Man Booker Prize winner now on literature’s show court

Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - British author Howard Jacobson, who recently received the Man Booker prize for fiction, plays a game of ping pong at Comet Ping Pong and enjoys fresh pizza made from scratch while talking to The Washington Post about his work and life.

Anthropomorphically speaking, ping-pong players get shafted. The tiny rubber bumps covering their paddles are known, rather unfortunately, as “pimples.”

Pimples!

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Even weekend duffers get to describe the indentations on golf balls as “dimples.” How likable. Who isn’t charmed by dimples?

Not so with the ping-pong set. They’re condemned to the vocabulary of teenage insecurity, dermal irritation and Clearasil ads. Not exactly a formula for impressing chicks.

Yet Howard Jacobson, the wickedly funny British novelist, and his literary embodiment, Oliver Walzer, both deluded themselves, for a time at least, into thinking that competitive ping-pong would bring them fame, riches and the affections of beautiful women. They more often found spectator-free gymnasiums and hormonally exacerbated frustration.

The empty — or near-empty — room is generally what Jacobson encountered the last time he toured America, back when he was promoting his critically acclaimed 2006 novel, “Kalooki Nights.” The highlight, he says one afternoon as we enter Comet Ping Pong, Northwest Washington’s cathedral to all things ping-pongy, was an odd encounter with a 90-year-old woman at one of his readings in California. She placed something around his neck. A laurel? A medal? A lei? None of the above.

Inexplicably, it was her hearing aids, attached to long cords. He never really figured out what she was trying to express.

“That,” Jacobson says, “was the highlight. The highlight! Abysmal.”

This time, though, things are different. Jacobson’s suddenly a literary star with transcontinental appeal, and he’s playing to generous crowds at readings in the United States, a country that once essentially ignored him. Winning the prestigious Man Booker Prize in October transformed him into a headliner after three decades marked by less-than-blockbuster sales, frequent critical acclaim and no small measure of critical disdain — one reviewer called him the most “phallocentric” English-language author. Jacobson was honored for his novel, “The Finkler Question,” a satire that pivots on the lives of a gentile who longs to be a Jew and a Jew who joins a group called the “ASHamed Jews.”

The award was a surprise because comic novels — even darkly comic ones — seldom win. In years past, two of Jacobson’s novels had been long-listed twice for the award but fallen short. “There is a particular pleasure in seeing somebody who is this good finally getting his just deserts,” Sir Andrew Motion, chairman of the judges, said of the choice.

Jacobson revealed the most about himself in “The Mighty Walzer,” a 1999 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel recently released in the United States, as his publishers attempt to piggyback on his newfound celebrity.

A half-century has passed since Jacobson was a top-10-ranked teenage ping-ponger growing up in 1950s northern England. He is still a purist at the table. In the backroom at Comet Ping Pong, he considers, then quickly rejects, a modern sponge paddle, a smooth-faced design that gives players more control over shots but mutes the satisfying plock-plock produced by harder old-school paddles . . . the ones with visible, rather than concealed, pimples.

Jacobson arches one of his thick eyebrows while assessing the paddles. He has a long, weathered face with satchels of puffed skin beneath his eyes. His gray beard and wavy, nearly shoulder-length hair seem to refuse to be tamed, inflating in places and matting in others. One could imagine him playing King Lear, howling into the wind — and people stopping to listen to every word.

A winning player

He’s properly rumpled and a bit weary with all the jetting here and there to be feted. In England his victory was greeted “rhapsodically” by the Jewish community, he tells the audience the night before during a Politics and Prose event at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. But with paddle in hand, he’s instantly nimble and energized in a way that defies his 68 years. He slashes sizzling shots that nick the white line at the edge of the table and dips to scoop spinning backhands, talking all the while.

Is it true, as noted last year in the New York Times, that Salman Rushdie once refused to play him in ping-pong?

Indeed it is, he says. In between shots, Jacobson declares he would have “murdered” Rushdie if they’d played.

Uh, not the best choice of words, Jacobson acknowledges.

“Salman and I don’t get on,” Jacobson says, but he’s back to the plock-plocking before going any further down that trail.

He’s sweating through his shirt and getting hungry. But he doesn’t hesitate when presented with the chance to play an actual game, instead of just knocking the ball back and forth. He smashes forehands, then delicately spins finesse shots. Hard. Soft. Left. Right.

He’s good.

Jacobson leads 10-5 when I concede that I’ve got little hope. So I reach for my briefcase. Anticipating trouble keeping up with him, I’ve brought along two copies of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Jacobson roars.

In “The Mighty Walzer,” Oliver first comes to love ping-pong while playing using Stevenson’s classic novel instead of a paddle. Oliver is a wrenchingly introverted boy afflicted with “the terrible contradiction at the heart of shyness. You think everybody’s looking and you fear no one is.” Even though he is an ace, he feels more comfortable as a loser than a winner.

“Call it compound existential bashfulness,” Oliver says of himself in the book. “1) I was ashamed of existing, and 2) I was ashamed of existing so successfully. Five, six unbeatable backhands on the run and my hand would be on fire with consciousness of its temerity; a couple more there’d be smoke pouring out of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ ”

Oliver, who is consumed with being grandiose, takes to losing as a refuge from mediocrity, from the inevitable conclusion — which he reaches at the end of the novel — that he is not The Mighty Walzer but the So-So Walzer. Before his moment of self-understanding, Oliver wants to lose big or win big. Losing, of course, is easier; it’s something he can control. So he lets the lovely Lorna Peachley, the object of his most tortured desires, win and win and win at the ping-pong table. “I was luxuriating in the same rotting sweetness of self-pity that came with those defeats,” Oliver realizes. “What was the pleasure in that pain? Why did it feel so good to be bad? What was it about losing that I liked so much?”

That it all sounds a bit masochistic, Jacobson doesn’t dispute. “I think masochism is fantastic to write about,” he says. All men, he presumes, secretly fantasize about “yielding to a super-powerful woman,” especially when they’re “in their cups.”

But the author, on this day, is not intent on yielding. Unlike Oliver, in “The Mighty Walzer,” he clearly wants to win, even if he’s going to be disadvantaged by playing with literature — literally. He considers his options seriously, taking each copy of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in hand and testing its weight, flicking his wrist pantomiming shots, a little like a swordsman trying out a new blade. He opts for a pocket-size 1974 hardback published by Everyman’s Library with a wild-eyed movie version of Mr. Hyde on the cover over a large-print edition with a sketch of Dr. Jekyll. An image of madness wins out over an image of madness to come.

The equipment switch gets Jacobson talking about Marty Reisman, the eccentric American table tennis legend who toured with the Harlem Globetrotters and was so good that he could beat mere mortals using his shoe or an eyeglass lens instead of a paddle.

Jacobson once set out to profile Reisman for the New Yorker. After meeting Reisman, Jacobson wrote about lamenting the high-speed “Asianized ping-pong of today” and pined for another era’s “slow, probing, witty cat-and-mouse encounters between the great lugubrious European players of the 1930s and ’40s, lovers of labyrinthine prose and existential narrative, readers of the secrets of another’s souls — what Marty calls the ‘dialogue’ of ping-pong, the classical drama that has a beginning, a middle, and a resolution.”

The magazine killed the piece, he says.

Eventually, Jacobson’s article was published in 1999 in an, ahem, somewhat less prestigious forum — Table Tennis News, a now-defunct publication of the English Table Tennis Association. It’s a long, long way from Table Tennis News to the Man Booker Prize.

All this reminiscing about Reisman may be distracting. Or, more likely, hampered by playing with a book, the score tightens a bit. At 12-8, Jacobson reconsiders his approach. He switches to the large-print “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” setting aside the Everyman’s Library copy.

“Not my favorite edition,” he quips.

With the larger book in hand, he regains control. Less power, more steady, patient volleying. He forces his opponent to make mistakes. And it works. He wins 21-16 . . . with a book as a paddle.

By now, mercifully, he’s famished and a bit too winded for a second game. Comet Ping Pong’s ever-affable owner, James Alefantis, is setting out pizzas and glasses of a nice rose, and Jacobson finds his way to a table painted, of course, like a ping-pong table. Jenny De Yong — a documentary producer and, as Jacobson’s fond of calling her, his “third and final wife” — waits there reading a book on her Kindle.

Getting feedback

The couple spent a month in Washington last year while he was serving as U.K. writer-in-residence at George Washington University. Their arrival coincided with “snowmageddon,”and they found themselves trapped in the Washington Suites Hotel, shuffling across to a Trader Joe’s nearby for sustenance while the city shut down. He remembers asking for a dining room table and a staffer telling him that he already had a desk. Not exactly the treatment one would expect for a Great Man of Letters — but then again, he hadn’t won the Man Booker Prize yet.

“I said, ‘Come on, we’re here for a month.’ ” When the table arrived, he had to make another request: “Can we have a couple of chairs?”

With all that time on his hands, Jacobson got to tinkering with “Finkler.” The manuscript was complete. But an editor had made a small suggestion, Jacobson says, and then he started reconsidering some elements. He chopped speeches made by characters arguing in favor of and against Israel.

“I thought there was perhaps too much,” he says. He didn’t want to turn the book into an overtly political narrative about Israel. “My argument is not with their policies — it’s that they’re self-righteous.” That sense of ENOUGH ALREADY pervades his fiction. In “The Mighty Walzer,” one of Oliver’s ping-pong teammates flees his heavily Jewish neighborhood in Manchester for Israel “to get away from all the talk about the Jews.”

I ask Jacobson if he ever shows his early-stage incomplete work to anyone, and he launches into an explanation of how dangerous that would be. If someone were to criticize a work in progress, “It would be ‘Oy,’ ” he says. “That could be the end of the book.”

Jenny looks up from her Kindle.

She catches Jacobson’s eye, and he reverses course.

“What I’ve told you in this instance is untrue,” he says without a hint of self-consciousness. It turns out that Jenny made a key suggestion — Jacobson’s original idea was for all the main characters to be roughly the same age as Libor Sevcik, a 90-year-old Czech Jew and former schoolteacher who has recently lost his wife.

“Maybe, in the back of my mind, I was trying to pull off a kind of ‘Sunshine Boys,’ ” Jacobson says. Instead, he created two middle-aged main characters — Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler — and set them at the center of the narrative along with Sevcik, their elderly former teacher. “More light and shade,” Jacobson says.

Still, he expected little and certainly not a Man Booker Prize. “No one has been ruder about the Man Booker Prize,” he says of himself. Indeed, in the past, he has publicly declared the prize “an abomination.”

He sneers at the idea of literary laurels going to books about “growing up in Afghanistan or being a clerk in India. There were three or four years of small, sensitive books winning,” he says. “The grand ambitions of the novel were being undervalued.” No better example than “The Bone People,” he says, referring to the Keri Hulme novel set among the Maori people in New Zealand that won in 1985. “I remember hitting the roof. ‘Good-cause’ literature is one of the things that has bedeviled the Booker prize.”

Jacobson doesn’t do causes. And so it was, he says, that he “finished ‘Finkler,’ and I had no hopes. Of my last five novels, this is the last one I thought would do good things.”

He turned to other, darker ideas. He pondered writing a novel about “The End of the Word. The End of Everything. Everything being murdered by Facebook, Twitter. The End of Literary Civilization.”

Then he won the Man Booker Prize. And his mood brightened. Maybe he won’t go forward with that other book after all. “Is this to be the greatest irony?” he wonders. “What might have been my greatest novel ever ruined by my success?”

Winning the prize led, inevitably it seems, to comparisons. “I’m called the new Philip Roth, the English Philip Roth,” Jacobson says. “I’m not insulted by the comparison. He probably would be.”

I ask if they’ve ever met. Once, Jacobson says. But there was no discussion of Jacobson somehow assuming Roth’s mantle. “He’s a forbidding fellow. He’s got a seriousness about him,” Jacobson says. “That’s one angry writer. What’s he so angry about?”

Jenny has wandered off to the restroom and returns full of delight about the murals she discovered. “You’ve got to have a look,” she says to her husband. For a moment, he’s confused. How did she see the one in the men’s room? “I went in,” she says.

The mural depicts a game of ping-pong in a lovely setting, a kind of paradise. Ping-pong without pimples.

 
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