"Live a Little" by Howard Jacobson

“Live a Little”

Howard Jacobson 


There is little that actually happens in the course of Howard Jacobson’s “Live a Little.”

For Beryl Dusinberry and Shimi Carmelli, two 90-something Londoners, similarly well-versed in the oddities and humiliations that are part and parcel of spending so much time on Earth, life has already happened (or so they believe).

Shimi spends his days reading the fortunes of uninterested diners at the Chinese restaurant he lives above, and Beryl, whose powers of recollection are fading just as her desire to use them grows, busies herself by stitching, writing and bumping around her stately home, antagonizing her immigrant caretakers.

Shimi is quiet, childless, lonesome, Jewish, devoted at a soul level to cartomancy and phrenology and mostly healthy which, without much competition, makes him a hot commodity among the widows of North London; Beryl is a firecracker, of uncommon wit and bluntness, highly educated, sustained by irony and scarred by a lifetime of disappointing lovers. As far as she knows, she’s had four sons, and as far as she’s concerned, they’re not her concern.

The novel begins by alternating between Shimi chapters and Beryl chapters as Jacobson tallies up the indignities particular to their respective experiences of aging. They’re brought together by a funeral, and as they begin to find the ways in which their lives intersect, so to do their chapters. The things that were once the unspoken major plot points of their own lives, as they understood them, turn into conversation. Monologues become dialogue.

You know what happens next. After initial friction, they fall in love, and they are married. Shimi and Beryl, who had closed themselves off to the idea that they would ever find true lovers in this life, find that they have much left to give each other, more than they had ever imagined possible. It’s a lovely story.

If the ending was ever in doubt, this would be a “spoiler.” But it is not, so.

What makes “Live a Little” worth reading, then, is that the plot is delivered along a track of perfectly-laid sentences, a book’s worth of surprising, clever, poignant and downright beautiful sentences.

Shimi’s dying mother’s wheelchairs and bedpans are the “hardware of infirmity.” In a memory, his brother Ephraim is “the rascal, the urchin, the wily schmoozer.”

Beryl, when Shimi pleads with her to recall the long-ago drama of her life, says, “You’re asking me to piece together what I never fully grasped because I never chose to grasp it. Forgetting isn’t always involuntary.”

This could keep going, but then I’d simply have to transcribe the whole book.

One gets a sense of Jacobson’s absolute control of his writing. There’s not a page of fat, not a chapter ending wasted, nary a line that doesn’t fit snugly into the one that follows.  Every conversation is parry and thrust, and ends just when it should. It’s not unlike reading a stage play.  

Occasionally, that quality works against him.

Beryl’s repartee with Euphoria, her Ugandan caretaker, and Nastya the “Moldovan tart,” as she puts it, are little comic treats that bridge the weightier sections, and serve the story well. But Beryl never fails to come out on top with a perfect zinger to button up the section, typically mocking her caretakers’ home countries, and by the end, it feels a bit like Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions.

And Jacobson cannot help but write the characters that he likes as ridiculously fluent in the work of European thinkers and artists. Debussy! Borodin! Holbein! Eliot! It can verge into self-parody — Beryl names one of her sons after a character from Greek mythology, because he was “eaten alive by his own mother.”

Regardless. The richness of “Live a Little” is such that it begs a reread. For myself, at least, there will be a time when Shimi’s laments about the need to rearrange social interactions such that a bathroom is never too far will read differently. Ditto with his and Beryl’s exasperation in the face of changing social norms.

But more than anything itself, it’s those damned sentences.

The Topeka School

"The Topeka School" by Ben Lerner

“The Topeka School”

Ben Lerner

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Early on in “The Topeka School,” a new novel by Ben Lerner, two Jewish psychologists have a discussion about American children and the Holocaust. The elder of the two, a Holocaust survivor, purposefully contradicts himself in making his point about the simultaneously overprivileged and impoverished souls of American boys: “America is adolescence without end,” he says. “In a word, they are overfed; in a word, they are starving.”

The younger psychologist, Jonathan, who narrates the chapter, sees where the conversation is headed. If he points out the contradiction, the elder, Klaus, will smile and return to his favorite quotation: “The opposite of a truth ... is a falsehood; but the opposite of a profound truth ... may be another profound truth.”

To read “The Topeka School” is to read a novel undeniably about Jewishness, and also about something completely different. Take your pick. It could be about the coarsening of American speech. Imperial decline. The utter smugness and ultimate wrongness of ’90s political discourse. The literal and metaphysical triumph of a certain sort of masculinity. The belief that one’s own happiness can only come with a brutal cost, at some later date. The ways in which the behaviors of our parents are passed on to us, consciously or not. On and on. But there’s that darned old religion of ours, which suffuses the whole novel.

The novel has a plot and it doesn’t. In Topeka, Kansas, Adam Gordon is a high school debater with aspirations for a national championship.

His mother, Jane, and his father, Jonathan, are psychologists at The Foundation, a little island of lefty intellectuals from the coast. Jane is a celebrated feminist writer whose book about relationships causes women to thank her in the street, and men — stylized in her mind as “the Men” — to threaten her with death and rape over the phone. Jonathan is known for his talent to reach young, disaffected men when they seem beyond hope.

In between the Jonathan, Jane and Adam chapters, there are italicized interludes following Darren Eberheart, who is at the periphery of the Gordons’ memories. Darren’s mother is a nurse, and Darren himself is a social outcast and a patient of Jonathan’s — Dr. J, in his experience. At the beginning of the book, there is an allusion to a small but shattering act of violence committed by Darren, to be revealed much later on; by the time you get there, it’s one of the least interesting things about him. That he ends his story where he does should be obvious from early on.

What makes “The Topeka School” a novel about Jewishness (and especially Jewishness in America) is Lerner’s focus on forms. It is the mission of the Jewish intellectual — from Einstein to Freud, from Marx to Levi-Strauss to Wittgenstein — to show that what the dominant culture believes to be organic actually had to be created, and what appears to be objective is often just the opposite. Even Abraham knew that idols weren’t repositories of holiness, but only stone.

Over and over again, all of the Gordon family members see the forms around them, see the types over the particular, see the outlines that contain the content. They all, in their own way, make it their mission to show people that the things that feel calcified and inevitable can in fact be changed. What made Jews intolerable to the Nazis, Adam imagines Klaus saying, were “their notions of relativity.” Totalitarians cannot brook contradiction or nuance.

At risk of inflating my own conclusions, I’ll say this. A profound truth: Judaism is about an absolute certainty in God and the Torah. A profound truth: Judaism is about total uncertainty. JN

Jesse Bernstein is the books editor at the Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.

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