The idea of a Gentile convinced of his Jewishness was done (to death) by Howard Jacobson ten years ago in his wearisomely one-note The Finkler Question. Fortunately, the philosemitist in Jude Cook’s new novel, Jacob’s Advice, is not its main character and the book has many more ideas in its head than just that.
Its actual main character is the wannabe-Jew’s older cousin, Nicholas Newman – an historian of Revolutionary France. Nearing forty-five, Nick is in Paris for a year, ostensibly to work on a new book, but mainly to escape the problems waiting for him back in London. Those include an alimonious ex-wife, an increasingly estranged son and an accountant who has run off with all his money. The one thing he can’t leave behind is his health: a dodgy drug taken for “a prosaic urology-related problem” has resulted in a severe case of neuropathy and he is in near-constant pain. By way of distraction, Nick spends most of his time in the company of cousin Larry, also based in Paris, and one of the many pleasures of Cook’s novel is the repartee of these two characters: Nick chiding Larry for his twenty-year-old French girlfriend and his “Semitic infatuation”; Larry lecturing Nick on his financial and medicinal gullibility.
If this is all starting to sound a bit Saul Bellow, then I don’t think Cook would deny the influence. From its Humboldt’s Gift-esque title to its Herzog-ian narrative, Jacob’s Advice actually invites the comparison. Here is its first sentence:
My cousin, the well-known pharmacologist Larry Frost, always maintained his three favourite Americans were Jewish men: Bob Dylan, Saul Bellow and Woody Allen.
The Bellovian influence is even felt in the prose, which is impressively exuberant throughout. Sometimes too exuberant. Take this sentence from page three:
An eager, garrulous, indiscreet man with wild, dark curly hair and mobile (even manic) eyes the same colour as my own, [Larry] often appears shorter or squatter at a distance – as if he’s carrying a bit too much weight for his height.
There are one too many adjectives here, their collective music just one notch too loud. Thankfully, this superabundance of description is gradually tamed and the novel does quieten down.
It has to. Beneath its comic trappings lies real-life tragedy. Set in 2015, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack and the Hyper Cacher supermarket siege, the book depicts a Paris on edge, with armed police rarely out of frame and questions of discrimination rarely off people’s lips. An obvious Francophile, the author deserves credit for tackling so ugly a moment in France’s history – a moment that will chime with readers after the Black Lives Matter year we have just had.
In such a moment, even Larry’s identity quest begins to make some sense – a tribe offers protection – and the novel becomes a surprisingly moving meditation on the idea of belonging. As with Bellow, the emotion sneaks up on you and there are some beautifully tender scenes towards the end, especially between Nick and his son. Here’s one:
The boy ran towards me, his arms outstretched. In seconds those arms were around my waist, my own legs palpitating. I pulled him closely into the folds of my coat in a tight embrace, my hand stroking his hair. He seemed so new, somehow, like a coin minted that morning. Looking down, he appeared to have shrunk, as if time had stopped, or gone backwards, since I last saw him.
With the tightening of the father’s embrace, so the prose tightens here, those dangling modifiers cleaving close to their parent clauses. The warm, parenthetical hug around “somehow” is also quite wonderful, blunting the rather sharp simile that follows and smoothing the passage from reality to metaphor.
Despite its intellectualism – and this is a deeply cerebral book – it is moments like this that stand out for me. Particularly now, when we are all starved of company, the pleasure of so interior a narrator as Nick escaping his self-absorption every once in a while and making a connection is a great one. A novel of both the head and the heart.
Jacob’s Advice is published by Unbound Books and is available here.