The Making of Henry by Howard Jacobson

This paean to mature love explores a profound and greedy morbidity, finds James Urquhart
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The Independent Culture

Coming up to 60, Henry Nagel is reviewing his life from the comfortable vantage of a surprise inheritance: the elegant flat in St John's Wood that he believes his father Izzi Nagel used as a love-nest. Much of this modest life he spent in hiding from events in the Pennines, where he taught an obdurately un-modernist course in literature at the University of the Pennine Way. Snippets and spats from his lowly career as "a pompous prick" occasionally echo Malcolm Bradbury's campus works, but Henry's priapic conquests are in no danger of embedding him as another History Man. Henry does not have affairs with friends' wives to ensure a complicit adulterous security. No, Henry allows these women to borrow him for sex, so that he shoulders no responsibility whatsoever. Why? Because until he can face up to his own mortality, he can't possibly look out for anyone else.

Coming up to 60, Henry Nagel is reviewing his life from the comfortable vantage of a surprise inheritance: the elegant flat in St John's Wood that he believes his father Izzi Nagel used as a love-nest. Much of this modest life he spent in hiding from events in the Pennines, where he taught an obdurately un-modernist course in literature at the University of the Pennine Way. Snippets and spats from his lowly career as "a pompous prick" occasionally echo Malcolm Bradbury's campus works, but Henry's priapic conquests are in no danger of embedding him as another History Man. Henry does not have affairs with friends' wives to ensure a complicit adulterous security. No, Henry allows these women to borrow him for sex, so that he shoulders no responsibility whatsoever. Why? Because until he can face up to his own mortality, he can't possibly look out for anyone else.

Henry's profound and greedy morbidity dominates this novel. In many ways he is a sympathetic and intriguing character, and Jacobson enjoys mapping out a few feisty anecdotes illuminating Henry's Jewish upbringing in Manchester. A few of his ruminations are light-hearted (such as his notion of an Ideal Burial Exhibition in Earl's Court) but mostly his maunderings make him rather "heavy going". This is Moira's exasperated phrase; she is his vital antithesis, his Virgil through the underworld of St John's Wood, coaxing him out of himself. It's an uphill battle with his preoccupation, as previous lovers have commented: "You wouldn't notice another person if she was sitting on your face."

Besides Moira's occasional provocatively exposed breast and her delightfully haphazard driving, there is much to enjoy in this novel as Henry revisits his father's adultery, his aunt's eroticism, his salad days and his friend "Hovis" Belkin's unsurprising success in the film industry. Sadly this is not quite enough to keep Henry's "orgy of remembrance", shunted along by a few bluntly contrived coincidences, from becoming tedious.

Henry never claims to be a lover on the heroic scale but more of a miniaturist, a Vermeer rather than a Rubens. Jacobson uses a similar technique in his writing. There are many striking tales tucked into the novel but, without depth of insight into relationships, his subject remains a miniature, a small canvas framing the minor details and unshocking surprises of an incidental life.

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