Mother’s Boy by Howard Jacobson review – a literary titan ill at ease in the world | Autobiography and memoir

My grandmother died in October 2019, the day after her 97th birthday. She must have been born within a few months of Howard Jacobson’s mother, who, as the moving preface to his memoir Mother’s Boy explains, died in May 2020 at the same age. Jacobson’s mother was an autodidact with a passion for poetry and a burning drive to write that her circumstances – living in Manchester as a working-class woman, wife and mother – ultimately thwarted.

My grandmother was able to live out her commitments in her younger days, inspired by the socialist ideals of the Jewish youth movement to travel to what was then British Mandate Palestine, via a stint in a British prison camp in Cyprus, to help found and establish a kibbutz. She returned to England when my father was a toddler, however, living in Southport, just down the road from Jacobson’s family. She worked as a dinner lady, her sharpness of mind and love of words finding an outlet only via the endless games of Scrabble that we played. I thought often of her and her life as I read Mother’s Boy and its insights into the frustrations, possibilities and intensities of human lives and of the lives of British Jews in particular.

An agonised and restless questioning of whether writing involves disguising or revealing oneself – whether it is an act of concealment or exposure – lies at the heart of Mother’s Boy and much of Jacobson’s writing. He is at his best and most comfortable being deeply uncomfortable, squirming between alternative ways of understanding himself, not so much caught as impaled on the horns of every dilemma that he encounters. His sense of a necessarily ill fit with his environment is what, for Jacobson, makes being a British Jewish writer the most naturally unnatural thing to be. What, he asks, does a writer need? “Maladjustment. It’s my theory that only the unhappy, the uncomfortable, the gauche, the badly put together, aspire to make art. Why would you seek to reshape the world unless you were ill at ease in it? And I came out of the womb in every sense the wrong way round. Which includes being Jewish.”

Jacobson’s title is somewhat deceptive, too knowing a Jewish joke, since he gives equal weight to his parents. Near the start, he suggests: “My mother was nothing if not critical and inevitably made a critic of me. My father, without ever reading a novel, made me a novelist because he was himself a novel.” (The latter appears as a maddening and mercurial figure, market trader, magician and all-round raconteur.) Jacobson later rethinks the pair in literary terms, with his father as “the generously sprawling Chaucer” and his mother “the ever watchful, wise and waspish Jane Austen”.

This is part of an intriguing thread that runs through the book: Jacobson’s relationship with the English literary canon, which he studied with FR Leavis at Cambridge then taught in Australia and Wolverhampton. At Cambridge, he was less attracted by George Steiner’s abstract and capaciously European sensibility than by Leavis’s “very English particularity”, which made its way “to the big questions… by a subtle interrogation of the little ones”.

Jacobson’s parents on their wedding day, 1941.
Jacobson’s parents on their wedding day, 1941. Photograph: Howard Jacobson

Jacobson ultimately links this subtle interrogation with the focus within Judaism on the heightened significance of the minuscule and the seemingly marginal: this connects the Talmudic “idea of an inexhaustible text” with the proliferation of Jewish words for “trivial, pointless objects… tchotchke, shmondries, machareikehs”. His determination to interrogate the apparently trivial binds together the whole range of Jacobson’s preoccupations, from literature to table tennis, and is also reflected in the fact that his most moving portraits are of figures who appear quite fleetingly: his devoted Aunt Joyce, whose love and affection he painfully outgrew, and his elegant and quixotic teacher at Cambridge, Morris Shapira, who died a violent death.

The ending of Jacobson’s book is underwhelming, as the nomadic and contorted lost soul, unable comfortably to write or to be, makes way for the celebrated novelist. The belated success of his first novel makes it easier for Jacobson to be a writer, but also easier for him “to enjoy some of the more humdrum pleasures of unquestioning tribalism”. This felt to me like a closing down of the possibilities that the book itself had opened up – the urgent case that Jacobson makes for the complicated specifics of Jewish lives; lives such as my grandmother’s.

It’s been a funny old time to be Jewish in the UK in the past five years (by which I mean a deeply unfunny time) and one of the more depressing features has been the proliferation of people keen to speak for and about Jews and the accompanying assumptions about what being Jewish and British can or must mean. Jacobson’s book makes clear that he is more concerned than I am about the spectre of leftwing antisemitism, which, while it certainly exists, troubles me less than the election of a prime minister who has written a novel rife with antisemitic tropes; or, more subtly, than the unedifying spectacle last year of minor celebrities and Twitter personalities grinningly accepting the gift of a tree planted in Israel on behalf of “the Jewish community in the UK”, without questioning whether there is such a single entity or who has the right to speak on its behalf.

Jacobson and I are unlikely to see eye to eye on these questions; his enjoyable memoir nonetheless makes a powerful case for a wider and deeper array of Jewish stories.

Joe Moshenska is professor of English literature at Oxford University

Mother’s Boy by Howard Jacobson is published by Vintage (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply






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