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All husbands, Felix maintains, secretly want their wives to be unfaithful to them. Felix hasn't always thought this way. From the moment of his first boyhood rejection, surviving the shattering effects of love and jealousy had been the study of his life. But while he is honeymooning with Marisa in Florida, an event occurs that changes everything. In a moment, he goes from dreading the thought of someone else's hands on the woman he loves to thinking about nothing else. Enter Marius into Marisa's affections. Now Felix must wonder if he really is a happy man.
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Howard Jacobson lives in London and is the author of eight previous novels and four works of non-fiction. He won the Everyman Wodehouse Award for comic writing in 1999 for The Mighty Walzer.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I first sighted Marius, long before I had any inkling Id have use for himor he for me, come to thatat a country churchyard funeral in Shropshire. One of those heaving-Wrekin mornings the poet Housman made famousrain streaming on stone and hillock, the gale plying the saplings double, a sunken, sodden, better to be dead than alive in morning. It didnt matter to me, I was from somewhere else. I could slip on galoshes before I left my hotel, put up an umbrella, endure what had to be endured, and then be gone. But others at the graveside chose to live in this hope-forsaken place. Dont ask me why. To assist in their own premature interment, is my guess. To be done with life before it could be done with them.
Such a lust for pain there is out there. Such apocalyptic impatience. I dont just mean in Shropshire, though Shropshire might have more than its fair share of it, I mean everywhere. Bring on the dirty bomb, we cry, and publish instructions for its manufacture on the Internet. Blow winds and crack your cheeks: we scorch the earth, pitch our tent at the foot of a melting iceberg or disturbed volcano, sunbathe in the path of a tsunami. We cant wait for it to be over. The masochists we are!
And all the while we have the wherewithal to suffer exquisitely and still live, if we only knew where to look. In our own beds, for example. In the beloved person lying next to us.
Love hard enough and you have access to all the pain youll ever want.
Not a thought I articulated at the time, I have to say, not having met, not having married, not having lost my heart and mind to the woman who would be my torturer. Marisa came later. But in the vegetative dark that preceded her, I never doubted that my skin was thinning in preparation for someone. Easy to be wise after the event and see Marisa as the fulfillment of all my longings, the one Id been keeping myself for; but of course I didnt fall in love only provisionally before I met her. Each time I lost my heart and mind, I believed I had lost them for good. Yet no sooner did I regain my balance than I knew that the woman who would finish me off completelymake me hers as I had never so far been anybodys, a man possessed in all senses of the wordwas still out there, waiting for her consummation as I was waiting for mine. Hence, I suppose, my interest in Marius, before I apprehended the part he would play in that consummation. I must have seen in him the pornographic complement to my as yet incompletely formed desires.
It was impossible to tell from his demeanor at the funeral whether he was one of the principal mourners. He looked sulkily aggrieved, scarfed up and inky cloaked like Hamlet, but somehow, though he gave conspicuous support to the widowa woman I didnt know, but to whom there clung a sort of shameful consciousness of ancient scandal, like a fallen woman in a Victorian novelI didnt think he was the dead mans son. His distress, assuming it to have been distress, was of a different order. If I had to nail it in a word, Id say it was begrudgingas though he believed the mourners were weeping for the wrong person. Some men attend a funeral jealously, wishing to appropriate it for themselves, and Marius struck me as such a man.
Id known and done a spot of business with the deceased. He had been a professor of literature with a large library. I had traveled up from London to value it. Nothing came of our negotiations. The library was ill cared for and crumbled into dust before I could come up with a figure. A fortuitous event in its own way, since the professor did not really want to part with his books, whatever their condition. He was a sweet man, out of time and place, who expostulated against lifes cruelties in a squeak, like a mouse. One of lifes, now one of deaths, disappointees. But I hadnt known him so well that I could move among his family and friends and ask them who the Black Prince was. As for striking up an acquaintance with him directly, that was out of the question. He was as obstinately sealed from eye contact or introduction as the corpse itself.
Observing him later, in the little centrally heated village hall to which wed trooped after the service, plied double like the saplings, I wondered whether the bleak weather had been responsible for his appearance at the graveside, so much less saturnine was he, divested of his coat, his scarf and, if I wasnt mistaken, the widow. To say he was merry would be to go too far, but hed turned animatedly unapproachable, as opposed to simply unapproachable. A cold fire seemed to come off him, like stars off a sparkler.
