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What Will Survive of Us by Howard Jacobson: Giving up the cover of comedy with patchy results

The author has spoken of confronting the ‘taboo on tenderness’ in his latest novel, in which he is admirably attuned to how lukewarm other people’s love can seem but does not always grip the reader convincingly

What Will Survive of Us
What Will Survive of Us
Author: Howard Jacobson
ISBN-13: 978-1787334823
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £20

“What will survive of us is love.” The close of Philip Larkin’s poem An Arundel Tomb is difficult to parse. Is it curmudgeonly contempt curbed by age, or the tongue-in-cheek triumph of a famously corrosive cynicism?

In his latest novel, What Will Survive of Us, Howard Jacobson reveals himself to be a literal reader of Larkin. He does not shy away from sentimentality (though this, of course, is rarely enough to prove its sincerity). When his characters, Sam and Lily, first meet and fall head over heels, they are both in exhausted relationships. She is a successful producer. He is the “once-wunderkind” playwright (his first success was an early, undergraduate effort, the kind only a wunderkind can produce, entitled Don Juan in Oxford). Their affair quickly gets going under the guise of documentary-making. Titles include Ibsen in Sorrento, Lawrence in Taos, Joyce in Trieste; the list so archly literary it would tire even the most avid Radio 4 adherent.

Admirably attuned to how lukewarm other people’s love can seem, Jacobson throws his protagonists into the thrill of transgression. Sam realises the sadomasochistic side to his desire (and never stops reprimanding himself for it). They visit “bondage clubs”, “crypt[s]” and “catacombs”. Lily’s packing list for illicit weekends now includes “a rhinestone flogger”, “2 sets of ankle shackles” and “1 copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park”. As if unsure how to put a lid on this Pandora’s box of perverse pleasure, Jacobson dashes the exhilaration of debasement with a near-death experience involving a Hermès scarf and an old Etonian with an asphyxiation fetish. Sam asks: “Who the hell are we, Lily?” She, the would-be murderer, replies rather breathily: “Lovers.”

Jacobson speaks of giving up the cover of comedy in this novel, of confronting the “taboo on tenderness”. At times, I found myself wishing that it were not so easy to break the habit of a lifetime. When Sam and Lily’s love becomes less amorous and more amiable, Jacobson’s prose, as if in compensation, moves towards the metaphysical. It is not necessarily at home there. The lovers live in “unspeakable joy”; they announce that there “is no end to us”. Tenderness of this kind is our “almost-instinct” and, as in Larkin’s poem, it is “almost true”.