The Mighty Walzer Returns: An Interview with Howard Jacobson

The Mighty Walzer Returns: An Interview with Howard Jacobson

New York’s nightly cultural offerings are the city’s greatest attraction, as well as its most despairing. Every night there’s something enticing to hear, see or do, but the guilt quickly settles in after you realize most of them you’ll miss. Thankfully, there are reviews.

Tablet writer Marc Tracy has a short, pithy review of one of the events I misse Friday night: Howard Jacobson, this past year’s Man Booker Prize winner for his uproarious and elegiac novel "The Finkler Question," speaking at the New York Public Library.

I interviewed Jacobson months ago, before "The Finkler Question" won the Man Booker, and before he became, suddenly, a much-fussed about author. For years, he’s been a star novelist in his native Britain, but the 68-year-old author is just beginning to breach the Atlantic barrier. He was in town Friday for the American release of an older novel, "The Mighty Walzer," which was a big hit in England when it debuted there in 1999. Now that he has America’s attention, U.S. publishers have decided to roll out the long, hilarious, and wickedly intelligent corpus of work he’s already produced, of which "Walzer" is the first.

As for the interview, Tracy reports that Jacboson is still fighting the old Philip Roth comparisons. He repeated again Friday that, as Tracy writes, "he prefers not to be called the ‘English Philip Roth’—as he frequently is—but rather the ‘Jewish Jane Austen.’" I can attest myself that, when I spoke to Jacobson last year, he used that line too, and that he elaborated about about it too: it’s not that he doesn’t admire Roth, it’s that he’s frustrated by the dour turn Roth’s fiction has taken over the last two decades.

"The Finkler Question" is, for instance, just as funny as his older gem, "The Mighty Walzer," without being any less serious. "Walzer" tells the story of an angst-ridden, hyper-sexual teenager in 1950s Manchester, who’s preparing for a ping-pong championship. And while Jacobson never takes his eye off the moral heart of his books–his characters’ hard-fought independence; their slowly revealed epiphanies; their unwitting zest for life–he casts it all in a hard-bitten, comedic shell.

Part of "Walzer" revolves around Oliver Walzer, the protaganist, and his futile attempt to transcend his own Jewishness. As Oliver says of being Jewish, "all we’d been doing since the Middle Ages was growing beetroot and running away from Cossacks." That’s the kind of humor that is Jacobson’s stock and trade. But it’s worth noting that, nearing 70, Jacobson has death on his mind a lot more than when he wrote "Walzer." He expounded on that the theme–mortality–when he spoke at the New York Public Library.

Earlier in the day, Tracy reports, Jacobson was shown the library’s collection of ephemera, including a pen once used by Charles Dickens. "To some, it would be inspirational," Tracy writes, "to Jacobson, it was a memento mori, Yorrick’s skull. ‘He was called The Immortal,’ Jacobson remarked of Dickens, sarcastically and bitterly." Then Jacobson added: "The fact of mortality covers everything, and it’s the other side of laughter. … Comedy is a human invention to deal with the sadness of life. It’s our greatest achievement. Forget the pyramids. Comedy."

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