A chapter from Howard Jacobson’s “J”

Howard Jacobson - J

This is a chapter from the book J” by Howard Jacobson. It’s not a spoiler in the least, merely a taste of the quite straight-forward dialogue. Humans talking. Almost reminds me of the walk-and-talk stuff that made the Richard Linklater beautiful film-trilogy. Here we go, it’s all Jacobson’s writing from here:

Kevern had wondered, when he’d first discovered his depraved inheritance, whether it would put him off sex. That it should put him off sex, he didn’t doubt. But would it?

The answer was no. Or at least not entirely. He knew he had to take precautions. He couldn’t bring into the world a being who might show recessive symptoms of a kind which he – so far, at least – had not. And this meant not only being particular when it came to contraception, but going about coitus gently and considerately. Restoring to the act, maybe, something of the sacred. As it happened, such conscientiousness was not difficult for him: it accorded well with his precise, reluctant nature. He had not been put on earth to fling his seed around.

Ailinn didn’t mind that he didn’t pile-drive himself into her. It made a change.

‘Sleepin’ with you is like sleepin’ with a woman,’ she told him.

Though a clean enunciator out of bed, she made a habit of dropping her gs when verbalising sex. Sleepin’, screwin’, fuckin’, even makin’ love. He didn’t know why. To rough herself up a bit, perhaps. Or perhaps to rough up him.

‘Is that northern speech?’ he had asked her.

‘Nah. It’s my speech.’ With which she made a triumphant, tarty little fist.

So yes, it was her way of communalising their sex, taking what was special out of it, making it less fragile, putting them both on a more ordinary footing with each other.

Did she find him overscrupulous? Would she have liked him to swear? (Pog mo hoin?)

He unwound himself and sat up. They were in his bed. She had invited him to hers, an altogether more sweetly smelling chamber now that she had got rid of all the spiders and repainted it, with giant paper sunflowers everywhere, but he was uneasy about staying away from his cottage all night. And besides, he lived alone and she didn’t.

‘So “sleepin’” with me is like “sleepin’” with a woman . . . I’m guessing you mean that as a compliment, though to me, of course, it isn’t. Unless you prefer sleeping with women.’

‘Never done it,’ she said.

‘So how do you know it’s like sleeping with me?’

‘Because sleepin’ with you isn’t like sleepin’ with other men.’

Men! Couldn’t she have spared him that?

‘How isn’t it like sleeping with other men?’

‘Well you don’t seem as though you want to hurt me, for a start.’

‘Why would I hurt you? Do you want me to hurt you?’

‘No I do not.’

‘Then what’s the nature of your discontent?’

She slipped out of bed, as though she needed to be upright when he questioned her as hard as this. He tried not to look at her feet.

‘I’m not discontented at all,’ she said. ‘It’s hard to describe what I feel. It’s as if you don’t care, or at least your first care isn’t, whether I feel you’ve entered me.’

‘Oh! Would you like me to signal when I have? I could wave a handkerchief.’

He made jokes, she noticed, when he was hurt.

‘No, I don’t mean that way. I’m really not complaining. It’s lovely. I’m not putting this very well but I don’t think you care whether you make a difference to me, sexually – inside – or not. Most men make a song and dance about it. “Can you feel that? Do you like that?” They want to be sure the conquest of your body is complete. They would like to hear you surrender. It’s as though you don’t mind whether I notice you’re visiting or not.’


She took a moment . . . ‘Yes, visiting. It’s as though you’re on a tourist visa. Just popping in to take a look around.’

‘That’s not how it feels to me. I’m not planning being somewhere else. You need to know that.’


‘But it doesn’t sound very nice for you.’

‘Well it is and it isn’t. It’s a change not to feel invaded. It’s nice to be left alone to think my own thoughts.’

‘Thoughts! Should you be having thoughts at such a time?’

‘Feelings, then. You know what I mean – not having to go along with what someone else wants. Not having to be issuing periodic bulletins of praise and satisfaction. But what are yours?’

‘What are my thoughts and feelings?’

‘Yes. What do you want?’

‘Ah, now you’re asking.’

‘You won’t tell me?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Don’t know whether you’ll tell me?’

‘Don’t know what I want.’

But he made her a lovespoon in which the two of them could be recognised, entwined, inseparable, carved from a single piece of wood.

In return for which she made him a pair of exquisitely comical purple pansies, a paper likeness of his face in one, hers in another. She arranged them in a vase on his dressing table, so that they stared at each other unremittingly.

‘When you dust them, do it lightly,’ she advised.

‘I will sigh the dust away.’ He pursed his lips and let out the softest emission of air, as though blowing a kiss to a butterfly.

‘I love you,’ she told him.

Why not, he thought. Why ever not? ‘I love you,’ he said.

As he’d told her, he wasn’t planning to be somewhere else. He should not have judged his parents their sin. When the love thing is upon you there’s no one who can break you up. And he wasn’t even absolutely sure the love thing was upon him – yet.

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