Coming From Behind by Howard Jacobson (1982)

[Sefton] had a highly developed respect for authority and even the slightest telling off made him feel queasy. He didn’t at all like this submissive quality in himself and he tried to disguise it by barking at menials whenever he could and by bullying and frightening students, but in the still reaches of the night, when there was only him and his humiliations, he was prepared to admit that had he run into him in the street, in uniform, he would have said Sir and maybe even Heil! to Hitler. (p.126)

This is a really, really funny book. It had me weeping with laughter, laughing till my jaws hurt, at numerous places.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson (b.1942) was turning 40 as he published his first novel, Coming From Behind, in 1982. Jacobson, a Jew from Manchester, read English at Cambridge before getting a teaching post in sunny Australia, then coming back to teach at not-so-sunny Wolverhampton polytechnic. The hero of his first novel, Sefton Goldberg, is a Jew from Manchester who reads English at Cambridge, spends several happy years teaching in Australia, before making the mistake of coming back to teach in England, at the wretched, run-down, rainy ‘Wrottesley’ Polytechnic.

Jacobson arrived a little late in the genre of the ‘campus novel’ – maybe that’s one meaning of ‘coming from behind’. (Malcolm Bradbury had published what some people think of as the definitive campus novel – The History Man – in 1975, the same year as David Lodge published the hugely entertaining Changing Places; a year later Tom Sharpe published his hilarious satire, Wilt, set in a rundown polytechnic.)

Just as in all those novels, this book’s place of learning – Wrottesley Poly – is portrayed as a depressing hole, staffed by demoralised and depressed lecturers who are constantly moaning about petty-minded penny-pinching, pointless bureaucracy and the modish attempts of the authorities (the Dean or Vice Chancellor or Head) to keep up with the times (the Department of English is retitled the Department of Twentieth Century Studies, and so on), all the while holding their dim students in barely concealed contempt, and themselves in completely unconcealed contempt.

‘I know that we wouldn’t be teachers of books if we weren’t by nature sickly.’ (p.154)

The shambling anti-hero, Sefton Goldberg, hates his students so much he deliberately teaches them the wrong books, solemnly telling them that Put Yourself in His Place by Charles Reade is one of the most important novels of the 19th century, almost in the same league as Grasp Your Nettle by E. Lynn Linton (p.48).

The plot

Slowly, we are introduced to the nexus of relationships Sefton is embedded in:

  • the wife he is divorcing (never actually encountered)
  • his smarmy colleague, Peter Potter, always ready to politely rub in every detail of Sefton’s humiliations and embarrassments
  • Arthur Twinbarrow who specialises in all the twentieth century poets whose first or last names were Tom or Thomas, and who is permanently impoverished to pay his four children’s way through private school
  • the depressive head of his department, Charles Wenlock, who is about to leave his wife for an affair with a snivelling mature student
  • Dr Gerald Sidewinder, ‘bored as a snake’
  • the head of the whole soggy institution, Ray Grassby, who has more or less given up, and can only talk to his staff when facing the wall

There is also the stereotypical ‘man-eating’ woman academic – in this case the ultra-modern teacher of creative studies, Cora Peck, a scary apparition given to wearing blue cowboy boots, white jump suits covered in zips, and a black leather jacket with a large pair of lips on the back. Within days of her joining, Sefton takes her to a pub to chat her up, a foray which goes disastrously wrong as it emerges that she takes the students seriously, wants to share the joy of creativity with them, and despises Sefton’s cynicism. Oops.

The novel is set three years after that debacle and, whereas Cora has become a firm favourite with students who are invited back to her flat to discuss their poems and novels and plays, Sefton – embittered, yet to write anything worth publishing, depressed and angry – has come to hate her. Which makes it all the funnier when his gentile tormenter, Peter Potter, guilelessly asks Sefton to give her a lift to his – Potter’s – party that weekend.

