Howard Jacobson's first novel, Coming from Behind, was published last year, and made one think that a new exponent of the comic academic narrative had arrived. Jacobson's hero, Sefton Goldberg, Jewish and highly suspicious of his Gentile surroundings, is aggressive towards the literature he's supposed to be teaching, to a degree that makes Leavis seem like a nice auntie. He's also racked by consciousness of his own literary failure. To his misery, he finds himself stranded in Wrottesley Poly, where the enfeebled Liberal Studies department is threatened with a twinning with the local football club in order to revamp its decaying image. Goldberg sits in his office, envying the World Out There, which he imagines in the form of a mansion in Hampstead called Bradbury Lodge, where celebrated writers meet to have a good laugh at his expense. Meanwhile he puts down his own hopelessness as a littérateur to his incompetence in the matter of Nature. It seems to him that all Eng Lit is really about country walks, so 'what the fuck did it have to do with Sefton Goldberg who was Jewish and who had therefore never taken a country walk in his life?' Wrottesley Poly, however, is as much Tom Sharpe territory as a part of the Amis-Bradbury-Lodge world, and it is in the matter of comic plotting that Coming from Behind seemed to me to fail. Jacobson's portrayal of Goldberg is flawless, but he seems to have little idea what to do with him, and the book tails off without any great comic debacle. One therefore turns to Jacobson's second novel in the hope that he may have learnt something about construction.
LRB 15 November 1984 | PDF Download