Howard Jacobson on the seriousness of the comic
A few drops of summer rain could not dampen the atmosphere in the tent outside Palazzo San Sebastiano, where British novelist Howard Jacobson exchanged one-liners with his interviewer, Italian journalist, actor and presenter Bruno Gambarotta.
The British writer, known for finding comedy in the mundane, said that a novel doesn’t have to include historical events or heavy topics to be considered serious. For him, the most serious things happen in the heart and mind. The other job of the writer is to investigate language and its possibilities. Big events can happen in words. Gambarotta, a recent convert to Jacobson’s fiction, praised his dialogue, which is light but profound.
What about the ‘Jewish writer’ label? It’s unnecessary, said Jacobson. Early in his career he was described as a British Philip Roth; a British Woody Allen. At first it was a compliment, but he grew tired of the comparison, and joked that he preferred to think of himself as a Jewish Jane Austen. His comedy is what defines him as a Jewish writer, he said. Jews understand that life is not funny, and deal with tragedy by laughing at it.
Tension between comedy and tragedy underpins his latest novel, Live a Little, a love story between two ninety-somethings. Ageing can take away dignity, but can also bring freedom. He cited his ninety-plus heroine the princess, who says and thinks what she likes, liberated from the conventions of our time. Cruel but funny, the princess is terrified of losing her memories. “I love and understand her,” Jacobson said. “I think she’s my best character ever.”