Howard Jacobson: "I’ve always wanted to be more boisterous, more risk-taking"
At 16 I was wrapped up in table tennis and girls. I was wrapped up in table tennis because I was doing it, and I was wrapped up in sex because I wasn’t. I was lonely and shy and desperate to be in love. I wanted a little girlfriend and I couldn’t find one. I’m not surprised, looking back – I probably wasn’t a very desirable looking boy: hot, sweating, with my tongue hanging out. When you’re 16 and your friends have girlfriends and you don’t, you feel emotionally abnormal. You think it’ll never happen. I was miserable, really, then and made life horrible for my family.
I think I felt trapped by the psychology of my upbringing. I was more like my mother’s family, who were shy and quiet, but wanted to be like my father’s family. I had a very extrovert father. He worked on the markets and he had a lot of personality – everybody liked him and women were attracted to him. I really wanted to be like him and felt like he was in my way. Classic Oedipal stuff.
I’d tell the young me to start writing earlier. I’d say, you’re right, you can’t write like Henry James or Dostoevsky but you don’t have to. You should take more risks instead of being afraid you’ll write something so bad no one will ever talk to you again. And I was too prim about my reading. I was right that Jane Austen and George Eliot were great writers but I should have looked further, read more vulgarly – Henry Miller, Nathanael West, Céline.
If I met the teenage me now and recognised him as me I’d hate him. I’d want to smack him. If I didn’t know he was me, I’d feel desperately sorry for him. I’d want to put my arms around him. I’d want to tell him, the fires which are tormenting you will quieten down. You’ll get a girlfriend, it’ll just happen. In fact, it’ll happen maybe too much. I’d tell him it might take a few tries before he gets it right. He’ll have an unsuccessful marriage or two but he shouldn’t worry too much, he’ll get better at it, more tolerant, nicer.
I didn’t connect with my youthful melancholy until years after I started writing – I didn’t have the courage. Instead I went for being funny and angry and sardonic. Reconnecting with my earlier self took ages, as though the shame of that time was something I wanted to lock away, along with the shame of my childhood, growing up in Manchester, the Jewishness. I still feel there’s a book about all that in me that I haven’t written yet. But to make it work I’d have to unlock the real anguish in the younger me.
I’ve always wanted to be a more boisterous, more risk-taking person. I’ve felt like I’m too much of a good boy. Of course some of my friends, and the odd wife, would not say I was a good boy at all. But that was my sense of myself. Saul Bellow and Roth write about this, this struggle between wanting to be nice and polite and not let your parents or your community down but also wanting to be this loud vulgarian. American Jews have been better at letting it all hang out. English Jews are far more sedate.
If I could relive one moment it would be on the night I won the Booker. I had all these people around me, publishers and agents. But there was one brief, intimate moment when my eyes met my wife’s and her eyes were full of generosity and delight for me. Winning that prize was such a relief to me. My self-doubt had stayed with me all my life, but winning a big prize meant other people thought I was good. I would say to that 16-year-old, miracle of miracles, what happiness!
Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time is out on Sept 7 (Bloomsbury)
In 1958, the year Howard Jacobson turned 16… My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews opens in the West End... Cliff Richard releases his debut single, Move It... Blue Peter and Grandstand premiere on the BBC... Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff...