Sometimes, when reading Howard Jacobson`s column in the Independent, I would silently wonder why a comprehensive selection of them hadn`t been collected together in book form, so scintillating, funny, wise, compassionate, sometimes sentimental, often surprising, and - a rare but essential gift in an essayist - open-ended they are.
Well, my wish has been granted, and here, over 350 pages, are close to ninety brief but packed pieces from this most elegant of essayists.
How adequately to praise this wonderful book? Firstly, the necessary strictures of brevity and a weekly deadline have forced Jacobson to be as succinct as possible, though one never gets the feeling that anything is being hurried. Generally, he starts - often quite informally: "Seen any good art lately?" or "Took in a Messiah last week" - with a subject, only to embroider his theme by straying into other areas in an improvisatory riff on what he really wishes to say, be it a defence of libraries or a righteous harangue against `dumbing down`, a phrase he himself hates for its intrinsic illiteracy.
Indeed, what is known as dumbing down is a bete noir of HJ, in all its insidious manifestations, for example onetime government minister Margaret Hodge`s call for `Collective Cultural Belonging` and her description of the Proms as being `still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease in being part of this`. HJ`s response to this mealy-mouthed nonsense is a doozy:
"I`ve tried counting the number of questions that broken-backed, shit-eating sentence begs, but this column is not long enough to enumerate them."
Anger, wit, hatred of all forms of this kind of appeasing, anaemic non-speak, this is what you get from these columns. But you also get passages which bring the reader close to tears. His rueful memories of friends such as Simon Gray and Harold Pinter are honest and heartfelt.
Other subjects covered are terrorism, the eroticism of raincoats when worn by women, the artist Philip Guston, `Friendly Banking` - a very funny and oh-so-true diatribe on the habit of banks who phone you then ask you for identification when it`s the bank that`s rung you in the first place - as well as a nicely vulnerable piece on taking his wife to see Tristan und Isolde which begins "Thought my marriage was over last week" and finishes in touching fashion after she has reluctantly admitted to not liking Wagner after all. His relief - for reasons I`ll leave you to discover - is both amusing and oddly moving.
There`s a lovely `In Defence Of Melancholia`, a poignant piece about meeting a pelican in St James`s Park, a hilarious apologia for his inability to sign books either legibly or appropriately, and a rapturous appreciation of the appearance of an elephant in Central London.
Moreover, much as I admire Richard Dawkins, HJ skewers in fine style Dawkins`s rewriting of the Ten Commandments, in particular his inept and unlovely version of the seventh, Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery. HJ`s objections are aesthetic as much as anything else, as so often in these sparkling, thought-provoking pieces.
Another thing that comes across is Jacobson`s sympathy with certain manifestations of religious feeling and observance. No believer himself (though one suspects a certain sense of loss for his lapse) he nevertheless honours the profundity and beauty of aspects of religious beliefs and writings, quoting the Bible as much for its value as powerful, resonant literature as for its didactic and spiritual properties.
There is a overwhelming sense of an all-embracing and compassionate empathy in the wonderful essays in this book, even as he vents his ire at the banalities of modern life. Jacobson is no reactionary - a label one reviewer of his most recent novel has attached to him - but a man who values what makes us better people, what might make us more human.
At the end of `Pinteresque` - his meditation on his sometime late friend Harold Pinter - and bearing in mind the notorious `Pinter pause`, he writes:
"I would have liked more of him, not less."
There`s plenty of HJ here, and one could hardly wish for more. But roll on a second volume. I devoured this one in no time, though it will rarely be far from my side.