Redback by Howard Jacobson (1986)

I walked back the way I’d come at a furious pace. I needed to exercise off my exasperation. No good comes of talking to old people, especially in Australia where they strike themselves as characters. Their opinions invariably lack truth and wisdom. And when they have finished listening you are denied all the usual methods of obtaining relief: you can’t really shout at them and you oughtn’t really to knock them down. (p.325)

This is Jacobson’s third novel in a row to be told in the first person by an anxious, guilty, intellectual, hyper-literary, sex-obsessed, verbose, very funny and, ultimately, rather wearing narrator.

This one is called Leon Forelock and given an autobiography distinct in incident from the two previous heroes – Barney Fugelman (Peeping Tom) and Sefton Goldberg (Coming From Behind). Unlike them, he is not Jewish. But despite these surface differences, the actual narrative voice we experience is much the same. Wordy, prolix, effortlessly articulate, addicted to showy paradoxes and subtle distinctions, self-dramatising, obsessed with women and sex, consistently humorous in tone but only occasionally prompting actual laughter.

‘But there’s no-one else here,’ I expostulated. I’m not being wordy – that’s really what I did. I expostulated. I complained and pleaded and debated in an aggrieved manner. (p.328)

(Sefton Goldberg, anti-hero of Jacobson’s first novel, actually turns up as a character, one of a loose association of expatriate Brits Leon enjoys necking tinnys with at the pub named The Whingeing Pom, p.247. Jacobson takes those opportunities to highlight that whereas Sefton is a Jew, Leon – the narrator of Redback narrator – is not.)

A tangled plot

The plot is easy enough in outline, although, at its key turning points, quite hard to follow. Broadly, Leon Forelock grows up in the wettest town in England, Partington, caught between Liverpool and Manchester. Here he is prey to a collection of stock characters from the ‘miserable North’ school of comedy – his father an ineffectual shorty, his mother a harumphing shrew who runs a hair salon assisted by two fearsome aunts named Hesta and Nesta who, the young Leon thinks, must spend all their time shoving pillows up their fronts to produce such peculiar and ever-changing shapes, and sticking black hairs into their prominent warts the better to look like old witches.

Nesta introduces young Leon to the joys of operetta, which makes for some entertaining passages about great operetta singers of the 1940s and 50s, and the silliness of their Ruritanian plots provides an amusing thread which runs through Leon’s memories and experiences.

I vas never kissed before, sang Georges Guétary, een zat kind ov vay. I knew exactly what he meant. I loved Georges Guétary. He was my ideal musical European. A voice like Georges Guétary’s, a stage presence like Nelson Eddy’s, an appetite like Mario Lanza’s. and I would have died happy. (p.234)

Like Jacobson’s other novels, although the plot is very roughly linear – moving from Partington to Cambridge to Australia – the text is made up of innumerable flashbacks, of countless detours, digressions and divagations, as the narrator rambles forwards and backwards over his life, picking up and continuing numerous storylines at various points, as well as wandering off for pages at a time on a wide range of subjects which occur to him and inspire ad hoc meditations and musings.

From this densely-woven plethora of prose we make out that Leon’s father ran off with a posh local woman, named Trilby, and that they ran all the way to Australia, from where he receives the occasional postcard inviting him to visit.

Cambridge

There is a prolonged interlude as our lower-middle-class hero goes to Cambridge (as Jacobson himself did) to study Moral Decencies (unlike Jacobson, who studied the rather more conventional English Literature) at the fictional college of Malapert. There are comic memories of Cambridge, the main one being the almost total absence of women, or ‘totty’ as they were referred to. Exceptions being an exotic, probably Hindu, princess, Ankhesenamen, whose ten little toes remind Leon of scarab beetles peeking out from under her sari (p.67). There are some funny moments, but by and large Tom Sharpe is much funnier about Cambridge in his Porterhouse Blue novels.

Recruitment for a political mission

The main event is his accident with Father Dinmont Manifest aka ‘Dinny’. Despite rereading it this whole episode remains rather opaque to me: Dinny appears to have let himself be crashed into by Leon on his bicycle in order to pick him up, take him back to his church (?) and then recruit him. ‘Recruit him?’ Yes because Father Manifest works for a CIA front named Freedom Academy International, and recruits Leon to go on a mission to Australia to combat ‘Tristanism’, the odd name they’ve given to the wave of permissiveness which is allegedly sweeping the West.

On this very slender and barely comprehensible pretext, Leon sails off to Australia, where he spends the best part of the 1960s stuck in the offices of The Black Flag magazine (named because it was seeing a black flag which led the medieval hero Tristan to his death; pretty obscure stuff.)

Mission to Australia

This idea that Leon is on some kind of undercover mission opens up a set of comic references to the Australian Secret Services who he claims are keeping tabs on him, and also explains why he gains admission to the world of Australian small political magazines, to meeting other crusaders for moral values, and so on, all of whom are painted as loons and freaks of various degrees.

Leon is credited with implementing various wacky right-wing schemes, including OPERATION POM and the mildly funny idea of creating an Immigration Test based on knowledge of the obscure medieval English poem, Piers Plowman. As an English graduate who’s read (and enjoyed) Piers Plowman I got the reference, and laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea, but it all feels a bit of an in-joke for literary types.

Leon repeatedly insists he is not a very political person, that – as he tells us on page 197 – he is ‘a personality rather than a principle man’ – that is, his opinions are formed by people and personalities, rather than intellectual principles – and the text bears this out, as you get very little sense of any of the political or social ideas which transformed the western world during this tumultuous decade.

Leon ends up staying in Australia for the rest of his life – from around 1962 up till the present (ie when the book was published, in 1986) and he mentions various Australian politicians whose names ring a bell (Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke) but it is impressive how little sense the book gives you of Australian politics or history.

And no sense at all of Leon’s own politics. Because they are based on personal tastes and prejudices, his views are difficult to nail down, they they change as his feelings change and so the ‘Big Change’ which supposedly dominates the second part of the book – when he shifts from being a conservative to being a radical – is built up several times in the text, but actually takes place with no change of voice or attitude – because he never had very strong objective beliefs to start with.

About Australians

So off to Australia Leon sails, on this supposed mission to promote conservative values, and coincidentally to drop in on his Dad and Trilby. He’s met at the dock, for reasons I didn’t quite follow, by a Jewish academic, a humorously-titled professor of Pessimistic Philosophy, Orel Rosenfeldt, and quickly whisked back to his house.

By this stage the reader is realising that the storyline, the plot, isn’t all that important – it may even be part of the comic intention that it barely makes sense at several points. The real driver of the text is to introduce us to an unwavering line of comic grotesques and caricatures, who are often very funny indeed.

Leon’s mother – permanently hissing ‘shush!’ at the young lad – his two ugly aunts, the handful of eccentrics he met at Cambridge, all these are eclipsed from about page 100 onwards by a wall of comic Australian characters and long disquisitions on all things Australian, the food, the landscape, the culture, the lingo and so on.

The art of vilification was in its infancy in Australia when I first arrived. There was a certain rough native idiomatic vitalism around sure enough, but it was of a kind that could easily make detraction sound like flattery; it was a coarse, affectionate, bachelor style of disparagement, and it needed to settle down in the company of some cruel European contempt. I, if you like, officiated at the wedding. (p.85)

Jacobson’s basic style is a comic grandiosity, a mock pedantic orotundity, a humorously over-inflated self-importance which dresses his every thought and feeling in a grand and aggrandising rhetoric. His narrators are the superstars of their own convoluted perorations, so that one among many comic tricks is the contrast between the Jamesian complexity of their long-winded prose being brougfht down to earth with a bump by the abrupt bluntness of the external world, by some piece of Ossie repartee or the name of an obviously comic character. E.g:

Melbourne? Yes, Yes I know – it wasn’t the centre of sublunary wickedness exactly. It wasn’t Hades or Gomorrah. It wasn’t even Hamburg or Gillingham. But it had made the Festival of Light see red; it had given the world the Women’s Movement, and – no negligible claim to infamy – it had given the world Bev Belladonna. (p.300)

As his first novel was stuffed with rather dubious generalisations about Jews, so this one is stuffed with equally carefree generalisations about Australians. Most of them have enough of a germ of truth to be funny, but their function is nearly always to trigger or enable an ensuing rhodomontade of opinionated prose.

There’s no moving an Australian over forty, once his mind’s made up. (p.345)

The really nice thing about Australians is their lack of interest in finding their politicians honourable. They actually prefer them dodgy. The rougher they are – the more they pissant around where they shouldn’t – always provided they remember to blubber where they should – the more they’re trusted. In the country that idealises the ratbag and the larrikin, the scoundrel will always be a hero. (p.332)

‘Have you noticed how much time Australian men spend scratching their dicks?’ (p.202)

He was wearing one of those ascetic beards difficult Australian men sometimes take refuge in, a fringe around his face, leaving a half-moon of chin and the whole of his upper lip bare. (p.322)

Delsey pulled one of her vital-weary, arch-exasperated Australian faces – the kind that are meant to win over an imaginary third party, the sort that famous Australians employ to amuse audiences when someone else is speaking. (p.319)

Of course I should have known that Delsey had to be sitting on a pretty snazzy vaudeville routine. She was Australian, wasn’t she? All Australians – certainly all Australians of her class and generation – put a high value on snap vitality. This was part Americanisation: every girl her own Shirley Temple; and part indigenous sentimentality: nostalgia for the good old Australia of wandering shysters and mountebanks and song-and-dance men. The more serious the Australian, the more thorough-going the nostalgia. (p.313)

Jacobson published a non-fiction book about Australia, In The Land of Oz, the year after Redback (1987). It would be interesting to know whether it is any more factual, sober and logical than this fantasy, or whether it contains as many recklessly wild generalisations about Ossie life and culture.

Jacobson’s prose

Passages like these demonstrate a number of things about Jacobson’s prose. First and foremost is his ability to spin long paragraphs of comic inventiveness out of almost anything. The sheer length of the paragraphs explains why the pages look so dense – often solid blocks of text with no break or indentation – as the narrator holds forth, at length, about another thing which has just crossed his mind. There is far more comic soliloquy by the narrator than dialogue between characters. A Jacobson novel is a prolonged ‘holding forth’.

Techniques which help him spin out such lengthy prose include generalisations. Once you’ve stated a generalisation, no matter how dubious, the narrator can argue for and against it and under it and over it, and he can create characters, or whistle up conversations between characters, which also debate and discuss and digress around the invented topic. Women and Australia, in particular, come in for regular generalisations.

  • That combination of irony, tomboyishness, and country-town rawness which is to be found in all Australian women makes it difficult for them to throw themselves into public sexuality. (p.215)
  • Mind you, Australian feminists don’t need much to set them ticking, and they do make a big bang. (p.232)

Of course, the more ridiculous the generalisation, the more it’s used for comic exaggeration – the funnier it can be.

You cannot move in Melbourne, you cannot hear yourself think in Melbourne, you cannot find a spare place in a bar in Melbourne, for schoolteachers, apologists for schoolteachers, teachers of schoolteachers, and theoreticians of the teaching of apologising for schoolteachers. (p.297)

Another technique is the use of rhetorical questions. Almost any paragraph of length includes one or more:

  • Does that sound like a perfect mutuality? Well don’t forget that nothing is ever equal between men and women. It’s in the nature of their conjoining that one will always be on a more urgent mission than the other. (p.281)
  • Marriage is prostitution, Norelle Turpie made herself famous for saying. And who except Hartley Quibell would bother to deny it? (p.268)
  • Have I said enough to convey our total lack of interest both in our own and in each other’s Dreena? In that case will it surprise you to hear that when I turned up at Ruddles’s place one evening, as arranged, and learned that he was at that very moment turning up at my place, some six or seven hundred miles away, also as arranged, I was unable to stop myself taking Ruddles’s Dreena in my arms and telling her that I had wanted her ever since I’d clapped yes on her, yes, and even for some time before that? And will it surprise you to hear that although he would most certainly have been reeling with distaste from her open occidental pores, Ruddles was saying the very same thing, yes, and in the very same voice, to the Dreena who was mine? (p.190)
  • Wasn’t that what our own irregular but highly formalised arrangement implied? Wasn’t that the idea? Weren’t we meant to be disapproving of everyone except ourselves, conventional in regard to everything except what really mattered? (p.287)
  • What was before or below me now? I wondered. What did I aspire to? What was I after? (p.281)

These rhetorical and unanswerable questions create a kind of space in the text, a sort of elbow room where the narrative grinds to a halt while the narrator considers the various questions he’s posed himself and generally addresses them by asking even more questions. Some are rhetorical and don’t need answering and are left hanging; others trigger further ruminations and ratiocinations.

In fact, now I read a selection of these in isolation, I also realise they are a classic teaching method. Jacobson was a university lecturer for some 15 years and, since the time of Socrates, what has been a key pedagogic method but the posing of questions to debate and discuss? Who is the narrator asking so many questions of? His class.

Maybe this is why the tone of voice is the same in these three early Jacobson novels, despite the ostensibly different narrators: because they are all the voice of a richly and comically pontificating pedagogue.

The style of mock heroic narration, its ability to spool seemingly endless paragraphs of rumination out of very modest subjects, the rhetorical flourishes and repetitions, the deployment of grand professorial questions, maintain the narrative at a permanent level of amused urbanity. But it can, over the long run, become a bit wearing. Towards the end, as the plot grew ever more random but the prose continued at this high, rather demanding pitch, the temptation grew to skip yet another page-long purple paragraph and then, maybe, whole chapters…

Climax

The previous novel, Peeping Tom, made repeated mention of the Big Event which – it was promised -transformed his life and explains the existence of the whole narrative. It is something Big and Horrible which happened with his lover Camilla, and which affected him so badly that he is only now recovering from it. The text builds up our anticipation of this Event with repeated mentions, drumming it up to be the Climax towards which the text is hurtling and which will explain everything.

In the event, it turns out Camilla ran off with the owner of the candyfloss and seaside rock shop after, admittedly, giving him a bad fright for a few hours by pretending she’d swum out the sea and drowned. But then he discovers – No: she just dumped him.

Hmm. This isn’t quite the Great Comic Climax we had been led to expect. The rock and candyfloss man is, in fact, a lecturer in the French nouveau roman who ran away to Cornwall to start a new life and has been bitterly disappointed, which is quite funny, but being dumped by your lover is just sad, and it’s more than a bit disappointing that this banal fact turns out to be why Leon haunts the cliffs and byways of North Cornwall, alone and forlorn.

Similarly, in Redback, the title refers to a type of poisonous spider native to Australia and we are told repeatedly that, when the hero went for a poo in an out-house, a specimen of redback bit him on the testicles, causing them to swell up and our hero to be hospitalised and that the event is the Major Trigger for his change of life and attitudes, for the Big Changes which the book records, and that it will explain everything!

The spider bite is set up to provide exactly the same narrative End-Point as Camilla’s departure in Peeping Tom and, as in that novel, proves to be similarly anti-climactic, when the moment finally comes, right at the end of the novel.

First Leon dumps the synchronised swimmers he’s been going out with for years. Synchronised swimmers? Yes, apparently what persuaded two beautiful lithe athletes to agree to spend eight years sleeping in the same bed with the weedy, nerdy narrator, was his reassuringly conservative views. When – for reasons which are hard to follow – his conservative views start to crumble and he shows dangerous signs of liberalism, they dump him.

Equally inexplicably, his first reaction to being dumped by the swimmers is to seek out an Ossie woman he had sex with in Cambridge all those decades ago, and whose face he’s seen in the paper as running an all-women feminist commune in the outback. And so he sets off to find her.

He  tracks her down to a rough bar and, improbably, she drives him out to the commune and says he can stay as the resident man and fixer, so long as he doesn’t enter the actual commune building, but restricts himself to the so-called tent down the hill and uses the extremely primitive ‘dunny’, or outside loo.

These scenes around the feminist commune are very funny, particularly urban Leon (and Jacobson’s) response to the feral, malevolent Outback, with its low humming of aggrieved wildlife just waiting to take their revenge. I laughed out loud at a lot of the descriptions of the scandalised townie recoiling form the hairy, crawling critters which share his tent with him – and this kind of scandalised exaggeration suits Jacobson’s rhetorical style perfectly. But, again, it was hard to see what kind of plot logic had brought us here. It’s all very funny but seems to come out of nowhere as a whim.

In the event Leon is having a poo in the dunny when the redback spider lurking there bites the underside of his tackle. Cue fever, facial rictus and the crown jewels swelling to twice their usual size. The feminists are unsympathetic and so he hitches a ride back into town with some passing retired tourists and gets himself admitted to the local hospital. Here – in scene which takes authorial randomness to new levels – he is momentarily addressed by a British Royal Couple who happen to be visiting at just that moment, to whom he finds himself having to explain precisely what satyriasis is ie the permanent, unrelievable giant erection of the penis. They nod sagely. Unflappable, these royals.

In the last pages, a restored Leon goes to visit his father’s second wife, Trilby, the woman he ran out on young Leon for all those decades ago. Along the way, Leon’s dad has died and buried in Botany Bay. Trilby she explains that she’s going back to Blighty – she wants to be among her family. Fair dinkum, but Leon stays on in Australia and his last thoughts are about the vast jamboree which the country is going to treat itself to at its two hundredth anniversary in 1988. The Trilby scenes, his dad’s death, cast an odd shadow over the ending of this comic novel.

Timeline

It’s worth mentioning how long ago the plot is set. Leon was born in 1940 (Jacobson was born in 1942), so attends Cambridge in 1958 through to 1962, which is when he’s recruited to Freedom Academy International. He spends most of the 1960s working for a right-wing magazine in Australia, launching countless campaigns against the permissive society and trying to get smutty books banned, before, some time around the end of the Vietnam War (the mid-70s?), experiencing his conversion to radical politics which is, in fact, so barely perceivable to the reader.

Although much of the novel is set in the 1960s, if you thought it will shed any light on the 1960s, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It sheds endless light on the narrator’s favourite topics- Australians, the oddities of marriage or this or that comic character, women, sex – but it isn’t a serious analysis or meditation on anything much. There are lots – hundreds – of short comic disquisitions on minor points – but hardly any sense of the social or political background. Or the broader history of the period.

Eventually, right at the end, some years after the spider bite, it turns out the menacing figures keeping tabs on him from a dark Mercedes parked outside his door which he’s spent most of the book thinking are the Australian Security Services, aren’t at all, but turn out to be the three dim Cooney brothers – George, Bernard and Shaun – part of the right-wing group he was introduced right at the start of his Australia trip. All they want is for Leon to help them pass the Immigrant Test he devised when he was a rabid right-winger, the comic one based on detailed knowledge of the medieval poem Piers Plowman.

It is this final sequence which mentions funding for the 1988 biennial celebrations of Australia’s founding. So somehow we have flown from 1958, to 1962, to the late 60s, the end of Vietnam and – whoosh! – on to the date of publication (1986) with huge amounts of comic improvisation and humorous disquisition, but very little sense of time passing or characters changing or developing, especially the central narrator, who is as bright, perky and ironically verbose at the end as he was at the beginning.

Some comic characters

  • Leon’s Dad – tiny and forgetful, he routinely takes Leon out in the pram when he’s a baby and walks off forgetting all about him, one time absent-mindedly putting him in a litter bin in a park and coming home with the rubbish bag from a picnic. Runs off with Trilby, the nearest thing Partington knows to a classy lady.
  • Leon’s mum – runs Partington’s hair salon with mixed results for the customers.
  • Aunt Nesta – keen on operetta.
  • Aunt Hesta – keen on outings to castles and old ruins.
  • Ruddles, Leon’s friend at Cambridge, who hangs around the train station on the lookout for stunning blondes but, since he is short-sighted, needs Leon to help point them out to him.
  • Dinny i.e. Father Dinmont Manifest – priest who is in fact a recruiter for the CIA-backed  Freedom Academy International.
  • Orel Rosenfeldt, Professor in Pessimistic Philosophy at the university of Wallamaloo, like so many of Jacobson’s male characters, a hen-pecked weedy specimen. His main habit is elaborately peeling apples to that the peel forms one long spiral, before carefully depipping it, and then cutting it into sections. Can takes hours.
  • Vernie Redfern and Maroochi Ravesh, gorgeous tanned pair of synchronised swimmers who become Leon’s girlfriends.
  • Frank Whiling, mewling, feeble lefty, ‘a snuffed-out volcano, an inactive activist, a sort of soporiferous socialist who argued with his own bedclothes’ (p.128), permanently lifting his right fist and feebly yelling ‘Victory to -‘, the gap to be filled by whichever cause is fashionable this week.
  • Lobelia Sneddon: her comic trait is sprinkling her speech with French tags and then elaborately translating them for his presumed-illiterate audience. But, as Lobelia would say, c’est la vie or, that’s life!
  • Alex Sneddon – her husband, committed to the sanctity of the family.
  • Norelle Turpie, one time Senior Tutor in Women’s History, later leader of the Eastern Suburbs New Hegemonists (p.86), whatever that means.
  • Ruddles Carmody, fellow right-winger who – for a while – has a girlfriend named Dreena, which happens to be the name of Leon’s girlfriend of the time, so that in a chapter created solely for this purpose, they end up sleeping with each other’s girlfriends and not really noticing.
  • Henry Dabscheck, right-wing editor of The Black Flag.
  • The Cooney Brothers, George, Bernard and Shaun, who (comically) surround anyone they’re talking to.
  • Gunnar McMurphy, primal poet who expounds D.H.Lawrence. ‘His ambition was always to refer to the most private parts of women’s bodies in the most public places that would allow him to do so.’ (p.123)
  • Doug Kiernan, Vaughan Cantrell and Hungarian Rudi, three operatives of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) who park in a Mercedes outside Leon’s flat after he converts to become a ‘radical’ (p.236). In one of the final coups of the novel, it turns out it’s not them at all, but the harmless Cooney brothers, who Leon’s been afraid of all this time.
  • Hartley Quibell, right wing conservative and owner – according to him – of the ‘last marriage in Australia’ i.e. resisting the rising tide of promiscuity and pornography.

Credit

Redback by Howard Jacobson was published in 1986 by Bantam Press. All quotes are from the 1987 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, he dumps her and moves to Cornwall and has an affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
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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