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The Trouble with Sefton

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Several years ago I described my mother’s and aunties’ interior decor as Hove Jewish Baroque Rococo and thought myself rather amusing. Then I read Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind. His description was far more impressive: ‘contemporary provincial Jewish Rococo’. Again and again I found myself identifying like mad with Mr J’s Protagonist Sefton Goldberg, English teacher in a West Midlands polytechnic. Sefton knew the furnishings, Sefton was not good enough in any sphere, he was not up to scratch physically, he was envious, guilty, sweaty and hairy, just like me, although I am a girl. How comforting it is to know that one is not suffering alone.

A rather bossy journalist once told me that the writer’s job was not to identify with the reader. What was it then? It was to amuse and entertain, she said strictly. I hope she was wrong, because it is heaven to identify – especially if one is a fairly tormented person. It can change your life.

It changed mine when I read Portnoy’s Complaint. There was a mother just like my mother, who hovered about outside the lavatory and bathroom, desperate for the latest news of bowel function and cleanliness. What had I done? What consistency? Which bits of myself had I washed after doing that? A child does not question such questions. They are part of everyday life. Then you read a magic book which demonstrates that this is not the norm and these questions do not have to be answered. You are free. You check with the rest of the world and learn that a gentile mother is different. She is restrained, polite, reserved and in her home, psychologically, there are no bottoms and lavatories.

Now here comes Jacobson, funnier than Roth I think, and so much more precise on Jewish life and gentile life, compare and contrast. How I have always envied those cool, pale Christians, as does Sefton. They are ‘hard y, healthy Protestants’ with ‘white, hairless bodies, buttons for noses’ and

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Several years ago I described my mother’s and aunties’ interior decor as Hove Jewish Baroque Rococo and thought myself rather amusing. Then I read Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind. His description was far more impressive: ‘contemporary provincial Jewish Rococo’. Again and again I found myself identifying like mad with Mr J’s Protagonist Sefton Goldberg, English teacher in a West Midlands polytechnic. Sefton knew the furnishings, Sefton was not good enough in any sphere, he was not up to scratch physically, he was envious, guilty, sweaty and hairy, just like me, although I am a girl. How comforting it is to know that one is not suffering alone.

A rather bossy journalist once told me that the writer’s job was not to identify with the reader. What was it then? It was to amuse and entertain, she said strictly. I hope she was wrong, because it is heaven to identify – especially if one is a fairly tormented person. It can change your life. It changed mine when I read Portnoy’s Complaint. There was a mother just like my mother, who hovered about outside the lavatory and bathroom, desperate for the latest news of bowel function and cleanliness. What had I done? What consistency? Which bits of myself had I washed after doing that? A child does not question such questions. They are part of everyday life. Then you read a magic book which demonstrates that this is not the norm and these questions do not have to be answered. You are free. You check with the rest of the world and learn that a gentile mother is different. She is restrained, polite, reserved and in her home, psychologically, there are no bottoms and lavatories. Now here comes Jacobson, funnier than Roth I think, and so much more precise on Jewish life and gentile life, compare and contrast. How I have always envied those cool, pale Christians, as does Sefton. They are ‘hard y, healthy Protestants’ with ‘white, hairless bodies, buttons for noses’ and ‘blameless thighs’, but from Sefton’s body
things were visibly sprouting and multiplying and dropping . . . [he] burned like a forest fire and sweated like a jungle. Colour blazed in his cheeks. The wax in his ears melted and popped . . . black hairs sprung from his nostrils and knuckles . . . and all day long a fine, hot trickle of perspiration traced the length of his spine and glued his shirt to his back.
Humiliated in one way or another, resentful, envious, ungainly, goatish, callow, foolish, bitterly disappointed and plain bitter, Sefton also feels guilty, guilty, guilty about everything: his mother, the fact that he does awful things to himself on the eve of his bar mitzvah, and the failure of his marriage. ‘In the matrimonial life of a Jewish male every day is Yom Kippur,’ thinks Sefton. He is spot on. And he cannot comprehend beer and sports. He cannot kick a football into a goal. ‘Twenty thousand goyim may have wanted him to score; he – Sefton – needed a bit more time to think about that, thank you.’ In this condition he must cope with an academic career, and in a Jew-free town. How can one not sympathize with such a fellow? Sefton is a hero. There are no half measures here. Jacobson treats mean qualities so generously that they become luscious. Sefton’s envy is voluptuous; he wallows in bitterness and guilt, so that reading this book becomes an uplifting experience. It is rich and luxurious, rather than thin and bitter. But Sefton’s Jewishness is not the only joke. We are in the world of Higher Education and literature here, a seething pit of pretension, envy and foolishness – a magic porridge pot of joke opportunities, of which Mr J takes the utmost advantage. Here is the Director of English Studies who ‘caught her breath just as it was about to leave her body forever’. And here is Cora Peck, lecturer, whose work is mainly concerned with ‘excrement, introspection and physical decay as a metaphor for spiri tual disablement’ and whose breasts ‘whispered’ to Sefton and ‘bobbed and weaved’. He could even see them from behind. At the news of such a person’s literary success, ‘A cold hand clutched at Sefton’s heart . . . Centuries of bitterness etched their lines about [his] mouth.’ If you want a superb, deeply probing view into the sewer and torment of envy, here it is. Jacobson writes in technicolour, especially about physicality: the ‘short young men’ in a pub, ‘dazed and tubular in coloured sweaters’; Walter Sickert Fledwhite, whose hair could have been ‘blown off his head by a sigh’; the ‘white-haired and skeletal’ elderly lecturer who danced ‘as if a polio victim had suddenly leapt from his chair and begun to perform a striptease’, and Sefton’s colleague Peter Potter, who in seminars ‘arranged himself on tables and cupboards and tied his ankles in a bow’. Even a single word can have a physical life all of its own. During Sefton’s exquisite verbal battle in the college car park with the enraged members of another department, another single word is scrutinized: ‘“Willed?” Hazlemere held up Sefton’s word by one corner and showed it to his colleagues. It might have been an item of silk underwear handed around a bar room.’ Cora Peck didn’t just say ‘yes’, she
expelled the word as if it were pointed and poisonous, like a Pygmy’s dart. On her lips [the word masturbation] evoked all of humanity’s most damp and inglorious physical ills . . . sciatica and rickets and artificial limbs and trusses and congested passages and the thousand unwelcome juices and fluids which made men cold and wet and full of dismal needs.
In such passages, stuffed with wretchedness, Jacobson’s prose is as vibrant, shapely and brilliantly offensive as Smollett’s. In this novel – first published in the early 1980s – we have a protagonist, exquisitely sensitive to word usage, battling to survive in the hell of the polytechnic English syllabus. Naturally, Sefton expresses dismay at the current trend in heroes. ‘They used to be inventive. Now they were tremulous. Behind this, Sefton believed he could detect the hand of D. H. Lawrence.’ To my mind, Sefton was right, as always. A king-sized character, he truly deserved success, just as much as he needed it. Did he get it? To find out, read this fabulous book.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Michele Hanson 2004


About the contributor

Michele Hanson lived with her mother, plus daughter, partner and dog, about which she wrote a column in the Guardian.

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