Life should have been sunny for Max Glickman, growing up in Crumpsall Park in peacetime, with his mother's glamorous card evenings to look forward to, and photographs of his father's favourite boxers on the walls. But other voices whisper seductively to him of Buchenwald, extermination, and the impossibility of forgetting. Fixated on the crimes which have been committed against his people, but unable to live among them, Max moves away, marries out, and draws cartoon histories of Jewish suffering in which no one, least of all the Jews, is much interested. But it's a life. Or it seems a life until Max's long-disregarded childhood friend, Manny Washinsky, is released from prison. Little by little, as he picks up his old connection with Manny, trying to understand the circumstances in which he made a Buchenwald of his own home, Max is drawn into Manny's family history - above all his brother's tragic love affair with a girl who is half German. But more than that, he is drawn back into the Holocaust obsessions from which he realises there can be, and should be, no release. There is wild, angry, even uproarious laughter in this novel, but it is laughter on the edge. It is the comedy of cataclysm.
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Howard Jacobson has written fifteen novels and five works of non-fiction. He won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award in 2000 for The Mighty Walzer and then again in 2013 for Zoo Time. In 2010 he won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question and was also shortlisted for the prize in 2014 for his most recent novel, J.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
COLERIDGE, "THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER"
Once when no one was buying my cartoons I took a job ripping off the Tom of Finland books for an unscrupulous pirate publisher of gay eroticism. Deltoidal, no-necked, peach-bottomed sadists and cocksuckers wearing leather caps and curiously benign expressions, romping in a spunky never-never sodomitic kindergarten unimpeded by the needs or interdictions of wives and mothers. For a straight man who couldn't see what Tom of Finland had to offer, other than the clean lines of the illustrations and the absence, beyond twenty-four-hour on-tap buggery and fellatio, of any supererogatory fantasy or fuss, I reckon I made a reasonable fist of copying his creations. It was good for me too, I thought, inhabiting this alien demi-Eden for a while. It relieved some of the stress I was under. The stress of a failed marriage and a failing career -- the usual -- but also the stress of coming from an ethno-religious minority, or whatever you call us, whose genius doesn't extend to irresponsible recreation. Jews don't do Paradise Regained. Once you're out you're out with my people. The gates swing shut behind you, the cherubim flash their flaming swords, and that's that. This is what it means to be Old Testament. You're always conscious of having blown your chance of a good time. Now here I was enjoying a proxy frolic in the Garden again.
Where I messed up professionally was in the straining bulge all Tom of Finland's characters carried in their trousers. To begin with, I failed to notice there was a bulge there at all. But even when the bulge was brought to my attention I couldn't copy it with conviction. I couldn't capture the anticipatory strain. Couldn't render the explosive tension between the glans penis and the denim. In the end I had to admit that this was because I had never worn denim or leather myself, and didn't understand the physics of the pressure from the inside. Jewish men wear loose, comfortable trousers with a double pleat. And maybe, in chilly weather, a cardigan on top. It is considered inappropriate by Jews to show strangers of either sex the outline of your glans penis.
No commandment against it that I know of. Just not what you do.
And for this, as an uncle of mine used to say, apropos anything Jewish, the Nazis tried to exterminate us.
My father's response, if he happened to be around, reminded me of someone swatting a fly. "Since when did any Nazi try to exterminate you, Ike? You personally? Had I thought the Nazis were after you I'd have told them where to find you years ago."
Upon which my uncle, who had lived with us for as long as I could remember, would turn white, accuse my father of being no better than Hitler himself, and flee to his room to hide.
Were they playing? Did they go on repeating this exchange because they thought it was amusing? Hard to decide when you're small whether people twice your size are joking or not. Sometimes everything they do looks like one big joke. But Hitler didn't sound a funny name. And exterminate, as I discovered from the little dictionary which my mother kept in her display cabinet, as though it were as precious as her china or my father's boxing cups, meant to destroy utterly, to put an end to (persons or animals), to drive out, to put to flight, to get rid of (species, races, populations, opinions). From which I inferred that no, my father and my uncle could not have been playing, but must have intended their jousting as a sort of magic, to ward off evil. To keep us from being driven out, got rid of, and the rest of it.
Thus I did grow up in Crumpsall Park in the 1950s, somewhere between the ghettos and the greenery of North Manchester, with extermination in my vocabulary and the Nazis in my living room.
So when Manny Washinsky swapped me his copy of Lord Russell of Liverpool's The Scourge of the Swastika: A Short History of Nazi War Crimes for a bundle of comics, I was already softened up, though I couldn't have been much more than eleven at the time, to receive its contents. "The murder by Germans of over five million European Jews," Lord Russell of Liverpool wrote, "constitutes the greatest crime in world history." A conclusion which electrified me, not because it was news exactly, but because I had never before seen it written down. Over five million! So that was what being put an end to meant! The figures conferred a solemn destiny upon me. For it is not nothing to be one of the victims of the greatest crime in world history.
By any of the usual definitions of the word victim, of course, I wasn't one. I had been born safely, at a lucky time and in an unthreatening part of the world, to parents who loved and protected me. I was a child of peace and refuge. Manny too. But there was no refuge from the dead. For just as sinners pass on their accountability to generations not yet born, so do the sinned against. "Remember me," says Hamlet's father's ghost, and that's Hamlet fucked.
Manny wasn't the only boy on the street who knew The Scourge of the Swastika. Errol Tobias, a year or two older than us, was also a reader. Not that we were any sort of study group or book club. Because I felt ashamed of being Manny's friend when I was with Errol, and ashamed of being Errol's friend when I was with Manny, I was careful not to bring them together or otherwise to intimate our shared experience. Left to their own devices, neither existed for the other. Manny too devout, Errol too profane. They weren't simply chalk and cheese, they were the devil and the deep blue sea. Not a fanciful comparison: in Manny there were unfathomable depths, in Errol a diabolism that was frightening to be near. When he went into one of his lewd playground rages, Errol's eyes boiled in his head like volcanoes; you could smell his anger, like a serpent turning on a spit; a translucency upon his skin, as though God were trying to see through him. Yet it wasn't the devilish one of the two who ultimately did the devilish thing. Unfair, but there you are. It would seem that it isn't necessarily your nature that determines your fate. Incidentals such as spending too much time listening to your fathers' fathers' ghosts can do it just as well. But in that case all three of us should have grown up to be murderers, not just Manny Washinsky.
As for Jews not showing strangers the outline of their glans penis, Errol Tobias was either a changeling or the exception that proved the rule. A genitally besotted boy, he grew into a genitally besotted man. Manny and I were more in character. For which demureness I have not the slightest doubt that the Nazis -- to borrow my uncle's favorite locution -- would have tried to exterminate us. As a cartoonist I am given to travesty and overstatement, but this is not an example of either. There are serious causal connections to be traced between the Jew's relation to his body -- modesty, purity, the dread solemnity of the circumcision covenant -- and the Jew-baiting practiced by the Germans. For reasons that will bear deep scrutiny, the world hates and fears a man who makes a palaver of his private parts. I think that's the issue: not the foreskin, the palaver. Whenever anti-Semitism is mobilized from an itch into a movement it takes flight into some ideal Sparta -- a Finlandia of square-jawed analizers skylarking in the gymnasia or the baths, at ease with both their own and others' genitalia. And what is that but nostalgia for a time before the Jews imposed seriousness upon the body?
No going back into the Garden, we say. And no return to nature. Life -- now that we have been expelled from Paradise -- life, as an activity of the mind and not the sexual organs, begins in earnest.
For which devotion to intellect and conscience they cannot forgive us.
That was that as far as Tom of Finland went, explain it how you like. Max of Muswell Hill in accommodating flannel pants looked a nice enough guy but he wasn't going to make a killing in the sex shops of Soho.
It wouldn't surprise me to learn I was the first and last Jew -- the first and last English Jew, at any rate -- to be employed in the homoerotic copycat business.
Jew, Jew, Jew. Why, why, why, as my father asked until the asking killed him, does everything always have to come back to Jew, Jew, Jew?
He was a boxer whose nose bled easily, an atheist who railed at God, and a communist who liked to buy his wife expensive shoes. In appearance he resembled Einstein without the hair. He had that globe-eyed, hangdog, otherwise preoccupied Jewish look. Einstein, presumably, is thinking E = mc2 when he stares into the camera. My father was thinking up ways to make Jewishness less of a burden to the Jews. J ÷ J = j.
Had he seen me with my head buried in The Scourge of the Swastika he'd have confiscated it without pausing to find out whether it was mine or someone else's. Let the dead bury the dead, was his position. The way to show them the reverence they were owed was to live the life that they had not.
"When I die," he said, unaware how soon that was going to be, "I expect you to embrace life with both hands. Then I'll know I've perished in a good cause."
"When you're dead you won't know anything," I cheeked him.
"Exactly. And neither do the dead of Belsen."
This wasn't callousness. Quite the opposite. It was our deliverance he sought -- from morbid superstition, from the hellish malarial swamp shtetls of Eastern Europe which some of us still mentally inhabited, and from the death-in-life grip those slaughtered five or more million had on our imaginations.
He didn't live to see me sell my first cartoon, which was probably a blessing. It showed Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab leaders looking out over an annihilated Israel on the eve of what would become known as...
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