Howard Jacobson: Smiling all the way to the 2010 Man Booker prize
Howard Jacobson's 11th novel, The Finkler Question, has been named the winner of the Man Booker Prize.
It's been said this is the first time a comic novel has been awarded the Prize, which began its storied career in 1968.
Born in Manchester in 1942, Jacobson loves comedy, and says it belongs in the novel.
To my ear the term "comic novelist" is as redundant and off-putting as the term "literary novelist". When Jane Austen rattled off the novel's virtues in Northanger Abbey – arguing that it demonstrated the "most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour . . . conveyed to the world in the best chosen language" – she wasn't making a distinction between the literary novel and some other sort, or between the comic novel and the not so comic. The liveliest effusions of wit and humour are simply what the reader of a novel has a right to expect.
The two rogue terms I'm addressing – literary and comic – share a vice: they both make exceptional what should go without saying. The novel was born of restless critical intelligence, and it was born laughing. "It pleases me to think," said Milan Kundera, in the course of accepting the Jerusalem prize for literature in 1985, "that the art of the novel came into the world as an echo of God's laughter." If this is so, then talk of the comic novel is tautologous. If we are to be true to the form there will be only "novels" and they will be effusive with wit and humour; thereafter, to help the bookshops categorise, we can allow all the sub-species they have shelf-space for – the novel of distended plot and fatuous denouement, the novel of who cares who dunnit, the novel of what Orwell in his great defence of Henry Miller called "flat cautious statements and snack-bar dialects", the novel, to sum up, of anorexic mirthlessness. But let's not forget that those are the anomalies.
. . .The accommodation the English 19th-century novel reached with the nation's ethical life – the great novelists of the time not embarrassed to speak as from the pulpit or the soap-box – was essential to its vitality. But thought in a novel is still quite different from thought in an essay or a work of philosophy, in that it is more intimate and contingent, must chance its luck in the dialectic of the drama, and is forever put to the test of circumstance, just as the novel's characters are. And what governs that test of circumstance is something akin to comedy: the absurdity of our supposing that we understand, that truth will stay still for us, that events will turn out as we think they should. . .Up is down in tragedy; in comedy down is up.
Perhaps Jacobson really is the 21st century Jane Austen - a deliciously comic thought. The Finkler Question is 'a novel about love, loss and male friendship'.
Thanks to Omnivoracious, a website worth reading, for the link.