Words’ worth : Fun with love, sex and death

The Guardian

Sometimes you can’t help feeling that they could have chosen a different word from “novel” to describe a prose narrative extending over a minimum of, say, 150 pages. ‘The Making of Henry’ is a novel. But it is not exactly novel. It bears strong resemblances to Jacobson’s earlier ... familiarities. A middle-aged Jewish man, originally from Manchester, deals with his energetic and complicated libido, while contemplating the family he grew up in. While they were, or at least the father was, practically unlettered, he is devoted to literature (particularly the novel), and climbs high enough in his profession to teach the subject in an appalling provincial institute of what can only be called higher education with a sardonic smirk. What narrows this one down is that the central character is 59, no longer has the job he hated, and lives in material, if not mental, comfort in St John’s Wood.

So why am I recommending this book for your shelves? Because it’s funny, that’s why. Howard Jacobson is very often funny, as often as he wants to be. “We should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh,” as one character here quotes Nietzsche, and Jacobson quietly obliges us to assent to this. As SJ Perelman noted, the essence of comedy is to put a man up a tree, throw rocks at him, and then get him down from the tree. Jacobson’s heroes willingly, if with bad grace, haul themselves up their own trees and then invite the world to hurl itself at them. And the world, for them, is unendurable. Here is how the contemporary insanity strikes Henry Nagel, Jacobson’s latest maestro of the higher kvetching: “revving when you’re stationary and driving with your hand on your horn ... text messaging the person standing next to you, or being wired up so that you can speak into thin air ... or wearing running shoes when you’re not running, or coming up to Henry with a bad face and a dog on a piece of string and asking him for money. Why would Henry give someone with a bad face money? Because of the dog? Because of the string?”

There has to be room in the library, however, for books about men who think of nothing but sex and (good) books, and Jacobson is their laureate. He is also quite intelligent enough to have anticipated your objections long before they occurred to you. Jacobson knows that his characters suffer from pique, not from real rage and despair; that a novel set now, in this country, is going to be a non-starter when it comes to tackling the grand themes. So instead he works in miniature, like a craftsman, doing something like the same thing again and again until he gets it right. And the best craftsmen engaged in this kind of work also know that time is running out for them. This is a book that thinks about death a lot. It is not morbid, at the age of 59, to do so; it is daft not to. And a great way to approach that subject is via love. Not just sex, but that too, of course. That, and being funny.