Howard Jacobson is a Manchester-born author and the recent recipient of the Man Booker Prize, as well as two Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prizes for comic writing. His books often center around Jewish characters and themes, and he has referred to himself as “a Jewish Jane Austen.”
“The Swag Man” is a story recently released as an Amazon Kindle Single, and published by Tablet Magazine. Based on his life, Jacobson’s story follows Frankie Cohen, a young and impudent salesman who sells “swag” (or, basically, cheap trinkets) for Jacobson’s father in the rough-and-tumble marketplaces of Northern England. Cohen grows up to become an art dealer, brushing elbows with the elite but never fully letting go of his Yiddishkeit roots.
In “The Swag Man,” using rich and elegant prose, Jacobson examines postwar Jewish assimilation through the triangulation of three characters — a father, a son, and Frankie — who react to a changing world in different ways. This intergenerational narrative is a thoughtful meditation on what it means to remain consciously connected to and haunted by the past.
Tahneer Oksman: What compelled you to write “The Swag Man?”
Howard Jacobson: The simple answer is that it was commissioned, or if you like suggested, by Tablet Magazine, an online publication I admire — the challenge being to write a shortish, stand-alone piece about a contemporary Jewish figure who interests me.
I also chose to tell this tale about my father the market man, and the art collector Frank Cohen who once worked for him, because I enormously relish remembering the world in which they met, in which I met Frank, the world we both left, and yet to which we still somehow belong. It is funny, and touching, in ways I cannot stop exploring. That I should have come out of it to be a novelist, and Frank to be an art collector, reflects on it fascinatingly to me.
TO: Your piece deals quite explicitly — and beautifully, I thought — with the melancholy of postwar Jewish assimilation. Do you see this as a common theme in contemporary British Jewish writing?
HJ: There hasn’t been enough British writing of the sort you describe. We have been too quiet here. Too discreet. Maybe too frightened of drawing attention to ourselves. When I first began, several Jews told me to my face that they regretted my writing about being Jewish at all. They felt I was a nestbeschmutzer. Though when I won the Man Booker Prize with The Finkler Question, there was more pride than anything else that the British Jewish experience had finally been acknowledged by the literary establishment — which might be a touch optimistic.
TO: Are there others who have written on the Jewish experience who have inspired you? As I read your descriptions of the marketplace early on in “The Swag Man,” for example, I kept thinking of Alfred Kazin’s descriptions of Brownsville in A Walker in the City.
HJ: I haven’t read the Kazin. And indeed I didn’t read much literature about Jews as I was learning to write myself. I knew Louis Golding’s Magnolia Street, but didn’t want to go in that direction; it felt too provincial, and a fear of the parochial is another reason British Jews have avoided the subject of themselves — British Jewish life doesn’t have the grand resonance of American Jewish life.
But I wasn’t, early on, steeped in the American Jewish writers either. I had read some Bellow and Heller, but only began to read Roth and Singer later. I didn’t learn how to write about Jews from them. My models, as a novelist, were Dickens, Jane Austen, Lawrence, Henry James, George Eliot — not a Jew among them. Jewishness I got from the Manchester I grew up in and which I celebrate in “The Swag Man.” I only got going as a writer — I was only able to begin to write at all — when I saw that I needed to put the two together. How to combine my dad with Henry James, that was the problem I had to solve.
TO: I read the story as autobiographical. Did you intend it that way?
HJ: You’re right that it’s not strictly speaking fiction, though I’d say that everything I write is fiction really. I’m not sure I believe in autobiography: the minute one writes, one changes — I don’t say falsifies but recolours, de-emphasises, exaggerates, pauses, gallops, overleaps, etc. This is inevitable, because the minute you choose a form, or a shape, you give to life an order that it never had.
But while I say there is no clear difference between fiction and autobiography as I write it, there is one, and it’s important. In fiction which doesn’t for a moment offer to be anything else, you have no obligation to be true to anyone real, because there is no real anyone behind the work. In a piece like this there is. So it is not quite as free. One cannot run as wild; on the other hand, it is a challenge to work within the inhibitions of the real. Fancy is on a rein, but how far can you go without slipping that rein?
TO: Did you have a particular audience in mind while you were writing? I read the piece as a kind of ode to your father’s memory, and I wonder if that was how it felt to you.
HJ: Yes, you are right to see it as that. I do feel an obligation to my father’s memory — I should say that my mother is still alive, which in a sense leaves me free, temporarily, to concentrate my sense of obligation on him. Over and above the obligation that any son owes his father, I feel a writer’s obligation.
How to explain this? He was a vivid man, as I hope I have succeeded in evoking in the piece, a lover of life, but not educated and not articulate. Partly, I feel I owe him the words he didn’t have. Partly, I am making recompense for valuing my words above his wordlessness, for wanting to put him, as a man who didn’t read, behind me, for any shame I felt as the son of a market-man/taxi driver, for the time it took me to see how much of what I could do, and what I valued, I owed to him. It was always easier to feel a debt to my mother who was a reader. If my mother led me into literature, and so, in very direct ways, made me a writer, it was the intensity with which my father took life on — his love of laughter, his raucous relish of the world around him — that made me the kind of writer I am.
But you ask if I have a particular audience. I don’t. I don’t, for example, write to my father. He wouldn’t have been able to read me. But I write for him.
Tahneer Oksman recently received her PhD in English Literature at the Graduate Center at CUNY. She is currently at work on a manuscript on Jewish women’s identity in contemporary graphic memoirs.