He was handsome, if you find high and hawkish men handsome. As a nonpredatory man myself, I felt intimidated by him. But thats part of what being handsome means, isnt it: instilling fear.
He was standing by a table of sausages and pork pies, making access to it difficult for other people, flirting icily with two poochy-looking girls who, for no other reason than that he appeared to wish to divide them, I took to be sisters. He gave the impression, fairly or not, of a man who would cross any boundary if there was gloomy mischief in it. It was this same impression that made me wonder whether the girls were quite of an age to be spoken to with such freedom, all things considered. Exactly how old they were I couldnt tellwhen you dont have children of your own (and I am not a breeding man) you lose the power to distinguish twelve from twenty-sevenbut they wore the nakedly raffish expressions of girls who know they can get you a prison sentence.
For his part, though Marius allowed them to feel they had exclusive use of his attention and were exclusively the beneficiaries of his brilliance, he succeeded at the same time in holding them up as a sort of reproach to the gathering, as though it was their dullness that reduced him to whiling away his time with chits in black lipstick and nose rings. But I might have misread him. Perhaps he was deeply affected by the funeral, consumed by a grief which only indiscreet intercourse with the young and the provocative could assuage.
What did they see in him, I wondered, that dissolved the usual indifference young girls feel toward lugubriously clever men nearly twice their age. They laughed with a responsiveness that would have been flagrant at a coming-out ball let alone a funeral breakfast. They raised their bare, flushed, perilous pixie faces to him, ablaze with the consciousness that there was an audacity in his starry attention that demanded a reciprocal boldness from them.
Quite suddenly, as though he feared a scene, he called it to an end, recalling himself to what he owed the dear departed and his widow, however dull their conversation. But in the moment before he left the girls I caught him mouthing a phrase at themhalf secretly, half not. I, for one, had no difficulty interpreting the communication, but then I miss very little that has a promise of impropriety in it. And yes, I admit it, will find impropriety where impropriety isnt. Not this time though.
Four . . . o . . . clock, he said without making a sound.
So what was he doing? Arranging to meet them after school?
The tremble hour.
If it was an assignation, he didnt keep itthat was my guess. The jailbait, yes; one, or more likely both of them, each egging the other on as they stood at whatever corner Marius had instructed them to meet him, pulling back their frilly sleeves to consult their Mickey Mouse watches every other minute, laughing into their handkerchiefs, while their pulpy hearts pounded inside their blazers. But not Marius. What he wanted from the girls he had already taken.
How you can tell on so brief an appraisal (and most of it from behind) that a man is an absentee libertine, that he lights fires and doesnt stop to see them blaze, that at the last hed sooner withhold a sexual favor than confer one, I cant explain. Perhaps that sort of sadism shows in the curvature of the spine. Perhaps Im just good at seeing what I want to see. However you account for it, I felt, in advance, the sting of his disregardI steal the phrase from Leopold Bloom, Bloomuponwhom, the patron saint of the subjugated and deceivedas acutely as those girls would have felt it at four oclock on whatever day in whatever place Marius did not turn up to meet them.
My territorysexual insult. Im a connoisseur of it. I could write you a treatise, a thousand pages long, and in a dozen languages, some of them dead, on the difference between a sting and a smart. It comes, partly, from an extensive and perhaps overcollaborative reading of that category of classic novel (English, French, Russian, whatever) whose subject is humiliation. Im tempted to ask what other category of classic novel is there. But I acceptif with bewildermentthat there are some readers who open books in order to be mystified by extravagant event, or stirred by acts of prosaic heroism. I must have been born without a taste for mystery or heroics.
Love, that is all Ive ever cared to read about. Love and loves agonies.
Love afflicted me.
I draw no distinction between literature and life. In the stories I precociously devoured I gravitated naturally to the painto the sorrows alike of Young Werther and the older Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, to the easily bruised boyish prickliness of Julien Sorel and the deep womanly contemplative sadness of Anne Elliot. But it had never been any different for me in life. I was born lovesickunrequited, highly strung, quiveringly jealous, with a morbid yearning to give my heart long before there was anyone to give my heart to.
That I too would be spurned, left to pine away like the heroes and heroines of my reading, I never doubted.
The first girl I could ever truly call a girlfriendthe first girl whose fingers I was allowed to interlace with minebetrayed me the second time I took her out. We went into the cinema together and she left two and a half hours later with someone else. How and where she found him when there appeared to be only she and I sitting alone in the darkness and I had never once let go of her hand, what she saw in him w...
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