Speaks British, Acts Yiddish
By Howard Jacobson
Simon & Schuster, 464 pages, $26.
Tabula rasa — meaning a blank slate, or a clean start — is, both as term and as concept, irreparably Latin, foreign and so forbidden to us, whether by God, history… or British novelist Howard Jacobson.
And not just because we are “Jew Jew Jews,” as Jacobson’s newest and longest novel, “Kalooki Nights,” would call us. But because, in Jacobson’s world, each Jew is the writer not only of his or her own story but also of the story of the entire Jewish people, such fresh beginnings and new tomorrows are apparently off-limits.
Jacobson, a native of Manchester’s Jewish ghetto, Crumpsall Park, is Cambridge educated, the author of nine novels and perhaps the most respected living writer of the Jewish United Kingdom. He has written a fictionalized scripture that attempts a miracle, and fails. Raging against all blankness and clarity, he has made to summarize, or summate, our received wisdom, and, in doing so, to renew it. He gives flesh to this final revision of our tradition — from Torah to Talmud, from Buber to Bubbe — in the person of a young frummer or frumkie, a Mancunian Orthodox boy named Manny Washinsky.
“Kalooki Nights” is a novel of many affiliations: strangely both plotless and overplotted, a secular bible and its obscene commentary, a modernist sermon on antisemitism and intermarriage, and lastly, and most sentimentally — a belabored family chronicle, The Life & Times of Washinsky. Growing up, Washinsky is awkward, ugly and unpopular; he’s obsessed with the Holocaust and with all oppressors of the Jewish people: “Pharaoh, Amalek, Haman, Torquemada, Goebbels, Goering, Oswald Mosley […]” One night, in 1972, the teenage Manny turns on the taps in his house — and gases his parents, to death.
The narrator of Washinky’s life is his childhood neighbor, Max Glickman. Glickman is a Jewish cartoonist, a Spiegelman (“mirror-man”) less Art than angry caricature: Everything he observes, he distorts without pity; his magnum opus is titled “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness”: “Illustrations, in the grotesque mode and with lots of color — think Dr. Doom as drawn by Goya — of what successive generations of bastards had done to us in every corner of the globe.” The son of a communist boxer and a woman whose existence is entirely defined by a game known as kalooki (which would seem the card-based, British Jewish counterpart to America’s importation of mah-jongg), Glickman is contacted by Lipsync Productions, a film company that, two decades later, wants to make a movie of the Washinsky case. With the intent of gaining Washinsky’s trust, the company offers to finance Glickman’s interviews with the ex-con.
What ensues is a cholent melting pot of modern Jewish moments that must not yet, 50 years after the Holocaust, have become passé “across the pond.” Jacobson gives us an excellent Philip Roth impression, bellows a passable Bellow, even shuckles a measure of Malamud. And everywhere, throughout, as if Hamlet’s father returned, witness the hilariously shrieking ghost of America’s great Stanley Elkin, may his name be blessed forever and ever. Tabula rasa, be damned.
To sum up the shteyger, as Jacobson would say, for those who’d lose the overburdened tale, or else can’t bear 400 pages of their own family laid naked and British upon the page: Through these interviews, Glickman finds that Manny’s scholar-brother Asher once fell in love with Dorothy, the half-German, half-British daughter of the Washinsky family’s fire-yekelte, or Shabbos goy. This event is mirrored, and mirroring — one tablet of two: the other sundering of the Law being the marriage of Glickman’s sister, Shani, to the Irish sailor, Mick. Glickman himself passes through numerous goyish wives: “Zoë, Chloë, Björk, Märike, Alÿs, and Kätchen, little Kate….” He asks, as if self-interviewing, “… what does it say about me that the only people with whom I am able to enjoy intimacy must have diaereses or umlauts in their names?” And then, the film company’s intentions might not be altogether pure: run by non-Jews, Lipsync is also developing a film on nuclear scientist and prisoner of conscience Mordechai Vanunu, and seeking the English-language distribution rights to an Egyptian dramatization of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Soon enough, in Glickman’s assessment, and perhaps in Jacobson’s, as well: Everyone’s an antisemite; and all hope for a new “In the beginning,” free of cult and its domestic travail, becomes historicized into a call for revisionism, or worse — for denial.
Now forget tradition — if only for a moment. Maybe the phenomenon of this novel, and, too, of the century’s worth of English-language Jewish writing that it attempts to deconstruct and then trump, is more like a card game — the titular kalooki, say, whose rules, and provenance, are never quite explained. In any game of cards, the cards themselves stay the same; only their sequence changes. There are only a certain number of jacks and aces and jokers in each deck — what’s always different is who’s holding, who’s folding and who deals. And so it is with mainstream, English-language Jewish writing; we have our myriad ranks and suits, our many colors: the half-insane Jewish uncle (here, known as Tsedraiter Ike), the slutty Jewish girl (here, her name is Tillie Gutmacher), the loving if atheist father, the loving if distant sister, the doting mother’s friends, the blond-bombshell shiksas, the bullying childhood mentor, the communists, the Zionists, the rabbi and the family doctor — all card-thin, cardboard-stiff clichés as shuffled through the pages of countless writers, only to become ultimately kalookized, as it were, in Jacobson’s Manchester ghetto, as kings and queens and schmucks and mamzers (“momzer” is how they say it in London, apparently), all of them sitting around the kitchen table and expounding, all over again, as if in a self-reflexive shiva — mumbling the martyrology, the Kaddish for themselves. Gevalt. Only the accent changes. The bad Yiddish stays the same.
Joshua Cohen writes for the Forward regularly.