Booker Prize is like backward shining light on all my works: Howard Jacobson (Interview)

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS
Saturday, October 16, 2010

NEW DELHI - Novelist Howard Jacobson, who won the Man Booker Prize for his “The Finkler Question”, says the award is like a “backward shining light” that seems to bless all his previous books.

“I feel now that the Man Booker couldn’t have happened at a more wonderful time. It seems to bless all my previous books. It is like a backward shining light, benefiting all the books I have written,” Jacobson told IANS in a telephone interview from London.

“I advise young aspiring writers to read the best of literature. And if they do not succeed early in life, let Howard Jacobson be a lesson that one can succeed even at the age of 68,” Jacobson, who is of Jewish origin and often describes himself as a “Jewish Jane Austen”, said.

The Manchester-born Jacobson, who was earlier long-listed twice for the Man Booker Prize - in 2006 for “Kalooki Nights” and for “Who’s Sorry Now” in 2002, is compared to Philip Roth, the famous American-Jewish novelist.

“The Finkler Question” published by Bloomsbury is a story of friendship and loss.

It centres around three protagonists Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular former BBC radio producer, Sam Finkler, a recently widowed popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, and their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech who is much older than them and also widowed and is always more concerned with the world. They meet one evening to take stock of their lives.

But Treslove is attacked on his way home. The assault marks the beginning of a change.

“The inspiration was a 90-year-old man who was in love with his wife for 60 years. He lost his wife and there was nothing left for him to look forward to. He was an uncle of a good friend of mine. He made me weep with his story, while I made him laugh. It was so upsetting. I thought it was a tragic story and had to be told. It was the first germ of the book…” Jacobson said.

Jacobson’s friend’s uncle “is his friend now”.

“I meet him once every three weeks. He has read my book and said it was beautiful. What made him valuable was the fact that he showed me how much feeling a man can still have at 90. I learnt from him that we might get to the end of our life and but at heart we were young men. It was marvellous that he was so completely alive - and yet tragic that there was no escape from the loss of his wife. It would go on paining him till the end of his life…,” Jacobson said.

According to Jacobson, his book was “about two men - one of whom was successful and other not so.”

“The older (the third) man is more protective about the two younger men because of the rivalry between the two,” Jacobson said.

“Envy between two men is a good subject. It is funny to talk about rivalry between men - and somehow seems more serious in the process,” the writer said.

Jacobson describes “The Finkler Question” as “a tragic comedy”.

“It begins with comedy, moves to tragedy and then back to comedy again. I love tragedy. When people are laughing, they cannot tell the difference between laughter and tears,” the novelist said.

Jacobson took two years to write the book. “I began in the summer of 2006 and completed it a year later,” he said.

“The Finkler Question” is also a best-seller in the e-book segment.

“I don’t know what to make out of the electronic revolution. Will e-books make people read more or look at literature differently. I am an old fashioned man. I like to read. I want everybody to read me,” Jacobson said.

The writer is “three-quarters” through his new book about a “literary failure”.

“It is a very funny novel about a total failure in a world where no one reads and all writers are failures. But after winning the Man Booker Prize, I don’t feel that at the moment,” he said.

The writer who grew up listening to his mother reading “poetry to him” likes “19th century literature - authors like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Bronte (”Jane Eyre”)”. “I liked the fact that they were more articulate and intelligent”.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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