Magazine article The Spectator

Trump, the Emptiest Mind

Magazine article The Spectator

Trump, the Emptiest Mind

Article excerpt

Howard Jacobson talks about his new novel, a hypothetical exploration of the US President's childhood

Howard Jacobson awoke to the news of Trump's victory in November. He had no newspaper column so, what could he do? Write a novel, said his wife, and he did, in six weeks. It is called Pussy, and it is a short and horrifying hypothetical biography of Donald Trump, now an infant prince called Fracassus, born into a noble family of property developers. Fracassus hates words. He hates women. He tweets. Jacobson throws every weapon -- every word -- he has into Pussy. He is the voice of the metropolitan liberal elite emitting a death rattle, and that is a grave calling.

I have loved Jacobson since he wrote this, in 2011, about the 'new' anti-Semitism: 'Thus are Jews doubly damned: to the Holocaust itself and to the moral wasteland of having found no humanising redemption in its horrors.' If I love his journalism, I cannot finish his novels because -- and this is a very Jewish criticism -- they are too evocative. Reading The Finkler Question -- for which he won the Booker Prize in 2010 -- made me want to hit my father with a spade.

In person, Jacobson isn't noisy. His novels, which he 'stole from his own life' take it all, and leave him courteous and calm -- except when he is talking about Trump, 'the' social media and Brexit. He is 75, but he looks younger. He speaks in a low Mancunian growl.

Jacobson is a child of two warring Jewish worlds, which make, by my count, three civilisations to be torn between, and the potential for three separate alienations. He has mined them all. 'We are all our parents' battlegrounds,' he says. 'Mine was very stark because my dad was unlettered, extraverted, vivacious.' His father's family were Ukrainian Jews: 'The rabbis who did somersaults, the charismatics.' He was a market trader, and a children's magician: 'Not a very good magician. The kids could see.' His mother's family were Lithuanian Jews: 'Scientists, philosophers, students. They were shy, easily hurt, [and] withdrew into themselves. At family dos, the hokey cokey would come around and my father's sisters would be screaming and my mother and her sister were shrunken in a corner.' In 1961, he left grammar school for Downing College, Cambridge, to study under F.R. Leavis.

He was terribly shy: 'I didn't know how to make anything work for myself.' He was self-destructive -- or angry -- enough to write a 'violent, sexually deranged' essay for Cambridge's leading pacifist intellectual, and graduated with a 2:2; the neurotic's degree.

'Cambridge played into some of my own peculiar paranoia,' he says now. 'Something happens. Like Rip Van Winkle, I fall asleep, and then when I wake up everything has changed and I have got to catch up again. I always have that sense. If I go into any room and everybody knows one another and I don't know them and they don't know me.'

In his twenties he lived with wife, his baby, and his parents-in-law; he taught in a secondary school; he sold leather goods in Cambridge market. 'I felt I had gone backwards,' he says. So he left: 'I took my little boy to school one morning and said, "Daddy won't see you for a little while", and flew to Australia to be with my friends. …

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