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Original Essays

On Kalooki Nights

by Howard Jacobson
 
  1. Kalooki Nights
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    Kalooki Nights

    Howard Jacobson
    "Jacobson's prose is pure pleasure — concise, markedly insightful, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny — and his message, ultimately, is a heartbreaker. An exceptional novel." Booklist (starred review)

    "The factual horror of the Holocaust is always close to the emotional core of this twisted tour de force...but Jacobson tempers the profane with meditations on what it means to be British and Jewish." Publishers Weekly


Jew, Jew, Jew. Those three little words, in conjunction with three others — joke, joke, joke — recur kaleidoscopically in Kalooki Nights, now solemnly, now irreverently, but always as a question to which there is no answer. Jew, Jew, Jew, joke, joke, joke, why, why, why?

If ever there was a novel I didn't want or mean to write it was this one. I had told myself that for an English novelist I'd written Jewishly enough. There are no Jews to speak of in England. A mere 300,000, a third of whom are in semi-denial about being Jewish, a third of whom don't read, and a third of whom, when they do read, think the only book a Jew needs is the Torah. As for the rest of the country, they rate reading about Jews a long way below reading about Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Iranians, Egyptians, Serbs, the Italian Mafia, the Irish, the Welsh, the Irish-Welsh, the Welsh-Irish, and, of course, themselves. A romantically dead Jew, such as Anne Frank, is a different matter. But living Jews in England don't register on the ethnic curiosity graph. We hold no secrets, we pose no threats, we suffer no calamities. We are passé. Most Jewish Americans I met when I was on tour in America last year were surprised to discover there are Jews in England.

I am not a crusading novelist. I never saw it as my role to introduce the wonders of Jewishness — I am careful not to say Judaism — to the Gentile world. I wrote about Jews because I was one, and what you are will always be of supreme interest to you, even though, as novelist, you are also meant to be interested in what you're not. But the other thing you are meant to do is keep your ear to the ground. It is not cynical to decide that this or that subject has had its day and that it's time to try your hand at another. I was in danger, I thought, of writing myself out of the zeitgeist. So enough with Jews. Jew, Jew, Jew. I'd said my say. It was time to write about something else.

But a strange thing happens to a writer when he starts answering compulsions or requirements from outside himself. He rebels. No soooner had I decided against Jews than Jews came flooding in on me. Every story I thought of without a Jew suddenly had nothing but Jews in it. Not coincidentally, I now realise, Jews in England were becoming a subject again. Ostensibly, the subject was Israel, but it didn't escape the notice of some of us that attitudes toward Israel were spilling over into attitudes toward Jews, unless it was attitudes toward Jews that were spilling over into attitudes toward Israel. I am not one of those who believe it is necessarily anti-Semitic to be critical of Israel, but neither am I one of those who think it necessarily isn't. And when criticism of Israel takes the form of a selective vituperation, marked by distortions and omissions, there are legitimate questions to be asked about its motives. I am not saying it was turning dangerous or even uncomfortable to be a Jew in England, but memories of old anxieties began to resurface. Beyond the security found outside every synagogue and Jewish school, there were no new precautions we felt we needed to take, but there were some new arguments we felt we needed to make.

And then there was Holocaust denial, revivified, paradoxically, by the imprisonment in Austria of David Irving, the long-discredited revisionist. Jew, Jew, Jew — the long arm of Jewishness, some argued, yet again silencing all voices which didn't tell history the way Jews wanted it told. I met my own Holocaust denier at about this time at a garden party in an innocuous suburb of West London. A woman not only well-versed in the geometry and demographics of denial — you know the arguments: the ovens were not big enough, you couldn't move that many people in that amount of time... arguments that always sound wistfully regretful, as though it is a shame the Holocaust they deny didn't in fact happen — but also steeped in every aspect of Jewish history, Jewish law, and Jewish exegesis. It was while I was talking to this woman that I saw into the tragicomic heart of the fulltime anti-Semite: to be Jew-obsessed is to be imprisoned in Jewish history more completely than any shtetl-bound Talmudic scholar of the 15th century. The punishment so exquisitely fits the crime — those they hate filling up every moment of their waking and no doubt their dreaming lives — it is enough to make you believe again in a Jewish God.

