For most New Yorkers, the idea of Jews beyond Israel, New York and New York South (aka Florida) is an annoying complication. For many American Jews, the existence of proud, older, historically significant communities in places other than America and Israel is a constant surprise. As a friend of my then girlfriend asked when first meeting me, “There are Jews in England? Does the Queen know?”
So when the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced, containing within the baker’s dozen Britain’s best known living Jewish novelist and a Levy (Andrea), the general inclination was to either ignore it or to grasp at straws — “Didn’t the New Yorker do a piece on David Mitchell?” “Was “The Sopranos” based on Alan Warner’s book of the same name?” “Will Howard Jacobson make it in America?”
Jacobson, who was named one of the shortlisted authors today (along with Levy and four others), has been an important writer for over 20 years. He was previously longlisted for the Booker twice: for “Kalooki Nights” (2006) (which he described as ”the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere”) and for “Who’s Sorry Now?” (2002).
While Jacobson will clearly be happy that he made it to the shortlist, the award will hardly make or break him. For the author of a series of acerbic and accurate books of fiction and non-fiction like “Coming From Behind,” “Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews” and “Acts of Love,” an appreciative posterity is assured.
Part of Jacobson’s popular success in England is that, in a culture that distrusts writers, he has remained funny but also angry. This allows him the sorts of nuance that shouldn’t really require humor but, given a public forum, seem to require it. For example, Jacobson’s stance as a liberal Zionist means that he is a staunch defender of Israel while at the same time opposing many actions of its government. His humor and anger allow him to convey an attitude that is unconscionably difficult to convey even in America, with its proud and relatively powerful Jewish presence.
The amusing comment about “Kalooki Nights” quoted above came at a talk in 2006, when Jacobson slammed other Jewish artists in England for keeping their Jewishness politely quiet. Those attitudes are further castigated in “The Finkler Question,” the novel nominated for this year’s prize, where genuine attitudes of British-Jewish self-loathing are profoundly, and comically, addressed.
Nadine Gordimer won the prize in 1974 so, even if Jacobson wins, he won’t be the first Jewish writer to win a Booker or Man Booker Prize. But being shortlisted is an appropriate honor for someone who has both sharpened and broadened his writing over the decades. As by far the most Jewish writer to ever be shortlisted for the Man Booker, Jacobson would no doubt be satisfied — no matter the outcome — with the prize of having the misnomer of the “British Philip Roth” retired. He’s the very English Howard Jacobson.
Previously in the Forward: