Sunday, 17 October 2010

Jacobson Wins the Booker

Earlier this week I was at a friend’s house with another friend—the friend’s friend, that is. So there were three of us: my friend with her two friends—that is me and the third person, a woman with pie-eater’s jowls—, both of us—that is I and the pie-eater—having my friend—although she was not just my friend, she was her—the third person’s—friend too—as the common link. We were, the three of us, having a light lunch, which I was disappointed to note consisted of red grapes (sour), strawberries (watery and soft), slices of cantaloupe melon (tasteless), salted pea nuts (couldn’t she have been less tight-fisted and served cashew nuts?), sourdough bread and brie (not brie de meaux which I prefer) and canned orange juice. (What’s wrong with a glass of wine; you can have a glass or two at lunch, can’t you? Drinking in the afternoon does not make you an alcoholic, does it? Alcohol for me, at whatever time of the day I drink it, is just fuel to be chucked on the conversational pyre; once I have bathed my tongue in it, I feel more relaxed, and the words flow more smoothly out of my mouth.) We were sitting in my friend’s rectangular dining room. On the opposite window-sill were three potted chilli plants. The conversation was not flowing smoothly, and I was wondering why the other woman was invited (perhaps she was wondering the same). Perhaps, I wondered, my friend was attempting for the two of us to get to know each other. If that was the case, she had not gone about it cleverly. Firstly, she knows I do not like surprises, so she should have told me about this. Secondly, she ought to have known that wobbly inner thighs do not light my fire. The other woman did not seem in a mood to talk much, and not only because her mouth was crammed with salted pea nuts.  I wondered whether her sex life was an unending eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet. I tried to imagine her in her underwear but stopped as I found the image incompatible with mental well-being. The woman might just be the ticket for some desperate bloke, but not me. (I am desperate, but not that desperate.) Maybe, I concluded, my friend had no hidden motive behind inviting me and the fat woman for lunch.

Trying to wrestle my thoughts away from sex, I looked around the dining room. Behind me, on a shelf were stacked piles and piles of CDs. In one corner was a wooden table on which were arranged porcelain figurines and dishes, the kind of tat you see in low income houses. (You can take a girl out of council estate, but you can’t take council estate out of a girl.) I looked to my left where on another wooden table, amongst all sort of things—from a jar of quality chocolates and hairclips— were stacked five books—all hard-bound—one on top of another. That surprised me. My friend is a bit common (she comes from some Northern town and speaks in this incredible accent, as if she has had a stroke or something) and while I know that she likes to read, I have always assumed that she is not equipped to read anything more intellectually demanding than the Waitrose weekend guide on Food & Drink (she might be a butcher’s daughter, but now runs a successful Interior Decoration business and discusses the relative merits of Gigonda—which she pronounces ji-gonda—and Chateauneuf du pape—I won’t even attempt to type how she pronounces—but it is noteworthy that she has even heard of these wines; and I ‘d have described the fact that I who know how the wine names are pronounced can’t afford them as ironic if I were not pissed off by it), or, in the fiction territory—Jill Cooper or Norah Roberts. The books stacked up on the table—five of them—were the Booker short-listed ones.

‘I see,’ I said, ‘that you are planning to read all the Booker short-listed novels.’

My friends looked pleased. ‘But,’ I continued, ‘one book is missing. Why is that?’

‘Which one?’ my friend asked.

‘Damon Galgut,’ this was the fat friend. I looked at her, impressed, and overlooked the fact that she spoke with pea nuts in her mouth. Perhaps there was more to her than met the eyes (and there was a lot of her that met the eyes).

‘Oh! That! I gave it as a present to my sister,’ my friend said.

‘Have actually read any of the books, yet?’ I asked.

My friend responded by asking me a question of her own: ‘Have you read Room?’

‘No I haven’t. Isn’t it the book inspired by that Austrian pervert who imprisoned his daughter for years in the basement of his house and shagged her?’

‘I wouldn’t quite put it like that, but yes.’

‘I can see why you liked the book,’ I said.

‘I didn’t even tell you I read the book,’ my friend said.

‘Well, have you? You have, haven’t you? Or haven’t you?’

‘As it happens I have. Why did you say you could see I’d like the book?’

‘Well,’ I said, retreating, ‘I thought that was the sort of book you’d like.’

‘You mean, books on perverts?’ my friend looked threateningly at me.

‘Well, you have liked the book, obviously,’ I said.

‘I don’t recall telling you,’ my friend replied with exaggerated slowness, as though speaking to a well meaning but not overtly bright child, ‘that I liked the book. I recall asking you whether you had read the book.’

