Howard Jacobson: When they said Finkler's name, it felt like a final blessing from Uncle Gerry

I am sitting by the phone. And this time it rings with a different tone. The shortlist tone. How do I recognise it? Twenty-seven years of waiting has prepared me.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I am in the garden of a house in far, far north London.

So far north London that it might as well be Manchester. It has been a day of immense sadness. We are just back from a burial. My wife's uncle Gerry died three days ago. He was 92 and so there has not been that sense of tearing tragedy that makes the burial of a young person unbearable. But he was greatly loved. And precisely because he has been in people's lives for so long, it is already hard to imagine life without him.

On the way to the grave, the black-hatted official leading the mourners stopped intermittently and held us up. This is a Jewish custom. It denotes our unwillingness to part with a person we have cared for. We would rather stop for eternity, but of course we don't have eternity on our hands.

Back in the house people are drinking tea and eating bagels filled with smoked salmon. Call that stereotyping, but what am I to do? They truly are drinking tea and eating bagels filled with smoked salmon. Jews don't throw down alcohol on such occasions. And they like food that tastes soft. In another column we might put our minds to why.

In the garden, which is big enough for me to stroll through on my own, I decide that it is all right if I turn my mobile on. I am waiting for an important message regarding an article I'm writing. No one thinks this is unfeeling. The living must return to life. There are an unaccountable number of texts and emails waiting for me. This is when I discover that my novel The Finkler Question has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

I don't want this news to intrude upon the family, but I know my wife would want to know so I go back inside and whisper into her ear. She is excited, and moved, as I am, that we should learn of such a thing on such a day. The Finkler Question is partly the story of a man not much younger than Gerry who is trying to hold himself together after the death of his wife. He has loved her for 60 years. The assumption is sometimes made that the old are people of diminished feelings, husks of confused recollections and barely remembered desires. Well, Gerry was no such thing. He was a man entire. Libor, the broken-hearted widower in my novel, is the same. He burns still with a love for his dead wife which is as intense as any youth's. No, he burns with a love that is more intense. The terrible thing we have to face about old age is that there is no release from longing in it, that we go on with our passions blazingly intact. Terrible and wonderful.

We have been so involved in the last few weeks of Gerry's life, in hospital visits and finally in the paperwork of decease, that we haven't thought about literary prizes. This is the first time in 11 novels I haven't waited to see if I am on a Man Booker list. I make that confession with some embarrassment. I have always argued against prizes.

My ambition to be a writer dates from infancy. "As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,/ I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." I wanted to make sentences, not win prizes. The sentences were prize enough in themselves. Let others be fools to fame, I cared only about the quality of the work. But, as Alexander Pope knew, the opinion of the world matters, and the quickest way to gain its notice as a writer is to win a prize, and of all prizes to win for a writer of fiction in English, the Man Booker is the biggest and the best.

So my protestations of scorn for it were inevitably mixed with covetousness. In a perfect world, where the words you write are immediately found and lauded by those you write them for – the whole of humanity, no less – a prize would not be necessary. But since humanity is deaf, or just too busy to give a damn, and since there seems to be a disconnect between those who want to read a good novel and those who write them – as though the world of reading is one big lonely hearts club waiting for a matchmaker – there must be prizes to bring us together. In which case, yes, thank you, I would like to win one.

And so, with every novel I published I knew to the day, knew to the hour, when the list would be announced, grew abstracted for weeks before, and waited for the phone to ring. It didn't. It didn't for 19 years. And then, in 2002, it did. Longlisted. First euphoria, then a quiet relief – for isn't victory simply the absence of defeat? – followed, of course, by the second phase of anxiety and abstraction. After the longlist, the shortlist. Knowing the very hour, the very minute, you wait again for the phone to ring, and when it does it's your publisher or your agent, depending who draws the short straw, telling you what you don't want to hear and they don't want to tell you, though you know it from the first jeering trill of the accursed phone.

After decades of this, the inside of your brain becomes like one of the novels you have never wanted to write: a seething, muttering melodrama of corruption and crass cowardice, peopled by sinister forces of mindlessness against whom you plot the bloodiest revenge. You know their names, the judges of the Man Booker, you know where they live or where they teach or where they practise whatever dark arts of indiscrimination are theirs. One by one, when you are ready and when they least expect it, you will pick them off.

Not to have been thinking about it this time, therefore, not to have known when these judges were deliberating, made the good news doubly sweet. It felt like a last blessing from Uncle Gerry. I owed it to him, I thought, to rejoice in the thing itself. And hope for nothing further. That would have been his advice to me, as it was my mother's: enjoy the now. An intelligent panel of judges had liked the book sufficiently to nominate it with a dozen others. Enough. Be grateful.

But you might as well ask a river not to flow. Five weeks later I am sitting by the phone. And this time it rings with a different tone. The shortlist tone. How do I recognise it? Twenty-seven years of waiting has prepared me. I know how the shortlist tone sounds because it is unlike all the others. It rings like a fanfare. Now, surely, surely, this will be enough. Five judges, exceptional for their discernment – judges such as there have never been before, paragons of acuity – have narrowed me down to six. I promise myself I will ask for nothing more. This will do. This will more than do.

Come the night of nights, I hear, to my astonishment and wonder, the name Finkler read out. Finkler! Don't tell me my own character has stolen the prize from me. Am I in yet another novel of the sort I don't write? But I am propelled toward the stage. It's me. I've won.

So is that sufficient now? Is the summit reached? Ah, reader, reader...

Comments