by Tah­neer Oksman

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 Mag­a­zineBased 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.

HJI 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?

HJYou’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.

HJYes, 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.

Tah­neer Oks­man is assis­tant pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Writ­ing Pro­gram at Mary­mount Man­hat­tan Col­lege. She has pub­lished arti­cles in a/​b: Auto/​Biography Stud­ies, Stud­ies in Comics, and Stud­ies in Amer­i­can Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, as well as the For­ward, the Los Ange­les Review of Books, and Cleaver Mag­a­zine, where she is the graph­ic nar­ra­tives reviews editor.