It’s in the language

I went to a reading and talk by Howard Jacobson yesterday evening. He was brilliant. Brilliantly funny and interesting and fluent. One wit asked what the bar mitzvah presents were like in Britain in the 50s. Jacobson responded that bar mitzvah presents were a big deal, and there was a little ripple of nodding and murmuring. He had, he went on, relatives on one side of the family who were in towelling and bedding. He received a lot of towelling and bedding. On the other side there were relatives in classy import items like tinted glass; he got wine glasses colored pink, amber…

His father had a market stall, where he sold swag. “You know swag? Basically junk.” He was no good at it. But he did his best – at this point Jacobson did a little pantomime of a marketer’s claps and gestures – then referred back to his failed youthful efforts to write books that had already been written (“I tried to write Crime and Punishment, I tried to write Anna Karenina – I especially tried to write like Henry James, about life in English country houses, about which I knew absolutely nothing.”) – “This is why I couldn’t do Henry James” [repeating the marketer claps and gestures again].

About his mother’s always making sure he didn’t expect anything, so that he wouldn’t be crushed when he didn’t get it. When he got the telegram that said he’d been admitted to Cambridge and he opened it and exclaimed “I’m in, I’m in!” she advised him to look carefully at the address. She assured him he wouldn’t win the Booker, and he said I know, I know. He was the only nominee who had a good time at the dinner, because he was the only one who was calm. All the others were too nervous to eat or drink but he had a fine time packing it in.

My favorite part was when someone asked how he separates comedy from just plain fiction. He doesn’t. He doesn’t say “I’ll write a comic novel now”; he writes novels, but he can’t write without humor. It’s in the language, it’s in the writing itself. It’s just there. He can’t write any other way. I know exactly how that is; I think I have the same thing. I don’t decide to put it in – I never set out to write in a joky way (and I think most people who do are bad at it) – it’s just how I write. It’s interesting how this works. Jacobson was insistent that it’s in the language, and I think that’s exactly right.

I’m having tea with Anthony Grayling later today.

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