Jacobson, who won the Booker Prize in 2010 for his novel The Finkler Question, about identity and male friendship, is an established chronicler of the lives, loves and libidos of the British Jewish community whether in the north of England (he’s a Mancunian) or north London. His exceedingly funny and discursive prose style often belies more serious observations on life, as is the case here.
It often reads more like a fable or a gentle attempt at magical realism, not least because some of the characterisations are thin. When Jacobson writes dialogue for Beryl’s Eastern European carer, Nastya, it comes across like one of those anonymous letters in an Agatha Christie novel in which the writer is pretending to be ill-educated, yet has to make his point laboriously clear at the same time.
But, as always in a Jacobson novel, the characters primarily exist as a support mechanism for the nimble, chewy sentences, and there is writing to relish on every page. There is also a pleasing sense of the author being infected by his story’s optimism against his will, nuggets of positivity breaking through his bleak carapace.
‘He climbed into his mother’s bloomers and tumbled into hell.’ - Let’s pause to consider the comic elegance and precision of that sentence. I think it’s fair to say that only Howard Jacobson could have written it, and not just because of the subject matter (I can’t help feeling that he’s not the first Jacobson character to have done this; there is at least a sense of inevitability that one of them, one day, would). Just look at the way he makes the English language dance for us, those Ls, those Bs, those BLs... This, I think, is the core of the novel: it’s actually as much about language and linguistic deftness as it is about the human heart (I suspect Jacobson might say that language and the human heart are extremely adjacent). Some novels — especially those that verge on the incident-free, such as this one — can go off the boil in the reader’s head: yes, I get it, we say to ourselves. Live a Little actually gathers pace as it goes along, the characters, as they converse, striking sparks off one another... This is a novel rich in correspondences, and also in wisdom, and a kind of audacity.
The wit and energy of this novel and its population of well-to-do elderly people bring to mind Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori. And as in that masterpiece, Howard Jacobson’s characters, far from being moribund, are as vivacious and boisterous as his writing... Jacobson writes with such eloquence that this reader/writer needed to consult the dictionary several times, but his use of language is never pompous or self-conscious; his words are always the perfect ones. Indeed, his writing is so dense and cleverly packed with wit that Live a Little deserves a second reading. This is a tender, irreverent and extremely funny novel. Jacobson feels that the joy of making art has no equal, and you can sense the pure enjoyment of his writing in every one of his clever sentences.
Jacobson, now 76, is not one to let the catastrophe of old age get in the way of a good laugh, or a surprisingly tender love story. After a pair of dutiful political allegories — J (2014) and Pussy (2017) — he has found his comic voice again with a shrewdly observed jeu d’esprit about creeping senectitude and blossoming romance...Live a Little has its flaws. It sags in the middle, only picking up once our protagonists meet...However, there is a truth and beauty to the connection between Beryl and Shimi. The book is alive. It pulses with warmth and intelligence, and, unusually for a novel about old age, it has a lot of style.
Jacobson has fun with Beryl, who attributes her sons’ successful careers to her negligent mothering and reckons herself to be a great beauty: “I can tell you the second man to marry me fainted when he saw me coming towards him in my wedding gown and tiara. It took half an hour to bring him round.”
Jacobson has clearly done half a lifetime of looking at the streets in which Shimi wanders and through which Beryl is driven. One of the many joys of this book is the way it effortlessly captures the distinctive atmosphere of Finchley Road itself, a dual carriageway that is punctuated with outsize supermarkets but retains the ghosts of a 1950s high street. Beryl lives in a red-brick mansion block, Shimi above the Fing Ho Chinese Banquet Restaurant, one of those stubborn eateries that have resisted change long enough to become institutions.
Jacobson uses this cityscape to reinforce the understanding that both Beryl and Shimi rail against in different and quietly heroic ways: that ultimately we are not given a choice what our sadistic memory has us remember – unless, that is, we find some new neural pathways to wander along in the present.
But the characterisation of the leads is superb: Shimi the tortured antihero might have been written by Saul Bellow, and Beryl is an extraordinarily rich and sympathetic figure, full of life-force and humour and commanding authority layered over a deep-seated self-doubt. Jacobson’s prose is nimble and elegant. The message this novel contains is a simple, affecting one, about the capacity to determine one’s future, no matter how late. Beryl writes and embroiders not just to remember, but “impetuously, not to lose the urgency of living in the present”. “My life is how I describe it,” she says, “and I haven’t finished describing it yet.”
Howard Jacobson’s new novel, set in London, centres on Beryl, a haughty dementia sufferer looking back acidly over her eventful love life with her carers, Euphoria, from Uganda, and Nastye, from Moldova.
It’s a scenario ripe for the ribald mishearing comedy Jacobson favours, but gags mixing up (say) Moldova’s capital Chisinau with West London’s Chiswick feel pretty effortful, and he feels over-reliant on ranty, 90-something Beryl for off-colour, anti-PC tang.
Above all, Jacobson writes with compassion about the ageing process. There is a terrible poignancy to much of what his characters experience. The shame that Shimi has suffered since childhood is added to in old age by the sense of embarrassment caused by his increasingly unreliable bladder. His forays outside his flat are necessarily restricted by the constant need to be near a toilet and he has used his prodigious powers of recall to memorise the location of all the public loos in his area.
That’s not to say that Live a Little isn’t a thoroughly enjoyable read. For a literature snob and a language obsessive (guilty as charged), there is a lot to feast on; but for someone looking for an emotionally honest storyline, the book also delivers. Live a Little is about growing old, but it’s also about gender, race, love and politics, penned in a playful, genuine, sometimes borderline offensive way, that is at times reminiscent of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or On Beauty. Many of its more tender examinations of old age also bring to mind the best parts of Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, a chronically underrated novel.
Live a Little is a meander of a novel that nonetheless feels urgent – not least because one fears either of its two central characters might keel over at any point. But for all its moments of bleakness, and the occasional flicker of genuine terror, it’s rarely less than bitterly funny in its determination to face up to the obliteration that awaits us all.