J by Howard Jacobson (Originally published: August 14, 2014, 326 pp., publisher: Jonathan Cape)

Sometimes a novel just flummoxes me. I have tried my best to get to grips with “J” by Howard Jacobson, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but the novel made me feel vaguely worried and confused while I was reading it. That was probably the author’s intention, since those sort of feelings drove him to write it. It is set in a Britain of the near future, at a time after a calamitous global event. This event is called “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” or “Twitternacht” (with reference to “Kristallnacht” and Twitter.) As a result of this event, many people got killed, or were forced to move to other countries or back where they came from; everybody got given random, different names (oddly spelled), social media was banned and art was reduced to inoffensive, pleasing aesthetics so as not to arouse any extreme emotions ever again. The protagonists are “Kevern”, a carver of  Welsh love spoons, and his lover, “Ailinn”. Jacobson tells the story from various people’s viewpoints, and at first the different strands of the story seem to be unconnected and hard to follow. People spy on other people, one changes his accent back and forth, others act like creepy watchdogs. It makes the novel really hard to get through. Actually, nothing much happens – other than a murder or two, dealt with brusquely. The decisive points, if any, are small – sometimes a mere few lines. If you don’t pay attention you’ll miss them. One such is that Kevern has some obsessive habits. He checks his front door three times to see if it is locked, and he peers through his letter box to make sure that the runner in his hallway is still rumpled, as he had left it. One day, he comes back home and finds that someone has been in his cottage – and his lifestyle has been discovered. It is easy to threaten or  scare someone in this new world, which is a bit like George Orwell’s 1984, with people playing “Big Brother”. The end result is predictably tragic.

Equilibrium of hate

The novel is philosophical in the sense that the characters have long musings on the meaning of life and about WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. The problem that the characters get tied up in, is that, effectively, the country has been left without an enemy. It’s the job of government official, “Esme” or “Ez”, to “restore the nation’s equilibrium of hate”. (p.280). Esme goes from orphanage to orphanage to identify a suitable debased and despised group of people to become the next target for the nation’s pent-up hatred and fury, that is being expressed in aggression and murder. Failing to have the usual opposition, or different thinkers, or people of other religious, or who don’t look like they do (all those who were gotten rid of during WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED), to measure themselves against, the nation has turned on itself. Esme’s job is to correct this. What she finds in one orphanage is Ailinn, the offspring of a mother and a daughter who both abandoned their babies. In stead of finding an in-bred-looking person (as Ez puts it, with low-hanging ears, lop-sided head and drooling lips) which she expected from a banned and reviled religious institution like an orphanage,  Esme finds the beautiful Ailinn.

Kevern discovers that his grandparents and parents were persecuted for being different. His grandfather was hunchbacked, and his mother was a painter of self-expressionist, “degenerate” art. His parents lived quietly, trying to be invisible to others, and taught Kevern to do the same – be quiet, don’t stand out, don’t go to London, whatever you do. People thought of them as not much better than vermin. When those facts emerge, Kevern and Aillin question their relationship and their reason for existence:

“‘What do we look like to them, is what I’m asking. Vermin?’
‘Oh, Kevern!’
Oh, Kevern what? Oh, Kevern, don’t be so extreme. Do you think I could ever outdo in extremity those who did what they did? But to understand how they could ever do it requires us to see what they saw, or at least to imagine what they saw.’
‘Maybe they didn’t see anything. Maybe they still don’t. Has it occurred to you that we just aren’t there for them?’
Just! That’s a mighty big “just”, Ailinn. I think I’d rather be vermin than “just” not there. And even if you’re right, it still takes some explaining. How do you make a fellow mortal not there? What’s the trick of seeing right through someone? An indifference on that scale is nothing short of apocalyptic – or it is when it comes to getting rid of the thing you don’t see, going to pains to obliterate what isn’t there. But I don’t think you’re right anyway. I think they must see something, the embodiment of a horrible idea, the fleshing out of an evil principle that’s been talked about and written about for too long, mouldy like something that’s crawled out of its own grave.’” (p.298)

There is a lot of this type of conversation and internal dialogue in the book, and it makes the reader long for a break, or a resolution. Will Ailinn (Solomons) and Kevern (Cohen) live happily ever after or will they end up as the poster children for the nation’s venom? Read it and find out.

Flummoxed by a J

One of the peculiarities of the book which may make it Speculative Fiction, is that “j” of the title.

The “j” is not a “j”, as in the modern Roman alphabet. It is the letter “j”, with a double-crossed stem, or upright part. Kevern’s father loved jazz, which was banned, and had a secret stash of records. When Kevern refers to certain things related to his father, like jazz, Jacobson introduces the double-crossed “j”. I have tried my best to identify the type of letter, and, like the writing form that China Miéville invented for his novel “Embassytown”, this letter form may be imaginary.

