Mother’s Boy by Howard Jacobson review – a captivatingly melodramatic memoir

The writer’s account of his tortured journey to adulthood is wildly lacking in proportion, and all the better for it

Can you die of not writing a novel, asks Howard Jacobson towards the end of this memoir of his tortured journey towards doing precisely that. The question is posed partly by his present self, who has turned out 16 of them and a clutch of nonfiction books besides, and partly by the grotesquely frustrated, shamefully underachieving, semi-employed polytechnic lecturer who somehow couldn’t kickstart himself into doing the thing – perhaps the only thing – he felt was worth doing. He was 40 before his first novel, Coming from Behind, was published, and it had taken a weird, alchemical alignment of circumstances and catalysts to get there, culminating in a disastrous honeymoon that made way for inspiration, “beckoning derisively, not with the elegantly shaped arms of the classical muses, reaching out through gold-edged clouds, but with the gnarled, crooked fingers – as though from some disreputable alley – of low, self-disgusted mirth”.

You will gather already that this is not a book filled with writerly confidences of the sort that might even be taken as exemplary or advisory. It is not concerned with the business of going calmly to your desk each morning and getting something down; of treating the enterprise as a job like any other, and of keeping a sense of proportion. The reverse, in fact. This is a book wildly lacking in proportion: melodramatic, simultaneously self-aggrandising and self-abasing, filled with fear, shame, anger, failure and the occasional triumph. There are many references to weeping. If you like that sort of thing – and, if you like Jacobson’s novels, you presumably do – it is utterly captivating. If you don’t, read something else, because it will enrage you.

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