Live a Little

  • Review
By – November 25, 2019

There’s an old say­ing: oppo­sites attract. In Howard Jacobson’s Live a Lit­tle, one of his most endear­ing nov­els, Jacob­son con­tem­plates the com­e­dy and pathos of desire between unlike­ly lovers.

The author, now sev­en­ty-sev­en years old, con­sid­ers the elder­ly Jews of Finch­ley Road in North Lon­don as wid­ows in their tenth decade. One is the Princess,” as the impe­ri­ous Beryl Dus­in­bery calls her­self. She may have enor­mous gaps in her mem­o­ry, but her barbed pro­nounce­ments flow as freely as ever. Her home-care aides, Eupho­ria and Nastya, make an unin­ten­tion­al com­ic duo: one sin­cere, one sub­ver­sive, both foils for the Princess’s tor­rent of sharp, hilar­i­ous commentary.

Unlike Beryl, Shi­mi Carmel­li, at age nine­ty-five, remem­bers every­thing. He has nev­er been mar­ried while the Princess has been mar­ried more times than she can count. Shi­mi prac­tices car­toman­cy, telling for­tunes for the patrons of a Chi­nese restau­rant by read­ing a deck of cards; Beryl despis­es for­tune-telling. Shi­mi avoids any­thing relat­ed to mor­tal­i­ty; Beryl inscribes needle­work sam­plers with vin­dic­tive say­ings about death. Beryl is nev­er alone; Shi­mi is a recluse. What could they pos­si­bly have in common?

Shi­mi has rea­sons for keep­ing to him­self. His father reject­ed him, and he always felt over­shad­owed by his younger broth­er, Ephraim. He is also bur­dened with tremen­dous guilt for dere­lic­tions real and imag­ined. The nona­ge­nar­i­an wid­ows of Finch­ley Road see him as a very eli­gi­ble bach­e­lor, but he does his best to avoid their attention.

When he learns that his long-estranged broth­er has died, Shimi’s life los­es its pre­car­i­ous bal­ance. His mem­o­ries of his broth­er are of youth­ful high spir­its and com­pet­i­tive­ness, so it sur­pris­es Shi­mi to hear that Ephraim’s mourn­ers remem­ber him as a car­ing and devot­ed friend. One of those friends was Beryl Dus­in­bery, who intro­duces her­self to Shi­mi at the funer­al, lead­ing to conversation.

Dia­logue is the ide­al medi­um for Jacobson’s bril­liant wit and per­fect com­ic tim­ing. A standup com­ic might envy his inven­tive­ness, whether in Jacobson’s price­less descrip­tions or in the satir­i­cal asides about pol­i­tics and class. At the same time, as read­ers of his The Fin­kler Ques­tion know well, he also writes with deep empa­thy about mat­ters of love and death. When con­ver­sa­tion shifts from the joc­u­lar to the inti­mate, it becomes the medi­um for a pro­found encounter between two souls.

Live a Lit­tle is also remark­able for its sym­pa­thet­ic yet unsen­ti­men­tal por­tray­al of the frail­ties of advanced age. On demen­tia: One minute she has a word, and then she hasn’t. Where does it go? She would lose a person’s name before she knew it.” It’s a fact of life, not a rea­son for pity or lament.

This is a deeply sat­is­fy­ing nov­el in every way, high­ly enter­tain­ing and ulti­mate­ly very touch­ing. It con­firms that this great nov­el­ist remains at the peak of his very con­sid­er­able powers.

Discussion Questions