Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson (1984)

Review one

If being in love isn’t being terrified I don’t know what is. (p.185)

Barney Fugelman, anxious, guilty, literary Jewish layabout, aged 27 in 1967, is married to heavy-breasted numerologist Sharon, who runs a bookshop specialising in spirituality (Zazie’s dans le Metro), in Finchley. When they invite hypnotist Harry Vilbert to come and do an after-hours talk and demonstration, little does Barney know that he will end up channeling to the astonished audience the spirit of the young Thomas Hardy! This is all the funnier since Barney is an anxious, urban type who loathes the countryside and all literature which fetishises it (‘I had a dislike for the English rural tradition’ p.36). Barney goes back to the hypnotist a few more times and each time it gets clearer and clearer that he really can access Hardy’s boyhood and teenage memories – they check against Hardy’s biography – so that all things Hardian become an increasing topic of his and Sharon’s conversations, until she has the brainwave of moving down the hill and opening a new bookshop devoted just to Hardy (Eustacia’s on the Heath) which turns out to be a surprising success.

If this summary gives the sense that reading the book is a straightforward linear experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Events swirl and whirl through a maelstrom of memories, recalled incidents, conversations and arguments and generalisations about Jewish life and childhood and sexuality and literature. And a lot of the best humour is often generated by these tangents and diversions, particularly by the book’s gallery of quirky minor characters.

Barney’s father

Take Barney’s father. On the handful of times Barney remembers his childhood home life he remembers how his dad had some obscure job at Somerset House in the births department and came home each day with a collection of the cruellest names parents had given their children: Greta Warmley, Eva Brick, Ava Crisp, Carrie Waters. It’s a straightforward running gag, but still pretty funny, and gets funnier each time Mr Fugelman senior hoves into view reciting more silly names.

Monty Frankel

Barney has teenage memories of Monty Frankel, a neighbour his age who enjoyed pretending to hang himself from a gibbet in the back garden, and who slipped him surreptitious pages from Nazi atrocity books, which were the only place either of them could see naked – albeit starved-to-death – women.

Maybe we’re meant to find this shocking – maybe Jacobson is trying to transgress taboos within Jewish culture and among his wider Gentile audience. But I wasn’t very scandalised in 1984 when I first read this novel, and even less so in 2016, maybe because I was once a teenage boy and so know what they’re capable of.

Also from his teenage years, Barney enjoyed peeking out the window as another neighbour, Mrs Flatman, does the gardening, watching her female body move and heft. On one never-to-be-forgotten afternoon she and another neighbour frolic in the kids’ paddling pool with no tops on. Little Barney’s ‘putz’ grows large enough to itself peek over the windowsill and get a view. The heady mix of Jewish anxiety, Jewish guilt, and adolescent sexuality is strongly reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

Eventually Barney’s dad will run off with the full-bosomed Mrs Flatman and set up house in Tooting, in – as it happens – the very building where Thomas Hardy stayed while writing a novel. Meanwhile his own mother sets up with a succession of different men, but finally settles for Mr Flatman. Through the vicissitudes of Barney’s own love life, he will at various points, come back to London to visit one or both of his erring parents, who have set him fine examples of adultery and betrayal.

Literary criticism

There is quite a lot of literary criticism lying around in the book. At times you wonder whether the author himself had written a thesis or academic paper on Hardy, and whether the novel is an inventive way of recycling large chunks of it.

The analysis is all clever, learnèd, and highly knowledgeable about Hardy but all takes rather the same psychological or psycho-analytical approach. Even in 1984, there were a number of ways to think about a text or author (historical, biographical, Marxist, rhetorical, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, and so on) with more being invented every term.

But for the purposes of this highly-sexed novel, the literary criticism always ends up discovering that sex lies at the bottom of just about anything which can happen in a novel, especially the novels of Thomas Hardy. It is quite a funny running gag that all the Hardy critics they meet – as well as Barney and Camilla his lover – are Hardy experts to their fingertips, but cordially dislike him. It’s less interesting that so many of their lengthy essays about him end up in the same place. Take this, a dithyramb from Camilla about Tess of the Durbevilles.

