“Who’s Sorry Now?,” by Howard Jacobson. Bloomsbury USA, 336 pages, $17 (paperback)
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In the early pages of “Who’s Sorry Now?” we are told of “Two old friends, one steadfastly in love with the same woman all his married life, one not, meeting regularly to decide who is unhappier.” In the later pages of the book the same sentence is repeated.
The author, Howard Jacobson, is not one to waste words. The reprise provides a rueful bookend to what comes between: a cautionary tale about the price of changing partners. Nominally the fare of stage comedy, in Jacobson’s adroit hands the stuff of farce also becomes the instrument of ruin. It is both funny and painful, the mixture of which this novelist is a master.
Jacobson, best known for “The Finkler Question,” which won Britain’s Man Booker Prize in 2010, has parried suggestions that he is an English version of Philip Roth by riposting that he is a Jewish Jane Austen. More apposite might be a Jewish Hogarth. But instead of 18th-century London, his subject is a 21th-century version peopled by the chattering classes and their various discontents. Pride of place goes to a panoply of self-lacerating neurotics, put-upon women and - Jacobson’s specialty - an assortment of conflicted Jews who are either running from their origins or toward various forms of self-destruction.
In “Who’s Sorry Now?,” a 2002 novel now reissued by Bloomsbury USA in paperback, Jacobson offers a nod to “A Rake’s Progress.” The protagonist in this case is no prodigal but rather a successful businessman, Marvin Kreitman, the South London handbag king.
His lucrative handbag business - “In the end it will sell itself” - allows him the luxury of spending his considerable leisure time attending to the needs of his several mistresses, if not his wife.
His relations with his spouse, Hazel, have devolved over two decades from rough sex to separate beds where they lie like the sarcophagi of an entombed pharaoh and his queen. Their marriage has become a business accommodation, in which Kreitman attends dutifully to Hazel’s upscale material requirements while catering enthusiastically to the sexual needs of his various paramours, strewn over London in an archipelago of adultery.
Even at its best, their lovemaking consisted of Kreitman using his wife the way Portnoy used a liver - “I could have been a bucket,” she recalls. Hazel shared her bed with Kreitman and his fantasies, a threesome that she found off-putting and, after his concurrent infidelities, unbearable. Embittered, her “girlish dream of reciprocated romance” in tatters, Hazel takes consolation in redecorating their house and alienating Kreitman’s daughters from him, though he’s already done the job on his own.
Enter the other half of this love quadrangle, the Kreitmans’ best, oldest - and only - friends, the aptly named Merriweathers. This couple are the Kreitmans’ opposites. They are kindred spirits: loving, attentive and consummately faithful in a marriage of 23 years. They do everything together, including work, in which they have collaborated as the successful authors of 27 children’s books. They even have the same nickname: Charlie, although she (Charlotte) accepts the moniker Chas, which avoids confusion on the part of their friends as well as the reader. Most importantly, they practice nice sex - twice a month, warm, considerate, tender.
And it is this nice sex that is driving Charlie (the male) crazy. After two decades of professing to the adulterous Kreitman the virtues of abstention outside of marriage, Charlie has become a suppressed volcano about to explode. He’s had too much of a good thing and now craves a taste of forbidden fruit. Charlie has spent years listening to Kreitman’s libidinous tales and suddenly - like a switch turned on - he wants some of his own. Kreitman, an aerialist of philandering, has enjoyed having Charlie as an audience, listening aghast and enthralled at his high-wire acts of sexual derring-do.
But when, at a well-oiled lunch that devolves into a well-oiled dinner, Charlie insists on a piece of the action -- any piece will do, though Hazel would be preferable - Kreitman dismisses it as drunken bravado, believing that his friend is not cut out for this line of work. Wrong.
For the trouble in Charlie’s paradise has been a long time coming and he needs no Kreitman as serpent to tempt him into a fall. Quite the contrary, Kreitman’s efforts to fob him off fail to deter eager Charlie from leaping headlong over the gates of Eden. He is determined to leave the Planet Nice for the Planet Wrongdoing.
