The Mighty Walzer

  • Review
By – August 31, 2011

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 Worlds 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? 
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. 
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 Angstrom, 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.

Discussion Questions