In Review

Mother’s Boy by Howard Jacobson: a ‘brilliantly funny’ and ‘bittersweet’ memoir

The novelist remembers his tormented early life

In this “brilliantly funny” and “bittersweet” memoir, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson looks back on his tormented early life, said Kathryn Hughes in The Sunday Times. He emerged, he shows, from “irreconcilable elements”: Anita, his Lithuanian-descended mother, was a woman of “apocalyptic pessimism”, while his father Max, whose roots were Ukrainian, had a “bouncier demeanour”.

As the title – Mother’s Boy – suggests, Jacobson was closer to his mother in temperament. “As a teenager he devoured literature, but was hopeless at the things that were meant to make a macher,” – a player, the sort of man of whom his father approved.

After grammar school, he went to Cambridge and studied under the “influential literary critic F.R. Leavis”, who taught “clever young men” to worship Jane Austen, Henry James and other novelists in the Great Tradition. This ushered Jacobson into his first career – as a lecturer in English at Wolverhampton Polytechnic – but had a “deleterious effect” on his own writing ambitions. “Since I couldn’t be Dickens,” he recalls, “I couldn’t be anybody.”

Despite believing that he was “put on Earth to write”, it wasn’t until he was 40 that Jacobson published his first novel, said Frances Wilson in The Spectator. In the meantime, he was deeply unhappy – by his own estimation “a failed husband, a failed father, a failed university lecturer”.

What finally got him over his writer’s block was the realisation that he shouldn’t shrink from his Jewish­ness; instead, he could embrace it unapologetically in his work – and as a result he “broke new ground”, becoming Britain’s answer to Philip Roth. Both “very funny” and “profoundly serious”, Mother’s Boy is a superb memoir. “If there is a better contemporary account of the cost of becoming a writer I’ve yet to read it.”

Jonathan Cape 288pp £18.99; The Week Bookshop £14.99

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