There is something to be said for inhabiting the gloomy corners of yourself; there are surprises to be gleaned there, jewels of the soul that only those willing to mine underground will ever find. (p.153)
This is an extraordinarily imaginative, powerful and original novel – quite a stunning bravura performance and mind-blowing conception. Its dense 340 pages describe the adventures of Cain, the Biblical son of Adam and Eve who murders his brother Abel, in a richly rhetorical, biblically heavy and sometimes impenetrable style.
The narrative alternates between third person descriptions of the young earth and the teeming mysterious creation, and Cain’s first person narrative – well after the murder – when he has become an outcast among men detailing, in particular, his experiences in the cosmopolitan and confusing city of Babel.
Jacobson’s natural prose style tends to the rhetorical and pontificatory. In this ancient, elevated subject matter it finds its natural home, raising itself to a permanent orotundity, incorporating Biblical phraseology, high-flown rhetorical tropes and repetitions, with extended meditations on membership of the First Family, of the nature of the jealous God, the passions of angels, the devious hero worship of the sectaries of Babel, and so on.
But, at moments, the book showcases something completely new in his work – an extraordinary visionary quality in the descriptions of the new-minted earth and heavens, still sparkling with freshness, unstable and experimental, of weird creatures, strange astronomical phenomena, of angels and mythical beasts, rendered in the style of a hallucinatory science fiction.
And then, all smiles, the skies opened and poured down shafts of rosy light; beams, in every sense of the word – great grinning girders of lambency in whose brilliant refractions the merest specks of dirt shone magnified like jewels hung around one gorgeous universal neck. The earth jolted, rocked once, then fell upon its axle. Stopped in its tracks, the engorged sun bounced as weightless as a bubble, pricking its circumference against mountains, leaking redness. (p.143)
It is an astonishing, visionary, strange and disturbing book.
There are two storylines. In one Cain in the first person reminisces about coping with his parents, the first humans, who are strange, puzzled, innocent, confused. His father does conjuring tricks and imitations of the first animals, crand gets cross with God that he’s not allowed to have sex with Eve while she is still unclean from giving birth to Abel. Cain spends a lot of time naming all the new and puzzling things.
Eve, set apart in her impurity, is distant, remote. They are visited by two scruffy angels and Cain sees close up how badly designed they are, their great wings chafing against their arms. The biggest of them, Semyaza, returns to try and ravish Eve but, as he carries her screaming into the sky, the Almighty does his thing and suddenly the weakened angel falls to the ground, depositing Eve and shrinking away into dust.
These events are interwoven with the second storyline, a third-person account of Cain’s sojourn in Babel. He meets Naaman, his daughter Zilpah, Sisobk the Scryer, Preplen the satirical poet. Cain is now a performer, a lecturer, who addresses theatres full of fans and oglers keen to hear his story and the long-winded conclusions he draws from it. Cain has periodic conversations with Preplen who takes the mickey. Skinny Zilpah tails him and, in a memorable scene, in his bedroom, adopts a doggy position for him, pulling her buttocks apart to reveal her swart orifice, emitting its sour arable flavour (p.171), inveigling her way into his bed, pleading to be his slave and dog.
And Sisobk the Scryer appears to be the gateway to yet a third timeline: for he has visions and foresees biblical events far in the future: in one thread Moses and Aaron impose seemingly endless new divine regulations on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness until they rebel under the leadership of Korah at which God opens a crack in the earth into which the rebels fall screaming. Then Sisobk skips forward to the birth of Esau and Jacob from the womb of Rebekah, giving rise to lengthy and inconsequential meditations on the meaning of this Stone Age story.
Cain kills Abel
In the end Cain is overcome by Abel’s goody-goodiness, snaps and murders him, punching him to the ground then kicking his prone body, then covering his corpse in dust and rubble and stone until only his lifeless face remains. He is retelling and reliving the moment to the audience in the theatre in Babel, and abruptly we cut back to them, embarrassed by what they’ve hear, by the nakedness of Cain’s story, and the performance stops while they visit the rest room or order a refreshing sherbert. Cain stands dazed at the memory of what he did.
During this pause Naaman sidles up to him and – wishing to sever Cain’s unhealthy connection with his submissive daughter – says he’s heard about the murderer’s ambition of building a tower, here in Babel. Well Naaman just happens to know one which has been started, and can supply a troop of builders.
A lot of the warm puzzlement and ingenuity, the enthusiasm at the start of the book, the life, has drained out of the book by now. More and more characters are described as sad, melancholy, and the story feels abandoned. At some point it began to feel to me like a bleak modern allegory, like Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.
After Cain has murdered his brother and is sitting pointlessly, abandoned, derelict, cradling his dead body there is a powerful sequence when a talking raven asks him what he has done and then offers to dig a grave for him. It reminded me of the set of harsh modern myths Ted Hughes wove around the figure of his trickster bird, the crow. Harsh, dry, barren. For all its gorgeous rhetoric the lingering aftertaste of the book is of dust and ashes.
A Jacobson stylistics
The Very Model of a Man is a powerful and bizarre creation but quite hard going in places. Even when I understood the events of the plot, they seemed strangely inconsequential compared to the tremendous wall of prose which Jacobson deploys, which far swamps the ostensible subject matter and drowns any ‘moral’ or ‘philosophical’ content which the book may be intended to have.
Most of the enjoyment, for me, came from analysing the techniques Jacobson uses to generate his magniloquent style. Almost all of the book is written in a high, ornate and ritualised poetic prose which few modern authors would dare or could achieve.
Repetition of clauses
As the German proverb has it, All Dinge sind drei, buses come in threes and so do clauses from orators who wish to grandstand and impress with the sonority of their rhetoric. These sets of three clauses, or phrases, occur liberally throughout the book; these are just from one page:
- It wasn’t always a joy to him to be pierced by their mineral blue-green eyes, to be irradiated by the gold-filled tusks they showed in laughter always laughter, to be dazzled by the electric frizz of orange hair which many of them left uncovered.. (p.35)
- They were brilliant, they were stellar, they were a moving mosaic of light… (p.35)
- … a grandeur of feature, a weight of expression, an extravagance of facial swoops and circumflections. (p.35)
Using three booming clauses make it sound like you’ve said something deep and moving. Throw in a rhetorical question or a sweeping generalisation and you are moving into Cicero and Churchill territory:
- Was this not proof of the generosity of their minds, the receptivity of their intelligences, the breadth and scope of their sympathies? (p.37)
- He sees, for the first time, that it is artificially enlarged, the lobe distended, weighed down by a hanging ball of lead, the porch to the cavity itself gaping obscenely with the promise of infinite attention, infinite indulgence, infinite receptivity. (p.40)
- Blind, blind, every woman in the hour of her adoration. Blind to reason. Blind to refusal. Blind to herself. (p.41)
- He needed to speak further to his wife, repeat his performance for her, watch the dagger flashing in her glance. (p.82)
- The other outdoor venues – the market squares where the prophets and pranksters gather, the parks and river banks that are popular with acrobats and near-sighted poetesses, the temple steps favoured by the little brown fairy-tellers from beyond the Indus… (p.114)
- A slight woman confirms all his worst fears about existence. A slight woman proves the nugatoriness of things. A slight woman proves there is no hereafter. (p.171)
- There he would be, up before any of us, already in the dirt, already rigid, already crying. (p.180)
- All I knew of death was in his voice. It was without music, without colour, without desire. (p.251)
- [God is] an indefatigable Proscriber. A rigorous Segregationalist. And a most fastidious Picker at food. (p.256)
- It was up to me in other words. There was no order, no promise, no prediction. (p.260)
At some point repetition bursts the bounds of the threesome and just goes for it, the sophisticated rhetorician rejoicing in the fecundity of his proliferating periods.
- Babel was thus ultimately the centre of every story, the haven to which all exiles dreamed of returning, the goal of every traveller, the reward of every virtue, the pattern for every striving, the paradise by whose loss every sinner calculated his deprivation and every criminal his fall. (p.38)
- In Adam’s case a blow to the heart and to the soul, a stab in the back, a poisoning of the central nervous system, a torture to the mind, a suffocation and a braining and a garrotting… (p.54)
Eventually, if pressed in this direction, the prose spills over from numbered clauses to become a list and lists have a pleasure all of their own, conveying a sense of giddy profusion, the abundance of creation or, at least, of the author’s limitless lexicon.
In the cities of Shinar a shuri is assumed to be capable of discharging the simultaneous duties of daughter, sister, mother, companion, interpreter of dreams, reader of palms and minds and foreheads, laundress, seamstress, manicurist, pedicurist, defiled virgin, chaste harlot, contortionist, singer, dancer, looker, listener, linguist, mute, physician for all ailments of body or soul. (p.39)
There are hundreds of these liberally scattered throughout the book, they are a fundamental building block of the style.
- Who can go on dining on the gruel of fact once they have tasted the rich meats of uncertainty? (p.61)
- Who would dare adjudicate between two such liberties taken with the name and justice-mechanism of the Almighty? (p.73)
- How could I possibly have been ignorant of what was taking place? What kind of a son would I have been to my mother had I not seized every opportunity to observe her in her finest hour, captor and mistress of her Creator’s heart? (p.85)
- [Eve] had always been weak before the power of art? What woman is not? Which of them is proof against a little culture laced with compliment? A song, a dance, a pretty turn of wit, for which she might conceivably be credited with the inspiration? (p.88)
- You find me too sophistical in this matter? You would have a spade called a spade and greed and grudging given their proper names? (p.90)
- When God smelled the smoke of Abel’s sacrifice, spread wide his nostrils to accommodate every pungent wisp and curl of it, do you think I fretted over the bounty He was sure to extend my brother in return? Do you think there were any cubits of inhospitable crawling scrub or homers of rotting straw to be handed over, that I could not bear to be without? (p.91)
- Where would gods be without the devotion of women? (p.96)
- Does it surprise you that I could feel concern for my brother’s safety, when it was I who at the very hour of his birth had passed a death sentence on him? It shouldn’t. Who can you possibly care more for than a person whose continuing existence depends largely on yourself? (p.104)
- What else is a First Cause to do to spice up the tedium of predestined effect? (p.131)
The dense profusion of rhetorical questions suggests at least two sources. 1. Jacobson was a university teacher for a long time and asking rhetorical questions of your students is a basic pedagogic technique.
What else makes envy the most excruciating of the passions if not the dread of discovering your utter redundancy in the world’s business? (p.90)
2. The book is about Jewish history, Jewish teaching and Jewish hermeneutics. It powerfully suggests something particularly disputatious in a tradition so cluttered with hundreds of minute stipulations, all of which must be weighed and considered, and discussed and debated, never really reaching a conclusion.
Should he remove his clothing and then recite the ordinance, or should he recite the ordinance and then remove his clothing? (p.75)
Years ago I read the entire Old Testament and some books about Judaism and Paul Johnson’s epic history of the Jews, my conclusion was that it is a tradition designed to prompt endless questioning and debate about its plethora of prohibitions. The joy, the pleasure, is not necessarily in reaching any conclusion – because there are no conclusions – but in the learning and wisdom and intricacy and subtle humour of the argumentation.
Thou shalt? How did the grammar of that work? Was it an order? A prediction? A promise? Was the kingdom of sin being dangled before me as an enticement, a reward if I did such and such? Or had it been given to me, there and then, with no strings attached? (p.260)
However, there are risks. For a start, the addiction to questions sometimes topples over into questionable territory, posing posers which, on closer examination, don’t make too much sense.
What father does not want to hear his daughter confess an ugly and, if possible, unrequited infatuation? What father does not nurse the furtive ambition of having the old jealous dread – the humiliation of rivalry, the vicarious ignominy of rejection – realised just once? (p.265)
Not every statement which can be put into the grammatical form of a question deserves answering. And so isn’t there a risk that after the first hundred or so questions, the reader starts caring less and less about the answers?
Who would settle for being merely the apple of his mother’s eye, when he could be the arrow in her side, the thorn in her flesh, the pestilence in her blood? (p.283)
That the average reader, requiring some substantial points of narrative to cling onto, to orientate himself by, might eventually come to feel he is adrift in a never-ending surf of inquisition? That – on the 217th question, worn down by this cornucopia of quizzicality – the harassed target of these questions might simply reply: ‘I don’t know. You’re the bloody author. You tell me.’
Related to the joy of questions is a mindset which enjoys puns and quibbles over meaning. The simplest form is a thesaurus-like repetition of synonyms, or near-synonyms, which jostle a definition, cajole and cosset a concept, towards its unclear centre:
- My father’s incautiousness, or absent-mindedness, or inability simply to feign knowledge when he lacked it… (p.47)
- … the place we fled from: the fertile valley, our teeming cradle, omphalos, hell, home. (p.52)
- The teeming land sent up more monsters in an afternoon than I could have catalogued in a year, but its store of validating commendation was exhaustible, finite, dwindling. (p.56)
- his apostasy, disloyalty, defection (p.123)
- The word is invariably grotesque to him now – overblown, foolish, laughable. (p.123)
- He is as particular about his floor as he is about his appearance. Traveller’s scruples. Fugitive’s fastidiousness. (p.213)
Chiasmus and inversion. Jacobson is fond of using sentences which rework clauses, reword them, invert word orders or use the same word orders to extend or modify the concept.
- They see into each other; she with pity threatening to be love, he with disinclination determined to be hate. (p.112)
- He would like to lie down for a while. Rest his feet. Close his eyes. And try not to imagine all the ways he has inadvertently amused Naaman. To say nothing of inadvertently unamusing Naaman’s daughter. (p.113)
- Had Moses been an early Freud – as Freud surely was, for the purposes of another sort of Jewish deliverance, a later Moses… (p.119)
- He would not want to swear that he has heard what he has heard. But then again he would not want to swear that he has not… If he is unsure what he’s sure of, he is at least sure of what he isn’t. (p.325)
The narrator frequently uses homophonous words, multiples of words which sound around a notion, slinking and sliding around a concept’s slippery centre.
That’s the way to leave; that’s the way to turn your back on home. Fly like a stone out of a sling. Not slink, as he had. Not slope. Not sneak. Not snake. (p.270)
The pedantic correction
A variation on this is a professorial fussiness which insists on correcting itself, making a song and dance about its fossicking and finicketying, about how subtle and refined its perceptions are, a habit of self-adjustment which gives a (spurious) sense of precision to the narrator’s meditations. But not necessarily to the reader’s enlightenment.
- And so saying – so intuning – … (p.111)
- It could almost be said that although he hasn’t met her he has talked to her, for she regularly, no, she religiously, attends his recitals… (p.112)
- His audience was exactly as Naaman had predicted it… with the exception – that’s to say, with the inclusion – of Naaman’s own daughter. (p.115)
- ‘I intend – that’s too grand a verb – I think, only of a tower.’ (p.125)
- And the someone else in question – the someone else I do not hesitate to put in question – (p.144)
- All right, my mother said, let us suppose. But first what am I to suppose is the purpose of this supposition? (p.146)
- I was man enough. Man enough to think I was man enough, anyway. (p.149)
- He is in love with his own vagrancy. Would be in love with his own vagrancy. (p.153)
- He isn’t a cause of Cain’s spongy fungoid blight – he is Cain’s spongy fungoid blight. (p.153)
- He didn’t love her. He didn’t, that’s to say, discretely love her. (p.155)
- She stopped what she was doing – what she was undoing – (p.178)
- Over a shallow stream that we could wade across in three strides my father had thrown – no, had erected – a bridge… (p.178)
- I do not believe it is his beauty that inspires this heaving love in me. That imposes this heavy love on me. (p.184)
- He is in the womb of Rebekah… no… no… he is the womb of Rebekah. (p.217)
- In the case of the last motive – no, I must return to my original word: the last prompting I have attributed to him. (p.245)
- Which is a claim I am at least prepared to make for the disgust I felt – no, the digust I mensurated – (p.251)
- An expression of the finest, most unadulterated angelic distaste passed over his features. Passed? No. (p.254)
- He looked surprised that I needed to ask. No, not surprised – how could any of us surprise him? – sickened. (p.255)
- She cannot conceal her shame. Or rather, she cannot conceal her awkwardness, and that is a cause of shame. (p.263)
The author is aware of this pedantic fossicking, the habit of never letting one word do when you can turn it over, examine it and try out several synonyms, as if searching for ever-diminishing, finer distinctions. He has the characters address it. In a late section of the book, when the character Sisobk the Scryer appears to have a convoluted dialogue with a roomful of rabbis, the narrator specifically attributes it to the Jewish tradition of learned exegesis, explication, which is described as ‘bookish and biblical’, characterised by a’passion for exegesis prevailing over all other passions’, making it:
Scholiastic. Disputatious. Talmudical. (p.272)
The verbal mannerisms of a pompous professor litter the discourse, as if it is an old-fashioned scholarly article.
There is an argument that says… A word of caution here… There is a rumour in circulation that… Accounts vary as to how long… It is sometimes said that… Who would dare adjudicate between… It could almost be said that…. so to speak… It may be a fact that… It could be said… I have a theory to explain… not to beat about the bush… in short… Suffice it to say… I have heard it said… It could be argued…
On a less high-falutin’ plane, he also uses more everyday phrases to give an air of adjudication and authority, using tags which sometimes remind me of civil service pomposity and at others veer closer to classic football manager rhetoric.
as chance would have it… in so far as he can be said to possess… as it were… it could be argued… to wit… if the truth is told… come to that… that’s to say… it goes without saying… when all is said and done…
The text evinces a steady enjoyment of words as objects in themselves, as rare and precious as Biblical unguents:
- ossicle – The ossicles are three bones in either middle ear that are among the smallest bones in the human body.
- verrucose – Covered with warts or wartlike projections.
- bacillophobic – An abnormal and persistent fear of bacilli (bacteria).
- collops – a small slice of meat, especially a small rasher of bacon.
- venereous – Relating to sexual desire or sexual intercourse; Addicted to sexual pleasure; lustful
- frit – the mixture of silica and fluxes which is fused at high temperature to make glass.
- sciolist – One who exhibits only superficial knowledge; a self-proclaimed expert with little real understanding.
- feldspar – an abundant rock-forming mineral typically occurring as colourless or pale-coloured crystals and consisting of aluminosilicates of potassium, sodium, and calcium.
- slub – a lump or thick place in yarn or thread.
- squab – In culinary terminology, squab is a young domestic pigeon, typically under four weeks old or its meat.
- epiphytic – A plant, such as a tropical orchid or a staghorn fern, that grows on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients.
- funebral – belonging to a funeral, fr. funus funeral. Pertaining to a funeral or funerals; funeral; funereal.
- alacrious – Brisk; joyously active; lively.
- hin – A unit of liquid measure used by the ancient Hebrews, equal to about five litres.
- mendicaments – a substance used for medical treatment.
- nigrescent – The process of becoming black or dark. Blackness or darkness, as of complexion.
- allopathic – a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated. The opposite of homeopahic.
- coccygeal – a small triangular bone forming the lower extremity of the spinal column in humans, consisting of four ankylosed rudimentary vertebrae.
- tenuity – lack of solidity or substance; thinness.
- ensorcelled – enchanted, fascinated.
- homer – an ancient Hebrew unit of capacity equal to about 10.5 or later 11.5 bushels or 100 US gallons.
- foison – a plentiful supply or yield.
- sacrarium – the sanctuary of a church. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a piscina; (in the ancient Roman world) a shrine, in particular the room in a house containing the penates.
- fugacy – banishment.
Paradoxical generalisations infest the text like weeds. Jacobson is like a mordant Oscar Wilde, Wilde without the lightness or wit, Wilde with blood in his mouth and slub in his heart.
- You have to be verbal to be disgusted. (p.51)
- Words are power, and power has no truck with sensibilities. (p.51)
- Ridicule is the jealous man’s salvation, the breath of all our being. (p.85)
- Treachery stokes its own fires. It needs no circumstances or pretexts or motives. Motivelessness is the very thing it thrives on. (p.100)
- What we call infatuation is nothing other than being mesmerised by the realisation that we can juggle violence. (p.105)
- All obsessional behaviour this side of madness must make a concession to normality somewhere. (p.107)
- Despair drives men to believe that riches and salvation are incompatible; and so, sometimes, does repletion. But seldom hope; and never hope in its infancy. (p.119)
- As with mortals, so with gods: we lose ourselves in ill-definition and crave elucidation – heroic elucidation if we can find it – of who we are. (p.142)
- Barring exceptional circumstances, there are only two reasons why a man of marriageable age remains a bachelor: either he doesn’t love women at all, or he loves them too much. (p.154)
- A serious man talks to no-one but himself. (p.185)
- The more a thing grows, the smaller its capacity to amuse itself. (p.189)
- Mothers, of course, are always sad. (p.209)
There are scores of sweeping generalisations like this, part of the book’s discourse-creating machinery – but I don’t think there’s a single sententious sentiment which, upon reflection I don’t think is bogus. They sound high and mighty but – like a lot of the text – in the morning have melted and gone like snow.
Rhetoric instead of character
All this goes partly to explain why it’s difficult to remember much of what goes on in a Jacobson novel. In the texture of the prose there is an never-ending display of rhetorical fireworks, but events, actions ‘in the real world’? Which are structured into a sequence which creates a ‘plot’? Harder to discern. Often invisible, buried beneath the magnificent tapestry of rhetoric.
Teachers of creative writing say that character in a novel is revealed by dialogue and action but there is little of either in a Jacobson novel. Not much gets in the way of the ceaseless enchanter’s weaving of the ornate narratorial prosody. The 23-page chapter Cain Expatiates describes Cain’s feelings as he spies on his mother, Eve, nursing baby Abel and being wooed – sort of – impressed, and shown off to by a surprisingly anthropomorphic God. Cain expatiates exactly describes the scene, because in the entire long meditation on what it means for the Creator to be so attracted to one of his muddy creations, we get a beguiling and bewitching 20 pages of Cain’s elaborately rhetorical thoughts – and not a word from Eve. She does and says nothing. At one point Cain describes her character – ‘she was brittle, obstinate, unadaptable, impervious’ (p.93) and I realised, once these fine words had stopped dazzling me – that I had no idea what they meant, was not even sure, in fact, if they mean anything.
And so for all its gorgeous tapestries of words, for all its peculiar and intense inhabitation of Cain’s tortured consciousness and its imaginatively weird descriptions of the First Family, for all the appearance of scrupulous moral and psychological investigation created by the professorial tags and scholarly discriminations – for all its bizarre Talmudical reincarnations – after I put the book down, the ornate baroque music of the prose rang on in my head for a while, humming and reverberating but… the plot, the meaning, the message of it all, whatever the book was actually about – evaporated from my memory like dew in the desert.
The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson by Howard Jacobson was published in 1992 by Viking Books. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.
- The Very Model of a Man on Amazon
- Howard Jacobson Wikipedia article
- Unfavourable review in Kirkus Review
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 – 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 on an extended sojourn 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 – An extraordinary achievement, a bizarre and rhetorical imagining into the mind of Cain – son of Adam and Eve and murderer of his brother Abel – as he tortuously remembers the events leading up to the first fratricide, and spends his days as an outcast in the corrupt and cosmopolitan city of Babel.
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 –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –