At an anti-Israel rally in London during the recent conflict in Gaza, an apparently intelligent, respectable and rational white man in his early 30s said of the Jewish state, “I’m not condoning Hitler’s actions at all, but I think it’s even worse perhaps.” A month later, the German government revealed that police protection is in place for every synagogue and Jewish institution in Germany, presumably to defend them from attackers who hate Jews and use Palestinians as an excuse to do something about them. Make no mistake: anti-Semitism is resurgent in Europe, and its very existence so soon after the Holocaust staggers Howard Jacobson, who has written a e-book entitled “When Will Jews Be Forgiven For The Holocaust?” and regularly excoriates the frequently anti-Semitic bent to criticism of Israel in the British press’s best weekly column, which Jacobson has supplied to The Independent newspaper since 1998. In J (2014), he has reached the Man Booker shortlist with a novel investigating a world perhaps fifty years from now, where sinister sentiments such as those expressed by the London protester have taken root to such an extent that the unnamed country in which the novel is set (we presume Britain, though are never directly told) has suffered some form of genocide or series of large-scale pogroms, and government and society alike has decided that the way to deal with the past it is to forget it.

J (UK)

At the core of this wise and compelling novel is a relationship between bewildered and rudderless woodcarver Kevern Cohen and the younger orphan Aileen Solomons, who was raised in a convent. Both have mysterious family backgrounds which contemporary circumstances render them able to investigate only clandestinely. Subsequent questions of identity and history are presented through four main devices. First is the tracing of the relationship itself, which develops after Kevern and Aileen are introduced by a matchmaker at a countryside fair. Second is a series of logs recorded by “Professor of the Benign Visual Arts” and painter of “landscapes, naturally” Edward Zermansky, whose motivation for befriending Kevern is to investigate him on behalf of the authorities on the grounds that “I have a feeling about him, that’s all.” Third are occasional half-page reminiscences of earlier violence, euphemistically referred to by modern society as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED (Jacobson’s capitals). And fourth, a series of letters which form a plea from a woman to her parents not to disown her following her marriage to a Christian. The four coalesce towards what may be considered the climax of the novel’s linear narrative.

The novel’s cornerstone and much greater attraction, however, is the impression provided of the future society in which its events take place. Communication is strictly limited; inhabitants use “utility phones” and a console plays only “soothing music and calming news.” The internet is no more after contemporary rulers have reflected on what awful things people used to write to one another on their mobile phones and publish on their computers. The non-governmental regulatory body concerned with such matters, Ofnow, which “monitors the Public Mood,” fashions slogans such as “Yesterday Is A Lesson We Can Learn Only by Looking to Tomorrow” and “The Overexamined Life Is Not Worth Living.” To that end, OPERATION ISHMAEL has renamed everyone and given them Jewish sounding surnames in order to conceal differences in cultural, religious, or ethnic origin. Cities, towns, and villages have also been stripped of their names and given anodyne, meaningless alternatives. Access to the past is available only through illegally held family archives or via clues in memories of childhood, one of which, that of Kevern’s father sweeping his fingers across his lips whenever he spoke a word which begun with the letter J, gives the novel its title. Even this has been changed, as the letter J no longer exists. A new character, a J with two strokes through it, has replaced it. One element which distinguishes J from 1984, with which inevitable comparisons will be made, is that there is little sign of some overbearing “big brother” moving threateningly in the background enforcing the rules. Rather, it has been arrived at by a public consensus that the past must be avoided at all costs. The prisoners, it seems, are grateful for their chains. As one character puts it, “something terrible has been done to everybody everywhere. What is the point of hunting down specifics?’ Jacobson recently told an online Q and A that “nothing frightens me more than agreement.” It is agreement of the most craven kind that has produced in J a society where such whitewashing of history and alteration to public taste is undergone largely without sweeping diktats from authority.

Nothing was banned exactly — just not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude. Popular taste did what edict and proscription could never have done, and just as, when it came to books, the people chose rags-to-riches memoirs, cookbooks and romances, so, when it came to music, they chose ballads.

