July 27, 2006


A gas chamber in Manchester: a review of KALOOKI NIGHTS
by Howard Jacobson (A. C. Grayling, Times of London)

IN THIS AGE OF LAZY reviewing, facile judgment and inflated rhetoric, how is one to convey news of the arrival of a work of genius? This powerful, troubling, moving, profound novel is nothing less. Its architecture — more accurately: its engineering, the construction of it — is a feat of brilliance, so sustained and accurate is it; and yet this is the least of its merits. What really steals one’s breath away is its sharpness and depth of insight — a sharpness that flays, and a depth almost too vertiginous to describe — and the remorseless tragedy it unfolds, even as it makes one laugh aloud, sometimes in shock. It is the most intelligent and important novel to appear in this country in years.

Howard Jacobson’s gifts as a novelist of the first rank, not just in England but in English, are well known. He is a master of the language, whose piercing eye makes him the most excoriating as well as the wittiest of writers. Equally to the point, he is one of that small group of authors whose superiority to the average seems to put him well beyond the competence of Booker and Whitbread judges; it is as if winning any such prize would be a diminution of his stature, for he is in a different league, and this novel proves it.

The thread of the novel is its narrator’s effort to discover why a childhood friend from their Manchester Jewish community has murdered his parents by gassing them. By itself this theme is enough to jerk one’s attention to the highest pitch — consider the two awful impossibilities it combines: Jewish parenticide, and by gassing — but of course there can be no addressing such a theme without also addressing what presses behind it, namely, Jewish history’s 5,000 years of bitterness. Comprehending so speaking an individual Jewish tragedy has to involve comprehending the tragedy of the Jews — in both senses of comprehend — and that is what Jacobson essays here.

“Five thousand years of bitterness” is what the narrator, a professional cartoonist and refugee from the self-made shtetl of Manchester immigrant Jews, calls his magnum opus, a graphic (again, in both senses) history of his people. He had started it with his Orthodox Jewish friend, the later murderer, when they were at school together and first grappling with the fact of Jewish besiegement. Genius sees the universal and the particular in each other, and Jacobson’s genius leads him to anatomise the terrible relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the narrator’s unsuccessful (and wickedly funny) marriages to Gentile women, and in the spindle on which the murder turns, another attempt to bridge that fraught divide.

This is a novel of debate, and it is extraordinary how Jacobson achieves every point of view, every possible nuance of attack and defence on the question of the essence of Jewishness — its endurance, the implacable enmities it has suffered, its self-inflicted wounds and obsessions, its unutterable sorrows.

I confess to having never even heard of this author. Anybody read him?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 27, 2006 9:52 AM

every possible nuance...

A. C. Grayling does seem to like nuance.

Hitchens nails him in this book review.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at July 27, 2006 10:21 AM

Rather Hitchens nails himself, raising the question of why we didn't use the bomb on Stalin.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2006 10:31 AM