You are here

J by Howard Jacobson - Shortlist author interview

J by Howard Jacobson - Shortlist author interview

Our interview with previous winner Howard Jacobson about his shortlisted J

Graham Greene once said that “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” Do you agree?

I never like the phrase “a form of therapy” because it conjures up a self-concern, or at least a spiderish self-engrossment, which doesn't accord with how writing feels to me. If I say I think of it as more outgoing than that I'm not claiming philanthropic intent. But it is closer to conversation for me – that's to say it's more an act of outward projection: the making of sentences and the conjuring of images which I hope will flourish in the bright, busy world of men and women.

On the other hand I do accept that writing can sometimes feel the only sanity to a writer. Not an escape from madness but from self. People often talk about art as self-expression: I think its highest justification (and its greatest usefulness to the writer and the reader alike) is the opposite of that – that it proceeds from a part of us that's uncertain and unassertive, that's receptive to the mysterious and the alien. So yes, I wonder how “all those who do not write, compose or paint” manage to escape the madness of opinion, conviction, and ideology.

Is perfection attainable in writing?

No. Think Leonard Cohen. There's a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. Thomas Hardy said something similar but I can't find the exact words. But I know he didn't sing them.

You have said that “Sometimes you have to stop yourself being funny. It interferes with emotions. The real danger of the comic gift is that you don't have to try hard, you just have a facility. I will always know how to end a chapter with a joke, but sometimes I should not.” Was it difficult to cauterise the comic from your natural writing style?

That begs the question of whether in fact I have done so. There is a strain of hellish black comedy in J, sometimes issuing in something more like a gasp than a laugh, but perhaps it's so black it is taken for something else. But yes, I grew conscious, as the novel disclosed its purposes to me, that I couldn't write as I usually do. Much as I like the word “cauterise”, however, it wasn't really as dramatic a change as that. I slapped my wrists occasionally, and then, when I hoped no one would be looking, I sneaked in the odd recidivist phrase which perhaps I shouldn't, but mainly the story insisted on a frightened gravity of tone and I didn't struggle. The world in which J is set has grown afraid of the witty, the ambiguous, the unconformable and the unexpected. It wasn't my ambition to satirise that