Near the end of this 1999 novel by Howard Jacobson, his protagonist looks back over his life and observes, “you cannot live without the idea that you are exceptional at something, can you?”. For Oliver Walzer that “something” was ping-pong. As a teenager he stumbled into table tennis and discovered he had a natural talent for the game, winning championships locally and regionally and eventually playing for England. It may have helped him gain admission to Cambridge.
Yet he was never driven by the need to win. A shy boy, he loved being with his teammates at the Akiva Social Club in Manchester. These Jewish boys were his first real friends; he listens to opera records with two of them and learns dating techniques from another. The ways their lives all become intertwined form the heart of this story.
Walzer’s world has a wealth of other memorable personalities major and minor, especially among his extended family. His father’s fortunes in business and his aunts’ amorous adventures account for some of the most memorable comic set pieces in this richly humorous book. Jacobson may wax satirical when describing his more outlandish characters, especially the ones in academe and the art world, yet he finds something to cherish in all of them.
Oliver’s life is never the same after he goes off to university. He marries, has children, and develops his intellectual interests, but the color seems drained from his life. In the melancholy and poignant final chapter, where he is briefly reunited late in life with his teenage friends, there is an inescapable sense that they all were ultimately unexceptional, and the days of ping-pong four decades earlier were the best years of their lives.
In April Howard Jacobson, the winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2010 for his novel The Finkler Question, visited nine North American cities in connection with the American publication of his earlier novel The Mighty Walzer. Jewish Book World’s Bob Goldfarb caught up with him in Boston.
Bob Goldfarb: The Might Walzer takes place in a very Jewish world.
Howard Jacobson: It’s a lament for a world I loved, the world I grew up with and adored. Now Manchester is very Orthodox, very black-hat, but it was different then. We were aware of that aspect, and my father used to drive me around the streets of the Orthodox to see them. We weren’t defiant and we weren’t secular, we were in and out of it. There was never a question about having a bar mitzvah; everyone had one. But for us, table-tennis took the place of shul.
I liked the un-Orthodoxy of my world. There was a kind of adventure about it— Jews could continue some things, and could shed things. They shed anxiety.
BG: It’s striking how much Yiddish is used, even by the younger generation.
HJ: Yiddish was a way of defining ourselves against the others. It’s also a writerly thing. I deploy Yiddish in a literary way, not as it was used in its time. With Yiddish I sort myself out as an English writer. I announce that I am in the tradition of Dickens and Dr. Johnson, with this addition.
BG: One of the book’s concerns is the meaning of masculinity.
HJ: What is it to be a man? That’s one of the big questions of my writing, and it has very much to do with being Jewish. Women were very important in our lives, and being loved by women mattered a great deal to us. Only a Jewish man was going to be Freud, understanding the sexualized child, asking if mother and child could get too close.
We were special objects, boys. The war was over and there was a new world to look forward to. We were being sent out into the world. Before that was the ghetto. One reason my lot played table tennis is that there were so many boys’ clubs. They were established at the beginning of the 20th century by German and Sephardic Jews to look after the influx from Eastern Europe and keep us off the streets. And table tennis is a “safe” game. The world champion wears a cardigan. One’s mother would be pleased.
BG: Jewish boys may be close to their female relatives, yet in The Mighty Walzer they are intensely curious sexually.
HJ: Their sexual curiosity is because of their intense relation with their female relatives. They fantasize about the gross defilement of female relatives. To follow [womanizer] Sheeny Waxman is the way out for someone like [protagonist] Oliver. Chasing girls gives you a sense of being a man, though it’s not all that manly. Sex is the means by which a nice Jewish boy can stay a nice Jewish boy who doesn’t want to go out a lot and not feel his masculinity is compromised. Philip Roth’s Portnoy is a sexual defiler without making a vast move out of his interiority.
BG: Critics often compare you with Philip Roth, although you are very different writers. Is it that you’re both Jewish novelists of around the same generation? Or that you both write about sex?
HJ: Roth is terrific — some of my favorite books are his. He’s a wonderful, wonderful writer who makes me laugh. But you don’t want to be compared to anybody. In England they’d never had Jewish writers, and Jewish playwrights like Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, Ronald Harwood, and Tom Stoppard don’t write about Jewish themes. So I’m compared to Roth, and sometimes to Woody Allen.
I feel more affectionately towards my characters than Roth does. My characters always have the capacity to surprise me. One should write with the loosest of hands. Roth grips, steers the novel; it never goes in any other direction. I never knew how Libor would react to Treslove’s confession [in The Finkler Question]. I mustn’t know what the end of the day of writing is going to bring.
BG: You have a particular empathy for the emotional lives of young people.
HJ: I start from the adolescent mind, the longing, yearning, churning of adolescence. At that moment everything you’re feeling is waiting for expression — longing for a girlfriend, for friends’ respect. That’s when I knew I had to become a writer: after a humiliation, feeling compelled to put it down on paper.
BG: Can we break free of our youth? Or does it determine who we become?
HJ: The question has a particular urgency for me. I felt in the middle of my life that I was doomed to nothing happening to me. My father couldn’t make any money and my mother dissuaded us from ambition; she feared the dashing of our hopes. There are so many words in Yiddish like nebbish, schlemiel, and so on — such scorn, such rich contempt in our language for people who don’t make out.
Later you think, I’ve escaped my early life. Then lifelong friends tell you you’re doing what you were marked to do.
BG: Both Walzer and Finkler end on a melancholy note.
HJ: There’s a word I’ve used for feeling old or feeling ill: “disgrace.” For all the grandeur we associate with life, to be a thing of flesh is nothing, almost shameful. One morning Treslove [in The Finkler Question] sees the dawn that he had shared with his lover Hephzibah and it comes up bleeding. It’s the cruel blackness of existence, not making peace with one’s mortality, the dread of light coming again into the world and seeing your life brought home to you. In the face of life’s teemingness, it’s as if teemingness itself is a disgrace.
Nothing saves us. Trying to find meaning, trying to find beauty, trying to find meaning in love…nihilism has to be there as well. Without it you’re left only with wonderment, “isn’t it marvelous.” My characters might have had a better time as characters in somebody else’s book!
BG: Like John Updike’s books about Rabbit Ångström, The Might Walzer suggests that life is never as good after one’s youth.
HJ: There’s an intensity in those boyhood years when there’s everything still to play for. You’d be out with your friends and you’d be chasing girls. You’d have fun, laughter, and an occasional triumph with a girl…and you’d feel it was more fun with the boys.
Everything is alive in you. You’re hopeful, expectant, you’ve got camaraderie. You can’t be more alive.