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This is my latest column for Jewish News:

They say one shouldn’t meet one’s heroes because they will only disappoint. Well, when I met Howard Jacobson he didn’t disappoint at all, but he did seem to think I was a child.

I was on the Salute To Israel march in London in 2008 when I spotted Howard watching from the side. Normally I would have been far too shy to just waltz up and introduce myself but I was with Julie Burchill, so I felt emboldened to do so. She does that, does Julie, she emboldens one – in many different ways.

The three of us had a lovely chat. Howard was as charming and witty as any fan could hope. I told him that Julie and I had recently finished writing a book together. “What do you mean ‘together’,” he asked. “What did you do?” I explained that Julie and I had each written half of a co-authored book about hypocrisy.

He still seemed confused.

“But you don’t seem old enough,” he said. Reader, I was 35 at the time, but as you can see from the photograph, I was so decked out in jolly Zionist carnival gear that I probably did seem too young to be hacking away at hypocrisy at Julie’s side. I’ve always been a bit of a baby-face.

Indeed, Julie and I have often bonded on people making mistakes about our ages. When the gas board ring her house they nearly always ask the very-young-sounding Julie, “Can I speak to your Mummy?” If they call in-person at my house they still sometimes ask if my parents are home.

Anyway, Howard has since become an occasional reader of my blog. He wrote to me about it once and said “I am impressed by your ballsiness”. Well, I replied, I’m rather impressed by your authoriness.

The first novel of his I read was Kalooki Nights. I was flicking through a newspaper on an El Al plane, on my way back from my first visit to Israel, when I read a quote from him describing Kalooki Nights as “the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere”.

Well, I’ll have to read that, I thought.

But he has since out-Jewed Kalooki Nights with his latest, Man Booker-winning The Finkler Question. I was naturally amused by the latter novel’s gentile character who becomes fascinated by all things Jewish. So much so that a Jewess tells him, “Most goys I know don’t spend their time reading Moses Maimonides and memorising Yiddish endearments.”

Well, quite. And the book got even closer to home for me when Howard indulged in a bit of word-play around the word ‘goy’. He described the aforementioned character as “The real McGoy.”

Oy va goy -  no wonder he won the Man Booker Prize!

Speaking of which, I was a little disappointed when this very newspaper took such a strange angle in its report about the prize. There’s enough envy and sneering in the world already, can’t we just be pleased for authors who do well?

Me, I’m overjoyed for the man they call ‘the English Philip Roth’. Not that I’ve ever really approved of that comparison. I mostly enjoyed Roth’s The Plot Against America and The Ghostwriter, and occasional passages in The Counterlife and Portnoy’s Complaint also entertained me. But in my eyes Roth is not a patch on Howard.

There’s no escaping the fact that Roth is held in high esteem. But perhaps we can now turn those tables of transatlantic comparison. No more talk of Howard being ‘the English Philip Roth’, please. Let’s instead describe Roth as ‘the American Howard Jacobson’.

And mazal tov, Howard – from your ballsy, baby-faced fan.

9 Responses to “Howard's way with words”

  1. Mark2 says:

    I wonder how many people have cottoned on to the error made by Treslove – the Judaism admiring gentile in the novel who starts using “mamzer” as a rough sort of endearment. Mamzer in Yiddish is rather stronger word than its nearest eqivalent “bastard” is in English (particularly perhaps, Australian English!). Jacobson prsumably knows this and I think you need to have grown up with a bit of Yiddsh to “get it”. Oddly Treslove’s Jewish partner doesn’t warn him about this!

  2. However young he may think you are, Jacobson can only be delighted by this appreciation of him and his work. I’m just about to start reading Finkler Question, but I can’t agree with him that Kalooki Nights is “the most Jewish novel ever” – there have been several contenders! In my view Jacobson is an even better essayist than novelist – his articles repudiating the Left’s denunciations of Israel have been masterful.

  3. Stan says:

    Just ordered The Finkler Question. Have not read anything by Jacobson before. I doubt that he is an “English Phillip Roth” or Phillip Roth is an “American Jacobson”. I suspect that Phillip Roth is an American Phillip Roth, and Jacobson is an English Howard Jacobson. In fact, I’d be willing to bet on that.


  4. Chas Newkey-Burden says:

    I can recommend Andrew Sanger’s novel The J Word http://www.oyvagoy.com/2009/03/15/an-interview-with-andrew-sanger/

  5. La Cumparsita says:

    Howard Jacobson has been quoted thus “I’m not the English Philip Roth, I’m a Jewish Jane Austen,”
    I’m looking forward to hearing the great man in person at a charity lunch on Monday & maybe buying an autographed copy of his book.

  6. DF says:

    You are a bit of a big baby Chas

  7. Jonathan Hoffman says:

    I am on page 36 of The Finkler Question and it is totally wonderful.

    Howard, if you are reading this – thank you.

  8. Joanne says:

    Hey, If someone thought I was “too young” I’d take it as a compliment! Don’t regret looking young, be glad of it

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