Mother’s Boy by Howard Jacobson review – a captivatingly melodramatic memoir

The writer’s account of his tortured journey to adulthood is wildly lacking in proportion, and all the better for it

Can you die of not writing a novel, asks Howard Jacobson towards the end of this memoir of his tortured journey towards doing precisely that. The question is posed partly by his present self, who has turned out 16 of them and a clutch of nonfiction books besides, and partly by the grotesquely frustrated, shamefully underachieving, semi-employed polytechnic lecturer who somehow couldn’t kickstart himself into doing the thing – perhaps the only thing – he felt was worth doing. He was 40 before his first novel, Coming from Behind, was published, and it had taken a weird, alchemical alignment of circumstances and catalysts to get there, culminating in a disastrous honeymoon that made way for inspiration, “beckoning derisively, not with the elegantly shaped arms of the classical muses, reaching out through gold-edged clouds, but with the gnarled, crooked fingers – as though from some disreputable alley – of low, self-disgusted mirth”.

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You will gather already that this is not a book filled with writerly confidences of the sort that might even be taken as exemplary or advisory. It is not concerned with the business of going calmly to your desk each morning and getting something down; of treating the enterprise as a job like any other, and of keeping a sense of proportion. The reverse, in fact. This is a book wildly lacking in proportion: melodramatic, simultaneously self-aggrandising and self-abasing, filled with fear, shame, anger, failure and the occasional triumph. There are many references to weeping. If you like that sort of thing – and, if you like Jacobson’s novels, you presumably do – it is utterly captivating. If you don’t, read something else, because it will enrage you.

The high emotionalism that fuels Mother’s Boy extends far beyond writing, although Jacobson might argue that everything comes back to writing, in one sense or another. Certainly, his account of growing up in the Manchester suburbs of Cheetham Hill, Hightown and Prestwich – “Bialystok on Irwell”, as he thinks of his great-grandparents’ neighbourhood – is bursting with stories, many of which have already made their way into his work, both as fiction and documentary. Once Jacobson has thrown off the hated shackles of infancy – he was, he maintains, a “failed baby”, and wishes only that there had been a Hamlet babygrow for him to mooch sullenly around in – he is reading books with his mother, a “conscientious educator” who introduces him to the desolate sorrows of Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, the desperate escapism of Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence and a Romanian folk-tale in which a son cuts his mother’s heart out in order to satisfy his jealous lover.

His father, meanwhile, represents a different way of living; less rooted in the mind, and more in the baffling variousness of the material world. Omnicompetent, Max Jacobson is an upholsterer, a driver, regimental tailor, taxi driver, magician and market trader; some of the funniest reminiscences are of his attempts to rope his reluctant and ill-equipped son into helping him charm customers, from Worksop to Oswestry. His temperament is at odds with his son, whom he dubs “a kunilemelly”, an insult derived from a Yiddish operetta that Jacobson translates as “a hypersensitive, easily wounded, forever embarrassed, ungrateful and unmanly boy. Me.” The son, understandably, bridles at the term; the memoirist gives us ample examples of its truth. At his barmitzvah, his speech invokes his overflowing cup of happiness: “Everyone knows it’s a lie. Everyone knows I’ve never had a cup of happiness with anything in it let alone one that overflows.”

But as much as Jacobson points to his mother – hence the book’s title – as the formative influence on his life as a reader and consequently as a writer, there is something about his father’s love of conjuring that must have played its part. As a novelist, Jacobson often shrouds his characters, and the desires and griefs that torment and infuriate them, and which they both repudiate and brandish, in mystery; his sentences and paragraphs are often suggestive rather than straightforward, elliptical rather than direct. They tend to resolve with a final flourish that often leaves the reader mystified – somewhat, of course, like a magician’s trick.

In pursuit of his vocation, Jacobson finds himself grimacing his way through Cambridge, where his near-worship of FR Leavis doesn’t dispel his feeling of social exclusion; to Australia, twice, in various states of happiness and despair; through two marriages; to Cornwall and to Wolverhampton. In the West Midlands, he appears to be putting himself through a particularly grim form of exile, living in a cold-water flat with a dismal shared bathroom that is only partly explained by his lack of funds; indeed, he theorises that he was creating a cell in which to expiate his sins. Everywhere, he is dogged by shame, which he ascribes partly to his Jewishness – or at least, his grappling with what it signifies to him – and partly to the idea of “something wanting”, akin to that experienced by David Copperfield and Great Expectations’s Pip.

Perhaps it’s easy enough to write about how difficult it was to write when you’ve won the Booker prize – and certainly, Jacobson never pretends that he isn’t delighted that things came good. But behind the comical grandiosity of Mother’s Boy, there is a sense of something much graver and more sombre, to do with the lifelong struggle – not limited to writers of novels – to integrate the lives and subjectivities of one’s parents, and their parents, with one’s own desires; to reconcile their expectations with yours, and with what the world will allow. As a child, Max Jacobson grew up believing that Passover was a celebration of his birthday, the Seder dinner his party; the coincidence of his birthdate was a boon for his cash-strapped parents, who could roll two ceremonies into one. One year, his mother forgot the fiction, and sent him to the neighbours to borrow something she’d forgotten, whereupon the trick was exposed by their similarly arranged table. “I find this so sad a tale to tell I can barely tell it,” his son tells us. And therein lies the rub: tales too sad to tell are also those that are too sad not to, which is why someone has to write them down.

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


Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

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