Mother’s Boy by Howard Jacobson review

In this “hilariously funny” and “bittersweet” memoir, Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson looks back on his torturous early life, Kathryn Hughes said in The Sunday Times. He emerged from “incompatible elements”, he shows: Anita, his mother of Lithuanian origin, is a woman of “apocalyptic pessimism”, his father Max, of Ukrainian origin, has an “encouraging attitude”.

As title – mother’s boy – suggests that Jacobson was closer in temperament to his mother. “As a teenager he devoured literature but was hopeless at the things that were meant to make you maker’ – a player his father approves of.

After high school he went to Cambridge and studied under the “influential literary critic FR Leavis” who taught “bright young men” to revere Jane Austen, Henry James and other novelists of the Great Tradition. This launched Jacobson into his first career – as a lecturer in English at Wolverhampton Polytechnic – but had a “detrimental effect” on his own writing ambitions. “Since I couldn’t be Dickens,” he recalls, “I couldn’t be anybody.”

Although he believed he was “brought down to earth to write,” Jacobson didn’t publish his first novel until he was 40, Frances Wilson said in The audience. By now he was deeply unhappy – in his own words “a failed husband, a failed father, a failed college teacher”.

What finally got him over his writer’s block was the realization that he shouldn’t shy away from his Judaism; Instead, he was able to embrace it uncompromisingly in his work – and as a result he “broke new ground” and became Britain’s answer to Philip Roth. Both “very funny” and “absolutely serious”, mother’s boy is a great memory. “If there is a better contemporary account of the cost of becoming a writer, I have yet to read it.”

Jonathan Cape 288 pages £18.99; The bookstore of the week £14.99

book cover

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