“I have my readers in India. In fact, I feel they understand my humour better than here in Britain”
Howard Jacobson's Man Booker Prize for Fiction-winning book, The Finkler Question, opens with the sentence, “He should have seen it coming.”
But did he? Not quite.
“The only inevitability I see about it is that finally I've won it. Often I thought I was never going to win it; never thought that I'll eventually win it this time,” admits Jacobson. Indeed, the Booker for The Finkler Question has surprised many.
That a “seriously funny book,” as it has been described in literary circles, has won the Booker has raised many eyebrows. Speaking from London in a telephone interview, Jacobson is at a loss why. “I don't know why they're surprised. I'm not the first comic novelist to get the Prize. Nor have the past recipients been all dark, serious writers. There was Salman Rushdie, too,” he says.
Then he analyses the cause: “Maybe, it's because I've such a vast volume of comic novels under my belt. But pray, it's not my first book. I've been writing for the past 27 years. Seriously speaking, I'm happy I make people laugh but I don't make them go wild laughing. There is always an issue involved, there are other sentiments.”
Jacobson, for all his prolific essays — and twice being long-listed for the Booker with novels Kalooki Nights and Who's Sorry Now — is not well known in India. He does not make to the list of ‘must read' authors of very many. Jacobson, though, differs. “I have my readers in India. In fact, I feel they understand my humour better than here in Britain. I'm better read in India, South Africa and Australia. My books get very good reviews, very informed, insightful reviews in India.”
He, however, admits there are occasions when people come to listen to his talks and are surprised to know he is an author too! “I hope this Prize will solve that problem. That's the most wonderful thing about the Booker. It introduces the author to new readers and introduces the readers to the author. Earlier I've had occasions when people would come to hear me talk and confess they have not read me. But they do want to read me.”
Why, then, is he not as accessible to his readers as, say, a Rushdie or a Peter Carey? “I cannot put a finger to it. My books do well everywhere. But yes, every book is a different experience and is promoted accordingly.”
Is his relative lack of visibility at least partly caused by people's inability to identify with his sense of humour? “It could be. However, my old Indian readers will understand me better. They would appreciate where I'm coming from, from where I draw expressions and instances. I've high hopes of Indian readers. The music of Indian society, the rhythm of life, is closer to my pulse. Here, it is only heavy satire.”
In one such satirical moment, Jacobson was casually described as the “Jewish Jane Austen.” The expression has stuck. It rankles him. “I'm sick of it. It does not describe me or my writing, only some of it. I'm not a Jewish writer. I'm an English writer. English writing is what I love; English music is what I hear when I write. This ‘Jewish Jane Austen' comment was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing, nothing more.”
Though the book is funny, it raises larger issues of Zionist politics, Israel and political identities. Yet there is a lightness of touch to it that imparts the book its melancholic moments. “When one talks of Israel, one should talk about Jewish identity. I make fun of Jews not because I don't appreciate their feelings but because of their sanctimonious ways. It's a complex situation one is talking about. I want justice for everybody. When I see pictures of youngsters holding up placards of PLO, and protesting against cruel, barbaric ways, it affects me as much as it does anybody. But the question is, how did we get there? I want justice for everybody, for Israel, for Palestine.”
There are parts of the book that seem almost autobiographical. For instance, his lead character Julian Treslove works for the BBC.
Jacobson initially refuses to draw comparisons, before adding, “I've done some work for the BBC. But people at the BBC don't get what I do. It can help you if it understands you.”
Looking forward to visiting India for the Jaipur literary festival “sometime in the future,” Jacobson sums up his feelings for the moment thus: “Richly satisfying, wonderful.”