There is a plot of sorts – the head of the polytechnic has made an improbable ‘twinning’ deal with the local football club – Wrottesley Rovers – under which some of the departments are going to be actually physically moved into the football stadium, thus making savings on overheads ‘and engaging with a whole new audience’.

And a sub-plot – the hated Cora has had a number of her works accepted by a publisher, driving Sefton into paroxysms of envy and despair, so that he accepts Potter’s suggestion of giving her a lift through gritted teeth.

And another sub-plot – Sefton is comically described as spending almost all his spare time filling in application forms for jobs, any job anywhere, anything, just to get him out of Wrottesley. Once established, this comic motif recurs with ever-increasing exaggeration and desperation, as the jobs become more preposterous – St Michael’s Agricultural College, Bath etc.

When, to his amazement, he gets a letter from a Cambridge college, saying they liked his application for the Disraeli scholarship, Sefton is thrown into a very funny panic when he realises he can’t remember what the Disraeli scholarship is, what he wrote on the application, what book he said he was working on, what whopping lies he told about his career and his (non-existent) publications, and so – desperately – on.

With much comic padding and folderol the novel arrives, in its final chapters, at the comic denouement of each of these strands:

  • The funniest sequence is an extended description of his visit to Cambridge, where once again he savours the feeling of complete and utter humiliation and embarrassment, at being a Jew in a high Christian institution, a grammar school boy in public school territory, a northerner in a posh southern location. His description of the hesitations, the inability of the locals to look you in the eye or even say hello, are hilarious. The visit goes from bad to worse as he discovers there are rivals to his application, and that they are former students of his. For example, the female student he was making love to in Australia when the postman knocked, one Helen Burns (see below). She’s not only employed at the college, she’s now its Director of Studies. During the High Table dinner which quickly descends into competitive bickering among the rivals, she – Helen – places her hand decisively on his thigh. And then on his stiffening member. Oh dear.
  • After this bravura scene, the party back at Wrottesley is a bit of a let-down: Sefton takes Cora and his enemy Fledwhite to Peter Potter’s bohemian bash. They get drunk and dance to the Beatles. Some faculty have brought their mistresses, some argue with their wives. In the middle it is interrupted by the arrival of sneaky Sidewinder who announces that the footballer whose book Sefton was, earlier in the novel, charged with reviewing – Kevin Dainty – has died in a freak accident. The merger with the local football team will be brought forward and sealed with a vast memorial tribute to him. And Sefton, to his horror, is charged with composing the Eulogy to the footballer in front of a crowd of his home fans.
  • The climax of the novel comes as Sefton steps up to the podium to address the crowd of booing football supporters, bored after a long-winded eulogy from the mayor and then from the owner of Wrottesley Rovers, and then a dire poem from Gerald Sidewinder. But this is the moment Sefton has been looking forward to all his life. As Jacobson has told us, in an earlier double-edged joke, Sefton ‘was as sentimental as Hitler about applause and crowds.’ (p.61) Which is why it has to be that the great moment is ruined when the disgruntled activist Fledwhite emerges from the crowd and pelts Sidewinder – whose idea it was to ‘twin’ with the football club – with eggs and tomatoes, thus causing the police to intervene. Fledwhite flees across the football pitch, eluding the cops, and completely ruining Sefton’s Great Moment.

Comedy

But the novel is less concerned with plotlines than with exploring topics or moments which provide Jacobson the opportunity to unleash his comic skills and reduce his anti-hero to a weeping wreck.

Thus the disastrous seduction of Cora is a typical scene in which two minds, two personalities, clash horribly and Sefton’s cocksure swagger is systematically deflated. In another scene he has a hilariously ineffectual confrontation with a bunch of Geography lecturers, outraged that he has parked his beaten-up old Anglia in their section of the ghastly car park behind the Poly.

The tone of the whole novel is set by the opening scene in which he recalls the moment, in sunny happy Australia, when he was making love to a female student (Helen Burns) on the floor of his office when the door – which he had forgotten to lock – swings open and there stands the university postman with a full view of Sefton in flagrente. Being Australian, the postman is only disconcerted for a moment before stepping forward and wedging Sefton’s post deftly between his clenched buttocks, before retiring and closing the door. That is our man Sefton in a snapshot: even at the height of human ecstasy, he manages to get himself elaborately and comprehensively humiliated.

The scene that made me weep with laughter is when Sefton is called in by the depressed Head of the Poly, Ray Grassley, who – in a moment of Dickensian brilliance – Jacobson describes as so manically furtive that he always looks as if he’s about to burgle his own office. Every glance, every shifty movement, seems fraught with intent to stash the sideboard under his jacket or stuff a pot plant into his pocket and tiptoe out. Which makes it quite hard to discuss anything serious with him. And makes it very difficult for Sefton to take it seriously when the Head announces that he – Sefton – is being asked, well, told, to write a glowing review of the sex’n’soccer novel by the captain of the local football team, Kevin Dainty, aptly titled Scoring.

Other sequences which don’t really have anything to do with the plot, but advance the text by deepening Sefton’s fathomless sense of failure and humiliation include: a detailed account of his lifelong rivalry with the only other Jew at his school who didn’t go on to study law or dentistry, Godfrey Jelley, who first triumphed by writing chatty accounts of his teas with the stars (Richard Burton, Morecambe and Wise, Mohammed Ali) for a posh Sunday paper – something Sefton was able to dismiss as superficial tinselry – before changing brand altogether and going with a crew of actresses and celebrities to a ‘retreat’ deep in the desert, seeking ‘the silence beyond language’ where they could find themselves – resulting in a bestselling book, radio, TV coverage etc. Sefton’s rage and jealousy go beyond ordinary bounds into new areas of emotional extremity.

It is a typical riff that even now, seven years after arriving, Sefton hasn’t unpacked many of his bags or boxes, refuses to sleep in the bed only on it and only buys small amounts of groceries – because he refuses to accept that this dismal dump is his actual residence, that he lives here, that his life measures who he is.

Almost inevitably, the dismal house where he rents a squalid flat is known as Paradise Apartments. A comic couple live downstairs: in one flat the tiny Fiona McHenry regularly plays hostess to her Chinese boyfriend, the evenings always following the same routine as, first the aroma of fried liver and onions wafts up through Sefton’s floorboards, then the sound of fabrics being disrobed and then the start of epic sex sessions, accompanied by cacophonous shrieks and screams and whimpers, astonishing that they emanate from such a tiny figure.

The racket is so loud that Fiona’s neighbour, long-term unemployed ‘artist’ Ron Penn, routinely puts on his Tom Jones LP and turns the volume up REALLY LOUD, with the result that Sefton’s bed vibrates to the din. If anyone visits him during these sessions, they have to YELL at each other to be heard over the strains of Delilah and The Green Green Grass of Home.

Being Jewish

A major element in Sefton’s character is the consciousness of being an outsider – an outsider to the English, to their love of nature, to their brutal sports and love of getting drunk – and a lot of this is attributed to his being Jewish. On one level, there is little point commenting on Sefton or Jacobson’s Jewishness, since the author is determined to pack as many observations about Jewishness into the book as possible. For example, these quotes are from just the first chapter, of about 28 pages:

… and because he was Jewish and short and knew all the answers they [the girls he taught in Australia] loved him (p.9)

Not being a poofter himself, but being Jewish, which is worse… (p.11)

Not that Norman Shorthall [husband of the woman Sefton is screwing as the novel opens] could ever have imagined, even in his blackest moments of fear and fantasy, what goatish Jew, initiate of secret rites and rituals, would at the eleventh hour do the deed of darkness with his wife. (p.11)

He had picked up from an Oxfam shop a Jewish Year Book which gave the Jewish population of every town in Britain which had a Jewish population, and by Jewish population they sometimes meant no more than seven families, and a synagogue in a tent – but Winchester did not even make the list. So it wasn’t going to be home-from-home exactly, and the residents were not likely to be hanging the Israeli flag or their daughters from their bedroom windows to welcome Sefton. But the warfare would be fairly open. (p.13)

They were the only two Jewish boys in the school who were planning to go to university to study something other than dentistry or law. (p.15)

When Sefton Goldberg took his degree there was still only one Educational Supplement and a Jewish boy from Cambridge could still count himself somebody. (p.16)

Despite taking advantage of his female students (or being taken advantage of, by them – he never really worked it out) on a scale that anyone who wasn’t Jewish or Welsh could ever possibly understand the need for… (p.16)

He was used to temptation and, being Jewish, he was used to a quick capitulation to it… (p.18)

His envy was rapacious and did not discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, creed, age or sex. It simply hurt more if the object were his age, male, and Jewish. (p.22)

Being Jewish, Sefton didn’t know much about the names or breeds or needs of fish. (p.24)

He had a gift of droll lugubriousness which he employed to damp his Jewishness so that it shouldn’t be too much of a trial for Peter Potter. He knew that he was the first Jew Peter had ever struck up a friendship with and he wanted to make the experience easy for him. (p.25)

He often struck Sefton as resembling a little English garden bird, though which garden bird Sefton Goldberg, being Jewish, couldn’t be expected to know. (p.26)

Jewish men, as a rule, weren’t hot on reverence. They went in, of course, for unashamedly public wife worship, but that was another thing entirely. Sefton Goldberg had been a Jewish husband once and although he hadn’t gone quite as far as public wife worship himself he could see how he might have. It was a necessary act of contrition and atonement. For never finally being able to renounce the world for the woman who had renounced the world for you. Being Jewish, you simply couldn’t give up your collusion with other men. (p.27)

But marriage acquainted him with unimaginable self-reproach. He accused himself even more energetically married than he had abused himself single. In the matrimonial life of the Jewish male every day is Yom Kippur. Sefton Goldberg’s super-Jewish squeamishness about intimate marriage talk…(p.28)

After a couple of mouthfuls Peter and Miranda Potter would lay down their cutlery and stare across the table as Sefton chewed and raved and sighed and allowed the juices to run down his chin onto his shirt. It was the least he could do. It was his way of saying thank you for the meal and of making his Jewishness harmless to those who had been brave enough to let it into their home. (p.30)

She [Cora Peck, teacher of creative writing] hated Peter Potter for hating her and she hated Sefton Goldberg because he goaded her, because he knew how to make her scream, because he closed his mind to innovatory structures, and because – although she did not know this was why she hated him – because he was Jewish. (p.32)

There’s a lot more where that came from, throughout the book.

1. It seems to me unlikely that all Jews know nothing about football or beer or birds or nature: much more likely that the numerous sentences which start ‘Being Jewish, Sefton…’ and then make swinging generalisations about all Jews, are a comic routine. Consider for a moment whether you’d want to apply any of the generalisations Sefton and/or Jacobson make about Jews to the actual Jews you meet in real life? No.

2. Leaving to one side whether the scores and scores of observations about Jewishness which occur on almost every page bear any relationship to Jewishness ‘in the real world’, in the novel they have multiple functions:

