The Comedy of Great Writing & The Tragedy of Poor Reading

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Inside Marlborough Town Hall on Friday Night all was right with the world as Howard Jacobson gave a hilariously insightful talk on his life and his writing. It was outside that was the problem.

Jacobson decried the state of writing, reading and culture in general. It wasn’t technology that caused him this angst – although he certainly wouldn’t alter his writing style to suit the demands of an e-book – it was rather that society had been led to believe in a divide between great writing and entertainment.

To Jacobson – and probably to much of the audience inside the hall – there was no such divide. The greatest writers were, and are, the funniest and most entertaining he insisted, citing Austen, Tolstoy and other examples. Indeed, almost all great writing was comic writing, with few exceptions (Lawrence and Golding).

As a 21st century comic novelist, Howard Jacobson expressed how he was able to harness this cultural decline as the inspiration for much of his work and relished the phrase ‘apocalyptic glee’ that has been attributed to him. He described his own take on comic writing not as gentle mocking or rib-tickling satire, but rather something more brutal; ‘I not only take you down with it, but when you’re there I stick a dagger in your heart.’

He was scathing of the trend for readers to demand a likeable central character, quipping that not many people would ask the Macbeths or King Lear round for dinner.

This tremendously captivating talk was spiced with a reading from Zoo Time, Jacobson’s latest novel. The passage concerned a failed writer’s adulterous intentions with his mother-in-law and mock heroic attempts to terminate a large spider on her behalf.

On Friday night, we witnessed how the theatrical, influenced by his Northern market-trader father, and the intellectual, influenced by his Cambridge tutor FR Leavis, had fused to create another truly great comic novelist.