Saturday, 9 July 2011

Book of the Month: The Making of Henry (Howard Jacobson)

There are many things weighing on the mind of Henry Nagel, the eponymous hero of Howard Jacobson’s 2004 novel, The Making of Henry.

Henry, pushing sixty, has been bequeathed an opulent apartment in St John’s Wood, London. Henry does not know who has bestowed this largesse on him, but he is not complaining; the bequest couldn't have come at a more opportune time, just as he was wondering where he was going to live after getting the sack for writing a less than flattering reference for a less than average student of literature at the University of the Pennine Way (‘but before that it had been a polytechnic, and before that a place for keeping hairdressers on day release off the streets, and before that a spinster’s institute, and before that Henry had no idea’)—where Henry had plodded on for years, teaching a course entitled Literature for Life, taking care to show not the slightest appetite for the job— and thus flouting the University protocol for writing references. Henry strongly suspects that the flat was left to him by a mistress his father had tucked away for years in London. Both of Henry’s parents died within days of each other more than two decades before. His mother died when the coach on which she was travelling to London ran off the road. His father dropped dead, within days, of a massive coronary. Henry’s guess is that his mother was travelling to London to confront the mistress, and died in the road traffic accident on her way. His father, who must have loved her despite the affair, died (literally and figuratively) of broken heart. Henry’s further conjecture is that the mistress stayed on in the St John’s apartment pining after her dead lover and decided to bequeath the apartment to Izzi Nagel’s only child, Henry.

Then the old woman in the apartment next to Henry’s pops her clogs and her stepson, Eliot Lachlan, a descendent of Robert Louis Stevenson, so he tells Henry, moves in. Henry, who has plenty of time on his hands, mopes in some or the other cafe in the area, and takes a shine on to an Eastern European Jewish waitress in a Jewish patisserie in the area. He begins frequenting the patisserie and leaving abnormally generous tips for her. In due course Henry gets to know the waitress, who informs him that her name is Moira, that she is neither Jewish nor Eastern European, and that she is part owner of the patisserie along with her Jewish ex-husband Aultbach. Henry goes for walks with Moira, takes her out to meals, tries to regale her with stories of his Jewish childhood in Manchester, and tortures himself inwardly when he suspects that his neighbour Lachlan too is vying for Moira’s attention.

Henry has never been in a long-term relationship until then. That is not to say he has not had sex. Henry’s speciality, the reader is informed, was carrying out clandestine affairs with the wives of his colleagues in the University Of Pennine Way, and, when the opportunities presented themselves, with the wives of his friends. But now, as he is on the cusp of receiving his first bus pass, Henry thinks he is ready to settle down; and Moira might just be the making of his, even though she insists that she is not Jewish.

When Henry is not worrying himself sick about whether or not Lachlan has designs on Moira, he is thinking about his childhood in Manchester, his parents—Ekaterina and Izzi—, and his grandmother and great aunts—the Stern girls. He has also got into the worrying habit of talking to his father’s ghost in his empty apartment and, perhaps more worryingly, his father’s ghost stands firm that he never had a mistress in London and that he, when he was alive, had never been to the apartment, an assertion Henry is sceptical about, as he remembers an incident from his childhood when his father was spotted, in broad day-light, entering a hotel with the wife of the Jewish greengrocer, Yoffey. Surely, a man who was capable of snicking off with the wife of a man belonging to the local Jewish community would think nothing of hiding a rich mistress in London. Henry’s father was a children’s entertainer—a profession Henry was always ashamed off—fire-eating being his speciality. It would have been easy for his father, Henry reckons, to visit his mistress on the sly, telling his unsuspecting wife that he was going to be away for a few days because of his assignments. Until there came a point when Henry’s mother, Ekaterina, suspected he was having an affair; hence the ill-fated journey to London.

Henry Nagel is an unlikely hero, prone to solipsistic monologues which alternate between the surreal and the farcical. He reminisces about everything—from his clumsy pass (when drunk) at his youngest great-aunt Marghanita after whom he has lusted every since he grew his first pubes, to the inner life of his neighbour’s dog, Angus, whom he takes for walks under duress. Henry is also obsessed with death—he is concerned how it is all going to end for him, and his eschatological musings often compel him to examine the minutiae of his parents’ lives. Henry loves to live in the past, and despite valiant efforts by the practical Moira to bring him with the scruff of his neck to the present, he is always looking to escape into his past, which, while not wholly comforting, might provide him with the answers he is seeking.

Then, while taking a sea-side walk in Eastbourne where he has come with Moira—she runs cookery classes—Henry is astonished to see a plaque on a bench dedicated to his mother. Back in London his neighbour, Lachlan, informs Henry that he has been going through his dead step-mother’s diaries and that there have been references to Henry’s mother in the dead woman’s diary. Further revelations follow, this time from Eastbourne council whom Henry has contacted regarding the bench dedicated to the memory of his mother. As the story saunters towards its surprisingly moving end, Henry is forced to re-examine the lives of his parents and revise his earlier conclusions.

If the above has led you to believe that the novel has a plot, then I have given you the wrong impression. The novel does not have a plot in the sense nothing really happens. There is a little bit of mystery surrounding the apartment bequeathed to Henry, but that is not the main focus of the novel, and Jacobson’s heart is clearly not in it. What Jacobson is interested in is telling us the story of a self-absorbed lonesome man who is looking back on his life. And it is an ordinary life, beginning with an ordinary Jewish upbringing in a closely knit Jewish community in Manchester, followed by—after Henry graduates and moves away from the Jewish world of his parents and grandparents—a nondescript teaching job in a wretched university at which he does not excel. The only thing that marks Henry Nagel out is his affairs with attached women; but even here, it is the bored, unhappy women who choose him and not he them. Henry is—to paraphrase Winston Churchill—is a modest man, with much to be modest about. At one of the many points in the novel when Henry contemplates his own mortality, he thinks the epitaph ‘To know him was to be embarrassed for him’ sums up his life. Henry, like so many of Jacobson's protagonists, is dogged by triviality.

Howard Jacobson, who won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, has been described, from time to time, as the British Philip Roth. There are similarities: both Roth and Jacobson have libidinous, witty, tortured Jewish men who are unable to see the world from outside the prism of their Jewishness, as the protagonists of their novels.  Both are prolix. However, whereas Roth’s recent novels show a near complete absence of humour, Jacobson, who is almost ten years younger than Roth, continues to bring a smile to his reader’s face.

And it is the humour that saves The Making of Henry from becoming a drag. Jacobson’s humour is not P.G. Wodehouse type or even Tom Sharpe type; it is curmudgeonly humour, which manifests from sardonic observations made with piquant precision. Henry notices everything not least his own foibles that have marred his own less than successful life, and he is as merciless with himself as he is with others. The lack of a plausible plot (or a plot), is almost beside the point, because that is not the point of Jacobson’s novels, which, in any case, have followed the same plot thematically, since the publication of his first novel, Coming from Behind, in the 1980s: neurotic, self-loathing, angst-ridden, libidinous Jewish academics who prefer to have sex with older women. (Henry Nagel is a warehouse of neuroses, a dream for analysts; the list of Henry Nagel’s phobias is longer than M1.)

I said earlier that Jacobson is often compared to Philip Roth; however, the mordant humour in Jacobson’s novels makes him a writer more in the tradition of the great Kingsley Amis. There aren’t many authors writing in English today who can be said to be carrying the mantle of Kingsley Amis’s grouchy, irascible humour. Jacobson is the last of the tribe.  

Howard Jacobson is a seriously funny writer, and The Making of Henry is a seriously funny novel.