As will already have been inferred, this is very different territory for those familiar with Jacobson’s signature sex comedies, Anglo-Jewish shtick, and satires on what tends nowadays to be referred to as the “metropolitan elite.” Though the words “Jew” or “Jewish” are never once used, several inferred references are made both to Jews and the low standards of much current criticism of Israel, but J and Jacobson’s previous work part company in that in no sense is Jacobson joking here. J is bleak, black, and unforgiving to the extent that what few touches of comedy there are seem unnecessary. One interview following J’s publication hinted that Jacobson had to labor hard to avoid including very much humor, but a few instances do slip through. They don’t necessarily have the desired effect, though, in a novel so clearly free of the light-hearted.

In brief summary, J brings us two parallel stories. One is a relatively conventional and not always entirely interesting love story and the other is a treatise on its post-genocide setting of a society prepared to pay any cost in order to forget. The latter topic is the more edifying, and it could be argued that the two do not sufficiently overlap, though an exception would be a visit Kevern and Aileen make to the capital city, redolent of London but nicknamed Necropolis. There, a taxi driver offers to take them to “where the Cohens lived,” before explaining that that was “before memory.” Overall, the supporting characters are probably more interesting than either Kevern or Aileen, and it is them upon whom we rely for what insight is provided into WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. These include Esme, an Ofnow worker who, heavy with ulterior motives, befriends Aileen; Denzdell Kroplik, a barber and local historian; and conspiracy theorist police officer Inspector Gutkind, whose investigation of a double murder leads him to Kevern. It is not until late in the novel that we learn why it is that Kevern and Aileen are central, though by that point the fact that they are perhaps not terribly exciting people means those revelations have less impact that they might. This does not detract much, however, from the overall sense of feeling in extremely safe hands with Jacobson in J, which is a considerable achievement for a novel so radically removed from the rest of its author’s oeuvre.

It can’t be helped: a word about 1984. When Christopher Hitchens visited North Korea in 2000 for a magazine piece, he did so determined to avoid the cliché of mentioning it, only to find when he wrote his copy that it was impossible (“it is as if Kim Il-Sung was given a copy and said ‘Hey, this could really work!’”). One feels rather similar about J. Clichés have marked several of the newspaper reviews of it so far, the inevitable “disturbing dystopian vision” sound bite being a personal favorite. My copy’s blurb cites not only 1984 but also, you guessed it, Brave New World. The truth is that such comparisons are, though lazy and predictable, tough to avoid. That said, if ever there was a time to be reminded of Orwell’s timelessness, it may be in the midst of a recent offering from the endlessly tedious Will Self which explained why he considers Orwell the “supreme mediocrity.” A novel such as J, especially if it should go on to win Jacobson his second Man Booker Prize in four years, will be further confirmation of the indispensable legacy which Orwell left. Simplistic comparisons are also often drawn between Jacobson and Philip Roth. Roth wrote almost a novel a year in the twilight of his career before his retirement at the age of 81; Jacobson is now 72, and if the imagination, vision, and seriousness of J is anything to go by, let us hope that the next number of years will give reason to make such comparisons even easier and those who draw them even lazier.

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By |2014-09-23T14:57:32-04:00September 24th, 2014|Categories: Howard Jacobson|Tags: |8 Comments


  1. Lee Monks September 24, 2014 at 7:00 am

    Well, Chris, the biggest compliment I can pay your (excellent) review of J is that it almost makes me want to read it! No, I will do, at some point. I like Jacobson, I’ve always been a fan but have tired of him a little recently for reasons too dull to enumerate, and felt that J would be entirely obvious and predictable. Your words are persuasions to the effect that it’s more interesting than I might have assumed.

    Anyway: does it not feel a little signposted, a little forced? From the examples from the text you cite it seems it might be bile through an artful sieve, so to speak. Anti-semitism is obviously disgusting but in literary terms, I was worried he’d taken a tank to a squirrel with this. Only idiots don’t agree with him, right? Fish in a barrel?

    I was also a bit worried that the comparisons to Orwell and Huxley, not that they are necessarily incorrect, were all Jacobson’s: he does write his jacket blurb, after all…

    Will Self: he’s an often excellent writer. The fact that he has to make such a fool of himself once every few months in the broadsheets is a bit of shame. But he does seem to enjoy winding people up. Nobody will read his stuff – and I like and admire some of it – when Orwell’s essays in particular are still core texts for everyone. Jacobson: I’m not sure. I think the stuff of his that’ll survive will be the early, funny ones. Maybe J will be an exception.

