Philip Hensher

Truth is stranger than satire

In Pussy, Howard Jacobson manages an entertaining caricature - but it’s not a patch on the real thing

I think we’re all agreed about Donald Trump — by which I mean all of us who read the literary novel, buy hardbacks and take pleasure in good writing. The novel as a form is interested in different points of view; is protean and humanly various; listens to different voices patiently; does not shout down. As Auden said, the novelist ‘in his own weak person, if he can, /Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.’

Donald Trump is not much like that. He shouts down; he evidently does not see much in other people to recommend them, other than their opportunity to proffer sycophancy; and the range of his vocabulary has been assessed as equivalent to a ten-year-old (in American education, moreover). It is fair to say that Trump’s world and the world of the literary novel have no point of comparison. Let us permit the form to have its way with him.

Howard Jacobson ought to be the ideal writer for the task. He is exceedingly clever, and has no hesitation about defending the values of intelligence and knowledge. Trump, on the other hand, is stupid — no question about it — and defends ignorance. ‘I love the poorly educated,’ he has said. If satire is the statement of opposition, then a book by Howard Jacobson about Donald Trump sounds intrinsically compelling — not by the attitudes it chooses to take, but by its very nature.

It’s been a long time since intelligence assaulted stupidity, though the position has produced some of the masterpieces of satire. The Dunciad never doubts that it is better in every way than its pathetic subjects: its writing is more inventive, elegant and compelling than anything those idiots could contrive, and its attitudes, beliefs and values are in accordance with long established literary and political values.

Since then, subjectivity has crept into literary evaluation, and we may decide that we like Pope, or say instead, ‘Actually, I really like Leonard Welsted better.’

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