Saturday, 1 October 2011

Why there aren't Many Jewish Writers in Britain

When Howard Jacobson won the 2010 Booker Prize I was pleased for two reasons: firstly, Jacobson is one of the writers I have enjoyed reading. Even when he is not at his best, as in Who is Sorry Now?, he is entertaining. And when he is firing on all cylinders, as in Coming from Behind and PeepingTom, he is absolutely first rate. This was the first time Jacobson was short-listed for the prize and the award was a long overdue recognition of a writer who has produced high quality novels over a long period.

The second reason I felt pleased was the novel, The Finkler Question, was described as a comic novel. In an interview after the award, Jacobson was at pains to clarify that he was a comic / serious writer. He was not comic light. (Who can be described as a comic light writer? P.G. Wodehouse?) The Finkler Question, he (somewhat pompously) declared, was comedy taken in to troubled and tragic areas. Whatever. I love reading comic novels (both comic/serious and comic/light), and I was pleased that after a long time a comic novel was considered worthy of a literary and fairly influential (at least in the UK) award.

It did not occur to me to be pleased that Jacobson was also a Jewish writer.

I read The Finkler Question last month and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I am not going to review The Finkler Question here.  It is a typical Jacobson fare, about a middle aged man obsessed about Jewishness, the twist being he is not actually Jewish. It is a very funny novel, and very moving in parts (perhaps that’s what meant when he said he was a comic / serious writer).  It is, like most of Jacobson’s earlier novels, a very Jewish novel. But I do not immediately think Jewish when I think of Jacobson. He is a British writer.
However, judging by some of the comments Jacobson made in the wake of his Booker triumph, his Jewish heritage in the wider context of British culture was very much on Jacobson’s mind when he wrote The Finkler Question.

‘The Question of anti-Semitism in this country [Britain] is vexed,’ Jacobson said. ‘Do we Jews imagine it, do we half want it to define ourselves by, do we contribute to it by harping on about it (a particularly sinister suggestion)? Such are the questions the characters in The Finkler Question discuss—a reflection of what the British Jews are asking each other.’

So The Finkler Question, at one level, by its author’s admission, a novel about what it means to be a Jew in modern day Britain. Fair enough. Does that make Jacobson a Jewish writer? The man himself appears to be ill at ease with this idea of being defined by his Jewishness. In one of the many post-Booker interviews he gave, Jacobson, when directly questioned about it, said:

 ‘Although I talk about things Jewish, when I hear anyone saying, “another book about Jewish identity from Howard Jacobson”, I think that's not what I'm writing about. For me the Jewish world is one of the worlds that I happen to know. It was the world I grew up in, so it's full of references for me. It's almost like the miners in DH Lawrence or the sailors in Joseph Conrad. You don't go to Joseph Conrad because you want to read a sea story, or to DH Lawrence because you want to read about miners, that's just where it's set. Essentially, without being grand about it, you're just writing about humanity. If you asked me is this book about being Jewish or being a man? I would say that it's more about being a man.’

Jonathan Safron Foyer remarked that had Jacobson been born in America and had written exactly the same kind of novels he would have been considered up there with Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, the two great twentieth century Jewish-American chroniclers.  Jacobson has always disliked the epithet ‘British Philip Roth’ bestowed upon him by some, and once remarked semi-jocularly that he considered himself to be the love child of Philip Roth and Jane Austen.

However, the comments of Jonathan Saffron Foer (whom some consider to be the 21st century writer in the tradition of Roth on the basis of two novels he has so far published) raises a curious point: there really is no tradition of Jewish-British literature the way there is of Jewish American literature.  Why might this be?
One obvious reason (to me) is that there aren’t very many Jews in Britain. This is a country of more than 60 million, of which less than 0.5% are Jewish, not a huge pool. So realistically how many novels are you going to get about Jewishness? Not many I would have thought. So a simple answer to the question why there aren’t more Jewish writers in Britain is that there aren’t many Jews in Britain.

Another reason could be Britain’s curiously monolithic, inward looking, (some might say self-satisfied, self-important, and smug) culture. I remember coming across a comment somewhere that Britain is country with great past and no future. That is obviously a hyperbole, but, like all hyperboles, there is a kernel of truth hidden somewhere at its core. The English are very sure of their place in the scheme of things (at the top rung of the ladder) and have an exalted and unchanging view of the past. The Jews, like the Irish, were just about tolerated; they were invited to take a ringside seat and spectate; but neither of the communities was thought to have anything worthwhile to contribute to a culture that was already formed. Prime Minister’s Cameron’s assertion that state multiculturalism has failed in Britain, while it might not be factually incorrect, is symptomatic of the sentiments bubbling just under the surface, attempt as it does to put the blame for this failure at the doors of the ‘other’, ‘minority’ cultures. Although I doubt very much that Cameron had the Jews in his mind when he made his crass speech—he was aiming at the British Muslims, majority of whom come from South East Asia—if we try to apply these sentiments to Jewish literature, we can perhaps begin to understand why there isn’t as well-known a tradition of Jewish literature in Britain as there is in America. There was a great pressure on the Jews, one of the only two ‘ethnic minorities’ in Britain (the other being Irish, but the Irish have always had their tradition of literature, primarily, in my view, because they had their own nation-state where the Irish way of life and Irish traditions could be preserved) before the arrivals of the migrants from South East Asia and the Caribbean, to assimilate. And many Jews did assimilate. Assimilation, in its extreme form, demands that the assimilator jettison his cultural, religious heritage and embrace in totality the culture surrounding him. Unlike in America, the Jews in Britain did not (could not) contribute to the construction of the national identity. The English knew who they were, what they were, and did not want foreigners speaking strange languages and with curious customs to sully the matters, thank you very much. The ‘minorities’, migrants if you will, have two choices: either forget your identity and embrace the main-stream culture (even though that would not make them ‘propha’ English); or live in a ghetto.

