Since his youth, Howard Jacobson wanted to write a novel, perhaps in the mold of his literary idols Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and Stendhal. After years of failed attempts, he finally started a book that seemed to have promise—a satiric work about a frustrated professor like himself:
Something was missing from the comedy, . . . some crowning humiliation that explained why my hero felt as preposterously suicidal as he did and, more than that, lifted him out of the dimension of mere self.
As yet he had only a provisional name. I can’t even remember what it was. The important thing was to keep it unassociated. Nothing Jamesian or Conradian. Nothing that sounded like Raskolnikov or Julien Sorel. A name with no literary baggage. But you can’t have an entirely baggageless hero. Without even a provisional name he could barely speak for the particular let alone the general. Then it came to me—the person washed up in a hell more provincial than Manchester, more out of the swim of things than I’d been in Cambridge, the splenetic, self-lacerating failure whose miseries I couldn’t adequately render until I’d plumbed the dankest depths of absurdism, was called Sefton Goldberg.
And he was born in a verbal afterbirth of the most disconsolate simplicity. “Being Jewish,” the phrase that bore him went, “Sefton Goldberg . . . ”.
That was that. I was to repeat the faux-naïve phrase again and again throughout the novel. “Being Jewish, Sefton Goldberg . . . ”. And on the wave of that deceptively innocent refrain the novel got itself written.
Was I, despite myself, writing a Jewish novel? And if I was, why was I? I know the answer now. The idea that I’d put Jewish Manchester behind me was a fantasy. . . . Trying to express myself some other way—letting English sunlight into my prose (even an American version of English sunlight, a double fraud)—had proved impossible. Being Jewish, I had contradictions to resolve that necessitated my sending a far more fraught language—at once feckless and reverential—on a far more overwrought mission. And the unlikely captain of my tremulous craft, if only for this maiden voyage, was an unhappy, unsuccessful, thin-skinned (and yes, all right, over-eroticized) teacher of English literature called Sefton Goldberg.