No Jews. No hint of Jewishness anywhere. That was Howard Jacobson’s instruction to himself when he sat down to write his new novel, The Act of Love. ‘I took the restriction very seriously,’ he told Peter Florence in a discussion for Intelligence Squared on 22nd October. ‘I nearly set about writing the book without using any word containing the letter “J”. Then I realised that “Howard Jacobson” would appear on the cover.’ Jewishness defines Jacobson. It provokes, exhilarates and exasperates him but he can’t escape it. ‘I failed anyway,’ he shrugs with ironic pride. ‘Someone pointed out that the phrase “the sound of bells ringing in a Christian village” was unequivocally Jewish since only a Jew would describe a village as “Christian.”’ Asked about the novel’s main theme Jacobson replied, ‘The novelist never knows,’ then contradicted himself. ‘It’s about obsessional jealousy.’ One phrase captures its essence. ‘No man has ever loved a woman and not imagined her in the arms of someone else.’ He happily admitted that the reviews had been mixed. ‘A lot of critics enjoyed it, some hated it, roughly in the proportions of 7:3.’ The negative reviewers had been unanimous in rejecting as false the idea that men desire sexual betrayal. Jacobson ascribed this to shame. No one wants to admit to feeling jealous, let alone to enjoying the sensations jealousy brings. ‘But look at the male characters in Shakespeare, they’re fiendishly jealous, they adore their jealousy, it ruins their lives, it destroys them but they get high on it.’ Othello, the archetype of sexual torment, cries out, ‘Would that the general camp had tasted her sweet flesh.’ He urged anyone who doubted that jealousy is a mass obsession to look on the internet. ‘Get your spouse’s permission, set aside plenty of time, then type in “cuckold”. You’ll get streams of filth.’
Erotic jealousy reaches into unexpected corners of literary practice. Jacobson’s theory is that reading is a jealous act. We’re driven to follow the story of, say, Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary by a horrified fascination with the second-rate lovers they waste themselves on. Tolstoy and Flaubert wrote their novels from the same motive. The masochistic ecstasy of sexual torture.
English writers fail to apprehend the delicate relationship between sex and the emotions it gives rise to. ‘Ribaldry’ is the bane of English novelists when they enter the bedroom, he said, referring to Fielding and Fanny Hill. Georges Bataille offers a more sophisticated analysis of ‘the fever of the senses’ and examines the association between death and sex.’ Jacobson quoted him off the cuff. We pursue sex, ‘not to die but to suffer the experience of death, not to lose the lover but to live in fear of the possibility of that loss.’ Joyce studied the same contradictory lusts in his play ‘Exiles’ where the protagonist Richard urges his wife Bertha to start an affair with his best friend. Jacobson is enthused by Richard’s tortured meditation, ‘It is not in the darkness of faith that I desire you but in restless, living, wounding doubt,’ not least because it provides further validation for his creed that joy-in-jealousy is a universal urge.
He makes a distinction between two pairs of novelists. Saul Bellow and Joyce are ready to embrace the male experience of sexual humiliation whereas Philip Roth and DH Lawrence never allow a male character to be bested by a woman. Though he admires Roth he was appalled to read, ‘and then he unhooked her bra’ in one of his novels. ‘How base,’ he said, that a writer with his potential for intelligent reflection should bother with mere pornography. Thought is paramount. ‘Thought is the most exciting part of any novel. And it’s not like the thought of Plato or Locke. It’s dramatic thought.’ When Jacobson reads Henry James it’s the moment when James ‘is having a thought’ that he enjoys most. Far more exciting than reading about an adventure. Even a sexual one. ‘In the end thought makes sex erotic. Dogs have sex all the time but they’re not erotic. Why? Because they can’t think. Look at the Bible. The sex in the Garden of Eden was no good because they didn’t know it was wrong. Knowledge infuses eroticism. It’s in Genesis.’ Pursued to the end by his Jewishness. And a final paradox had become clear to the audience. Between Jacobson’s attitude to sexual jealousy and his attitude to his roots there are unexpected parallels. He both shuns and embraces both in a flux of revulsion and longing.