professional men. Their children went on, and our lot became much more professional, and now our children don’t play. They have more money and a more sophisticated sense of games. Some of them would even imitate the goyim and play football.
Another plot for one of your novels would be the Miliband story—Ed Miliband was just elected Labor party leader, beating out his older brother, David, among others. It just seems like—it’s biblical, the younger son taking the birthright of the older son.
I wrote it 20 years ago, nearly. I wrote a novel called The Very Model of a Man, which is the story of Cain and Abel, actually. I set it in the Bible times, which is why nobody reads it.
I am the oldest boy in my family, and I have intense sympathy for David Miliband. I actually rather like Ed Miliband, and for the country he might be better, but for the family, that’s quite a shocking thing he’s done. Shocking thing. I couldn’t have taken it. When my younger brother was born, I tell it a million ways and I tell it funny, but it was a terrible, terrible shock. I love my younger brother, we get along fine, we’ve gone in our own directions, he’s a painter, I’m a writer. But he stole my birthright! He did. He stole my mother’s love for a little while, he stole the love of my aunties, my grandma, everything. It’s a serious thing to lose that.
What about the idea that sometime in the near-medium future Britain will probably have a Jewish prime minister?
That will be something, won’t it? That really will be something. That could be a great thing. Of course let’s not forget we’ve already had a Jewish prime minister in Disraeli, even though he’d given up his Jewishness, or his Jewishness was given up for him by his father at birth. He was still referred to as a Jew and stood for Jewish things.
I’d love for it to happen. I think every Jew would love it to happen. It could backfire. The interesting thing is how little—and this is what gives me pause around the whole anti-Semitic business in this country. Gentiles in this country don’t seem to give a damn about the Milibands. I know that other journalists who are Jewish can’t stop talking about the Milibands being Jewish. I tell you something, half the people in England, they wouldn’t know.
So, then that asks the question: Is this whole bloody thing brewed up in the Jewish imagination? It isn’t that we don’t have enemies enough. Are we now so conscious of the whole damn thing that in their absence we create them? It’s a proper question to ask, anyway.
That’s what makes it seem like it would be a perfect plot for one of your novels.
Actually, that would be a good one, do it the Philip Roth way, you know one of those good Roth novels in which he goes bad. The Plot Against America. The Plot Against England and set it forward—hey, you’ve given me an idea!
All the best with Booker Prize.
It’s a long shot.
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