  • To emphasise Sefton’s outsiderness: the fact that he views the ways of ‘the gentiles’ as strange, brutal or inexplicable emphasises his comic ‘predicament’, in which he is permanently anxious that everything he says or does is somehow wrong.
  • An outsiderness which, paradoxically, sometimes bolsters the priggish sense of superiority he shows vis-a-vis his students, colleagues, bosses and other staff e.g. the argument in the car park with the geographers, who correctly identify his aloof air of superiority (though this might have more to do with the pompous way English was regarded at Cambridge in the 1960s, when F.R. Leavis was still teaching there, i.e. as the most important subject in the world).
  • But more often than not the references to Jewishness emphasise the exact opposite, Sefton’s craven abjectness e.g.:
    • The sequence describing how his Jewish parents went into a panic whenever there was a knock at the door, as if it was the Gestapo arriving for Anne Frank, and how that still explains Sefton’s bursting into a sweat of fear whenever he hears a knock at the door.
    • There is a disconcerting sequence where he emphasises that he eats like a pig in order to justify his gentile hosts’ stereotypes in order to make them feel more at home with his Jewishness. This reveals multiple layers of discomfort and cravenness beneath which lies a sort of aggression. I think the way it works is because Jacobson is always deflecting this permanent anxiety into aggressive over-compensation which is then sublimated into comic channels.
  • Quite often he uses his Jewishness as a stereotype against which to smash expectations, as a straw man to knock down with unexpected punchlines.
  • And sometimes he uses Jewishness to create exaggerated, almost grotesque jokes. Comedy which is also full of howling pain. For example:

‘It is pretty well-established now that the Gestapo was never fully operational in Manchester in the 1950s. But that did not prevent Sefton Goldberg’s early years from seeming every bit as fraught as Anne Frank’s.’ (p.160)

Words words words

The text’s hyper-consciousness of Sefton’s dizzying and self-punishing self-awareness sometimes expresses itself as detailed investigation of specific words and the ways people say them and invest them with meaning. I found these dazzling and riveting.

Deplored After the 65-year-old ineffectual department head has deplored the proposed move to the football stadium, the narrator goes on:

Deplored. It was his favourite word. It offered to do battle but it sounded instead a glorious retreat. It was one of his wailing sighs made articulate. (p.54)

Willed In the car park Sefton confronts a group of angry geographers after he inadvertently parked his car in their section! and finds his car windscreen plastered with leaflets and his tyres let down. One of the threatening geographers mocks him.

‘Now ‘oo’s done that to you, son? Oo’s let your tyres down?’
‘You might as well have. You willed it.’
‘Willed?’ Haslemere held up Sefton’s word by one corner and showed it to his colleagues. It might have been an item of fine silk underwear handed around a bar room.
‘Not a word you know?’ enquired Sefton, in the vain hope that it might be given back. (p.68)

You A few pages later the skinny, feeble looking ringleader of the gang, one Walter Sickert Fledwhite, emerges to confront Sefton wearing a donkey jacket festooned with the badges of political causes.

‘I’m not talking about your department,’ interrupted Fledwhite, advancing behind his outstretched finger as if it had a motor of its own and were dragging him after it. ‘I’m not talking about anyone else. I’m talking about you!’
Sefton had never before heard the little pronoun sound so shockingly persona. It seemed to come up from somewhere deep and most unpleasant in Fledwhite’s body. Sefton felt as if he had been spat at by a consumptive. (p.71)

Masturbation

He had long ago decided that masturbation was so irredeemably ugly a word that it should never be used; but Cora was able to reveal levels of bleakness and desolation in it which even Sefton didn’t know it possessed. On her lips it evoked all of humanity’s most damp and inglorious physical ills: it evoked rheumatism and sciatica and rickets and artificial limbs and trusses and congested passages and the thousand unwelcome juices and fluids which made men cold and wet and full of dismal needs. (pp.93-94)

There are many more comic meditations on individual words which lift and burnish them with a hilariously miserable magnificence.

Conclusion

Although the downtrodden, hen-pecked, over-educated, cynical, sexually frustrated literature lecturer is a stock stereotype of our times, in this début novel Jacobson imbues the character with a comic ferocity, with an imaginative and verbal force, which completely justify the effort. This is a bloody funny book.


Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer and frustrated lecher, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom –
1986 Redback –
1992 The Very Model of a Man –
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love, Cape –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –

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