Book Review: Howard Jacobson: 'Coming from behind'
Updated: Aug 4, 2019
Wonderfully un-PC and very funny. You will discover on the first page of chapter one why Sefton Goldberg is ‘as blind as a school photographer’ and why he is concerned about ‘the little metal nipple on his Yale lock’. To find out, you just have to read this book. The novel might offend a few minorities except those brilliant people I know who are both part of a minority group AND have a great sense of humour. However, what I admire about Jacobson is that he is prepared (and brave enough) to be critical of everyone if necessary, including his main character and himself. As an ex-college lecturer I could relate to many of the incidents. Parking my car in someone else’s space at Dudley College for starters! (I’ll never forget it).
I like the way that Jacobson veers from sometimes embarrassingly straightforward language to the subtleties of a great writer. Sefton Goldberg had ‘known’ a local librarian and ex-student, Jacqueline, in the past and he described their previous encounter. I would like to add ‘so to speak’ after ‘declared their regard’.
‘They had declared their regard for one another at a party just before she left the Polytechnic.’
Sefton, the main character, is obviously intellectual, but internally had a great skill for putting himself down. His relatively sheltered upbringing restricts his knowledge of the way ‘normal’ people behave, but as the novel develops we start to realise just how normal he is, albeit paranoid about his Jewishness. You can’t help but warm to Sefton for this. The inadequacies and lack of confidence of a young college lecturer are described beautifully by Howard Jacobson.
Hopefully avoiding spoilers (this bit won’t make sense until you read the book), but I’m sure you will take the journey with Sefton wondering to the very end whether he will ever discover the level of Cora’s ‘special expertise’. It wasn’t like that at Dudley College or, indeed, Wolverhampton University which I think is the inspiration for Wrottesley Polytechnic. ‘Wolves Uni’ (the name I gave it as a student) wasn’t a university at the time the novel was written, but a Polytechnic.
Howard Jacobson’s novels need to be read.