on 21 March 2011
I read somewhere that Jacobson himself said of 'Kalooki Nights' that it was 'the most Jewish book ever written by anybody anywhere'. Jacobsonian tongue in cheek hyperbole notwithstanding, I agree.
I see that A C Grayling ranks the book as genius. I agree with this too. But I don't think he's Jewish? Simon Schama (who is Jewish) says 'you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy this book - just human'. But I would imagine that you do need to have one helluva lot of insider Jewish knowlege, not to mention experience, to really get all of what's going on here fully.
Jacobson recently appeared on the Sky Arts book show apropos winning the Booker for 'The Finkler Question'. (Which is a very Jewish book too, but still not as much as this one, actually.) Frostrup asked, so what is Jewishness? (Or something similar.) HJ replied 'I don't know what Jewishness is' (or something similar). Well, in Kalooki, the main character is a cartoonist. Let's say for argument's sake that there's a lot of HJ in Max Glickman, the cartoonist. And at one point Maxie says of cartooning 'it's an irresponsible affair, not to be taken too seriously'. HJ's response to Frostrup is a case in point. If anyone knows Jewishness inside out it's HJ. Kalooki is a brilliant read - hilarious at times, profoundly poignant at others. It is also a compendium of Jewishness. There is nothing that is Jewish that is not in this book.
Here's another sample of this irresponsible (mischievous?) tendency: Frostrup asked why he considered himself to be the Jewish Jane Austen. (As he has famously said.) His response: 'Well, no, what I mean is the male Jane Austen'. So an arresting and cheeky remark tossed out without too much honing of the intent, folllowed by a quick retraction when challenged.
Some reviewers here have found the book boring or rambling, and even given up. Michael Bywater, reviewing 'The Making of Henry' wrote: 'You don't read Jacobson to find out what happens next. You read him to find out what's said next'. Exactly. Page for page, line for line, sheer rambling brilliance. The storyline could be summed up in a minute. It's a dazzling outpouring of language deployed with wit and intelligence and imagination. (And humour.) Or if you prefer, a very long series of sketches - when I met chloe; when I dined out with Mick; when I understood why uncle Ike sang Barnacle Bill; when I met Manny for the first time after he was released etc.
I sometimes wonder what is HJ playing at, toying with the gentile readership in full view the way he does. Here's a conversation Max has with his boyhood friend Errol:
Errol: Tell me something, he said at last, do you ever worry what the goyim think?
Max: In what sense? Do I worry that they miss the joke? Of course they miss the joke. They're goyim.
Errol: I don't mean that. I mean do you ever worry that you're telling them too much about us?
Max: What, by blowing the lid on what we're like? You think they don't know? My position, Errol, is they managed to detest and fear us well enough before I came along.
So for Jews, another 5 Jewish stars read, for non-Jews, may be enjoyable ... on the other hand ...
on 21 August 2006
I'm a long-time fan of Howard Jacobson's and have enjoyed his last four novels: No More Mister Nice Guy, The Mighty Walzer, Who's Sorry Now? and The Making of Henry. So when Kalooki Nights was published and seemed to achieve a sort of critical consensus in the papers (see the reviews extracted above, as well as A.C. Grayling's extraordinary eulogy in The Times: "it is, to state plainly, a work of genius"), I couldn't wait to read it. Then it was longlisted for the Booker Prize last week, and quickly was tipped for the shortlist.
So it gives me no pleasure at all to say that I have given up on Kalooki Nights at about the one-third mark (page 150). Even by Jacobson's discursive, rambling standards it really is toweringly random and in the end the critic I most agreed with is Michael Moorcock who said "Jacobson is a great anecdotalist but a lousy storyteller." Now anyone who reads Jacobson knows that the plot is not the point: but even so. There is less a story than an exploration around a story: specifically, the narrator Maxie Glickman trying to discover why his childhood friend Manny Washinsky gassed both his own parents in their bed. The cultural background, if you hadn't guessed by the names, is Jewish, or Jewish squared: as Jacobson himself said, "it's the most Jewish novel ever written by anyone anywhere." This will be familiar to anyone who's read any of Jacobson's other novels (particularly the semi-autobiographical coming of age story The Mighty Walzer), and here we have the added colour of the big Jewish storyline of the 20th century - the Holocaust.
Sadly for me Jacobson's black humour and tangential style didn't work here the way it has in his other books, and I'm afraid I found Kalooki Nights tiresome almost from the outset: which can't be a good sign. Jacobson is still excellent on families, and still even better on capturing on the page the erotic allure of an older woman, but the book never really took off for me. His previous novel, The Making of Henry, had a terrific 30-page opening scene which gave the reader enough momentum to push through the occasional longueurs afterwards, but Kalooki Nights begins as it goes on: in bits, back and forward, here and there, never picking up speed. Can a book be simultaneously very well written and extremely dull? Well, the evidence of Joyce, Proust, Beckett and Bellow is that yes it can, and indeed can go on to be considered a classic too. So good luck to Jacobson with that: perhaps it's more Nobel (ie difficult and unrewarding) than Booker.
If Kalooki Nights gets onto the Booker shortlist then (a) it can only be as a lifetime-achievement type prize, a little like Ian McEwan's win for the middling Amsterdam, and (b) a lot of people who buy it as their first Jacobson will be put off him for good. Better to begin with No More Mister Nice Guy (a brilliantly funny sex comedy) or Who's Sorry Now? (which was longlisted for the Booker in 2002, should have got further, and didn't).
Kalooki Nights is a loosely biographical story of Maxie Glickman, a post-war Mancunian Jew.
The central theme seems to centre around victimhood and minority identity when the witchhunt moves elsewhere. Maxie and his schoolfriends soon learn deep anger at the treatment of the Jews in the war and exert enormous energy hating the war criminals. To justify their anger at events they never witnessed, they hunt for antisemitism in all around them. When they don't succeed, they seem to annoy others in order to provike reactions that can be seen as anti-semitism. This is exemplified in Maxies choice of wives and girlfriends, most of whom are anodyne at best but provoked into reaction against Maxie's constant self-pity and reference back to Jewsih themes. There is an amusing contrast on display in the form of Maxie's sister's man - an Irishman (sorry, the name escapes me), who is very eager to learn Jewish ways and frustrated when he never quite succeeds.
This is an interesting premise - how do members of an oppressed minority react when the oppression stops. Do members integrate with the whole, as some characters do; or do they continue to act the role of the victim, becoming increasingly frustrated as sympathy evaporates? But the premise might have been brought to denouement in half the number of pages. Although Kalooki Nights did have moments of humour in the early encounters, it became repetitive and dull. Not even the intrigue about Maxie's friend Manny (who had gassed his parents) was enough to sustain interest. I did read on to the bitter end (and there was much bitterness to be got through in the process), but I'm not sure it repaid the effort.
Other reviewers of the book appear to have had a similar reaction to mine--this book is just too long. Like Zadie Smith's rambling and unfocused On Beauty, Kalooki Nights is another example of an author in desperate need of an editor. The book might have been far more interesting if 200 or so pages were knocked off it. There is always a lovely edge of anger and frustration in Jacobson's characters, but for some reason Maxie's self-loathing is less interesting than previous Jacobson creations and his expressions of it are so repetitive that the edge is worn off long before you get to the end of the book. Manny's story on the surface is an intriguing and potentially offensive one, but it somehow fails to be as subversive as one would assume it to be. Jonathan Safran Foer's comparison of Jacobson to Phillip Roth on the back cover is ridiculous: Roth's recent work seethes and rages with a frightening intensity, whilst his earlier work is sharply self-loathing and precise (i.e not 500 pages). I always have thought of Jacobson as a very different sort of writer--his characters express intense frustrations in a more subtly comic way than in great intense bursts. I think Kalooki Nights was meant to be a "big" book in terms of its subject matter, but in some ways it is only a big book in terms of the number of pages.
on 22 March 2011
I've not read Kiran Desai's 2006 novel 'The Inheritance of Loss', so I'm unqualified to say whether it deserved to beat 'Kalooki Nights' to not only the Booker shortlist but the prize itself. All I *can* say is that 'Kalooki Nights' is, indeed, better than 'The Finkler Question', the novel with which Howard Jacobson eventually nabbed the Booker and a little bit of long overdue attention.
