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.