I was back, anyway, Jew, Jew Jewing it, only this time the obsessiveness — mine and hers, mine and theirs — was not incidental to my subject, it was my subject. Kalooki Nights is not, I hope, an obsessive novel, but it is a novel about obsession. I don't just mean the obsession of the deniers and the haters, though I take great pleasure in revisiting their fate, but of Jews themselves, whether believing or disbelieving Jews, whether Jews who choose to look backward into Jewish history or Jews who cannot wait to make the great escape. That there is and can be no great escape is where I stand, though I hope I allow my characters every chance to prove me wrong. For me, though, too much has happened to make escape possible or desirable. Too much is still happening.

"If you could lick my heart," said one of the Holocaust survivors in Claude Lanzmann's monumental film Shoah, "it would poison you." A thought like that perpetuates the unforgettable horror that occasioned it. In effect, it is an invitation to lick the poisoned heart and be poisoned by it yourself.

Ask how long the heart can stay poisoned before it fails, and you ask the most important of all questions for contemporary Jews. "Never forget" — these are the words we find carved into everlasting stone wherever there is a memorial to the Holocaust. But isn't it precisely the never forgetting that prevents the poisons escaping? To say "never forget" is not the same, of course, as saying "never forgive," but the longer we remember, the more impossible, and the more inappropriate, forgiveness becomes. "Man has the right and the privilege to declare himself to be in disagreement with every natural occurrence, including the biological healing that time brings about," wrote Jean Améry, survivor, thinker, essayist, and finally — because his thoughts left him no other option — self-murderer. His reasoned refusal to let time heal him represents, for me, one of the great acts of intellectual courage of the 20th century. But it leaves no legacy. When the logic of your thinking leads you to take your life, you may win the admiration of other men, but you do not help them existentially.

Kalooki Nights addresses these questions of time, memory, healing, and the refusal to be healed. It does not presume to reimagine the Holocaust. There is something repugnant to me in the idea of telling that particular story if it is not yours to tell. But the aftermath of the Holocaust is everybody's story — even the denier's — and that is the subject of Kalooki Nights. My hero and his friends read about the Holocaust, that's all. They come across Lord Russell of Liverpool's Scourge of the Swastika, as I did in the 1950s — Scourge of the Swastika being one of the first books to tell graphically of what had happened in Hitler's camps — and although they are living unthreatened lives in the north of England, although they are not brought up in an atmosphere of acute historical or even religious awareness, they are marked ineradicably, in some cases tragically, by what they read.

I am gratified that many readers have found Kalooki Nights funny. But it is, I hope, the more and not the less serious for that. I take comedy very seriously. I am a writer that licks poisoned hearts. When you laugh at Kalooki Nights I mean you to taste the poisons I taste. Jew, Jew, Jew, joke, joke, joke. It's what we do. Among the many strategies for emotional survival perfected by Jews, joking is paramount. You smell blood in a Jewish joke because catastrophe is its provenance. Affliction is where it feeds. Affliction is what it seeks to heal.

"Being a Jew," Jean Améry wrote, "means feeling the tragedy of yesterday as an inner oppression." Comedy cannot diminish the feeling we have for yesterday's tragedy. Never forget. But it might at last do something to relieve the inner oppression.

÷ ÷ ÷

Howard Jacobson is the author of four works of nonfiction and seven novels, including The Mighty Walzer, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing, and Who's Sorry Now, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize. He has a weekly column for the Independent and regularly reviews and writes for the Guardian, the Times, and the Evening Standard. He lives in London. spacer

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