‘Have you even wondered why Hardy is so interested in Tess’s genealogy? Her aristocratic background is a metaphor, it’s wholly figurative. At the very moment that Angel forgives her and thereby makes her a spiritual virgin again, he has immediately to recall the historical interest of her family, the masterful line of the D’Urbevilles. Because without that, and without Alec’s seal upon her, what is she? Nothing. The wickedness that Hardy can’t comfortably indulge Tess in the present, he bestows upon her in the past. He ransacks her beginnings, uncovers her original sin – the thing he most wants to dwell upon – and hangs her up by it in the end. It’s a compulsive metaphor for intercourse.’ (p.291)

The many speculations about Hardy all dwell on his alleged psycho-sexual obsessions, and repeatedly make the rather boring discover that Hardy’s novels echo or anticipate Barney’s own personal obsession – the repeated plot device in Hardy’s novels of having weedy men introduce their beloved to hunky men who then ‘possess’ them as the weakling would like to, prefiguring Barney’s own feeble protration in front of strong women. Throughout the book, Hardy’s plot and biography are continually mixed up and compared with Barney’s own psycho-sexual ‘needs’.

Masochism

For the text is heavy with the narrator’s own sado-masochism. Night after night Barney begs his wife, Sharon, to take a lover so as to humiliate him – and he is continually pushing her towards the nearest available male friend or house guest. In bed at night he begs her to call out the latest man’s name, and begs her to pretend to beg him to fuck her. Oh well. Her mother warned her men were strange. So Sharon complies to make Barney happy, but with no feeling whatsoever.

Eventually, Barney contrives to make his fantasy come true and gets Sharon into bed with their ‘friend’, Rowland Fitzpiers, a beardy science fiction expert, and he watches them, savouring the moments when:

Sharon dropped to her knees and drew back Fitzpiers’s foreskin (how did she know what to do with a foreskin?) or when Fitzpiers dropped to his knees and drew back her… (p.146)

However – as you might expect from a literary novel and especially from a comic novel – the experience turns out to be a withering anti-climax, quickly becomeing disappointingly domestic. They end up in bed, all three of them, tucking into plum pudding and chocolates on Christmas morning. Which is nice, but not the giddy heights of erotic abandon which Barney had been hoping for.

Rowland Fitzpiers is quite a funny character. He’s another literary hanger-on and also-ran, who writes occasional articles for obscure magazines, and is just now going through a phase as an expert on science fiction. He has some funny riffs on how almost every famous book you can think of is in fact a precursor to – or is heavily indebted to – one science fiction classic or other.

Eventually, Sharon kicks Barney out in a very conventional scene where she announces that she’s pregnant and Barney shows less than enthusiasm. She attacks him – he runs away. Later he discovers Fitzpiers has moved in and is looking after Sharon, and eventually becomes legal father to the little girl she has – his sci-fi influence obvious in the name they give her – Asimova Wollstonecroft Ursula. Just as well she wasn’t a boy, Barney thinks, or he’d have ended up being called Arthur C Ballard Pohl – assuming they could resist the temptation of throwing Moorlock into the mix. All very witty, if you know your 1980s sci-fi authors.

After brief affairs Barney stumbles across the pamphlet giving the address in Cornwall of a Hardy expert, Camilla, he met at a party, who was particularly rude and dismissive of him. He likes that in a woman. He likes to be threatened and dominated. So he travels all the way down to Cornwall to track her down, and thus begins the second part of the novel, all set in a small Cornish fishing village and describing his Hardy-obsessed and ill-fated love affair with Camilla.

Facility with language

The text runs over with fluent articulations about literature and sex, psychology, relationships, masochism and family ties. Jacobson’s language skills are so copious they routinely overflow the bounds of decorum and often threaten to elude sense altogether, as he makes puns and verbal plays, repetitions and amplifications galore. He likes repeating ideas in three consecutive clauses:

It was difficult for me, as I have already made abundantly plain, to show much forbearance to my forebears; my instincts were all for cursing my precursors… because I had failed her when I flailed her. (pp.205-208)

As his first infatuation with his lover, Camilla, eventually dies down, their relationship becomes stale, above all she no longer terrifies and dominates him as he wants her to, needs her to, in order to become aroused; they have become:

two masochists on a mattress, each having to abjure the thrill that can only come from thrall, the incomparable rapture of rough capture, the unslakable thirst to come off worst. (p.308)

Initially Camilla had set up a system of encouragements and rewards to try and teach Barney about his adopted countryside. (Of course it is entirely focused on sex, the only subject Barney really cares about.) If he wishes for fellatio that night, he has to collect flax, fleabane and fritillary. ‘And if I fancy cunnilingus?’ he asks. He has to identify a curlew, a cuttlefish and collect armsful of columbine, cranesbill and lesser celandine. (p.249)

Page after page has effortless puns and word plays, alliteration and rhetorical flourishes. The downside of this kind of thing is there is lots of it, and not all of it is that funny. Not only is the book 350 pages long, but it is a very dense 350 pages, many of them presenting a solid block of text, with no paragraphs or breaks.

At its heaviest, this can be experienced as an unremitting wall of words. If the upside is Jacobson’s astonishing fluency and articulacy, the downside is he can run on, become prolix, become – eventually – alas – boring. You get the quite frequent impression that his phenomenal fluency is expended on the tiniest details of a relationship which you, the reader, just doesn’t care about as much as the self-obsessed narrator.

Whatever else I loved Camilla for, whatever miraculous conjunction of spirit, word, and flesh, had found its way into my soul, I loved her most intensely for her incontestable right to be loved by others – or to put that another way, for her capacity to loose the devils of rivalry against me. She didn’t even need to whisper in my ear; she had only to stretch herself out to her full length on the bed, precisely as I have just stretched her, for me to feel that adversaries past and present, ghostly and imminent, were coming at me from everywhere. I could feel them thumping up Camilla’s fourteenth-century staircase. I could see them prising out the panes form Camilla’s tiny leaded windows. It was with an exquisite sense of inadequacy that I drew my weapon afresh each time, certain of nothing but comprehensive defeat. Barney Fugelman – love’s warrior – alone and lightly armed in the continuum. (p.280)

Fluent? Very. Urbane and amused? Yes. Self-dramatising, self-obsessed and melodramatic? Yes, but that’s appropriate for a comic novel. Funny? No, not laugh out loud funny. Slight smile of amusement funny and, if repeated over 350 pages, the slight smile risks disappearing.


Review two

The book is in a short prologue and two long parts.

Prologue The prologue introduces us to anxious, urban Jew, Barney Fugelman, forlornly tramping the cliffs of a remote Cornish village – which is ironic because he hates Cornwall, he hates the countryside and, being an urban Jewish intellectual, he dislikes the whole pastoral English tradition. So how did he end up there? Well, since you ask…

Part 1 describes Barney’s childhood and young teenage years in a north London Jewish family, and then his marriage to the hairy, heavy-breasted astrology and numerology fan Sharon, during which Barney discovers that his life has eerie parallels with Thomas Hardy, of all people, famous for his Gothic novels of rural life. Sharon rejigs her spiritualist bookshop as a Thomas Hardy bookshop, which proves improbably successful, and then – rather spectacularly – Barney is put under hypnosis as a gimmicky after-hours event at the bookshop and discovers that he can actually channel the mind and memories of the young Thomas Hardy! Progressively more detailed and convoluted psycho-sexual explorations of Hardy’s life and novels become inextricably intertwined with long passages of Barney’s own autobiography, sex life and complex sexual fantasies.

These latter take the form of the convoluted wish to be humiliated and debased by seeing his wife with another man. After attempts to coerce various male friends into fulfilling this fantasy, he manages it with a beardy science fiction expert, Rowland Fitzpiers. Barney watches them at it, then joins in. However – as you might expect from a literary novel and from a comic novel at that – the experience is a deflating letdown, and quickly becomes disappointingly domestic. They end up in bed, all three of them, tucking into plum pudding and chocolates on Christmas morning. Which is nice, but not the giddy heights of erotic abandon which Barney was hoping for.

Eventually, Sharon kicks Barney out in a very conventional scene where she announces that she’s pregnant and Barney shows less than enthusiasm. She snaps and attacks him. He flees.

Part two Barney has a few brief flings, but then comes across a pamphlet by a woman Hardy expert, Camilla, who he met at a party and who was sturdily contemptuous of him. That’s the kind of thing which excites him, so Barney takes the train to Cornwall to track her down at the ‘Alternative Centre for Thomas Hardy Studies’. Barney strikes a comic figure in his city overcoat and Bally shoes waiting on the clifftop as she comes back on a trawler full of roistering fishermen and bold, Amazonish Camilla.

A bald summary doesn’t do justice to the convoluted and wordy text, nor for the way Hardy is used as a pretext and a scaffold for all kinds of comic or literary critical flights of fancy. For many of his readers Hardy is a noted describer of the English countryside, its flora and fauna, its moods and seasons. None of that appears in this book which leans heavily towards repetitive, almost obsessive investigations of sex, sexual needs, sexual fantasies, sexual drives, sexual desires and the tortured relationships they give rise to. The text is so pregnant with ideas that there are lots of ways to unpack and interpret it, but for me three things stand out:

1. Opportunity missed The notion that Barney can, under hypnosis, tap into the actual life and memories of Thomas Hardy himself, goes surprisingly under-explored. It’s only used as a backdrop to Barney’s endless worrying about his own sexual tastes and appetites and fantasies and heritage, not least his fear that he might, in some secret way, actually be related to the old brute. In a different sort of novel, there would have been massive opportunity for Barney to exploit this previously unheard-of scientific discovery, to perform publicly, make astounding revelations about Hardy’s life and character, to appear on TV, tour the States, make a fortune. None of this happens. Instead the whole Hardy theme, present on almost every page, is subordinated to the life and very suburban times of Barney Fugelman. He fantasises about another man fucking his wife. He walks out on her when she gets pregnant. He shacks up with another woman who can indulge his appetite for being humiliated. She in turn gets bored and dumps him. That’s the plot, in a nutshell, garnished with an inexhaustible supply of descriptions of women’s breasts and pudenda.

When at last I came round I saw Camilla standing over me. She was wearing a man’s shirt (whose? whose?) which didn’t entirely conceal, not from where I was lying anyway, the thick undergrowth of her sex. (p.231)

2. The 1960s On the same issue of ‘opportunities missed’, the main narrative takes place in the late 1960s, starting in 1967 when Barney is 27 and dragging on for the next 6 years or so (1973 is mentioned towards the end). What is missing is any reference to the fact that it is the 1960s, the Summer of Love, Swinging London. No mention of pop or classical music, no Beatles or Rolling Stones. Nothing about the visual arts, no happenings or exhibitions. Nothing about drugs. Nothing about the rapid social change of the era, the legalisation of abortion or homosexuality. Nothing about politics e.g. student unrest and the events of May 1968 or how that toppled over into the terrorism of the early 1970s, for example the escalation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

We hear very little, really, that happens outside Barney’s bedroom or trousers.

3. Claustrophobic These 350 densely-packed pages are incredibly narrow – sometimes very funny, but most of the time amounting to a very parochial, almost claustrophobic account of one man’s psycho-sexual – mainly sexual – obsessions and fantasies.

Camilla brought me toast to the table and subjected me to a long slow smile of recognition. The obscene tangle of her pubic hair, still visible beneath her shirt but less tightly curled than it had been when she stood over me and prodded me with her foot – a touch dewier now and more straggly – was on a level with my eyes. She stood dead still so that I could breathe in her aroma and see the fleshy swell of her… (p.234)

There are some lengthy analyses of Hardy’s novels, but always in the same psycho-sexual terms which the narrator uses to describe his own sexual obsessions. (The obsession with sex is very typical of a certain type of English literary novel – rereading David Lodge’s novels has surprised me with how obsessed with sex and erect penises they are). Maybe because so many professional novelists live their lives on university campuses, spending too much time with books they’ve read to death and come to loathe, and with impressionable young people at a very frisky stage in their lives. The temptations to booze and adultery are chronicled in all-too-many campus novels, from Kingsley Amis onwards.

4. Psycho-sexual literary criticism For the narrator novels and poems exist to express the psycho-sexual obsessions of their authors – certainly not to read for pleasure. (There’s a cautionary sequence early on where Barney recalls the pleasure he and Camilla derive from throwing the novels of current literary writers into the flames of their rural idyll. Or into the sea. Quite funny, but also revealing.)

Thus Camilla excites Barney by giving a little lecture to an adult education class about a Thomas Hardy short story – Our Exploits at West Poley – which describes two boys, one timid, one bold, venturing into a wet cave behind a stream and discovering that they can change the path of the stream to a completely different village.

Because I once actually did cause a flood by discovering how to open a sluice and empty a boating pond, along with some mates when I was 11, I was interested in the mechanics of how they did this. Jacobson, more predictably, has Camilla draw on a blackboard the entrance to the cave as described in the text in such a way that – voila! – with a flourish she stands back and her middle-aged lady audience see she has drawn the enfolded lips of a vagina! (p.242) The story turns out to be all about – sex! Just like all stories, in fact.

For Camilla, Our Exploits at West Poley is about the sexually bold male and the sexually timid male, with Hardy fantasising about being bold, but all-too-aware that he was in fact the timid one who never acts. It goes without saying what a powerful erection Camilla’s lecture gives Barney, skulking at the back of the class, while he compares her drawing of a vulva with the reality of her own ‘glistening cave’, which he had been merrily decorating with his seed only a few hours earlier.

It required all my powers of restraint not to leap from my desk and mount that blackboard. And years afterwards, stirred by some fugitive association, I would rummage between Camilla’s legs in search of the smell and the taste of schoolroom chalk. (p.242)

And so on and on, eventually at the risk of becoming rather boring.

There is very little about language, about how language works, about how a writer handles language, about what language can do, about the magic way language conveys and conspires, excites and incites etc. Very few ideas which aren’t to do with penises and vaginas. A lot of this novel is laugh-out-loud funny, but 350 pages about one man’s sexual fantasies is a lot and, at various points, it was hard to avoid feeling oppressed by the airless, sweaty self-obsession of the central figure.

I even tried to convince Camilla for a while that my penis had never truly risen except for her. ‘So how did you ever effect an entry?’ she enquired. I though about saying that I never had.’Either by bending it double and pressing with my thumbs,’ I decided to explain instead. ‘Or by using my index fingers as splints. It’s not comfortable but it’s better than nothing. There’s a lot more of that sort of thing going on than most women realise.’ ‘I see,’ she said. She didn’t believe a word I told here. (p.255)

Maybe we’re meant to despise Barney, or pity him, or feel for him, or laugh at him, or be appalled by him. But it is all about him him him. I began to pine for the wider world, for the range of characters and settings, for the open air and variety and imaginative freedom encountered in the novels I recently read by Robert Harris and Alan Furst, for a respite from sweaty breasts and glistening pubic hair.

It was a remarkable detail, never lost on me, that her breasts retained their full rotundity, didn’t in the slightest bit subside or spill, when she lay stretched out on her back, and that the springing hairs of her sex… scorned the usual triangular arrangement favoured by conventional women, climbing instead the slopes of her belly, straggling the soft downs of her thighs, like uncultivated vines… (p.279)

In the end even Camilla tires of Barney. It has been a running gag that, along with throwing books of literary authors into the cottage fire or into the sea, they also enjoy walking out on plays by leading contemporary playwrights. John Arden, Stoppard, Pinter, you name him, they’ve walked out after just ten minutes and spent the rest of the time in the bar discussing the insult to their intelligence they’ve just had to suffer. (After a while, you wonder whether these characters are intended to come over as curmudgeonly philistines?)

On a jaunt up to London to see a play directed by a friend of Camilla’s, they’re invited to the after-show party, and Barney finds Camilla being pawed by a couple of the dashing young cast (it is 1973 by now) who ask for a car ride back to the West Country. Grudgingly, jealous Barney drives them all West but they insist on stopping at Stonehenge which Barney, with typical ill grace, sees as simply a monument to Neanderthal ignorance. But it is here that, while he waits in the car, Camilla is ‘had’ every which way by the young bucks of the next generation, Barney eventually braving it to inch his way through the standing stones and finally see his lady love being taken in a very indecorous position by both men at once.

Probably this was meant to be the taboo-breaking central epiphany of the novel but, 30 years later, anyone can see stuff like this on the internet at a click of the mouse. I was also confused as to why Barney spends all his time fantasising about having his women screwed by other men, and yet is so devastated when it actually happens. I know reality is often different from fantasy, especially sexual fantasy. But it ends up confusing you about how you’re meant to feel about the narrator, who comes over as an idiot in only that way that bookish intellectuals can be.

Back at the Cornish cottage, life has lost its savour. Camilla kicks him out of the bed, so he sleeps on the sofa, and spends more time with the fishermen out in their smacks. Eventually he gets up one morning and she has gone. For a few panic-stricken hours he thinks she has swum out to a rocky stack out in the distance which she’s always had a yearning to swim to, and drowned along the way. But it turns out that was an elaborate ruse to pay him back. In fact she’s run off with the owner of the rock and candy floss shop (another one of Jacobson’s amusing minor characters, an academic expert on Robbe-Grillet and the French nouveau roman) heading to the continent and a new life.

And that’s why Barney spends his time now, soulfully kicking along the tops of the windswept Cornish cliffs, moodily gazing out to sea, cursing Thomas Hardy.

The novel comes full circle, fulfilling its promise to ‘come clean’ and tell us ‘the full story’ given in the prologue. It’s been a good-humoured, lively, mildly shocking and sometimes very funny ride. But I was relieved when the book ended.


Credit

Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson was published in 1984 by Chatto and Windus. All quotes are from the 1986 Black Swan paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, 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 – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
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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