Yes, it has the same rambling, anecdotal style which Jacobson's critics hate; yes, if you're a gentile with little or no experience of Jewish culture you might find yourself a little lost amongst the shtetls, shiksahs, schmucks and schlemiels; but this is, I think, the more focused novel, plunging that little bit deeper into the modern, British-Jewish psyche than its follow-up.
For a novel which explores some very dark and troubling themes and subject matter, it's often side-splittingly, laugh-out-loud funny (in a way which 'Finkler', aside from "the facepaint incident", isn't), and even its most oblique or eccentric characters are sympathetic and sometimes endearing.
Don't get me wrong... I loved 'The Finkler Question', and if you want to read an entertaining satire on contemporary (as in bang-up-to-date) Jewish life in Britain, you should read it ASAP. But 'Kalooki Nights' is, I think, a better demonstration of Jacobson's skill as a writer and as a story teller.
I've heard a great many readers of 'Finkler' who are first time readers of Jacobson's work complain that it wasn't what they were expecting. They were expecting a novel that had more substance, more jokes, more engaging characters. The book they may have been expecting was, I believe, 'Kalooki Nights'. But don't take my word for it... Read both!
on 6 June 2015
A rewarding, intriguing and thought-provoking read, and probably in its way a great novel.
"In its way" is not supposed to imply limitation to the word "great", although the challenges of a book that does not, I think, aim for perfection (in the sense, for example, of symmetry) of form are many. The narratives are meant to be personal and individual acts of remembrance and/or research by the central figure, Max. That brings with it a (deliberate) freedom to digress, and sometimes the digression will seem random and even self-indulgent until its relevance to the main plot or themes emerges.
There is an almost picaresque sense of energy and volatility in some of the subsidiary episodes and characters, bordering on the grotesque, which, given Max's calling - he is a cartoonist - is entirely appropriate. That a grotesque character like Tsedraiter Ike should end up - for all his apparent oddness, stubbornness and anti-social eccentricity - finding love, and successfully concealing that from his family, is but one of many instances in the novel where the reader is confronted by the impenetrability of the human soul. Given that we know so little of each other's inner lives and motivations, then how should we expect to be able to understand the twists and turns of human history, with its moments of glory and its boundless horrors?
Difficult to do justice to this vastly thought-provoking book which now I like even more, after a third reading, than I did on first reading it several years back. To plumb the depths of evil is an achievement for any author, but to do so by means of an approach which is often unashamedly frivolous and playful is a striking and curious achievement.
This is not a forgettable novel. Strongly recommended.
on 9 August 2010
Contrary to most reviewers here, I was hooked from the start. The idea of a hetersexual middle-aged Jewish cartoonist having trouble with drawing for gay men (he couldn't get the straining glans penis in the denim right) is plain funny, especially when adorned with Mr. Jacobson's multifarious paradoxes & juxtapositions.
The joke prefacing the opening is good too.
And I was interested in all his characters; Jews or Gentiles, they were all recognisable, both good & bad - & good & bad for a reason.
I laughed, I cried. (Any man who has a daughter & doesn't cry at Book 1, chapter 8 ... well ...). I was horrified, entertained, sometimes even, ahem, aroused, but never, never bored.
Yes, it's a very Jewish book, but it's a book about people first & foremost.
There are better constructed books out there, absolutely, but few of them tell us as much about ourselves as this one.
