At the age of 81, Howard Jacobson, master of splenetic satire, has written a tender love story. I’d have been less surprised had Oscar the Grouch done a Mills & Boon. So, as the novelist welcomes me into his London home – a gorgeous, book-crammed loft apartment in Soho, with a view that seems to take in half the city – I have to ask: is he going soft?
“I am a very sentimental person and with this book I’ve unashamedly let it show,” he says, settling into his chair, hooking his leg over one of its arms. Growing up in Manchester in the 1950s, he was a fan of “schmaltzy musicals like The Student Prince”, a passion he hid like a guilty secret. “I was a very, very soppy boy, falling in love all the time but not saying so because I was frightened my friends would think of me as a softie,” he tells me.
“You know when you’re trying to hold back some emotion, and it gets hot here?” He starts massaging his throat. “In fact, I’m a bit anxious at the moment that something might not be right here. And if it isn’t, I reckon it’s those years of holding back, they’ve produced some hideous tumour of embarrassment.”
It’s taken about 20 seconds for the conversation to turn from love to mortality. This is more the sort of thing you expect from Jacobson, talking about terrible matters in language fine-tuned to make you laugh. But, while writing What Will Survive of Us, his 17th novel, he found himself “fighting very hard” not to resort too readily to comedy.
“Several people have said to me over the years, ‘Why don’t you let us feel a bit more?’ If I did a scene which I hoped would move my readers, I always undercut it with a one-liner or a little acrid sentence. But recently I’ve thought: you don’t need to do that, you’re old enough now not to be ashamed of feeling things.” The title comes from the frequently quoted, often misunderstood, final line of Philip Larkin’s 1956 poem “An Arundel Tomb”: “What will survive of us is love”. Jacobson notes that Larkin “ended up not liking that he’d said that. He was another man who had – what was it [D H] Lawrence called it? – ‘The taboo on tenderness’ .”
In What Will Survive of Us – which charts the relationship between playwright Sam Quaid and documentary-maker Lily Redfern, from its adulterous beginnings when they are both in their 40s until death do them part decades later – Jacobson has not so much kept comedy and compassion in perfect opposition as found a voice that somehow combines the two. It is one of the best things he has done, not a fire-breathing commentary on the world’s follies like his 2010 Booker Prize-winner The Finkler Question, but a deeply felt human story that, in its own way, seems just as urgent.
“It’s an ‘Ah, love let us be true / To one another!’ kind of book,” as he puts it, again borrowing a line of poetry, this time from Matthew Arnold.
In one scene, a journalist grills Quaid about one of his plays. “So is the main protagonist you?” she asks. “‘Main protagonist’ is a tautology,” comes the reply – which sounds exactly like something Jacobson would say. (At one point in our conversation he proves hard to divert from a grumble about the increasingly frequent use of “incredibly” when “very” would do just as well.) There are other telling similarities: Quaid is described by one character as a “sex-obsessed, angry Northerner”; his hair is “zesty” and also “enraged”; and he has “louche, lazy eyes”. So I ask the same question in relation to Jacobson’s latest novel, minus the tautology.
“No, they’re never me,” he replies. “I kind of start from an atmosphere of me. But I remember people asking my friend Wilbur [Sanders] why he wanted to write a novel, he said he wanted the world to know about Wil. I wanted to punch him. That’s not what it should be about. I don’t want the world to know about Howie. It’s more about working through things that are preoccupying me.”
Jacobson lives with his third wife Jenny, a therapist, whom he married in 2005 and on whose literary judgment he depends, reading her everything he writes. Although he regrets not seeing more of his son from his first marriage, and his granddaughter – “they live in Manchester, I live here and I don’t get out much” – he finds himself “happy domestically”.
And so, he says, “I wanted in this book to write about being happy, which I’ve not often written about; but after a certain age it comes with a melancholy. You think, ‘I don’t want to lose my life, I’m enjoying it so much’ – for all that I’m nearly 82, for God’s sake, how much time are you meant to have? – and then I wanted to think about: how far is the morbidity of love what you’re in it for? In a ghoulish kind of way, that dread is part of the attraction, it adds a kind of sweetness.”
Through the vast window of Jacobson’s apartment, I spot the London Eye turning slowly in the distance, and am reminded of the climactic scene that takes place there in his very funny 2002 novel Who’s Sorry Now?. I also recall that the Booker Prize judges famously took a trip to the attraction to test whether he’d got the atmosphere right, decided he hadn’t, and rejected him from the shortlist. He all but growls when I mention this nadir of British literary criticism.
Complaints about realism often dog him. He had to fight to keep a character in his last novel, Live a Little: a 90-year-old man who has never had a relationship, being crippled by shame at having been caught trying on his mother’s underwear as a boy. Jacobson’s publisher found this implausible. “Then I asked a group of Jenny’s psychologist colleagues if this was likely, and they all said ‘Of course, it’d ruin your life, no question’.”
The defining moment in Jacobson’s own life was the birth of his brother, when he was four, hijacking the attention of his devoted mother, aunt and grandmother. I wonder if writing is his way of pulling the spotlight back on to himself? “Without a doubt,” he says. He particularly likes performing at literary festivals in Italy where “the front row is just full of Italian versions of my Jewish aunties and they beam upon me, and I feel I’m getting what was stolen from me. I love to make a roomful of middle-aged women laugh. I used to like to make women older than myself laugh, but there are no women older than myself anymore.”
Born into a working-class Jewish family in 1942, Jacobson studied English at Cambridge under F R Leavis, went to Australia as a lecturer and had a blissful time, before fate removed him to Wolverhampton Polytechnic. For years he yearned to be a novelist but couldn’t get going.
Larkin once said that deprivation was to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth; Jacobson names his own comparable inspiration as “failure. In my 30s I’d failed to be what I wanted to be, which was a writer, and I’d failed to be a successful academic. And shame. I was ashamed to be teaching at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. And ashamed of myself for feeling ashamed, for being a snob. Failure and shame were my daffodils.”
He channelled his feelings into his first novel, Coming from Behind (1983), about a similarly frustrated Jewish academic, and discovered that dark, furious comedy was his métier. There were advantages to starting late: “It didn’t really do Martin Amis any good to have been so loved and so successful so early. Did you ever read Lionel Asbo?” he asks, referring to Amis’s 2012 comic novel. “To me, that looked like somebody with nothing left to write about.”
He does wonder these days if “anybody wants to read a book by an old, white, straight, pale, grey male. The novels that sell now often confirm the sense of victimhood or pain or vulnerability of the reader. Reading has become a place you go to either for self-improvement or for self-confirmation.”
But in any case, he accepted long ago that his books would never sell in the same quantities as, say, Ian McEwan’s. “He touched something in the English middle classes that gets them. I never have. Jews love me, but English Jews, about whom Philip Roth was so scathing – unremarkable, philistine bunch, he said – they don’t read. They like me and they like knowing my books are there, without reading them.”
This time, Jacobson “very much did not want to write a novel about Jewishness”, thinking that nobody was much interested in the subject these days – “and now look what’s happening as it comes out!” He is no uncritical Zionist – “I don’t know a Jew that isn’t appalled by Netanyahu, hasn’t been appalled by Netanyahu for years” – but is dumbfounded by much of the reaction to the October 7 massacre.
“I do feel personally more fearful now. And I hope the removal of that Harvard woman was the beginning of people who should know a lot better, but in fact know nothing, losing their jobs,” he adds, referring to Claudine Gay, who resigned as the university’s president earlier this month following criticism of her response to anti-Semitism on campus (and allegations of plagiarism, which she has denied). “But it is frightening to discover that the world of progressives don’t necessarily oppose rape or anything else if it’s happening to an unfavoured group.”
I ask Jacobson finally if he thinks his new book will get the Booker nod it deserves. “No, no. That’s over for me. What I’d like is for somebody to say: we don’t like this year’s batch and he should have won the Booker five or six times, so we’ll give him those now. A bit of retrospective Bookering for Kalooki Nights [his 2006 novel], J  and a couple more.”
I’d add to that list The Mighty Walzer (1999), which ranks with his new book as one of the rare Jacobson novels to leave readers with a warm glow; he tells me that “there are attempts being made to make it into a television series.” It is an evocation of his youth in Manchester and his colourful parents. “I was stupid – it was such a long time before I realised that there was a story there. I wasted years trying to be too fancy and too grandiose: not knowing that the stories I could tell were in front of my nose.”
What Will Survive of Us suggests that he’s learnt his lesson. “Love and death are in front of my nose,” he says. “That’s my world now.”
What Will Survive of Us (Jonathan Cape, £20) is out on Feb 1