Author Q&A: Howard Jacobson

Live a Little (Jonathan Cape, hardback £18.99, Audible £20.99)

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Beryl Dusinbery and Shimi Carmelli live on opposite sides of the same road but are meeting for the first time at the age of ninety-something. Beryl is forgetting the details but shares the tangled stories of her many husbands and love affairs. Shimi forgets nothing, least of all his painful childhood. Told with the signature wit of the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Finkler Question, Live a Little is a life-affirming novel about love and later life. 

Your last few books have obvious roots – Shylock was a retelling of Shakespeare, Pussy was a response to Trump. What was the germ of Live a Little? 
The flip answer is “getting older”, though I still have a few years to go before I am as old as either of the protagonists of Live a Little. The tragi-comedy of one’s own ageing is an irresistible subject for any novelist, and I began with the intention of writing just that.  But it wouldn’t work; just a little too soon, maybe.

And wouldn’t it be a more interesting challenge, anyway, to write about people in their nineties – an age not often tackled in novels – not as relics or footnotes to the main story, but as characters in their own right, still intensely alive, full of words and experience and mirth. I happen to know a number of people that age who defy the usual sentimentalities about the old, let alone the usual assumptions about their irrelevance. And then to make their story exhilarating and not piteous, and to let them fall in love if they wanted to – there was the challenge.

Beryl says that Shimi judged himself by standards of masculinity defunct even when he was a child and she tells her son he represents a defunct principle of maleness. She doesn’t have the answer to what the new principle is. Do you?
No. I don’t have the answer to anything. You can describe something as clapped-out without knowing what the new version should look like, or even if there is one. Beryl’s experience of men, which is very much at the centre of the book and the source, I hope, of some of its best comedy, has left her pretty contemptuous of the sex. “You don’t take a man at his own valuation, whatever it is,” she says in a speech to her family. “You Jane, me Tarzan. You Jane, me Jane.  Same difference. They don’t know who they’re meant to be.” What’s defunct, she enjoys speculating, is masculinity itself: the old role of hero, authority figure and fount of all wisdom which men have been finding increasingly elusive but are unable to relinquish. What she likes about Shimi is that this was never a role he ever wanted to perform. It isn’t that he’s a “new man”, rather that – in his own eyes at least – he is barely a man at all. Very well: she can work with that.

Her two sons are politically opposed but have much in common and Beryl says they are both ultimately little Englanders. Are we lacking real political options?
This isn’t a political book. Beryl swats the politics of her sons contemptuously aside, finding them equally preposterous whatever their defining ideologies. They are just two more examples, to her, of small men absurd in their pretensions and self-serving in their ambitions.
I don’t think our politicians are all ultimately the same as one another. We do have options; the trouble is we care for none of them. And we have to look hard to find nobility, intelligence, or grandeur of purpose on either side of the fence. Soon, with luck, it will be in politics as it now is in television comedy – all the best stuff will be done by women.

Beryl has none but Shimi is riddled with it. Do you think it’s important to rid yourself of shame before you die?
Shimi believes himself to have been crippled emotionally by shame. Shame is sensitivity to experience. In Shimi’s case, morbid sensitivity to experience. I like him for not being able to throw it off. But then I’m a novelist and novelists trade in shame. Writing about shame is absorbing, because it’s the key to memory and memory is the key to narrative. In so far as he is the narrator of himself, Shimi’s shame is both destructive and creative. I don’t think he is going to get rid of it, but Beryl reconciles him to the facts and reasons-why of it, partly by laughing at him when he is melodramatic about himself, but also by trading transgressions and confiding the crimes in her past. Here is why their conversations are so important: in talk you are able to bring the accumulated horrors of your life out into the light. And here is why love is so important: in love you learn the equilibrium of the human heart – that’s to say you discover you are not exceptionally, and certainly not irredeemably, vile.

Both characters reflect on parts of their past spent in the north. Do you look towards your upbringing in Manchester more as you get older and would you ever return?
I am never not in Manchester in one way or another. In body I go there often. I have close family there. But I’m always in it mentally too. I speak Manchester, joke Manchester, laugh Manchester.  But no – for that very reason – I don’t feel any necessity to go back to live there.

“Nothing too grand, girls. You aren’t Churchill making a stand against the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, but the occasional flourish will grab the attention of readers and make them continue. It will also scare off the hoi polloi, which is never a bad thing.” That’s Beryl’s writing advice for her pupils. Is it advice you follow?
This is a smart question.  But the only piece of advice I follow as a writer is to get to my desk early, not leave until darkness falls, and never to write too much. Anything over a thousand words will get thrown away the next morning.

Howard Jacobson will be appearing at this year’s Manchester Literature Festival, 4-20 Oct ( More details will be announced in August. Big Issue North is proud once more to be MLF media partner. You can read more about the festival and interviews with authors in coming editions of the magazine

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