Howard Jacobson, who will turn 80 on August 25, did not publish his first novel, Coming From Behind, until he was 40. But since then his output has been prolific, including his 2010 Booker prize winner The Finkler Question.
His memoir, Mother's Boy, his 23rd book, covers his childhood to the publication of that first novel in 1983, a time when, he says, he was, "a failed husband, a failed father, and a failed university lecturer".
Jacobson's life will be familiar to many through depictions within his fiction and nonfiction. Mother's Boy provides a bittersweet retrospective of his first four decades. Born into an Eastern European Jewish family, Jacobson recalls 1940s and 1950s Manchester being "an easier time for a Jew to be growing up than the present".
It was his mother Anita, a woman of "apocalyptic pessimism", who imbued the young Howard with a love of literature. His father Max, variously an upholsterer, market trader, taxi driver and a magician, had a "bouncier demeanour", but claimed never to have read a book.
Jacobson won a scholarship to Downing College, Cambridge, his mother pressing toilet rolls on him to take in case the university ran out. Apart from, or because of, becoming a Leavisite, studying under the influential literary critic F.R. Leavis, Jacobson "went through Cambridge without merriment or joy".
After graduation, 23-year-old Jacobson married his Mancunian girlfriend Barbara and was appointed Lecturer in English literature at Sydney University, in a department that became controversially split after curriculum changes by the Leavisite head of department, Samuel Goldberg, who later became a Senior Fellow at the ANU's History of Ideas unit.
Jacobson, in several books, has previously covered his hedonistic time in Sydney when "I forgot to be a good husband". The marriage collapses with Jacobson returning to a teaching post at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, which, he says, had a "deleterious effect" on his novel writing, "Since I couldn't be Dickens, I couldn't be anybody".
Jacobson, after much self-doubt and prevarication, eventually writes Coming From Behind, whose main character is Sefton Goldberg, a.k.a. Jacobson, a disgruntled Cambridge-educated polytechnic lecturer. Jacobson had retreated to Cornwall, where his second wife Rosalind (they divorced in 2004) owned a craft gallery, in which Jacobson writes the novel, which critics call the successor to Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. The rest is literary history.
Jacobson's mother died in May, 2020, at the age of 97, when Jacobson was halfway through writing Mother's Boy, but he was able to tell her before she died, "If it was being Jewish that held me back it was being Jewish that got me going".
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