The Arty Semite

Howard Jacobson Goes Short for the Booker Prize

By Dan Friedman

  • Print
  • Share Share
Jenny Jacobson

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:

The Case for Cuckolds

Speaks British, Acts Yiddish

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Finkler Question, Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer, Man Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson, Andrea Levy

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.