Canongate, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
Book review: Jacob's Folly, By Rebecca Miller
This thoughtful fantasia of a novel juggles past and present – and faith and doubt
Friday 16 August 2013
The eponymous Jacob was born Jacob Cerf in the Jewish quarter of Paris in the 1740s, and died as Johann Gebeck - actor, wit, debauché, and complete bastard (his own assessment) - in 1773. The last illumination he sees before he expires is a six-branched candelabrum, "encrusted with light green leaves, tiny pink roses, and cherubim".
This baroque vulgarity was presented to him by the man who transformed his life; the impotent and doomed Comte de Villars. Perhaps if he had been contemplating a seven-branched menorah when he breathed his last, Johann né Jacob might not have been reincarnated in Long Island, 300 years later, as a fly.
His many-faceted eye makes him an excellent observer of this brave new world, though one cannot help but wonder just how these observations are actually transmitted. Needless to say, Jacob is no mere fly-on-the-wall. His role is more intrusive; Beelzebubian even.
He takes it upon himself to act as a match-maker on behalf of orthodox Masha Edelman (who could, perhaps, be a distant cousin of Shalom Auslander), and Leslie Senzatimore, an amateur fireman and full-time boat-builder with a Noah Complex (salvation is his game). The fact that Leslie is already married - and gentile - is but a goad to the devilish insect, whose aim is to disrupt harmony, to create havoc rather than happiness.
As he works he becomes a surrogate for the author, whose job is also to make mischief (and repair it too sometimes). Just why he wants to win souls for the opposition is not entirely clear. Perhaps he just wants further evidence for his nihilism, further justification for his pre-fly decision to turn his back on his religion. Not that being a Jew was such a bonus in pre-revolutionary Paris: Jacob lives in a tenement, and spends his days peddling knives and trinkets from a tray around his neck, in the manner of an old-fashioned usherette. He is married to a child-bride who seems to have been possessed by a sexually rapacious dybbuk after a near-death experience in the Seine (think Sissy Spacek circa Carrie).
Who could blame him when he accepts the offer of an aristocrat to exchange his prison cell (jailed for the possession of stolen property and resisting arrest) for a role in his household? Whereupon Jacob - like one of Horatio Alger's prototypes - undergoes a process of cut-price enlightenment and a name change. Alas, the aristocrat's motives are not entirely altruistic; in fact, he has made a bet that he can transform a Jew into a Frenchman by way of intellectual nourishment and baptism (an act regarded by Jacob et al with complete cynicism). A big mistake, according to this novel by Rebecca Miller (the playwright Arthur Miller's daughter) ; a folly indeed.
For Jacob's return as an insect suggests that such caustic indifference is unfounded, that the Universe does - at the very least - possess a Master of Ceremonies. And so as Jacob's two lives unravel in tandem, it becomes clear - despite the gap of three centuries - that there are repetitions and echoes. It also seems to be the case that sticking to traditional Judaism might not be such a bad option. Jacob's wrong choices find concrete expression in one of the count's jeux d'esprit: he causes to have raised on his country estate - the Château de Villars - a pyramid, which is functionless, purposeless, and empty of all content (a bit like the Millennium Dome). Introducing it to his cronies he names it Jacob's Folly, in honour of the Israelites who supposedly built the original, but we - the readers - know of Jacob's other follies.
As if denying the God of his fathers weren't folly enough, he beds the equivalent of Mrs Potiphar (the count's mistress) as soon as she makes herself available, demonstrating his complete naturalisation. But it seems to me that not only is the count's bet being played out in Miller's book, but also Pascal's wager that God exists. If so, He has the benefit of a very eloquent and inventive spokeswoman.
Clive Sinclair's 'True Tales of the Wild West' is published by Picador
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 2 Japanese island overrun with cats after population explodes
- 3 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 Average penis size revealed: Scientists attempt to find what is 'normal' to reassure concerned men
Kurt Cobain's life and death: Montage of Heck film uses unseen footage to tell Nirvana frontman's story
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Drugs Live: Twitter responds to Jon Snow and Jennie Bond smoking cannabis
Jimmy McGovern's new TV series 'Banished': Why Australia's past has such resonance today
The Walking Dead, Remember, review: The discovery of a new community leads Rick to a dark decision
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'