  2. Miguel St. Orberose September 24, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    This does sound like an interesting addition to dystopian fiction.

  3. AliceLynn September 24, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Not sure if I want to mix up “dystopian” and reflections on mass culture and the potential for social media negative impacts, with the rather serious and on going discussion of what is happening, and how often it is happening and why it is happening, re the question of anti sematic acts. Sounds like a bit of a mash up and grab bag. Not that I doubt the writing is brilliant. I have read The Finkler Question and thought it was both funny and an amazing commentary on “our” confused stereotypes about Jews, and making the three men long standing friends was a brilliant way to do this. But I’m not ready to plunge into such an emotional grab bag.

  4. Trevor Berrett September 24, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I’m glad for the push-and-pull Lee brings up, but I’m anxious to read this. I like Jacobson quite a bit (having just started reading him with The Finkler Question, and I think it will be interesting to see how he does unfunny, especially as funny has always been his way of approaching even the most serious. I wonder if he felt he needed to distance himself from that philosophy.

  5. Max Cairnduff September 26, 2014 at 5:50 am

    It’s a very good review, but one that puts me off the book. It sounds like an old man complaining about popular culture in large part.

    “Popular taste did what edict and proscription could never have done, and just as, when it came to books, the people chose rags-to-riches memoirs, cookbooks and romances, so, when it came to music, they chose ballads.”

    I hear this quite often nowadays, that people don’t read anymore, that popular music is all autotune and contentless. It’s frankly bollocks. Firstly, most people never did read, and crap populist books have always outsold the intelligent ones, but the idea that there isn’t exciting stuff happening in literature today would be an evident nonsense. Secondly, the contemporary music scene is the most vibrant I’ve known in my life, it’s just not in the charts which is a reflection not of a decline in music but of a shift in technology and away from the mass market to an explosion of micro-markets (which I think is a very good thing, you have to work harder to find stuff but there’s so much diversity out there it’s incredible). I suspect he’s just missing it.

    It does also sound a bit obvious. Like 1984 it’s clearly about the present rather than the future, but as I note in the paragraph above I don’t recognise the present he paints, I think it’s wrong.

    I do agree that we’re seeing a rise in anti-semitism, with many people extrapolating from criticism of Israel to criticism of Jews generally or not even seeing a distinction (none of which can never be right). What strikes me with attitudes to the Holocaust specifically is it’s passing now from living memory pretty much, and is increasingly the subject of entertainment. Martin Amis’ new novel for example, the movie The Counterfeiters, lots more, sure they’re all serious works with important points to make etc., but ultimately they’re turning the Holocaust into a historic fairground ride for the diversion of readers/viewers, which I guess is what happens to everything eventually but this does still feel a little soon to me. Still, as I say it’s passing beyond living memory. If you were born in 1930 you’d be 84 now. It’s not actually that soon after it, it’s 69 years, pretty much the classic biblical human lifetime. The living reminders of the horror are increasingly just not with us and as they fade so does our collective memory.

  6. Lee Monks September 26, 2014 at 11:17 am

    “…the idea that there isn’t exciting stuff happening in literature today would be an evident nonsense. Secondly, the contemporary music scene is the most vibrant I’ve known in my life, it’s just not in the charts which is a reflection not of a decline in music but of a shift in technology and away from the mass market to an explosion of micro-markets (which I think is a very good thing, you have to work harder to find stuff but there’s so much diversity out there it’s incredible)…”

    I couldn’t agree more: and that’s part of my problem with the whole idea of J. It’s Jacobson grabbing at things he knows naught about and lumping them all together in a stomping, grandstanding bitter semi-senile rantathon. We can all get behind his worry about the rise of anti-semitism. We needn’t necessarily be shouted at for a few hundred pages – and that’s what put me off before it even came out. As I said initially, Chris does a good job of making J a potentially rewarding proposition, but you augment my worries, Max.

  7. Trevor Berrett September 26, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Lee, you have just cemented it: you have to read J and let us know if our qualms are justified. Sorry, but you did this to yourself.

  8. Lee Monks September 27, 2014 at 3:41 am

    Yep. This is true.

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