Author Q&A: Howard Jacobson

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Manchester-born journalist and author Howard Jacobson’s latest novel was written in a “fury of disbelief” after the US election in November. Comic fairytale Pussy (Jonathon Cape, £12.99) tells the story of Prince Fracassus, heir to the Duchy of Origen, famed for its golden-gated skyscrapers and casinos, who passes his boyhood watching reality TV shows and imagining himself to be the Roman Emperor Nero. Fracassus seems to be the last person capable of leading his country, but what seems impossible becomes reality.

In February you published The Dog’s Last Walk, a collection of your Independent columns, and in April you published Pussy. Can fiction allow you to explore the real world in a way that journalism can’t?
Yes. It frees you for play. It frees you, in Swift’s words, to vex. But it doesn’t free you from the responsibility of thought. In fact the columns you refer to often had those freedoms because I wrote them more in the spirit of fiction than journalism. There was never, for me, a clean division between fiction and essay-writing; I liked each to bleed into the other. The best novelists make the best essay writers. And a good novel is nearly always a good essay, in a way.

Is it right to presume Pussy wasn’t a book that you had planned to publish?
Until the morning of Trump’s election I didn’t know I was going to write Pussy. I was already working on a novel, and I don’t like laying one work aside to start another. But I thought my head would explode if I didn’t have a go at a fairytale or fantasy about what was already too fantastical to believe. A farce, a tragedy, a pantomime, a cartoon, a denunciation – I didn’t know what. But I had to do something. Had I known how to write music I might have tried a cantata or an operetta or an oratorio or a musical.

Is humour our best defence against Trump and all he represents?
I don’t know whether there is any defence. But we must try to understand him, and even more importantly, the forces that elevated him. And without doubt we must deride the phenomenon and never allow it to feel normal. Comedy is part of that derision but not comedy of a light and frothy sort. Sometimes there is absurdity that lies too deep for laughter. The important thing is that we loose a stream of derision that never lets up. And if that offends those who put Trump in power, that’s their bad luck. Those who create a monster share in his monstrosity.

Between Trump and emojis, are we living in a thumb culture?
Yes. Between the thumbs up and the thumbs down resides everything that’s important.

You write: “The beast came not out of the sea but their own hearts.” What were the political processes that led to Trump’s rise?
That’s too big a question to answer here even if I knew how to answer it. And it’s not any of the political processes that interest me. It’s the cultural, one might even say human, aspect of this that I write about in Pussy. Trump told a cheering crowd that he loved the uneducated. What he didn’t say, but clearly meant, was that he needed them to stay that way. Brexiteers drove a similar wedge between the educated and the uneducated. This might look like a blow for the people against elites, but in actuality it is an act of disempowerment. The people should not be persuaded that education is their enemy. It is their right. Those who voted for Trump voted against themselves.

Can the beast be persuaded to go back in again?
Persuaded, no. But if things start to go wrong, this beast will slink back to the sea shore and slide back into the sea. He won’t allow himself to be pushed. It’s part of his fantasy of self that he has made himself.

Will you be turning your pen towards Brexit?
I already have. Some of the philosophy of Brexit, and some of its exponents, crop up in Pussy. They too, after all, bear some responsibility for the climate in which Trump has prospered.

Can Manchester grow in its own way or is it destined to turn into a mini-London?
I think it will always be itself. Geography, weather, the low clouds, language and a powerfully independent sardonic sense of humour are guarantees of its individuality. I love London, in part because it’s a sort of everywhere. I love Manchester because it could be nowhere else.

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