Live a Little

Howard Jacobson

Jonathan Cape, £18.99

IF you’re to believe this novel, North London’s elderly folk live in a world of their own, a parallel, almost invisible universe to the place where the young and middle aged exist. As depicted by Man Booker prizewinner Howard Jacobson, this senescent realm is a competitive country, where a coterie of lonely but well-off widows is on the prowl for men.

The one who currently interests them is Shimi Carmelli, a self-effacing Jew in his early 90s. As well as being dapper, and “the last man able to do up his own buttons”, he has an alluring air of mystery. Punctiliously polite, he is a card reader and fortune teller. More than one of these valiant and stylish widows, who refuse to go quietly into decrepitude, hopes her future will include him. None of them cares that he walks and talks slowly: “It is not agility they admire these days. It is forethought.” They might be less fascinated if they knew the secret behind his self-imposed solitude.

Shimi rents a dismal room above a Chinese restaurant, where he nightly tells fortunes in return for dinner. Nearby lives Beryl Dusinbery, even older than he. Although she is slowly losing her memory she retains much of the personality, vigour and spleen of her more youthful days, when she was a magnificent and alarming lover and mother. Tended by a kindly African carer, Euphoria, whom it is Beryl’s pleasure to taunt and bewilder, and a sarcastic Russian, Nastya, who is less easily daunted, Beryl spends her days stitching nasty messages on samplers:

“He was born without fuss and died without fuss, slipping out of life like an oyster down an open throat. ‘That wasn’t so difficult,’ he said, and expired. No one was listening.” As she picks out her embroidery threads, she haphazardly recalls her four sons, and the boyfriends and husbands around whose arrivals and departures her life has been arranged. Thanks to creeping age, it is not a scientific exercise, the fog of amnesia casting doubt where once there had been assurance. She enjoyed telling her Tory son that she slept with Bill Clinton, and lied to her Socialist son that she had had sex with Reagan: “Unless she did sleep with Reagan.” But there is one thing she cannot ever forget: “she has been a horrible woman all her life”.

Jacobson is renowned for his bittersweet humour, his dark and sardonically comic world view. As with so many Jewish novelists, he could never be mistaken for a sunbeam. Earlier works have often been preoccupied with Jewishness, but here, although Shimi was born into the faith, he was rebuked by his father when referring to “our people”. The preoccupations of Live a Little are more about being human, and fatally flawed. Shimi is defined by shame, as his name hints, Beryl by offering less love than was required. Entering a period in their lives when the clock is all but run down, this couple are close to eternity or whatever lies ahead. There is no time to fool themselves about who and what they are, or have done. As a result the predominant note is not wistfulness or regret, but a bracing, refreshing astringency.

When eventually Jacobson engineers a meeting between them – mirroring the lateness in their lives – their dialogue is bracing. No prisoners are taken, no cant is tolerated, and as a result each can breath easy. It is to Beryl, in her wheelchair, that Shimi confesses the moment from which he has never recovered: being discovered trying on his mother’s bloomers. That childish exercise has warped everything that followed: his lack of compassion when his mother lay dying while he was still a boy, his inability to have sexual relationships, except of the paid variety, the cavernous gulf that opened, after their mother’s death, between him and his younger, more loveable brother Ephraim.

As the social circle of North London pensioners revs into gear around Shimi, promising a whirlwind finale, his almost cantankerous bond with Beryl deepens. Each is harrowed by loss, and the sense of where they have fallen short. In Jacobson’s gnarled hands, there is no room for self-pity in this almost merciless depiction of age and its terrors. As a result, Live a Little is airless, claustrophobically intense.

Famously, Jacobson once called himself “the Jewish Jane Austen”, a riposte to being likened too often to Philip Roth. Here, however, there is more than an echo of Anita Brookner in the dreary bedsit Londoner’s existence, the crawling hours of the elderly’s formless day, the pitiless physical humiliations that come with age, and the paralysing lack of company, when all that remains for consolation is recalling the past.

For Shimi, of course, that is a dangerous pursuit. Since the incident with the bloomers, he has forgotten nothing. There is, in fact, a term for his condition: selective morbid hyperthymesia. As he knows to his cost, “You can shuffle memory like a pack of cards and the things you don’t want to remember always come out on top.”

Live a Little is an angry book, as well as tartly funny and audacious. It needs more than one reading for its full meaning to be mined, and its literary, historical and political references grasped. So too the hard-hitting barbs, Jacobson’s aphorisms memorably punctuating the plot. This is an unflinching portrait of great old age, the lonely shore on which this pair are beached, awaiting the wave that will carry them away. A novel of ideas rather than style, the writing is not always lovely, though it is never less than powerful. Conversations are brittle and arch, as if intended to be understood more as a morality play than as kitchen sink realism, and the effect carries a punch.

In precis, the bare bones of this novel appear to be cruel, and on one level is it the most unforgiving of stories. On another, as the resolution approaches, it is generous. It bears out Shimi’s suspicion that “you should never suppose you know the story of your life until it’s over”. It also shows that being given permission to forgive – or at least tolerate – oneself can bring comfort and joy, even as you wait for the last bus.