Howard Jacobson has spent much of his career seeking comedy in dark places. Writing about his 2006 novel Kalooki Nights, he has said that ‘laughter might, in the end, be the only cure for the poisoned heart of memory’. In part that novel focused on collective memory: on how Jews remember the Holocaust and how comedy might be an appropriate response – not as a means to trivialise terrible events but to see them from a different angle, and so more fully.
In Live a Little, his sixteenth novel, laughter and memory again take centre stage, though this time the emphasis is on personal memories and how they are either lost or distorted as we get older. Much of the novel’s comedy arises from its treatment of the infirmities and indignities of old age, but Jacobson approaches these subjects always with the aim of shining a light on what it means to be old and facing up to death.
The central characters are two nonagenarians living in north London. Beryl Dusinbery (who sometimes refers to herself as Princess Schweppessodawasser in a vain attempt to amuse her children) is struggling to recall not only names and words, but also her past. She has started to keep a diary as well as writing snippets of autobiography on filing cards. Across the road lives Shimi Carmelli, of Italian-Jewish descent, who has a condition called selective morbid hyperthymesia, which means that he remembers things in great detail. This sets him apart from his social set, mostly made up of ancient widows, who see him as ‘the last of the eligible bachelors – by which they mean the last man able to do up his own buttons’. He delights them by telling their fortunes using the ancient art of cartomancy, foretelling their futures by dealing out a pack of cards.
Shimi sees his ability to recall the past as ‘more a curse than a gift’, not least because he is haunted by the shame of his childhood desire to dress up in his mother’s bloomers. He believes he failed to look after her properly when she was dying – unlike his brother, Ephraim, who tended to her faithfully. After her death, their father abandoned them and the brothers went their separate ways. Shimi has not seen Ephraim for over half a century, but his brother ‘has always been a fixture of the heart’.
So Jacobson presents us with ‘a man who remembers everything and a woman who remembers nothing’. Although Beryl and Shimi are neighbours, they have never met. It is Ephraim who brings them together, though it takes his death to facilitate it. At the funeral, Beryl informs Shimi that she too knew Ephraim, saying that he ‘saved’ one of her sons. Beryl and Shimi start to meet regularly. Beryl wants to know about Ephraim’s childhood, how he became the man he was, while Shimi wants to know what kind of man his brother became.
It is in these sections that the book loses some of its early fizz. The conversations between Shimi and Beryl are piecemeal, often failing to get to the heart of what they want to talk about. Although this is no doubt meant to reflect the reality of their confused and slowing minds, these chapters strain the reader’s patience. It’s perhaps a reflection of the difficulty of writing about aged characters: they tend not to actually do very much. Over time, the novel loses narrative momentum. When Beryl finally reveals how Ephraim saved her son, it turns out not to have been the dramatic event we had been led to believe it was.
Yet the novel does showcase Jacobson’s strengths. The prose is witty and razor sharp. Shimi’s childhood was characterised by ‘a sort of disillusionment that formed before he’d even had time to be illusioned’. Beryl’s most vivid memories are of her various lovers, including Rory the Tory, aka ‘Piston Pete’, who ‘pegged a woman out and then drilled into her’. Beryl is brilliantly cutting towards her sons and her put-upon carers, but her eloquence is partly a mechanism to aid her recall: ‘My stock of words is dwindling,’ she says at one point, ‘and I need to be giving constant employment to those I have left.’
Above all, Jacobson writes with compassion about the ageing process. There is a terrible poignancy to much of what his characters experience. The shame that Shimi has suffered since childhood is added to in old age by the sense of embarrassment caused by his increasingly unreliable bladder. His forays outside his flat are necessarily restricted by the constant need to be near a toilet and he has used his prodigious powers of recall to memorise the location of all the public loos in his area.
Towards the end of the novel, Shimi finds himself staying at Beryl’s flat. This is a love story of sorts, one characterised not by physical desire or even contact, but by a shared need for companionship and mutual assistance. Almost forty years after the publication of his first novel, Jacobson shows that he has lost none of his verve, insight or ability to write dark comedy.