Kiss me, Hardy

Humphrey Carpenter

  • Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson
    Chatto, 266 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2908 5
  • Watson’s Apology by Beryl Bainbridge
    Duckworth, 222 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7156 1935 7
  • The Foreigner by David Plante
    Chatto, 237 pp, £9.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2904 2

Howard Jacobson’s first novel, Coming from Behind, was published last year, and made one think that a new exponent of the comic academic narrative had arrived. Jacobson’s hero, Sefton Goldberg, Jewish and highly suspicious of his Gentile surroundings, is aggressive towards the literature he’s supposed to be teaching, to a degree that makes Leavis seem like a nice auntie. He’s also racked by consciousness of his own literary failure. To his misery, he finds himself stranded in Wrottesley Poly, where the enfeebled Liberal Studies department is threatened with a twinning with the local football club in order to revamp its decaying image. Goldberg sits in his office, envying the World Out There, which he imagines in the form of a mansion in Hampstead called Bradbury Lodge, where celebrated writers meet to have a good laugh at his expense. Meanwhile he puts down his own hopelessness as a littérateur to his incompetence in the matter of Nature. It seems to him that all Eng Lit is really about country walks, so ‘what the fuck did it have to do with Sefton Goldberg who was Jewish and who had therefore never taken a country walk in his life?’ Wrottesley Poly, however, is as much Tom Sharpe territory as a part of the Amis-Bradbury-Lodge world, and it is in the matter of comic plotting that Coming from Behind seemed to me to fail. Jacobson’s portrayal of Goldberg is flawless, but he seems to have little idea what to do with him, and the book tails off without any great comic debacle. One therefore turns to Jacobson’s second novel in the hope that he may have learnt something about construction.

Jacobson likes salacious titles – though Coming from Behind scarcely lives up to its sexual promise – and Peeping Tom suggests something in the same mode as the first book. So do the early chapters, for Barney Fugelman, the book’s hero, is Sefton Goldberg all over again, lacking only Sefton’s gnawing anxiety about failure. Actually Barney is a complacent sort of chap, living largely off the earnings of his wife Sharon, who runs a North London bookshop, near a tube station, called Zazie’s dans le Métro. Barney’s views about literature are much the same as Sefton’s. The most gratifying thing he can think of doing with a book is throwing it away, and later in the story he and his second wife Camilla indulge in orgies of this: ‘We consigned to the flames or the waves one Gunter Grass, two John Fowles, a Nabokov, a John Berger, three Doris Lessings, a Gore Vidal, two John Barths, and the whole of Jorge Luis Borges.’ This impatience with literary artefacts means that he and Camilla are also veteran walkers-out at the theatre. ‘Before ten minutes of the first scene had elapsed we were up out of our seats ... We just wanted somewhere quiet to sit where we could talk over the insult that had just been delivered to our intelligence.’

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[*] The Francoeur Family by David Plante Secker, 547 pp., £5.95, 8 November, 0 7011 2910 7