THE ACT OF LOVE
By Howard Jacobson
Simon & Schuster, 333 pages, $25
‘Coming From Behind” (1983), Howard Jacobson’s first novel, begins with a campus mailman opening the door to a professor’s study and leaving a letter between the professor’s buttocks as he is performing the title act on a female student. His second novel (“Peeping Tom,” 1984) opens with the guardian of the Thomas Hardy Society awaking to find his (now ex-) lover’s fecal bolus as a gift on his chest. You will be unsurprised, then, to hear that in the first chapter of “Redback” (1987), Jacobson’s third novel, an erudite Oxbridge graduate on temporary assignment in Australia is bitten on the genitals by the eponymous spider (one of the world’s most venomous) while sitting on a bush toilet.
The past 20 years have mellowed Jacobson, who is now regarded as an elder statesman of the suddenly thriving British-Jewish literary world. This transition has been smoothed as, through “Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews” (1993) and “Kalooki Nights” (2006), his thoughts on Jewishness have become more explicit and nuanced than those suggested by his skewering of hapless (semiautobiographical) professor Sefton Goldberg in “Coming From Behind.” His abiding interest in the juxtaposition of the tawdry materiality of human sex and the human genius of literary invention, however, remains undimmed.
In “The Act of Love,” another bookish man, although not a Jew, displays a fetish. This time, however, salaciousness has been sublimated to a form of intellectual masochism from physical humiliation. The conceit of the novel is that Felix Quinn, narrator and antiquarian bookseller, enjoys playing the cuckold of his wife, Marisa. Using literary precedent, Felix (Latin for “happy” or “lucky” whereas Quinn is the Gaelic for “wise”) explains that the acme of romantic love is the exquisite pain of simultaneously loving and performing the ultimate sacrifice of setting someone free. He puts forward the case for cuckold as paradigmatic romantic.
Rather than being cramped by it, a husband who embraces jealousy can enjoy its exquisite agony as the finest spice of his relationship. Like a hyperconscious Othello who functions as his own Iago, Felix loves his wife and, in a leap of sympathetic imagination, also loves the pain of her betrayal. But of course he sees it not as a betrayal, but rather as a broadening of her appreciative audience with whom he can deeply identify: Why wouldn’t they love his wife as he does? In fact, he becomes a missionary pimp in her service, soliciting a lover who can excite her and, in painful turn, himself, until he “felt as the hounds must feel before the kill. But as the fox must feel as well.”
Felix feels that his attitude makes any affair into his affair:
[T]hey no sooner shared a corner of the universe than I joined them in desire, gave her to them, gave them to her — regardless, yes, yes, regardless of their desire — and in the giving and the losing felt the sweetness of rapture run again like honey down my gullet.
This incorporation of the usually fatal is figured as sexual, but here, as in so many things in life, the sexual is merely a distillation of our more general tendencies. Masochists and sadists are analyzed, as fairly routine pessimists or optimists might be in a book dealing in less ostensibly perverse themes. Sex might be the driving force of life, but it brings clarity to the priorities of life. And for masochists like Felix (and by extension, how many readers?) the priority is control:
Not coping, of course, was part of my condition — no one knew that better than I did. Like all masochists, I called pain down on myself in order to bring it under my control. My whole life was a protest against the blind chance and malevolence of real cruelty which strikes where and how it chooses.
It is no accident that elegant turns of language and strangely twisted urges go together. Both are outgrowths of the imagination: Desire is the engine that drives our actions, and its vehicle is language. The real surprise for the reader, though, is that according to Freud’s memorable observation, however polymorphously perverse we may be, our perversions are essentially conservative. “But a pervert worth his salt knows that’s where his perversion really lies — not in chasing underage schoolgirls or inviting other men to have congress with his wife and give her babies… but in his unchangingness.”
What lends this novel class and allows it to expand into its 333 pages without feeling saggy are the taut elegance of the prose and the epigrammatic sprinkling of analysis. The former convinces us that Felix not only practices what he preaches, but also believes it, and the latter makes it a delight to try to convince ourselves of his sanity in doing so. Displaying more than a faint shadow of the lexophilia evinced by fellow Mancunian Anthony Burgess, Jacobson indulges himself and Felix in a love of language — the other act of love in the book. Such clearheaded bon mots as this description of Marisa’s appreciation of a wife-swapping party — “The atmosphere made her think of a taxi drivers’ Christmas party, though she’d never been to one” — make reading the prose of the book a pleasure untempered with the agony coming from empathizing with a masochistic narrator.
It is a significant part of comic craft to align one’s talent consciously with caricatures of one’s own weaknesses, and Jacobson has done that cruelly well. His effete, self-loathing or self-indulgent and defensively self-conscious narrators and protagonists provide us with ever-broader insight into the human condition. Jacobson’s development from his early years is not merely one of degree. As Shakespeare took the genre of revenge tragedy and, with a heightened sense of delay and introspection, turned it into “Hamlet,” Jacobson has similarly elevated the genre of sex farce into a serious consideration of romance and thence the human condition. From the clown prince of self-flagellation, he has developed into the crown prince of aesthetic humiliation.
Dan Friedman is the executive editor of the Forward. But when he’s not doing that, he’s writing a book about the rock band Tears for Fears.