What­ev­er It Is, I Don’t Like It

  • Review
By – March 5, 2012

There is no fol­ly so par­tic­u­lar that it doesn’t shed light on fol­ly in gen­er­al,” writes Howard Jacob­son, and it might be his mot­to. In his Sun­day columns in Britain’s Inde­pen­dent, as col­lect­ed here, the quo­tid­i­an is just a start­ing point for pon­der­ing the human condition.

While vaca­tion­ing, for instance, he comes to the con­clu­sion that on hol­i­day cou­ples get to reac­quaint them­selves with one anoth­er and dis­cov­er how lit­tle there is left to talk about.” A chance encounter with a 19th-cen­tu­ry grave­stone prompts Jacob­son to pon­der how a teacher who died at age 36 came to be memo­ri­al­ized as a man great­ly beloved.” At a bat mitz­vah it strikes him, irrev­er­ent­ly, that being a rab­bi is like being a lit­er­ary crit­ic: you pick at texts, affect a dera­ci­nat­ed Cen­tral Euro­pean accent and tell peo­ple how to live.”

Some­times Jacob­son reacts to front-page news, as when sui­cide bomb­ings prompt the con­clu­sion that resis­tance, retal­i­a­tion, revenge can­not ever be any­thing but a priv­i­leg­ing of your­self.” More often, though, the nov­el­ist is vexed by trans­gres­sions against cul­ture and lan­guage, as when he deplores rel­a­tivis­ing knowl­edge for fear of priv­i­leg­ing truth.” Address­ing bureau­crats who think lit­er­a­ture should val­i­date one’s iden­ti­ty’ and be read­able,’ he asserts: A cul­ture that can’t express its pecu­liar vital­i­ty with­out wor­ry­ing how much upset it might be caus­ing isn’t a cul­ture at all.”

There are enough quotable one-lin­ers here to deserve a chap­ter in Bartlett’s. Puri­ty has its attrac­tions,” he remarks, but only mad­men live by it.” Or: In war we can say what we can­not say in peace.” Anoth­er: None of us think any­one else can see what we see.”

Some of his most affect­ing essays pay trib­ute to artists he admires: his friends Simon Gray and Harold Pin­ter, the poet and com­pos­er Leonard Cohen. Jacob­son prizes the genius of Mozart as the illu­mi­na­tion of anoth­er way of see­ing, the sud­den turn­ing of an action on its head, not to make light of it but to enrich it.” These sur­pris­ing, wit­ty, and enlight­en­ing aperçus of the human com­e­dy by Howard Jacob­son work the very same kind of magic.

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