‘From which I cleverly inferred that you must have read the book. Why else would you ask me about that book? You could have asked me, “Did you read Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America?” But you didn’t. You asked me, “Have you read Room?” There!’

‘’OK Sherlock, I have read the book and as it happens I liked it. Now tell me, have you read any of the books yourself?’

‘Yes I have.’

‘Which ones?’

‘Only one so far. Parrot and Oliver in America. If you had more than ten brain cells, you’d have figured that out,’ I said, watching from the corner of my eyes the fat friend lathering a slice of sourdough with butter, on which she balanced a large chunk of brie.

‘How did you find it?’

‘Dull beyond belief,’ I said.

This was true. Parrot and Olivier in America is a drag. This is the fourth novel of Carey I have read and the second I have not liked. The novel tells the story of a French noble and his English servant travelling in America in the first half the nineteenth century and observing the dawn of democracy. In the 'Acknowledgement' Carey says that he was inspired to write the novel after he read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I haven’t read Tocqueville’s book, but I doubt it will be as dreary as Carey’s novel. The language is incredibly stilted—it judders and clanks like a rusted train on the Australian outback. There is no real plot to speak of; the two protagonists—Olivier and Parrot— are about as lively as mannequins in a clothes shop; and the novel has more stereotypes than fleas in a mongrel’s ears. I lost the will to live after about two hundred pages; the novel sucked out—as one of the characters in the novel might say—the life-juice out of me. And it was only my stubbornness that kept me going until the end.

‘Do you think he will win the Booker?’ The fat friend asked.

‘I hope not,’ I said. ‘But I won’t be surprised he wins.’

‘Who do you think will win?’ She asked.

‘I’d like Howard Jacobson to win.’

‘Have you read any of his books?’ My friend asked.

‘No I haven’t. I want him to win because I think he is stunningly handsome. Of course I have,’ I said.

‘Have you read ‘The Finkler Question’?’

‘No I haven’t,’ I said. ‘But I plan to read it. But before that I will read ‘The Long Song’’.

‘Oh! Isn't she gorgeous?’ my friend said, exhaling noisily through her mouth on ‘s’. ‘Small Island! Have you read it?’

‘Small Island!' I said, mimicking the way my friend said it. 'I have read her earlier novels too, which I liked even more.’

‘I haven’t read those,’ my friend said.

‘No I didn’t think you would have,’ I said. In response my friend picked up a slice of bread and threw it at my face.

The above conversation took place on the day the Booker winner was announced. I was very pleased that Howard Jacobson won the prize for his comic novel, The Finkler Question. This is the first time in years that the writer I’d have liked to win the prize actually won. I should have betted on Jacobson. That would have made me richer too. In the days leading to the announcement, Tom McCarthy’s C was put by the bookies in the prime position to win the prize, with Emma Donghue’s Room in the second position. C apparently received an inexplicable flurry of betting in the last few days prior to the announcement, which triggered rumours of a leak and prompted Ladbrokes to close betting early. Usually, being bookies’ favourite is a guarantee that the novel won’t win the prize, although Last year Hilary Mantel broke the taboo when her historical novel, Wolf Hall won the prize despite the bookies putting it odds on to win. Room, wholeheartedly recommended by my friend, had until then sold the most copies (no doubt because of the prurient subject matter), followed by Andrea Levy’s Long Song. And there were almost 9,000 fools (like me) who had wasted their money on Peter Carey’s dreadful Parrot and Olivier in America, putting it in the third place amongst the Booker short-listed novels.  I don’t know how many copies The Finkler Question has sold, but I should very much hope that the Booker win would give its sales a fillip. It is the first out and out comic novel since Kingsley Amis’s Old Devils that has won the Booker, which is great; it is not often that this genre gets the recognition it deserves.

The Finkler Question, Jacobson’s eleventh novel, an exploration of being Jewish, apparently starts with the sentence, ‘He should have seen it coming’. Did Jacobson see the prize coming his way? He claimed not, in an interview after the award. ‘Often I thought I was not going to win it,’ he said, ‘never thought I’ll eventually win it this time.’ Well, he has. And I hope the Booker prize will introduce this seriously funny (as the cliché goes) and underrated (another epithet Jacobson said after his Booker triumph he was very glad to jettison) writer, who has, at times, been described, much, apparently, to his annoyance, as the 'Jewish Jane Austin’ (I can fully understand his annoyance—Jacobson’s writing is nothing like that of Jane Austen, the most overrated and overhyped writer in English, or any, language, and whose Pride and Prejudice is almost as boring as Parrot and Olivier in America: if you want to have the experience of a minute seeming like a day and an hour seeming like a year, read a few pages of Pride and Prejudice), to more newer and wider readership.