Howard’s End

John Sutherland

  • Redback by Howard Jacobson
    Bantam, 314 pp, £10.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 593 01212 7
  • Coming from behind by Howard Jacobson
    Black Swan, 250 pp, £2.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 552 99063 9
  • Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson
    Black Swan, 351 pp, £2.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 552 99141 4

Howard Jacobson began writing novels late in life. As he tells it, the life was nothing much to write about. He was born in Manchester in 1942. His family was Jewish with a modest upward mobility track leading from Salford to Whitefield via Prestwich. The Jacobsons evidently made it to Prestwich. The young Howard went to grammar school and read English at Cambridge. His subsequent academic career started at Selwyn College, diverted to Sydney University and ended, fifteen years on, at Wolverhampton Polytechnic: a downward mobility which Jacobson seems to have seen as a fit destiny for such as him. Feeling critically middle-aged, he wrote and published at the age of 41 his first novel, Coming from behind (1983). The book caught on slowly but had a notable word-of-mouth popularity, particularly in paperback (where it now sells in its fourth edition). Since then, Jacobson’s career has been expertly promoted by his agents and various publishers. His second novel, Peeping Tom (1984), was well received – both here and in America, which is a notoriously hard market for the English comic novelist to crack. (Changing Places and Stanley’s Women, two of the funniest novels ever written, were initially turned down by a series of US publishers.) And with Redback, his third offering, Jacobson can almost carry off his publisher’s assertion that he is ‘the most devastatingly funny novelist writing in English today’.

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