And no, I'm not Jewish.
on 31 May 2011
It's hard to disagree with the criticisms other reviewers have made. Yes, it's at least 100 pages too long, and only about half a dozen of those pages don't mention 'Jews' or 'Jewishness'. The narrator himself is a fairly hollow construct with little emotional depth. But I did start to fall into the rhythm of the book after a while, and ended up rather enjoying it.
There's no question that Jacobson is a talented writer, and I do find him amusing (up to a point - he's probably not quite as clever as he thinks he is). There is, actually, quite a compelling story in here about Manny, his brother Asher, their parents and Dorothy. Ultimately I think that's what kept me reading - I really did wanted to know how it played out, and it was satisfying enough that I didn't feel as though I'd wasted my time. I believe Jacobson's endless diversions and digressions on the subjects of the Holocaust, cartoons, kalooki, etc are a deliberate strategy to make you work for the outcome. And by the end - I did feel as though I'd worked hard - and it was worth it. Just about.
Kalooki Nights by the English novelist Howard Jacobson tells a story of an English Jewish community in Manchester, England in the years following WW II. The chief protagonist is the narrator, Max Glickman, a cartoonist who has had three wives, two non-Jewish and anti-semitic, and one Jewish, who also endeavors to loosen Judaism's hold on Max. Max's father was an aspiring boxer who became an atheist and tries to give both Max and his other child, his daughter Shani, a secular life. Shani marries a non-Jewish man in what proves to be a successful relationship. Max's mother is an inveterate player of a card game called Kalooki, with a group of other Jewish women.
The book recounts Max's relationship with his childhood friend Manny Washinsky. Unlike Max, Manny was raised in an orthodox household. Manny teaches Max of the horrors of the Holocaust. When Max's older brother becomes romantically involved with a non-Jewish woman and the parents do everything in their power to terminate the relationship, Max ultimately gasses them to death in their bed and spends many years in prision. Years later Max and Manny meet again, when an anti-semitic television producer hires Max to do research on a story about Manny.
In many ways, this book is a cross between "Portnoy's Complaint" and other early books by Philip Roth and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay", the story of two American Jewish cartoonists, by Michael Chabon. The book has as some of its themes the tension between secularism and traditional religiosity as options for modern Jews, the Holocaust and its impact on Jewish life and belief, and the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, particularly as the relationships involve sexuality and intimacy.
The book is funny in many places and insightful in some. But it is told in a blustery, wandering, and diffuse style which make it difficult to follow. The language is wordy, profane, and satirical -- probably in an attempt to create some artistic distance between the author and the events which he describes -- but much of the book I found painful. The characters, Jewish and non-Jewish, are full of bigotry for each other and hatred for themselves. Sexual themes play a large role in the book, as the Jewish men are embittered towards Jewish women -- thinking that the women will not become involved in a sexual relationship with them -- and the non-Jewish women are drawn to what they think they perceive of Jewish men. This is a story that has been told before, and it is drummed in unmercifully in this novel.
Some of this story has a context broader than the ambiguous situation that, for the author, many Jewish people find themselves in or create for themselves. The author deals implicitly with the need of people to find spirituality for themselves without the extremes of total secularism on the one hand on routinized fundamenalism or othodoxy on the other hand. But the self-pitying, solipsistic outlook of most of the characters of the book, together with its windy, unorganized character, make this novel a chore to read and largely unsuccessful.
on 7 January 2007
I agree with Michelle in her review, who does not feel the book repays the effort it takes to read it. Kalooki Nights is about a Jewish cartoonist from Manchester who has a complicated relationship with Jews. His father was an atheist, and he appears to wrestle with faith. But most of the novel focuses on him and his ex-wives, who are not only Gentiles, but Jew-hating Gentiles (along with a side story about a childhood friend obsessed with the Holocaust who literally gassed his own parents to death). So there is a lot of anger and self-loathing, and basically just too much of the same thing over and over. If the narrator doesn't learn anything (marrying women who loathe him), should the reader be expected to? I'd say the book is three times as long as it should be, given what I got out of it.