And, through a sequence of misunderstandings, misalliances and sheer happenstance - this is, after all, a bedroom farce - Charlie fulfills his dream, and more.
’Careful what you wish for’
Which brings us to the “be careful what you wish for” stage. Charlie will move in with Hazel, who has banished Kreitman from the domestic hearth. And Chas, after a very brief interlude, will get hers back by joining Kreitman in his lair. The couples revolve around one another like porcelain figurines dancing a minuet in an erotic music box. The book’s title may be “Who’s Sorry Now?” but at the moment, the more fitting lyric is “Let Yourself Go.”
The ensuing wife-swapping, albeit somewhat disjointed and not fully intended by all parties involved, is neatly symmetrical. Hazel finds that she is happy, an emotion heretofore foreign to her; Charlie obtains his erotic charge together with the pampering of a woman reawakened; Chas gets revenge and the ministrations of an accomplished and inventive swain, and Kreitman, to his surprise, finds love. He gives up his girlfriends and becomes a paragon of fidelity, a tender and uxorious lover, so taken is he with the unforeseen charms of Chas, to whom he never previously gave serious thought.
One does not have to be a whodunnit-adept to anticipate that this will not end well. Ardor cools, expedience rules. The pull of habit brings the urge to cohabit back to ground. Equilibrium is restored. For the Charlies, the ride was like summer camp for sensualists. The Kreitmans did everything but sew name labels into their shorts. And then came the fall.
Howard Jacobson is a writer who has shown a marked interest in the outlandish. He starts out with an outrageous premise and sees where it will lead. In “Kalooki Nights” (2006), his most “Jewish” novel, Manny Washinsky, a devout boy obsessed with the Holocaust, grows up to become a parricide, utilizing an appropriately innovative and harrowing means of dispatching his parents. In “The Act of Love” (2009), Felix Quinn, an antiquarian bookseller, orchestrates his own cuckoldry in quest of jealousy as an aphrodisiac. In this pursuit he engages in various forms of masochism, pedophilia, necrophilia and voyeurism, engrossed, as he observes, in the deviancy of his own desires.
By taking a taboo as far as it will go, Jacobson borrows a page from such predecessors as Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” and Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man,” first-person confessionals of deviants as engaging as they are perverse.
In Jacobson’s most acclaimed novel, “Finkler” is a stand-in for “Jew/Jewish” as in the book’s title. Sam Finkler, a TV intellectual and self-abasing Jew, is engaged in a perennial debate with his old friend and mentor Libor Sevcik about Israel’s alleged iniquities, prompting Sevcik to deride him for “more of the self-hating Jew stuff,” in the belief that “all Finkler wanted was for non-Finklers to approve of him.” This striving for validation from gentiles will be tested in the petri dish of Jacobson’s experimental laboratory.
In the more recent “Zoo Time,” Jacobson’s protagonist, the struggling novelist Guy Ableman, is obsessed with his still-comely mother-in-law, while his career goes down the drain together with the publishing industry. Ableman flaunts his serial transgressions, embracing ignominy in the belief that one can’t be completely ruined; there is always a lower depth.
Perhaps there is, but one doesn’t have to hit bottom to feel the giddy terror of free fall. If there is a common theme to these narratives it is the prospect of ruin, utter, total, final. To be sure, ruin is a Victorian concept. One needs to be the bishop’s chaplain of Barchester or the mayor of Casterbridge to deserve it. That is, to be vulnerable to ruin, one requires standing in a society capable of shock, susceptible to scandal. How can poor Kreitman possibly qualify? He is friendless, wifeless, virtually daughterless, a burden to his employees, alone. His fall takes place in an urban forest in which no one hears and no one cares. Is his pain any less than Jude’s or Tess’? No, but it is atomized.
In the end, this wised-up Lothario and street-smart operator is just another one of Fortune’s fools. What Jacobson has given us is a very funny portrait of his decline. But the laughter, like the sex, is joyless.
Jack Schwartz formerly supervised the book pages of Newsday and was an editor for the culture section of The New York Times.