In his 2004 novel, The Making of Henry (which I have reviewed earlier on this blog), this is more or less Jacobson says (far more elegantly than I ever can) via the novel’s curmudgeonly eponymous protagonist:

‘In America [Henry says] the Jews had taken on a version of the national identity, had made the American cause their own, had even shaped it, sometimes dangerously—tempting fate, risking a backlash—in their own image. Not in England, not in Manchester, not on the Pennines. Yes, they were dutiful citizens; they paid their taxes, fought in wars, performed charitable deeds, gave service to the community—but only for the right, at last, to be left alone to notice nothing, and not be noticed noticing it.’

At one point in the novel, Henry’s girl friend, who insists she is non-Jewish (although he is convinced that she is), tells Henry off about his ‘self-conscious’ Jew thing.

‘I think it is childish, Henry [Moira says]. No one is asking you to pretend that you are somebody other than you are . . .But it is provincial to keep going on about it. And insecure. In my experience people who can’t stop talking about themselves aren’t easy with it. The man of the world accepts who he is and the influences which have made him and then gets on with living in the world. The big world.’

(Henry feels no obligation to take on board the above advice and keeps up with his Jewish thing, making The Making of Henry, a very Jewish novel. In another interview Jacobson said that Kalooki Nights was his most Jewish novel. I can’t imagine how any novel can be more Jewish than The Making of Henry, but, as I an Americans friend of mine is fond of saying, I sure am gonna find out.)

Things do not necessarily become easier for the children of the migrants who grew up to be British. As Linda Grant, one of the finest Jewish writers writing in English today (although many would not identify her as Jewish) said once:

‘How does someone in Britain born into both an observant conservative Jewish family but going to school every day in a non-Jewish environment, construct an identity they can use as a writer?’

This is a dilemma faced by, I suspect, almost all ‘ethnic’ minorities, not only by the Jewish community. The ‘minorities’, Jewish and others, with their distinct pasts, cannot, will not, be absorbed into Britishness—cultural, communal or territorial—into the bargain a sense of inferiority would be imposed upon them (as evinced by the attacks on the Muslim community, majority of which is law-abiding, by politicians of all ranks and parties and the barely suppressed Islamophobic atmosphere that pervades the majority community). If one dares to look into one’s community the entire time one risks getting pigeonholed and, linked to it, stereotyped. It is interesting that Monica Aliand Zadie Smith, who burst on to the UK literary scene with their debut novels which can be loosely described as having been derived from their part-cultural (‘part’ because both had one parent English) background, felt compelled to move away from the ‘ethnic backgrounds’ in their subsequent novels. Jhumpa Lahiri, the 2000 Pulitzer winner, has taken inspiration from her culture in her published output so far. Lahiri was born in London, but went to live in America at a young age with her Indian parents; and one wonders whether that has anything to do with the nature of her literary output and the unfaltering manner in which she ‘allows’ the influences that have shaped her to enter, dominate, even, her fiction. 

So, why aren’t there more Jewish writers writing Jewish fiction in the UK?  The answer: there aren’t many Jews in Britain. And the British culture discourages strong expressions of identity when it (the culture) does not conform to the hidebound ideas of the majority community of what elements go on to make a rich culture.

Here is a WikiPedia list of British Jewish writers. I don’t know how complete the list is. Not all on the list were born in Britain.

Of the list, the ones I have read (and liked) are Anita Brookner, Linda Grant, Howard Jacobson, Ruth Prawer-Jhabwala (not born in Britain and hasn’t lived in Britain for decades), Arthus Koestler (not born in Britain), Marghanita Laski (have read only one novel and absolutely loved it), Bernice Rubens (winner of the 1969 Booker), William Sutcliffe (didn’t know he was Jewish. His Are You Experienced? is a laugh out loud romp), Zoe Heller (listed as Jewish in WikiPedia because her father was Jewish; has immigrated to America), the great Muriel Spark (although she converted to Catholicism), and last but not the least Elias Canetti (Bulgarian born, but lived in Britain for 20 odd years. Auto da Fe, Canetti's only full length novel is, in my view, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, although Canetti wrote it before he arrived in England, and the novel is not set here).

Then there are Stephen Fry and Will Self (both Jewish from their mothers’ side) whom I have read but don’t rate too high.  

I have read a novel each of Naomi Alderman and Lisa Appignanesi, and while I was not bowled over by tem, I have kept an open mind. 

Finally there is Simon Sebag Montefiore who has written a novel (which I haven’t read) but is more well known as a historian.