Kevern’s father said his “j”s in a certain way, by sort of whistling it through two fingers, and those words are spelled with this peculiar letter:

Extract showing the form of the letter J in upper and lower case in “J”, by Howard Jacobson.

Some phonetic guides refer to this as an archaic phonetic symbol for a palatoalveolar affricate – in other words, a kind of whistling or breathy sound. Others say that the “j”, at least the ones with a single-crossed stem, may typographically be a turned “f”, or an “I”, or a form of a “j” in Medieval forms of English. The “j” with one line through it, is the “gy” in Hungarian orthography and this type of variation of the letter is common in Eastern European languages, like that spoken by the early Hungarian Magyar people. Historically, the proto-languages used in Eastern Europe developed to form English as we know it today. So this might be an extremely ancient form of the letter, as the chart below shows. Another link with the European forebears of English is that the “j” is sometimes represented with a double-crossed stem in Gothic-style German. The font called “Wilhelm Klingspor Schrift” (initially conceived as “Missal Schrift”, and later referred to also as “Wilhelm Klingspor Gotisch”) was designed by Rudolf Koch between 1919 and 1925 for the Gebrüder Klingspor Type Foundry in Offenbach am Main in Germany, and is a throwback to late Medieval period Gothic-style script. (The particular “j” is shown in the banner of this page.)

Whatever the explanation, and I’m sure Jacobson has one, the odd “j” gives a sense of alienation and strangeness to Kevern’s thoughts and language. Jacobson seems to use it randomly – on the same page one word beginning with “j” would be spelled normally, while a few lines further on, another word with “j” would have the double-crossed stem.

It must’ve been a challenge for the publishers, since the title page of the book just has the title as “J”.

A double-crossing “J”

I have tried to find phonological and typographical explanations for Jacobson’s use the that “j”. But there is a more simple, but more depressing explanation:

The double-crossed “j” on the cover of the book is a symbol for a “double-crossing Jew”.  In a recent, alarming story in The Atlantic, the current resurgence of violent anti-semitism in Europe, and Jacobson’s feelings about that, are discussed. In particular, “…another man, of Sudanese background, explained that the Koran itself warns Muslims to fear double-crossing by Jews.” The article talks about anti-Semitism from people from all walks of life, other religions, and many countries, towards Jews, and the fact that history, particularly that of Germany in the 1930s and during World War II, is repeating itself. Kevern and Ailinn have both been given Jewish-sounding surnames – but those were randomly assigned. What makes them outcasts is also what makes them “Jewish” – the target for the “equilibrium of hate” that Esme is searching for.

However, that being said: Nowhere in the novel is it stated outright that the “enemy” – or those that suffered during “Twitternacht” – are specifically Jews. The novel is vague in many respects, leaving a lot to the imagination of the reader.

The passages in between chapters describe the kind of persecution and horror that the losing side in WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED were subjected to. Specifically, the descriptions of families being split up and put on trains ring bells of WWII Germany. As Jacobson himself explained about his emotions while writing the book: “I felt as if I was writing out of dread.”

Jacobson speaks of his “inchoate but ever-present sense of anxiety” which drove him to write the book. That is what I felt while I was reading it – a nameless but constant sense of anxiety. I knew something ghastly would happen, and I just wanted to get to the end of it. It’s not that getting to the end is not worthy of appreciation – rather the opposite. Jacobson is an acclaimed writer, and a very clever, expert one at that. Even so, it was difficult to get through such a drawn-out depiction of melancholy, with not even a smidgen of humour, nor any beauty. Even Kevern and Ailinn’s relationship is fractious and tense.

Read it by all means – but bear in mind; Jacobson is an angry man. He has a lot to be angry at, living, as he does, in the U.K. He has just published Pussy: a novel (Cape, April 13, 2017), which is a satire on Donald Trump’s election victory. Judging by the cover, it is even more furious, darker and more prophetic than “J”, even though it’s marketed as a funny fairytale.

About the author

Howard Jacobson hardly needs an introduction. Jacobson has described himself as “a Jewish Jane Austen” (in response to being described as “the English Philip Roth”). (Brown, Mark, Howard Jacobson wins Booker prize 2010 for The Finkler Question”The Guardian. Rtrvd. 2017-04-21)

He has also stated – and this quote is found in many places on the Internet: “I’m not by any means conventionally Jewish. I don’t go to shul. What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence. I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past. I don’t know what kind of trouble this gets somebody into, a disputatious mind. What a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that’s what shapes the Jewish sense of humour, that’s what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness.” He maintains that “comedy is a very important part of what I do.”

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