Howard Jacobson: The day the Holocaust came to Manchester

In his latest, darkly funny novel, Howard Jacobson pushes the reader into deeply uncomfortable areas. Tom Rosenthal meets him to discuss the roots of his humour and creativity
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Howard Jacobson and I know each other slightly, yet we almost grew up together; although the age gap of seven years is an aeon if you're still a child. But we both sprang from the Jewish areas of Manchester during and after the war, separated by a few miles which in those days was a vast voyage. He was brought up in Prestwich and Cheetham Hill, not in the Crumpsall so hilariously described in his new novel, Kalooki Nights. My home was in Withington, just off the Palatine Road - known as Palestine Road - and next door to Didsbury, known as Yidsbury. Political correctness was unknown and anti-Semitism was as robust in the north as it was in the south. When I was a child, there were as yet no particular reasons to suppress it. So you took the rough with the rough.

During those last years of the war, my father was with the Army in Egypt but, although money was scarce, my contemporaries and I lived relatively well off Hershey Bars donated by huge American soldiers stationed nearby and I earned enough small change from odd jobs to be able to go to the local cinema, the Scala in Withington, whenever I wanted. News of the war came from the Manchester Guardian and the scrupulously monitored BBC radio news - no TV then. And the Pathé or Gaumont British newsreels at the cinema.

I have devoted some 60 years to reading, I hope not obsessively but certainly attentively, about the Holocaust. Yet, aged 10, as the war was drawing to a close, I had not heard of the concentration camps. One sunny afternoon I was inside the Scala when the Pathé News came on and showed the first film footage of Belsen. Nothing I read since, by Primo Levi or any other camp survivor, affected me, then or ever after, like those shots of piled up corpses, of mounds of skulls and bones, of starved, shaven headed men and women, their sex indistinguishable in their ragged striped uniforms, only their huge staring eyes of normal size; none of that can ever be expunged from one's memory and seeing it as an unformed 10-year-old, without warning, in the welcoming place where one went to see Laurel and Hardy or Randolph Scott and Roy Rogers, established and then froze one's views of the Nazis forever.

In Jacobson's case, after reading and re-reading his novels, I see the formative influence of a book, The Scourge of the Swastika by Lord Russell of Liverpool, published in 1954 when Jacobson was 12. I have nothing but respect for Russell, a triple winner of the MC in World War I and an eminent military lawyer who worked on the post-World War II war crimes trials in Germany. He gave up his judicial office when the Lord Chancellor told him that publication of his book about Nazi atrocities was incompatible with his judicial role. It was not his fault that those with a sadistic interest in that sort of thing bought his book, and a parallel volume about Japanese atrocities The Knights of Bushido, in vast quantities or that the wretched Myra Hindley and Ian Brady had studied his books before they committed the Moors Murders.

Jacobson, when we met and talked about Kalooki Nights and its wider themes of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, recalls how, when he was 14, Russell's book was avidly read and passed from hand to hand by his contemporaries. The narrator of his second novel, Peeping Tom, in which the struggling Jewish non-writer, Barney Fugelman, is thought by his ditsy, gullible wife to be a re-incarnation of Thomas Hardy, has a childhood friend who lent Barney his copy of The Scourge of the Swastika and became obsessed with the technology of hanging, to the extent of adapting the For Sale sign on his house into a makeshift gallows, beneath which he would stand every morning, pyjama cord noose round his neck, tongue hanging out of his mouth. Since Barney, in a hypnosis-induced regression, becomes Thomas Hardy, obsessed by the voluptuous, hanged body of a woman murderess swinging outside Dorchester Prison, it's perhaps not unreasonable to say that Jacobson is a dab hand at gallows humour; but then the burden of most Jewish jokes, with their agonised self-deprecation, is usually gallows humour personified anyway.

Russell's book figures again even in Jacobson's table-tennis novel, The Mighty Waltzer, set in much the same Manchester Jewish world as Kalooki Nights. Yet, while the references to Russell's book and its power to affect impressionable adolescent minds is subtly explored in Kalooki Nights, rather than being glancingly alluded to as it is in the earlier books, it is only one of a dozen quite overpowering themes in a long, deeply wrought exploration of Jews, Jewishness, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

The narrator, Max Glickman is a cartoonist whose glamorous mother is the hostess of a thousand and one Kalooki nights, evenings for women who dress up to the nines - and then some - and who play a fairly simple, Rummy-like card game called Kalooki. Having missed out on that side of life I asked Jacobson what it was. He told me that, while it was also played in the West Indies, particularly in Jamaica and Barbados, it's essentially "a Yiddishe women's arguing game" and "provided his working title for the novel from day one".

Max's drawings, which arouse little interest and less money and fame, are cartoon histories of Jewish suffering. Think Art Spiegelman without the mice and cats. Max is not a very good artist, nor is he good at marriage. He twice marries out (ie, to non-Jews), and then finally marries a nice Jewish girl who is an even worse - although for different reasons - disaster as a wife. His best friend at school, who feeds him pages of The Scourge of the Swastika is Manny Washinsky, younger son of a family of awe-inspiring suffering and poverty and martyrs to a stultifying religious orthodoxy.

In my part of Manchester, the more prosperous orthodox Jews, responding to the absolute prohibition against making fire on the Sabbath, would employ what was called a Shabbes-goy, ie a Sabbath Gentile, to light the fires and switch on the electric light as dusk fell, etc. My family did not have one - not orthodox enough to care, not enough money to pay. In far away Crumpsall, the Shabbes-goy was known as the "fire-yekelte" and, wretchedly poor as the Washinskys were, they employed one. She was an attractive middle-aged woman with an infinitely more attractive daughter with whom Manny's brother, Asher, falls in love. Not only is she a goy but, horror of horrors, her ultra-civilised and decent father is a German. The levels of human misery attained by the Washinsky family are almost beyond endurance as the parents give Asher a guilt trip that drives him and his Christian love apart. But they also drive the already half mad Manny totally round the twist so that the Holocaust-obsessed youth kills his parents by gassing them, by creating a mini-Buchenwald in Crumpsall; in his own home. Even for Jacobson, this is gallows humour taken to or beyond extremes. The plot becomes ever more convoluted and horrific, the humour blacker than mere good taste would credit. There is no raw nerve of Jewish guilt, Jewish paranoia, crazy Jewish family life, which Jacobson doesn't flick at painfully with the scourge of his savage wit.

Even non-Jewish readers of this newspaper will be familiar with the Yiddish word chutzpah. It means outrageous, even cosmic, cheek and I've always thought it philologically linked to the Greek hubris. Chutzpah has been famously defined - by a Jew of course - as a man who kills both his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court, on the grounds that he's an orphan. So black is some of the humour in this novel that Manny's despatch of his parents brings this very old joke inescapably to mind.

Whenever you think that Jacobson is "going too far", he goes further. There's a terrible S&M concentration camp fantasy when Mendel, a Jewish inmate and cartoonist, is taken up by Ilse Koch, the Commandant's wife. She makes him undress and draw her, although he's not allowed to look at her properly. She exposes one bit of herself at a time. If he gets an erection he has insulted German womanhood and she uses her whip on him. If he remains limp that's also an insult "no Jew dare look upon German womanhood limp ... Treat me with disrespect and I will shoot you, nicht?"

Jacobson has always had a nice Rabelaisian touch when writing about sex, but this scene goes so deep into the mire of Holocaust obsession and Jewish guilt and self-hatred it's as if he has made some dreadful Faustian pact with Beelzebub. You need to laugh just a little when reading this section simply to protect yourself.

At other times the attacks on English anti-Semitism are simply uproarious. His treatment of Max's non-Jewish wives, their obsession with his Jewishness and, particularly, the virulent, middle-class, Jew hatred of one of his mothers-in-law, is etched in acid. She gives her daughter a silver crucifix to mark her wedding to Max, forces him to buy a German car, buys a rubbishy toy souvenir in the form of a Rabbi for Max as a present and makes him hang it in the car. "What she thought I'd like about it was the way it nodded its head while the car was in motion, just like 'one of those Hassocks you sometimes see mumbling to Mecca on a train'. 'I think you mean Hassids,' I told her. 'A hassock's a hairy cushion.' 'Same difference, darling.' 'And they're not looking towards Mecca.' She rolled her eyes at her daughter. 'So touchy, your husband's people, Chlo. You can't even buy them a present without their getting aerated.'"

I asked Jacobson if he thought there was a risk that his writing might be ghetto-ised. "I never thought of myself as a Jewish writer. I was a late Leavisite. When people said I was like Philip Roth, I had never read Philip Roth. I disapproved of Philip Roth. Leavisites didn't read modern writers. Literature died in 1930 with the death of D H Lawrence... I do know this. That for the years I thought I was a writer, but wasn't a writer because I didn't write anything, it was only when playing with that polytechnic background in the late 1970s I realised that my hero was not only Jewish, but overtly Jewish; it was only when I hit the phrase 'Being Jewish, Sefton Goldberg...' that I got the tone of the book [his first novel Coming from Behind]. I didn't have a tone before that. It was all over the place. It was a bit like Malcolm Bradbury, a bit like Kingsley Amis. It wanted to be like Henry James. But there was some kind of faux naiveté about the absurdity of being Jewish in this utterly un-Jewish place.

"As far as Kalooki Nights was concerned, it was written in anger about the whole business of being Jewish... The English, as far as I can see, are interested in any kind of ethnic minority, Asians, Africans, anybody but the bloody Jews...

"And then the whole thing formed itself. I suspect it's going to have the word Jew in every sentence. I've Jewed it up, as it were, but I've come out of it at the other end. It's not a picturesque tour of what it's like to be Jewish. I thought I will go so far into the ghetto that I'd come out of the ghetto with all guns firing... You have Buchenwald on one page and quite broad sexual or social comedy on the next one. This is the least autobiographical book I've ever written, the most invented."

I asked if he thought he'd been harder on the Jews or the anti-Semites. "On the anti-Semites and the Nazis. The Jews are just the Crumpsall Jews. The Nazis and the anti-Semites committed a crime... All these lives are ruined, not just by orthodoxy but by the Holocaust, just by being Jewish. They're all a bit deranged in one way or another..."

I suspect that some of the Kalooki playing, not over-educated Jews, will feel threatened, even attacked by this book. They shouldn't be, as there's never been a portrait of England's Jews like this. So satirical, so accurate and yet so aware of their pain. To read of the damage inflicted by the ultra-orthodox on themselves is almost as unbearable as to read what the Holocaust did to both its victims and its survivors. Kalooki Nights is far and away Jacobson's most ambitious, most fully realised and, above all, most entertaining novel. For its near reckless bravery it deserves some kind of literary VC.

'Kalooki Nights' by Howard Jacobson is published by Cape at £17.99. To order a copy for £16.50 (free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or post your order to PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP