Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)

‘Besides, you see, I’m a public school man. That means everything. There’s a blessed equity in the English social system,’ said Grimes, ‘that ensures the public school man against starvation. One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.’
(Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall)

This was Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel, after a little runup of student and young mannish articles. His preface to the 1961 edition of Vile Bodies tells us it was well reviewed but only sold a few thousand copies. It was Vile Bodies published 2 years later, in 1930, which made his name and shot him into the bestseller league.

Maybe it was because, despite its modish aspects, Decline and Fall is basically a very traditional narrative. It recounts the picaresque adventures of an innocent young man, Paul Pennyfeather, abroad in a naughty world.

Paul is a cipher, a narrative device whose purpose is to lead us through a succession of scenes and incidents conceived solely for their humorous effect, the humour ranging from broad farce, slapstick and caricature, to satire of contemporary mores and, from time to time, hints of something a bit darker. This kind of narrative goes back through his immediate predecessor Aldous Huxley, to Dickens in the 19th century, Tom Jones or Candide in the 18th, Don Quixote in the 17th, and back past them to classical forebears, while also looking forward to the hapless adventures of naive young men in the novels of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Howard Jacobson.

The whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather… because, as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness.

Part one – disgrace and public schoolteacher


The narrative opens at the fictional Scone College Oxford where Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, witness innocent hapless Paul Pennyfeather being debagged (having his trousers pulled off) by the drunken members of Bollinger Club (obviously a reference to the real-life Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron and Boris Johnson were members) led by the raffish Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington and featuring the loud Lumsden of Strathdrummond.

Pennyfeather is a mild and harmless student of Divinity and had just returned from a characteristically high-minded meeting of the League of Nations Union, Oxford branch. On the fateful night he is set upon, has his trousers pulled off and is chucked in the fountain. He is last seen running trouserless across the main quad. Next morning he is summoned by the Dean and flabbergasted to be told he is being sent down i.e. expelled. The comedy is in the way the drunken aristocrats who attacked him get off scot-free. No one thinks of blaming them, not even Paul himself. Thus the world as it is.

Paul returns to stay with his guardian (he is an orphan, symbol of his abandonment and forlorn status) in London, his hopes of a decent career in tatters. He traipses round employment agencies, including one (‘Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents’) which finds iffy graduates jobs at dodgy private schools. Despite a comic absence of any of the qualities required (fluent in German, excellent at music and good at games) the agency puts Paul forward for the job and the desperate school accepts.

Llanabba Castle

Thus he finds himself catching a train to remotest north Wales where he arrives at the grandly named Llanabba Castle, an impressive building stuffed with Victorian crenellations and battlements. (It may be worth noting that this, like so much in Waugh’s books, is closely based on his own experiences. Unemployed after leaving Oxford in 1923, the young, unknown and unpublished Waugh took a job at a prep school in remotest Wales in January 1925. He was, as you can imagine, completely miserable and quit 6 months later.)

At Llanabba Castle, as you would totally expect, he meets a ripe cast of eccentrics. It’s very much St Trinians 20 years avant la lettre.

Thus the head is an obvious rogue, Dr Augustus Fagan PhD. He has two daughters, Florence and Diana, who the boys nickname Flossie and Dingy. There’s a slightly sinister butler, who improbably calls himself Sir Solomon ‘Solly’ Philbrick. Only a few other teachers are named, namely Mr Prendergast,  a weak and vacillating man who constantly thinks about leaving to become a vicar, whose most notable feature is his ill-fitting wig which the boys ceaselessly taunt him about; and Captain Grimes, a leery, rambuctious man with wooden leg and a liking for the local pub.

Obviously there are several chapters filled with comic incidents, especially Paul’s abrupt introduction to the rough and tumble of teaching i.e. the boys ragging him, playing tricks, him slowly realising how pointless it is to try and teach them anything. Once a week he has to take young Peter Beste-Chetwynde to the local church and supervise him playing the organ, which neither of them know the first thing about.

There are a number of storylines or themes. Paul discovers that everyone wants to tell him the story of their lives, he’s that kind of person, a passive listener. The most florid example is Philbrick who tells him a long cock and bull story about being an experienced burglar and criminal which goes on for pages and pages. Later Paul discovers that he’s spun equally as extensive and detailed yarns to Prendergast and Grimes except with completely different content.

Grimes finds himself manoeuvred into a position where he is going out with, and then expected to marry, Dingy, which fills him with comic unhappiness. As often as he can, he takes Paul down the local pub, run by a Mrs Roberts, to bemoan the latest blow to his fortunes. He is, he laments, constantly landing ‘in the soup.’

Sports Day

The big set piece – rather as in the St Trinians films – is the annual sports day. It is, of course, a fiasco. There are no running tracks laid out (the boys are told to run to a clump of trees at the edge of the ground and back), the marquee keeps falling down, a local company delivers ‘hurdles’ which turn out to be 5 foot tall metal railings with lethal spikes along the top, and so on.

It’s an opportunity to meet the some of the parents who all have comic names, for example Mr and Mrs Clutterbuck, the Earl of Circumference whose son, little Lord Tangent is at the school, the local Vicar, Colonel Sidebotham and the Hope-Brownes. A mangy looking peevish local brass band shambles up. It’s a comic version of an Agatha Christie village fete.

By far the most impressive parent is Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde whose son Peter Paul has got to know and like on their pointless weekly trips to the organ loft. She arrives in ‘an enormous limousine of dove-grey and silver’. She is to become the dominating presence of the narrative, certainly dominating and guiding Paul’s destiny.

The door opened, and from the cushions within emerged a tall young man in a clinging dove-grey overcoat. After him, like the first breath of spring in the Champs-Elysées, came Mrs Beste-Chetwynde—two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat, pinned with platinum and diamonds, and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz Hotel from New York to Buda-Pest.

Not only is she magnificent but she has brought her boyfriend, Chokey, who is an impeccably dressed, stylish black man. Some modern readers may struggle to get past the fact that several of the other characters refer to him using the n word. But it seemed to me an obvious reference to the extreme fashionability among a certain type of upper class bohemian woman of taking a cool black lover, as exemplified by the rich society heiress Nancy Cunard who, in 1928, began an affair with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician who was working in Paris. Chokey drops out of the narrative later, but makes a great impression in his beautiful suit, accompanying the stunning Margot.

(It’s initially a peripheral event among the general mayhem that Prendergast fires the starting pistol (an actual service revolver lent to him by Philbrick) into the ground as ordered, but in doing so grazes little Lord Tangent’s foot, his ankle in fact. Later we learn that the foot becomes infected and has to be amputated. One of 3 or 4 harsh and bleak snippets or details away to the side of the main narrative, which hint at a darker world.)

After the fiasco of the sports day, attention shifts to Captain Grimes and his reluctant marriage to Dingy, much to the disgust of her father, Dr Fagan. He’s doing it because he needs to get on and the marriage will, he hopes, bring him a part share in the business.

There is, however, a catch, which Grimes points out to Paul. He’s already married! To an Irishwoman, who shortly afterwards begins to make enquiries about him. Miserably unhappy in his new marriage, Grimes one day stages his own suicide, leaving all his clothes on the beach, in the style of John Stonehouse and Reggie Perrin.

(It may be worth noting the striking fact that this mode of suicide was based on Waugh’s own. In the summer of 1925 he quit his job at a Welsh prep school, believing he had secured a post as assistant to the noted author, C. K. Moncrieff, at the same time enthusiastically sending off the manuscript of his first novel to a friend from Oxford. But the post with Moncrieff fell through and the friend from Oxford savaged his novel, and the twin blows were enough to make him suicidal. He records that he went down to a nearby beach, left a farewell note with his clothes and walked out into the cold waves. However, in the best comic tradition, an attack by jellyfish made him reconsider his plan of action and he returned quickly to the shore.)

Part two – Margot

Mrs Beste-Chetwynde had taken rather a fancy to Paul at the sports day and now asks him (via a letter to her son, Peter) to come and visit her at her house, King’s Thursday, in Hampshire, over the upcoming East holidays.

Margot’s house is the pretext for some broad satire of contemporary life, namely the fashion for the new, modernist, Continental architecture of the Bauhaus mode. Several pages are devoted to describing the traditional splendour of King’s Thursday, its Tudor brickwork and original wood carvings and panelling etc. We are told that when it is put up for sale, a national campaign is launched by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to save it for the nation. Then, with comic brutality, we are told that Mrs Beste-Chetwynde buys it and has it completely demolished.

She has it rebuilt in the modern style by fierce and unforgiving Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, a Hungarian modernist architect of advanced opinions. His advanced opinions are described in detail, rotating around the idea that houses are machines for living in and would ideally be inhabited by machines. He is very disappointed by humans and their failure to be more like machines.

The utterly up-to-date modernist masterpiece he constructs for Margot becomes a running joke throughout Paul’s extended stay there, the narrative dotted with casually comic references to the luminous ceiling in Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s study, the india-rubber fungi in the recessed conservatory, to the little drawing-room whose floor was a large kaleidoscope set in motion by an electric button.

There are references to the glass floor and the pneumatic rubber furniture and the porcelain ceiling and the leather-hung walls. To the lift which carries passengers to the top of the great pyramidical tower from which they can look down on the roofs and domes of glass and aluminium ‘which glittered like Chanel diamonds in the afternoon sun’ (p.142). There’s a tank of octopuses. The study is shaped like a cylinder (p.133).

Here Paul is taken by young Peter Beste-Chetwynde in a chauffeur-driven car and spends wonderful, idle weeks of what turns into a permanent house party, a more brittle, glass and steel version of the weekend house parties which feature in the early novels of Aldous Huxley only more chaotic, the young people ‘faster’, with racier slang. The guests have names like the Honourable Miles Maltravers MP and Lord Parakeet, with pride of place going to the slightly older Sir Humphrey Maltravers, the Minister of Transportation who wanly wants to marry Margot. In fact all the men want to marry Margot. But as the arrive, have hi jinks and cocktails, play tennis, go for walks, pine for Margot and eventually leave, Paul remains a fixture and slowly becomes aware that she has taken a shine to him.

In fact she manages to manoeuvre Paul into proposing to her and she accepts. That night, in a scene which was presumably daring for 1928 (remember some of D.H. Lawrence’s novels were banned for obscenity) Margot slips into the darkness of Paul’s guest bedroom, lets her silk pyjamas fall to the floor and climbs into bed with him, just to check that she isn’t making a mistake.

At one point Paul is surprised to discover his old friend from Oxford, Arthur Potts, arriving at King’s Thursday to enquire the whereabouts of Captain Grimes. As far as Paul knows Grimes is dead, but he’s struck by Potts’s role as some kind of official snoop.

The looming marriage promises to transform Paul’s life. He is going to be rich. He writes to Dr Fagan quitting his job at Llanabba Castle.

The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd

All this is very entertaining in a lazy social comedy kind of way, but the plot sharpens up a bit when we hear that Margot is involved in a commercial enterprise, The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd, which was founded by her father. Margot and Paul head to London to finalise arrangement for their marriage i.e. sending invitations to all the Bright Young Things and a lot of shopping.

In among this Margot takes Paul along with her to an ‘audition’ carried out in a bizarrely furnished sports room, where she interviews a series of young women for work in her entertainment venues in South America. Paul is puzzled by the way the ones with the least experience get the gig. They are all quite rough, working class girls.

Paul is surprised to discover Arthur Potts hanging round outside the interview venue, as if he’s spying on things.

With only days to go, Margot asks Paul to do her a little favour and fly to Marseilles to sort out the passports and visas for Margot’s girls to catch their ships to South America. Being the unquestioning cipher and innocent abroad that he us, Paul proceeds to do this, excited at flying to the South of France and staying in a swish hotel, though there is momentarily a sense of menace when he finds himself taken by taxi later the same night into an increasingly dark, dingy and threatening slum quarter of Marseilles. He is eventually so scared that he runs away and back towards the well lit streets, but not before the reader has gotten a pretty shrewd idea that these English girls are being shipped into prostitution.

Next day Paul shuttles between French passport and visa offices to clear the girls’ way to travel abroad, not understanding the officials’ nods and winks and innuendos, although the reader does. Then he flies back to London just days before the date set for the wedding.

Paul is enjoying a is surprised at the squalid slum they seem to be staying in and then the nods and winks and innuendoes of the French officials he has to speak to and pay small bribes to ensure their passage.

Back in London he is having a boozy lunch with his best man-to-be, Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, (the same bounder who debagged him right at the start of the story, but all’s fair in love and war, old man) when there’s a tap on his shoulder and Inspector Bruce of Scotland Yard arrests him.

Part three – prison

Paul is convicted of white slaving and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Margot’s name is never mentioned during the trial and Paul doesn’t mention the fact that he was simply carrying out instructions for his fiancée who, he now realises, made her money from running what they used to call the white slave trade and we nowadays call people trafficking. In fact the reverse; the pompous judge goes out of his way to contrast Margot’s spotless reputation with Paul’s implied depravity.

Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s name was not mentioned, though the judge in passing sentence remarked that ‘no one could be ignorant of the callous insolence with which, on the very eve of arrest for this most infamous of crimes, the accused had been preparing to join his name with one honoured in his country’s history, and to drag down to his own pitiable depths of depravity a lady of beauty, rank and stainless reputation.’

This is a complete comic inversion of the truth, structurally identical to the way the titled yobbos who debagged Paul at Oxford got off scot free while his life was ruined.

Paul is shipped off to Blackstone Prison as Prisoner D.4.12. Here, in the best tradition of comic novels, he meets many of the characters we know from earlier in the book, namely Philbrick, who’s got the cushy job of meeting new convicts, delousing them and handing out a uniform covered in arrows. And when the chaplain visits Paul in his cell, he turns out to be none other than weedy Mr Prendergast, still full of doubt and uncertainty, still wearing a terrible wig, and ragged by the prisoners even worse than he was by the boys.


The prison is the setting for multiple strands of comedy and satire. There is a great deal of fun at the expense of the newish governor of the prison who is an academic, Sir Wilfred Lucas-Dockery, a sociologist, whose fatuous attempts to treat the prisoners as sensitive individuals is epitomised by his belief that:

I came to the conclusion many years ago that almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression.

Thus Sir Lucas insists that all the prisoners take part in an Arts and Crafts class he’s set up for them to express their creativity but where, in fact, one or two prisoners each week take advantage of the sharp tools to try and commit suicide. He sets up a bookbinding class which fails because many of the prisoners eat the paste, claiming it’s better than the prison porridge.

Sir Lucas is prey to all kinds of fashionable fads like his plan to introduce artificial sunlight into prisons. He also wants to hire a permanent psychoanalyst and his interviews with the prisoners are continually pushing psychoanalytical ideas (‘Would you say you are an introvert or an extrovert?’) which confuse both the prisoners and the strict disciplinarian Chief Warder. He is, in other words, a broad caricature of the well-meaning, high-minded liberal whose pampered upbringing means he has no understanding at all of the institution and people he has been set to manage. The dynamic between his wispy ideas and the hard-knuckled approach is identical to the dynamic between the governor of Slade Prison and Mr Mckay in the TV series Porridge.

The extended satire comes to a gruesome climax when the governor, in thrall to his faddish beliefs about psychoanalysis and frustrated creative urges, lets a man who is clearly a religious psychopath attend carpentry class in order ‘to express himself’. With utter predictability, at the first opportunity, the psychopath uses the carpentry tools to attack Mr Prendergast the chaplain, who he is convinced is the antichrist, and saw his head off! Like the incident of little Lord Tangent being shot in the foot and dying of blood poisoning, only on a much bigger scale, this incident takes farce and ‘humour’ to the limit.

The good news for the prisoners is the incident quite dampens Sir Wilfred’s faddish ideas and the prison returns to being run by the Chief Warden, who is much more of a stickler for rules and regulations. The prisoners like him. They know where they are and what to expect. Everyone is very happy.

There’s a minor thread satirising public school (every novel written by someone who went to public school has to criticise public school, it’s part of the contract). There’s comedy in the way that Paul, like all arrivals at Blackstone, has to undergo 4 weeks of solitary confinement but how, when the 4 weeks are up and he goes to see the governor, he surprises both him and the Chief Warden by asking if he can continue being in solitary. He finds it peaceful and thoughtful. After all:

anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul-destroying. (p.188)

Egdon Heath and Captain Grimes

After a few months, Paul is transferred to the Convict Settlement at Egdon Heath, where the prisoners spend the day hacking rocks in a quarry. Here he meets none other than Captain Grimes. After faking his own death, he travelled incognito to London and was hoping to start a new life away from his two wives, but he was caught, charged, convicted and sentenced to 3 years for bigamy.

On the train to Egdon a warder charitably shows him the day’s paper which happens to contain a big photo of Margot and the news that Peter has inherited the title of Earl of Pastmaster. While we were at King’s Thursday Peter somehow morphed in a few weeks from being a schoolboy to becoming the self-possessed young man who claimed to have set Paul and Margot up (though, as we know, Margot had her own motives in ‘hiring’ Paul to do her bidding). Now he is an Earl. He has aged far more than the time described in the novel, but then it is a panto.

Paul settles in to life at Egdon but soon becomes aware that a guardian angel is looking after him: unaccountably nice food is sent to his cell, the prison trusty offers, instead of greasy tomes from the library brand new books sent from London. The guardian angel is, very clearly, Margot, who feels frightfully guilty at how things turned out for him.

Then the Great Lady herself comes to visit, mainly to complain that her acquaintances are cutting her and she feels she is growing old and to tell Paul that she is going to marry Maltravers (who has now been promoted to Home Secretary) she hopes he doesn’t mind and she sweeps out, leaving Paul stunned but no longer surprised. Nothing surprises him.

Meanwhile Grimes gets restless. He can’t stand being locked up (unlike Paul who rather likes the solitude and lack of distraction). One foggy day in the quarry Grimes creates a distraction, then manages to leap astride a warder’s horse and gallop off into the gloom. He escapes. His hat is found in the centre of the great Egdon Marsh and he is reported dead, but Paul realises Grimes is too much of a life force to ever be extinguished.

Paul’s escape

Then Paul escapes. It is impresario-ed by Margot, with the details managed by her now very capable son, the ever-more mature Peter. Peter arranges for his stepfather, Sir Humphrey, who is now the Home Secretary, to sign a form permitting Paul to be taken to a clinic to have his appendix removed.

(Sir Humphrey has been made a lord and taken the name Lord Metroland, which makes Margot Margot Metroland. We learn that none of this has stopped Margot taking a younger lover, Alisdair.)

Paul protests to the warder taking him to the clinic that he’s already had his appendix out, but the warder gives him a broad wink and more or less tells him it’s a scam. Paul will be taken to a clinic on the South Coast where he will apparently ‘die’ under the knife. Death certificates will be signed to terminate his legal existence. Then the man with no legal existence will be rowed out to Margot’s yacht, waiting anchored off the coast, and sail civilisedly round France, into the Med and be conveyed to Margot’s luxury villa on Corfu.

Which is exactly what happens, the comic element being played up by the fact that the clinic he is sent to is run by none other than our old friend Dr Fagan, who’s packed up the teaching lark and sold Llanabba Castle. And by the presence of young Peter and Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington to oversee it all, not least handling the comically drunk surgeon, who is so plastered they easily persuade him the patient has died under the knife, with the result that he bursts into drunken tears and signs the death certificate before passing out.


The scene cuts to Corfu. Life is very civilised in Margot’s villa. Who should he meet but Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, spouting his metallic modernist opinions. He delivers a speech which might sort of be the serious point of the novel – or a semi-serious meditation on life provided for readers who enjoy that sort of thing. It’s to the effect that there are two kinds of people, the static and the dynamic. Paul is static and ought to sit in the stalls watching life. Margot is dynamic and loves throwing herself onto the whirling fairground ride of life, screaming her head off. Silenus naturally gravitates to the centre of the spinning wheel of life where, for a master such as himself, there is stability. Paul should never have got involved with dynamic people.


The book ends with a very satisfactory completion of the circle, when Paul, comically disguised with a moustache, returns to Oxford, gains readmission to his old college and resumes his studies in divinity.  After a bit of thought he retains the surname Pennyfeather but takes another first name and tells everyone he is the other guy’s cousin.

There is some broad comedy in the way he discovers that ‘Paul Pennyfeather’ has, in his brief absence (of, we are startled to discover, only a little over a year) become a legend at Scone College, various college worthies telling him about the legendary figure’s madcap escapades, all of which Paul knows to be utterly fictitious. Fictions within a fiction. Comic quirkiness and character are added when Waugh gives us details of some of the early Christian heresies Paul is now happily studying.

The story really does come full circle when, one quiet and studious evening, Paul hears a loud commotion in the quad outside and realises it’s the Bollinger Club again. Soon afterwards his door crashes open and it is none other than Peter Beste-Chetwynde who is now a student at Paul’s college and has been getting plastered with the other aristocrats. He drunkenly reels off all the adventures they’ve had in the past year, which serves as a useful summary of the story, told by a drunken student, a clever and funny device. Peter reels out and quiet Paul returns to his study of the Ebionite heresy.

Very neat, very stylish, very satisfying.


So much for the plot. This young man’s first novel also contains all kinds of verbal and stylistic pleasures. Here are a couple from Paul’s time at King’s Thursday.

Paul had noticed nothing in the room except Mrs Beste-Chetwynde; he now saw that there was a young man sitting beside her, with very fair hair and large glasses, behind which his eyes lay like slim fish in an aquarium; they woke from their slumber, flashed iridescent in the light, and darted towards little Beste-Chetwynde.


As the last of the guests departed Mrs Beste-Chetwynde reappeared from her little bout of veronal, fresh and exquisite as a seventeenth-century lyric. The meadow of green glass seemed to burst into flower under her feet as she passed from the lift to the cocktail table.

Characters and tones

Waugh is excellent at mimicry, at ventriloquism, at doing various voices. There’s the raffish, disreputable voice of Captain Grimes always wanting to go off down the pub; the Germanic mechanical tone of Professor Silenus; or the impressive capture of Peter Beste-Chetwynde’s drunken dialogue right at the very end. There’s the elaborate Welsh locutions of the Llanabba brass band and the chilled drawl of Chokey, the extremely smooth black man.

Waugh particularly relishes music hall cockney, which I find particularly enjoyable to read in my mind’s ear, or out loud. Here’s a warder at Egdon reassuring Margot, when she comes to visit, that she can say what she likes without fear of being reported:

‘Don’t mind me, mum, if you wants to talk personal,’ said the warder kindly. ‘I only has to stop conspiracy. Nothing I hears ever goes any further, and I hears a good deal, I can tell you. They carry on awful, some of the women, what with crying and fainting and hysterics generally. Why, one of them,’ he said with relish, ‘had an epileptic fit not long ago.’ (p.194)

‘He said with relish’ :). Waugh is always looking for the comic detail, the foible which reveals people as the rogues and rascals that, deep down, they all are.

Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Mrs Craddock by Somerset Maugham (1902)

‘Entre deux amants il-y-a toujours un qui aime, et un qui se laisse aimer.’

After the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth in 1897, the 23-year-old William Somerset Maugham optimistically abandoned his career as a trainee doctor to become a professional writer. Later in life, Maugham considered this to have been a bad mistake, for literary success came only slowly and he spent nearly a decade churning out ten novels which sold little or poorly.

All the time his real ambition was to be a playwright, but none of his plays were accepted either. It was only in 1907, ten years after Liza, that his play Lady Frederick was finally staged and, to his own surprise, became a runaway success, transforming his reputation and fortunes. Within a year he had four plays running in the West End and had arrived.

Mrs Craddock

Mrs Craddock, from 1902, is a product of his lean early years, and you can see why. It is a long and uneven narrative, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, covering ten or so years in the life of Bertha Leys:

  • from when she is a head-strong, romantic orphan under the guardianship of her aunt Mary living in the family home, Court Leys in Kent
  • through her infatuation for and marriage to the virile local farmer Edward Craddock
  • her slow realisation that Edward is conventional, unimaginative and boring and cares more about his wretched cows and pet dogs than about Bertha’s feelings
  • (something she starts to suspect on their honeymoon in London where he laughs at crude vaudeville and can’t see the point of the art galleries which Bertha adores)
  • she is mortified when he humiliates her at tennis at a big party of the local gentry
  • she hopes that getting pregnant and having a child will bring them close together again, or at least provide a focus for her thwarted love
  • but, inevitably, she has a long, drawn-out miscarriage and the baby is still-born
  • worse than anything is the calm, sensible way Edward accepts this and its corollary, the doctor’s conclusion that she will never again be able to have children – news at which Bertha is, understandably, distraught (chapter 17)
  • their married life becomes a series of niggling arguments – like the one about whether the farm workmen should chop down some beech trees which overshadow an important field (Edward) or should not, because they are old and beautiful (Bertha)
  • these escalate into flaring rows and, slowly, Bertha is forced to admit that she can no longer stand her husband
  • so she leaves Edward and Kent to go travelling with Aunt Mary on the Continent for months
  • on her return to London she has an ill-advised but madly passionate fling with a distant cousin, Gerald Vaudrey
  • but when, after torments of separation, and even mad thoughts about going with him to the New World, Gerald finally leaves for New York, Bertha’s spirit snaps and she returns to Court Leys emotionally empty

Ironically, throughout the novel, as Bertha’s love for him dwindles and dies, we watch as Edward’s career has gone from strength to strength. He manages the Ley property superbly, making a hefty profit and buying up surrounding land, restoring the house, building a tennis court in the grounds, and becoming the life and soul of local North Kent society.

It’s just a shame that Bertha loathes and detests local North Kent society for its parochialism and small-minded snobbery. In the final chapters of the book Bertha and Edward live together but utterly separate in spirit. Bertha, bored out of her mind, walks the local countryside, watches the changing seasons, goes down to the sea and stares for hours at its endless waves, dreaming of escape, dreaming sometimes of suicide or some kind of painless dissolution, anything to make the dreary routine of morning, noon and night, boring dinners with her husband or dreary visits to the local vicar or other landowners, all go away.

Then Edward, stubborn and confident to the end, goes out riding on a horse which has already thrown him once and broken his collarbone. The horse shies at a fence, falling on top of him and he dies. Stunned, Bertha staggers to her bed and reviews her life. Shocked and dismayed, she realises that she is… free!

On the day of the funeral, there is social comedy about who should get order of precedence in the funeral parade among the various organisations Edward which was a leading member of (the freemasons, the county council, the Conservative Party).

But quite separate from all that, Bertha doesn’t attend the funeral. Remote and isolated from the hurly burly of the entire world, she lies on her sofa, in the beautifully restored house, admiring the fine view to the sea, and picks up a book. The End.


I enjoyed reading Mrs Craddock but was aware of its numerous faults. For a start, there are several odd passages where Maugham is being ‘experimental’ (or giving in to contemporary literary fashion) but which really don’t come off.

One of them occurs half way through, when Bertha, still in her infatuation stage, hears tell that Edward is a little injured, and goes off into a peculiar hallucination of him being brought in dead, her washing the corpse, lowering the coffin into the grave and her throwing herself on top of it, a bizarre stream-of-consciousness hallucination – at the end of which Edward walks in right as rain and wondering why she’s in such a state.

The book is also heavily garlanded with over-ripe, purple prose passages describing the Kent countryside or the romantic air of Italy, which go on for pages.

That said, the book has two obvious virtues or strengths:

One is the effectiveness of the social comedy generated by the stiflingly conventional provincial society of Blackstable (the thinly disguised version of Whitstable where Maugham was himself brought up in the 1880s).

The characterisation of the stiff local vicar, Mr Grove, his well-intentioned sister, the hearty doctor, the dashing local landowner Branderton, the chorus of snobbish local ladies led by Mrs Branderston, with Mrs Mayston Ryle and Mrs Molsons not far behind, the scenes involving this little community – are often very funny.

The vicar’s sister, Miss Glover, is a particularly memorable character, all shiny stiff dress and sincere Christian sympathy. Maugham was always strong on social comedy, and strong on the subtleties and veiled malice of petty snobbery. It would later reappear in his feel for the thousand and one stupid restrictions on colonial life in the Far East, as described in his short stories of the 1920s.

Another is Maugham’s knack for beginning or setting his stories in very mundane settings, and often mundane incidents, but from this base working up passages of tremendous emotional intensity which stay with the reader.

Thus, for example, Bertha’s passionate lust and master-worship of Edward are described with real heat, as is her second great infatuation, the sensuality leading to inflamed lust for young Gerald. You can almost smell the sex. Unusual for its day.

Similarly, Bertha’s anger when she realises that Edward doesn’t much care if she lives or dies or what she does, is vividly described and moving.

And so, again, towards the end, is her prolonged mood of depression as she wanders down to the grey Kent sea and fantasises about drowning in it.

So far so good. But whether all these passages really come together to form a convincing description of a plausible personality, such as literature is meant to, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure and I’m also not sure if I’m qualified to judge. For a start, maybe only a woman reader or critic could really assess whether Bertha is a ‘realistic’ character. Who am I to say?

Secondly, the novel covers a period from the 1880s to the end of the 1890s and… that was so long ago, so far away, in a kind of constipated rural Victorian society which is almost impossible for us to imagine, that I can’t see how any modern reader can make a just assessment of its veracity.

What can be confidently made is the criticism that the number two figure in the story – Edward Craddock – never really comes alive. Tall, strong and good-humoured he remains throughout the novel – admittedly putting on weight and growing red-cheeked as the years pass – an unbendingly good, honest, efficient and utterly boring man, the straight man to Bertha’s fireworks display of emotions.

Maybe it’s the failure to bring the man in this novel fully alive which has contributed to it being more or less forgotten.

But what is good, I think, in the novel, is the slow, slow pace at which Maugham describes Bertha’s slow, slow, slow loss of her infatuation, then loss of her love, then her loss of respect for her husband. The book has to be long because its whole point is to describe the very gradual erosion of her love in great detail. In this respect, in the care with which Maugham has plotted the decay of passionate love, I think the novel works.

Sex and lust

Without much by way of introduction or preparation the book launches us straight into the flustered mind of twenty-one-year-old Bertha – living calmly and respectably with her aunt in the family home Court Leys – and her fiercely physical infatuation with the tall, strong, dark local farmer, Edward Craddock who is a tenant farmer on the Ley family land, at Bewlie’s Farm.

He came nearer, a tall fellow of twenty-seven, massively set together, big boned, with long arms and legs, and a magnificent breadth of chest. Bertha recognised the costume that always pleased her, the knickerbockers and gaiters, the Norfolk-jacket of rough tweed, the white stock and the cap – all redolent of the country which for his sake she was beginning to love, and all vigorously masculine. Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure; their dimensions suggested a certain firmness of character, a masterfulness, which were intensely reassuring… His cheeks were flushed and his eyes glistened. His vitality was intense, shining out upon others with almost a material warmth.

Although it’s hard for us now to imagine, a number of later writers, in the 1930s and 1940s, paid tribute to the way Maugham broke free of Victorian silence about sex, and wrote with a new openness and candour about passionate, physical love.

This fierce physicality was there right from the start in Maugham’swork, in the powerful descriptions of Liza’s pulse racing and her body swooning against the tall, strong, masculine figure of Jim Blakeston in his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897) – and exactly the same thing is repeated here, as impressionable young Bertha thrills at the touch and swoons against the tall, strong, masculine figure of young Edward.

When he put it round her shoulders, the touch of his hands made her lose the little self-control she had left. A curious spasm passed through her, and she pressed herself closer to him; at the same time his hands sank down, dropping the cloak, and encircled her waist. Then she surrendered herself entirely to his embrace and lifted her face to his. He bent down and kissed her. The kiss was such utter madness that she almost groaned. She could not tell if it was pain or pleasure. She flung her arms round his neck and drew him to her.

When at last he bade her good-bye and shook hands, she blushed again; she was extraordinarily troubled, and as, with his rising, the strong masculine odour of the countryside reached her nostrils, her head whirled.

In a field she saw him, directing some operation. She trembled at the sight, her heart beat very quickly; and when, seeing her, he came forward with a greeting, she turned red and then white in the most compromising fashion. But he was very handsome as, with easy gait, he sauntered to the hedge; above all he was manly, and the pleasing thought passed through Bertha that his strength must be quite herculean. She barely concealed her admiration.

‘I’m rather frightened of you, sometimes,’ she said, laughing. ‘You’re so strong. I feel so utterly weak and helpless beside you.’
‘Are you afraid I shall beat you?’
She looked up at him and then down at the strong hands.
‘I don’t think I should mind if you did. I think I should only love you more.’

‘Let me look at your hands,’ she said. She loved them too. They were large and roughly made, hard with work and exposure, ten times pleasanter, she thought, than the soft hands of the townsman… She stretched out the long, strong fingers. Craddock, knowing her very little, looked with wonder and amusement. She caught his glance, and with a smile bent down to kiss the upturned palms. She wanted to abase herself before the strong man, to be low and humble before him. She would have been his handmaiden, and nothing could have satisfied her so much as to perform for him the most menial services. She knew not how to show the immensity of her passion.

It’s a commonplace enough word but in Maugham’s hands the word ‘thrill’, more nakedly than in other writers of the time, describes the physical impact of sexual arousal and lust.

Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure…

Craddock blushed. Bertha noticed it, and a strange little thrill went through her…

He took her hand and the contact thrilled her; her knees were giving way, and she almost tottered.

His letters had caused her an indescribable thrill, the mere sight of his handwriting had made her tremble, and she wanted to see him; she woke up at night with his kisses on her lips.

It gave her a queer thrill to see him turn white when she held his hand, to see him tremble when she leaned on his arm.

It’s a striking paradox that such an externally polite, formal, correctly dressed, well-mannered and self-contained man as Maugham wrote so obsessively and fiercely, throughout his career, of complete sexual abandonment and the heart-stopping power of sheer physical lust.

Never before had she experienced that utter weakness of the knees so that she feared to fall; her breathing was strangely oppressive, and her heart beat almost painfully.

And the candid way he describes the wish to be mastered, dominated, controlled, owned and directed by a powerful strong man.

For the moment Bertha forgot her wayward nature, and wished suddenly to subject herself to his strong guidance. His very strength made her feel curiously weak.

‘Shut your eyes,’ she whispered, and she kissed the closed lids; she passed her lips slowly over his lips, and the soft contact made her shudder and laugh. She buried her face in his clothes, inhaling those masterful scents of the countryside which had always fascinated her.

Later in the book, the same thing happens all over again when she becomes infatuated with Gerald. In the course of that affair there takes place something you don’t usually read about at the period, which is the clearly defined moment when Bertha decides to have sex with Gerald, to give him the great gift of her body, to make their union unique and unforgettable.

You can almost smell the pheromones radiating off the page as Bertha pursues Gerald across London, tracking him down to her aunt’s house, her aunt goes out and they are on the verge of doing something unforgiveable according to Victorian custom (Bertha was still a married woman and keeps telling us that Gerald is almost young enough to be her son) when… there’s a knock at the door and Aunt Mary reappears in the nick of time!

Still. The description of Bertha’s heat and arousal as` she gets so close to her goal is almost pornographic in its blood-heating intensity.

Later, in the 1920s, Maugham met D.H. Lawrence (but then, he met everyone) although they didn’t hit it off. From the limited knowledge I have, I can’t help thinking that this story about a passionate young woman’s lust for a farmer prefigures Lawrence’s novels of love among the haystacks, and I wonder what the younger man thought of the trail Maugham had blazed with his shocking-for-their-time descriptions.

The battle of the sexes

Arguably the central subject of ‘the novel’ since its birth has been the battle of the sexes – to be precise the struggle to find and keep the perfect partner.

The English novel starts in 1748 with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a 500-page battle between a man who wants to ravish his servant girl (Pamela) and the said servant girl who insists that they are married before he takes her ‘virtue’. And the rest of ‘serious’ fiction continued to be centred on this theme for at least 150 years – the sly marriage markets of Jane Austen, the earnest character studies of George Eliot, in the American ladies in Europe of Henry James and the Golden Age snobbery of Edith Wharton, through the endless sex war in D.H. Lawrence, eachoed in the love comedies of H.G. Wells or Aldous Huxley, and so on.

Literature which doesn’t address the problem of finding the right partner, and holding onto them i.e. of marriage and adultery, tends not to be thought central to the Great Tradition of the English Novel. Thus ‘serious’ literary critics for a long time refused to admit Sterne, Dickens or Conrad to the ‘canon’.

Love, marriage, infidelity, these are the topics which fill vast warehouses of ‘serious’ literature. Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina.

Mrs Craddock is smack bang in the middle of that tradition for which marriage is the sole interest of human life and, in particular, unhappy marriage. Unhappy, mismatched and ill-fated love turned out to be the central theme of Maugham’s long career.

And Mrs Craddock amounts to an extended early exploration of this theme.

Maugham and women

And at the heart of these mismatched marriages is the women. Maugham throughout his long career had a special sympathy with women. Take imaginative, free-spirited, if naive, Kitty Garstin getting bored of her dull husband in The Painted Veil. Or Mary Panton, unsuitably married to an alcoholic gambler in Up At the Villa and then seriously considering a second (and obviously foolish) marriage to an eminent diplomat twice her age. Or Julia Lambert, famous actress throwing herself away on a worthless young cad in Theatre. Or Liza giving her heart and body to rascally Jim Blakeston instead of decent loyal Tom in Liza of Lambeth. Mismatches, all of them. And women all at the centre of the stories.

In Maugham’s theatrical comedies of manners, there is also a wide array of interesting women characters. There are old and amusingly cynical women (Lady Grayson in Our Betters), younger, powerful women (Constance Middleton in The Constant Woman) and mature, tragic women (Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame).

It is the women, and their often painful emotional journeys, who stick in the reader’s imagination, while the callow young men in these plays are often only dramatic ciphers.

Maugham’s subject is the eternal erring of the human heart, but it is nearly always a woman’s heart which is described, and felt, with greatest intensity.

The New Woman

As if the marriage theme wasn’t already central enough in the literary tradition, the 1890s saw a particular interest in the role and experience of women in contemporary society. It was the era of ‘the New Woman’, and a flurry of novels were published examining the issue of women in society, with narratives and characters being created to explore the rights and wrongs of women.

The term ‘New Woman’ was popularized by British-American writer Henry James, who used it to describe the growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the United States. Independence was not simply a matter of the mind: it also involved physical changes in activity and dress, as activities such as bicycling expanded women’s ability to engage with a broader more active world. The New Woman pushed the limits set by a male-dominated society, especially as modeled in the plays of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). (Wikipedia)

The New Woman was in all the papers, in magazines, in articles, on the stage, discussed in Parliament, aired in a thousand short stories and novels. It even percolated through to the provincial backwater of Blackstable where Mrs Craddock is set, and where clever, cosmopolitan Miss Ley enjoys teasing the hide-bound locals.

‘Which do you think is the predominant partner?’ she asked, smiling drily [referring to Edward and Bertha].
‘The man, as he should be,’ gruffly replied the doctor.
‘Do you think he has more brains?’
‘Ah, you’re a feminist,’ said Dr. Ramsay, with great scorn.

Striking that old fuddy-duddy Dr Ramsay knows what a feminist is and uses the term ‘feminist’ in a story set in the 1880s. Amazing that women were arguing with men about the role of women, and both able to joke and josh about it, some 130 years ago. In that 130 years hundreds of novels, plays, films, thousands of factual books and hundreds of thousands of articles have been written about the New Woman, about feminism, women’s liberation and #metoo.

Quite clearly it is an issue, a real and enormous issue – but one like homelessness and poverty and managing the economy and the North-South divide and how to run the railways, which every generation of intellectuals thinks it has discovered, discusses to death, but which is, somehow, never finally solved.

Boldness about marriage

I mentioned Maugham’s surprising candour in describing the physical characteristics of lust. He makes at least one of his characters be just as scandalously blunt about the broader realities of sex and reproduction. It is Bertha’s aunt, Miss Ley, who is given a speech impatiently telling the dry-as-dust Miss Glover, the vicar’s sister, that the basis of marriage is biological reproduction and nothing more.

‘Yes, I know what you all think in England,’ said Miss Ley, catching the glance and its meaning. ‘You expect people to marry from every reason except the proper, one – and that is the instinct of reproduction.’
‘Miss Ley!’ exclaimed Miss Glover, blushing.
‘Oh, you’re old enough to take a sensible view of the, matter,’ answered Miss Ley, somewhat brutally. ‘Bertha is merely the female attracted to the male, and that is the only decent foundation of marriage – the other way seems to me merely horrid. And what does it matter if the man is not of the same station, the instinct has nothing to do with the walk in life; if I’d ever been in love I shouldn’t have cared if it was a pot-boy, I’d have married him – if he asked me.’
‘Well, upon my word!’ said the doctor.
But Miss Ley was roused now, and interrupted him: ‘The particular function of a woman is to propagate her species; and if she’s wise she’ll choose a strong and healthy man to be the father of her children. I have no patience with those women who marry a man because he’s got brains. What is the good of a husband who can make abstruse mathematical calculations? A woman wants a man with strong arms and the digestion of an ox.’
‘Miss Ley,’ broke in Miss Glover, ‘I’m not clever enough to argue with you, but I know you’re wrong. I don’t think I am right to listen to you; I’m sure Charles wouldn’t like it.’
‘My dear, you’ve been brought up like the majority of English girls – that is, like a fool.’
Poor Miss Glover blushed. ‘At all events I’ve been brought up to regard marriage as a holy institution. We’re here upon earth to mortify the flesh, not to indulge it. I hope I shall never be tempted to think of such matters in the way you’ve suggested. If ever I marry I know that nothing will be further from me than carnal thoughts. I look upon marriage as a spiritual union in which it is my duty to love, honour, and obey my husband, to assist and sustain him, to live with him such a life that when the end comes we may be prepared for it.’
‘Fiddlesticks!’ said Miss Ley.

As with his hot-blooded descriptions of lust, Maugham’s correlation of human reproduction with animal reproduction i.e. as an animal instinct devoid of all moral or religious meaning, strikes me as definitely anticipating D.H. Lawrence.

Boldness about religion

And the same goes for his treatment of traditional religion. After his parents died, Maugham was brought up an orphan in the home of his father’s brother, the unimaginative vicar of Whitstable in the 1880s (hence the accuracy of the social comedy of provincial Kentish society in this novel).

Sometime in his student years, Maugham’s Christian faith just melted away and he experienced a tremendous sense of liberation, liberation (as Selina Hastings’s fabulous biography of Maugham makes crystal clear) to have sex with whoever he wanted, male or female.

Accompanying Miss Ley’s blunt truth-telling about sex, there is a similar passage in which Bertha brutally attacks the Christian faith. Devout, tightly-laced Miss Glover, the vicar’s spinster sister, has come to ‘comfort’ Bertha after she’s lost her baby in childbirth. Bertha demurs.

‘Oh, Bertha, you’re not taking it in the proper spirit – you’re so rebellious, and it’s wrong, it’s utterly wrong.’
‘I can only think of my baby,’ said Bertha, hoarsely.
‘Why don’t you pray to God, dear – shall I offer a short prayer now, Bertha?’
‘No, I don’t want to pray to God – He’s either impotent or cruel.’
‘Bertha,’ cried Miss Glover. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying. Oh, pray to God to melt your stubbornness; pray to God to forgive you.’
‘I don’t want to be forgiven. I’ve done nothing that needs it. It’s God who needs my forgiveness – not I His.’

The attack continues later, when Miss Glover returns with the vicar as back-up. Bertha initially starts off meekly reading the Prayer Book with them, but then breaks down:

‘I have no wish to “give hearty thanks unto God,”‘ she said, looking almost fiercely at the worthy pair. ‘I’m very sorry to offend your prejudices, but it seems to me absurd that I should prostrate myself in gratitude to God.’
‘Oh, Mrs. Craddock, I trust you don’t mean what you say,’ said the Vicar.
‘This is what I told you, Charles,’ said Miss Glover. ‘I don’t think Bertha is well, but still this seems to me dreadfully wicked.’
Bertha frowned, finding it difficult to repress the sarcasm which rose to her lips; her forbearance was sorely tried. But Mr. Glover was a little undecided.
‘We must be as thankful to God for the afflictions He sends as for the benefits,’ he said at last.
‘I am not a worm to crawl upon the ground and give thanks to the foot that crushes me.’
‘I think that is blasphemous, Bertha,’ said Miss Glover.
‘Oh, I have no patience with you, Fanny,’ said Bertha, raising herself, a flush lighting up her face. ‘Can you realise what I’ve gone through, the terrible pain of it? Oh, it was too awful. Even now when I think of it I almost scream.’
‘It is by suffering that we rise to our higher self,’ said Miss Glover. ‘Suffering is a fire that burns away the grossness of our material natures.’
‘What rubbish you talk,’ cried Bertha, passionately. ‘You can say that when you’ve never suffered. People say that suffering ennobles one; it’s a lie, it only makes one brutal…. But I would have borne it – for the sake of my child. It was all useless – utterly useless. Dr. Ramsay told me the child had been dead the whole time. Oh, if God made me suffer like that, it’s infamous. I wonder you’re not ashamed to put it down to God. How can you imagine Him to be so stupid, so cruel! Why, even the vilest beast in the slums wouldn’t cause a woman such frightful and useless agony for the mere pleasure of it.’

This powerful scene should take its place in any anthology describing the collapse of Christian belief in the later 19th century.

What with the Darwinian view of human reproduction, this forthright atheism, and the implicit theme of the New Woman throughout the novel, along with the numerous natural descriptions which I’ve mentioned, Maugham was clearly making an effort to write a Big Serious Novel tackling some of the fashionable Issues of the Day.

It doesn’t work because the central characters aren’t, in the end, really believable enough to support the great weight placed on them. But it’s a valiant attempt.

Miss Ley

All this is to overlook the third major character in the story who is, on one reading, arguably its most successful character – Bertha’s Aunt Mary, or Miss Ley as she’s referred to.

In the opening scenes of the novel, Bertha is still living under Miss Ley’s guardianship, we see them often together, and so she is one of the first characters we get to know and like. Although she then disappears from view for the long stretches which describe Bertha and Edward’s marriage, whenever Miss Ley does reappear – when Bertha goes to stay with her for a short break, and then runs away with her to the continent, and in the prolonged sequence when Bertha is staying with Miss Ley while she has her almost-affair with young Gerald – she was greeted with cheers from this reader. Why? Because she is drily, quietly funny.

Miss Ley sat on the sofa by the fireside, a woman of middle-size, very slight, with a thin and much wrinkled face. Of her features the mouth was the most noticeable, not large, with lips that were a little too thin; it was always so tightly compressed as to give her an air of great determination, but there was about the corners an expressive mobility, contradicting in rather an unusual manner the inferences which might be drawn from the rest of her person. She had a habit of fixing her cold eyes on people with a steadiness that was not a little embarrassing. They said Miss Ley looked as if she thought them great fools, and as a matter of fact that usually was her precise opinion. Her thin grey hair was very plainly done; and the extreme simplicity of her costume gave a certain primness, so that her favourite method of saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner often disconcerted the casual stranger.

‘Saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner’. Miss Ley emerges as the vehicle for the best of the book’s sub-Jane Austen sly wit, acting – especially in the first half – as the tart and comic centre of the novel, as drily cynical and Bertha is passionately romantic.

Humanity, Miss Ley took to be a small circle of persons, mostly feminine, middle-aged, unattached, and of independent means, who travelled on the continent, read good literature and abhorred the vast majority of their fellow-creatures.

She asked politely after [the doctor]’s wife, to whom she secretly objected for her meek submission to the doctor. Miss Ley made a practice of avoiding those women who had turned themselves into mere shadows of their lords, more especially when their conversation was of household affairs.

[Miss Ley] had already come to the conclusion that he [Craddock] was a man likely to say on a given occasion the sort of thing which might be expected; and that, in her eyes, was a hideous crime.

Miss Ley was anxious that no altercation should disturb the polite discomfort of the meeting.

Miss Ley revels in the embarrassment of other people, especially the uptight, narrow-minded provincials around her. She spends as much time as she can in London, and even more abroad in Italy (in another anticipation of a more famous novelist, this time E.M. Foster with his nice-girls-and-their-aunts-in-Italy stories). Whenever Miss Lay arrives back in Kent it is hilarious to watch the locals being affronted and outraged and shocked and tutting and twitching the curtains, under fire from Miss Ley’s dry wit and through Miss Ley’s quiet, sardonic gaze.

And she is not only an appealing character in her own right. But at a number of key moments (throughout Bertha’s early infatuation with Edward, then slyly noticing her loss of faith in her husband, and then throughout the Gerald affair) Miss Ley’s role as onlooker and chorus to the main action pushes her closer to the reader’s perspective.

It is as if she was standing next to us in the wings of a theatre, muttering an ironic commentary as we both watch the overwrought romantic heroine fainting and weeping and panting with passion.

Oscar Wilde

Moreover, Miss Ley gets most of the book’s one-liners. Much of the dialogue of Mrs Craddock contains the sub-Wildean cynical wit which was to characterise Maugham’s later string of extremely successful plays, such Oscarisms as:

‘Marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough money of her own to live upon.’

‘Marriage is an institution of the Church, Miss Ley,’ replied Miss Glover, rather severely.
‘Is it?’ retorted Miss Ley. ‘I always thought it was an arrangement to provide work for the judges in the Divorce Court.’

‘Mr. Branderton has been to Eton and Oxford, but he conceals the fact with great success.’

‘My dear Dr. Ramsay, I have trouble enough in arranging my own life; do not ask me to interfere with other people’s.’

It is madness for a happy pair to pretend to have no secrets from one another: it leads them into so much deception.

‘I make a point of thinking with the majority – it’s the only way to get a reputation for wisdom.’

‘You wouldn’t rob us of our generals,’ said Miss Ley. ‘They’re so useful at tea-parties.’

And the fact that almost all of these lines are given to Miss Ley, and that she emerges as in many ways the most loveable character, explains why Maugham begins the book with a dedication – more precisely, a mock ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ – to her. He obviously liked her best of all the characters in the book, and she is the only one you would want to meet.

A tiny Marxist comment

Having just been to an extensive feminist art exhibition, and read numerous articles about the Judge Kavanaugh affair, and read some feminist articles about Maugham and Women and, given that Bertha is quite clearly a heroine who traditional feminist criticism would see as the oppressed, repressed, stifled, stymied victim of the Patriarchy – it is worth pointing out that Bertha never does a day’s work in her life.

Bertha lives her entire life off the labour of the workers on her father’s farms and estates, as does Miss Ley.

Both women live lives full of books and art and travel and galleries and fine feelings, their meals are cooked and served and cleared away by nameless faceless servants (we never learn the names of any of the Craddocks’ household servants or farm workers), their rooms are cleaned, their laundry is washed, trains run for them, boats sail for them, galleries open for them – without them ever lifting a finger to earn it.

They belong to the rentier class. They are social parasites. Edward works hard and is efficient and effective at transforming the fortunes of the Ley estate, at managing its livestock and agriculture, and joins local bodies like the parish council and freemasons, which he also runs with exemplary honesty and thoroughness. And for this – he is bitterly mocked by his wife:

Bertha soon found that her husband’s mind was not only commonplace, but common. His ignorance no longer seemed touching, but merely shameful; his prejudices no longer amusing but contemptible. She was indignant at having humbled herself so abjectly before a man of such narrowness of mind, of such insignificant character. She could not conceive how she had ever passionately loved him. He was bound in by the stupidest routine. It irritated her beyond measure to see the regularity with which he went through the varying processes of his toilet. She was indignant with his presumption, and self-satisfaction, and conscious rectitude. Edward’s taste was contemptible in books, in pictures, and in music; and his pretentions to judge upon such matters filled Bertha with scorn.

Books, art and music – that is how Bertha judges people, not for their character or dutifulness or patriotism or hard work. All these are rather ridiculous qualities in her eyes.

This scorn is echoed by young Gerald, himself the wastrel son of rich parents, who was kicked out of public school and has got his family’s housemaid pregnant.

On one occasion Edward comes up to see his wife during her stay with Miss Ley. After he has left, Gerald, the good-for-nothing idler, mocks solid, efficient, patriotic Edward Craddock to Miss Ley, who feebly defends him:

‘His locks are somewhat scanty but he has a strong sense of duty.’
‘I know that,’ shouted Gerald. ‘It oozes out of him whenever he gets hot, just like gum.’

This, one cannot help thinking, is all too often the attitude of high-minded writers and artists – regardless of gender or race – to the actual, physical, hard, demanding labour of making and maintaining the world; the smug condescension of the bookish toward those who do the daily necessary labour which makes their luxurious lives of fine feelings and deep thoughts and carefree travel possible.

Maugham pours so much feeling and sentiment and imagination and sympathy into hundreds of pages describing Bertha’s feelings and passions and thoughts and worries and fears and disillusion and unhappiness and despair – that it is easy to forget that she is a leech.

Plus ça change

Reading older literature, I am continually struck at the way that things which bothered the late-Victorians are still bothering us now. The status, roles and rights of women were exercising many of their best minds. Same now. And so was the problem of the poor, the homeless, and the huge inequalities in society. Same now.

But there are other, lesser issues, too, which made me think that some things really never change.

Railways For example, it was only last week that we were hearing about the Labour Party’s plans to renationalise the railways because, in private hands, the level of service given by the railways is shocking, and all the money they raise seems to end up as massive dividends for their shareholders. Well, here is what Maugham thought about British railways in 1902.

Though it was less than thirty miles from Dover to Blackstable the communications were so bad that it was necessary to wait for hours at the port, or take the boat-train to London and then come sixty miles down again. Bertha was exasperated at the delay, forgetting that she was now (thank Heaven!) in a free country, where the railways were not run for the convenience of passengers, but the passengers necessary evils to create dividends for an ill-managed company. (Chapter 23)

Brexit There’s a passage designed to contrast Edward’s narrow-minded Little Englandism and his simple patriotism with Bertha’s cultured cosmopolitanism and loathing of patriotic symbols (in this case, jingoistic late-Victorian music) which anticipates a lot of the rhetoric of Brexit. Manly if thick Edward is talking:

‘I don’t mind confessing that I can’t stand all this foreign music. What I say to Bertha is – why can’t you play English stuff?’
‘If you must play at all,’ interposed his wife.
‘After all’s said and done The Blue Bells of Scotland has got a tune about it that a fellow can get his teeth into.’
‘You see, there’s the difference,’ said Bertha, strumming a few bars of Rule Britannia, ‘it sets mine on edge.’
‘Well, I’m patriotic,’ retorted Edward. ‘I like the good, honest, homely English airs. I like ’em because they’re English. I’m not ashamed to say that for me the best piece of music that’s ever been written is God Save the Queen.’
‘Which was written by a German, dear Edward,’ said Miss Ley, smiling.
‘That’s as it may be,’ said Edward, unabashed, ‘but the sentiment’s English and that’s all I care about.’
‘Hear! hear!’ cried Bertha. ‘I believe Edward has aspirations towards a political career. I know I shall finish up as the wife of the local M.P.’
‘I’m patriotic,’ said Edward, ‘and I’m not ashamed to confess it.’
‘Rule Britannia,’ sang Bertha, ‘Britannia rules the waves, Britons never, never shall be slaves. Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay! Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!’
‘It’s the same everywhere now,’ proceeded the orator. ‘We’re choke full of foreigners and their goods. I think it’s scandalous. English music isn’t good enough for you – you get it from France and Germany. Where do you get your butter from? Brittany! Where d’you get your meat from? New Zealand!’ This he said with great scorn, and Bertha punctuated the observation with a resounding chord. ‘And as far as the butter goes, it isn’t butter – it’s margarine. Where does your bread come from? America. Your vegetables from Jersey.’
‘Your fish from the sea,’ interposed Bertha.
‘And so it is all along the line – the British farmer hasn’t got a chance!’ (Chapter 12)

Or again, Edward stoutly declares:

‘I’m quite content to be as I am, and I don’t want to know a single foreign language. English is quite good enough for me…. I think English people ought to stick to their own country. I don’t pretend to have read any French books, but I’ve never heard anybody deny, that at all events the great majority are indecent, and not the sort of thing a woman should read… What we want now is purity and reconstitution of the national life. I’m in favour of English morals, and English homes, English mothers, and English habits.’

Cosmopolitan contempt for Britain The cosmopolitan Miss Ley thinks there is something intrinsically pathetic about the English.

‘You’ve never had a London season, have you? On the whole I think it’s amusing: the opera is very good and sometimes you see people who are quite well dressed.’

To this day there is a broad streak of intellectual literary life which despises the English and worships the literature, climate, fashion and landscape of France or Italy.

Tourism When I went to Barcelona recently I couldn’t miss the graffiti everywhere telling tourists to go home and stop ruining their city. I’ve since read articles about other tourist destinations which are struggling to cope with the number of visitors. Back in 1902 Miss Ley shared this feeling that tourism was ruining everywhere, in this case Paris:

We have here a very nice apartment, in the Latin Quarter, away from the rich people and the tourists. I do not know which is more vulgar, the average tripper or the part of Paris which he infests: I must say they become one another to a nicety. I loathe the shoddiness of the boulevards, with their gaudy cafés over-gilt and over-sumptuous, and their crowds of ill-dressed foreigners. But if you come I can show you a different Paris – a restful and old-fashioned Paris, theatres to which tourists do not go; gardens full of pretty children and nursemaids with long ribbons to their caps. I can take you down innumerable grey streets with funny shops, in old churches where you see people actually praying; and it is all very quiet and calming to the nerves. And I can take you to the Louvre at hours when there are few visitors…

Infest! She says tourists infest parts of Paris. If she had been describing immigrants, the book would be banned.

Politicians are idiots In a funny scene Edward stands for election to the local council and makes a speech riddled with pompous expressions, bad jokes, stories which disappointingly taper off, but still manages to end with rousingly jingoistic rhetoric.

Bertha is more ashamed and embarrassed than she’s ever been in her life by its simple-minded idiocy. But the speech is greeted with wild applause and Edward is elected by a landslide. People, Bertha concludes, are idiots. And the biggest idiots of all are running the country.

There is nothing so difficult as to persuade men that they are not omniscient. Bertha, exaggerating the seriousness of the affair, thought it charlatanry [of Edward] to undertake a post without knowledge and without capacity. Fortunately that is not the opinion of the majority, or the government of this enlightened country could not proceed.

Throughout the book the reader finds the same tone, and the same arguments, applied to the same ‘issues’ that we are still discussing and arguing about, 120 years later. Many superficial details change – but arguments about the rights of women, the idiocy of politicians, the rubbish train system, the philistine patriotism and the snooty snobbery of the book and art world – all of this remains the same as ever.

Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson (1992)

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.

The plot

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.

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

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)

Rhetorical questions

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.’

Word play

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)

Learnèd tags

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…

Learnèd vocabulary

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.

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)


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.

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 – 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 –

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.


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…


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.


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.


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

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’.


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.


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

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.


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)


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.


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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