Howard Jacobson

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Howard Jacobson
Born (1942-08-25) 25 August 1942 (age 80)
Manchester, England
OccupationNovelist, columnist, broadcaster
Alma materDowning College, Cambridge
SubjectJewishness, humour
Notable awardsMan Booker Prize (2010)
SpouseBarbara Starr (m. 1964; div.)
Rosalin Sadler (m. 1978; div. 2004)
Jenny De Yong (m. 2005)

Howard Eric Jacobson (born 25 August 1942) is a British novelist and journalist. He is known for writing comic novels that often revolve around the dilemmas of British Jewish characters.[1] He is a Man Booker Prize winner.

Early life[edit]

Jacobson was born in Manchester to parents of Russian-Jewish heritage (his father's parents came from Kamianets-Podilskyi in what is now Ukraine, his mother's family from Lithuania).[2] He was brought up in Prestwich, and educated at Stand Grammar School in Whitefield, Greater Manchester[3] before going on to study English at Downing College, Cambridge, under F. R. Leavis.[4] He graduated with a 2:2.[5]

He lectured for three years at the University of Sydney before returning to Britain to teach at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His later teaching posts included a period at Wolverhampton Polytechnic from 1974 to 1980.[6]


Jacobson's time at Wolverhampton was to form the basis of his first novel, Coming from Behind, a campus comedy about a failing polytechnic that plans to merge facilities with a local football club. The episode of teaching in a football stadium in the novel is, according to Jacobson in a 1985 BBC interview, the only portion of the novel based on a true incident. He also wrote a travel book in 1987, titled In the Land of Oz, which was researched during his time as a visiting academic in Sydney.

Jacobson's fiction, particularly in the six novels he has published since 1998, is characterised chiefly by a discursive and humorous style.[1] Recurring subjects in his work include male–female relations and the Jewish experience in Britain in the mid- to late-20th century. He has been compared to prominent Jewish-American novelists such as Philip Roth, in particular for his habit of creating doppelgängers of himself in his fiction.

His 1999 novel The Mighty Walzer, about a teenage ping-pong champion, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing.[7] It is set in the Manchester of the 1950s and Jacobson, himself a table tennis fan in his teenage years, admits that there is more than an element of autobiography in it.[8] His 2002 novel Who's Sorry Now? – the central character of which is a Jewish luggage baron of South London – and his 2006 novel Kalooki Nights were longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Jacobson described Kalooki Nights as "the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere".[9] It won the 2007 JQ Wingate Prize.[10]

As well as writing fiction, he also contributes a weekly column for The Independent newspaper as an op-ed writer. In recent times, he has, on several occasions, attacked anti-Israel boycotts, and for this reason has been labelled a "liberal Zionist".[11]

In October 2010 Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question, which was the first comic novel to win the prize since Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils in 1986.[12] The book, published by Bloomsbury, explores what it means to be Jewish today and is also about "love, loss and male friendship".[13] Andrew Motion, the chair of the judges, said: "The Finkler Question is a marvellous book: very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be. A completely worthy winner of this great prize."[13] His novel Zoo Time won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize (2013), Jacobson's second time winning the prize (the first in 1999 for The Mighty Walzer).[14]

In September 2014, Jacobson's novel J was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.[15]

Jacobson has argued that an education in science and technology is more conducive to terrorism than an education in the arts and social sciences.[16]


Although Jacobson has described himself as "a Jewish Jane Austen" (in response to being described as "the English Philip Roth"),[17] he also states, "I'm not by any means conventionally Jewish. I don't go to shul. What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence. I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past. I don't know what kind of trouble this gets somebody into, a disputatious mind. What a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that's what shapes the Jewish sense of humour, that's what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness." He maintains that "comedy is a very important part of what I do."[8]


Jacobson has scripted television programmes including Channel 4's Howard Jacobson Takes on the Turner, in 2000, and The South Bank Show in 2002, which featured an edition entitled "Why the Novel Matters". An earlier profile went out in the series in 1999 and a television documentary entitled "My Son the Novelist" preceded it as part of the Arena series in 1985.[18] His two non-fiction books – Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews (1993) and Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (1997) – were turned into television series.

Jacobson presented "Jesus The Jew", episode one of Christianity, A History, on the UK's Channel 4 in January 2009[19] and in 2010 he presented "Creation", the first part of the Channel 4 series The Bible: A History.[20]

On 3 November 2010, Jacobson appeared in an Intelligence Squared debate (stop bashing Christians, Britain is becoming an anti-Christian country) in favour of the motion.[21]

In February 2011 Jacobson appeared on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. His musical choices included works by J. S. Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Louis Armstrong as well as the rare 1964 single "Look at Me" by the Whirlwinds. His favourite was "You’re a Sweetheart" by Al Bowlly with Lew Stone and His Band.[22]

He wrote and presented the Australian biographical series Brilliant Creatures (2014) on four famous expatriate iconoclasts.[23]

Personal life[edit]

Jacobson has been married three times.[24] Engaged at 21 whilst a student at Cambridge, he married his first wife Barbara in 1964 after graduating, when he was 22. They have a son, Conrad Jacobson, born December 1968. During his time at Cambridge, Barbara attended some of Leavis' seminars with Jacobson. Before leaving Cambridge they attended a party where amongst the guests were the playwright Simon Gray, and Germaine Greer, whose job Jacobson was filling in Sydney.

In late 1964 Howard and Barbara emigrated to Australia, taking a six-week voyage on P&O's SS Oriana. On arrival, Jacobson took up a lectureship at Sydney University. They returned to Manchester in 1967, living there briefly before moving to London, where Conrad was born. This was followed by Howard teaching at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and running the family business on Cambridge Market selling handbags and leather goods. Jacobson returned to Australia when Conrad was 3 years old. He remained without a teaching post. Jacobson eventually returned to the UK after several years. Barbara divorced him in his absence. They share a granddaughter Ziva, born in 2008.[25][26]

He married his second wife, Rosalin Sadler, in 1978; they divorced in 2004. In 2005, Jacobson was married for the third time, to radio and TV documentary maker Jenny De Yong. He stated, "My last wife. I'm home, it's right".[27]


In August 2014, Jacobson was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian urging Scots to vote against independence in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum.[28]

In November 2017, Jacobson joined Simon Sebag Montefiore and Simon Schama in writing a letter to The Times about their concern over antisemitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, with particular reference to a growth in Anti-Zionism and its "antisemitic characteristics". Schama and Sebag Montefiore have both written historical works about Israel, while Jacobson has written regularly about Israel and the UK Jewish community in his newspaper columns.[29] In September 2018, Jacobson took part in the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion "Jeremy Corbyn is Unfit to be Prime Minister".[30] Jacobson made a further criticism of the party in July 2019, when he joined other leading Jewish figures in saying, in a letter to The Guardian, that the investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into the party in relation to antisemitism allegations was "a taint of international and historic shame" and that trust between the party and most British Jews was "fractured beyond repair".[31]



  • Coming from behind. London: Chatto & Windus. 1983.
  • Peeping Tom, Chatto & Windus, 1984
  • Redback, Bantam, 1986
  • The Very Model of a Man, Viking, 1992
  • No More Mister Nice Guy, Cape, 1998
  • The Mighty Walzer, Cape, 1999
  • Who's Sorry Now?, Cape, 2002
  • The Making of Henry, Cape, 2004
  • Kalooki Nights, Cape, 2006
  • The Act of Love, Cape, 2008
  • The Finkler Question, Bloomsbury, 2010 (Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize)
  • Zoo Time, Bloomsbury, 2012
  • J, Bloomsbury, 2014 (shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize)[15]
  • Shylock Is My Name: a novel, Hogarth 2016
  • Pussy: a novel, Cape, April 13, 2017
  • Live a Little, Cape, 2019[32]


  • Shakespeare's Magnanimity: Four Tragic Heroes, Their Friends and Families (co-author with Wilbur Sanders), Chatto & Windus, 1978
  • In the Land of Oz, Hamish Hamilton, 1987
  • Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews, Viking, 1993
  • Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime, Viking, 1997
  • "The weeping Pom". Granta. 70: 181–196. Summer 2000.
  • Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It, Bloomsbury, 2011
  • The Dog's Last Walk: (and Other Pieces), Bloomsbury, 2017
  • Mother's Boy: A Writer's Beginnings, Jonathan Cape, 2022


  1. ^ a b Ragi, K. R., "Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question as a Post-Holocaust Fiction", in Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies. July 2014, vol. 5, issue 3, pp. 50-55.
  2. ^ Howard Jacobson, "Russia, My Homeland", Tablet, 15 Jan. 2020
  3. ^ Anon (13 October 2010). "Howard Jacobson wins the Booker Prize – and thanks his Whitefield school". Manchester Evening News. Retrieved 16 December 2010.
  4. ^ Pearson, Allison (27 April 2003). "Howard Jacobson". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 12 October 2010.
  5. ^ "Donald Trump? How can anyone exist and be so dumb?". The Spectator. 15 April 2017. Retrieved 12 May 2019.
  6. ^ International who's who of authors and writers, London: Europa Publications, 2003, p.271
  7. ^ "Clipboard Archive – The Everyman Launch". The P G Wodehouse Society (UK). Archived from the original on 21 March 2012. Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  8. ^ a b Manus, Elizabeth. "Something Jewish: "Howard Jacobson Interview"". Retrieved 7 April 2009.
  9. ^ Wides, Cara. "Something Jewish: "Howard Jacobson Talking"". Archived from the original on 14 August 2020. Retrieved 23 May 2022.
  10. ^ "Winner of the 2007 Wingate Literary Prize"
  11. ^ White, Ben (14 September 2007). "The Electronic Intifada, "Shoot and Cry: Liberal Zionism's Dilemma," (2007-09-20)". Retrieved 7 April 2009.
  12. ^ McKie, John (14 October 2010). "The light-hearted too often leave award ceremonies light-handed". Caledonian Mercury. Archived from the original on 2 June 2013. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  13. ^ a b "Howard Jacobson wins the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2010". Man Booker Prize. 12 October 2010. Archived from the original on 16 January 2014. Retrieved 31 March 2013.
  14. ^ Alison Flood (15 May 2013). "Howard Jacobson wins second Wodehouse prize for comic fiction". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  15. ^ a b "Man Booker Prize: Howard Jacobson makes shortlist". BBC News. 9 September 2014. Retrieved 9 September 2014.
  16. ^ Howard Jacobson (11 December 2015). "Show me the jihadist with a well‑thumbed copy of Middlemarch in his back pocket". The Independent.
  17. ^ Brown, Mark (12 October 2010). "Howard Jacobson wins Booker prize 2010 for The Finkler Question". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 12 October 2010.
  18. ^ "Arena: My Son the Novelist", BFI Film and TV Database
  19. ^ "Behold! The Jewish Jesus" by Howrd Jacobson, The Guardian, 8 January 2009
  20. ^ "The Bible: A History". Channel 4. Archived from the original on 1 March 2010. Retrieved 12 October 2010.
  21. ^ "Christianity Is Imperfect – But Life Is Imperfect". Intelligence Squared. Archived from the original on 8 January 2011. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  22. ^ "Desert Island Discs: Howard Jacobson". BBC Online. 6 February 2011. Retrieved 29 May 2011.
  23. ^ Brilliant Creatures: Germaine, Clive, Barry & Bob Official website at ABC
  24. ^ "Find My Past". Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  25. ^ "Howard Jacobson's world: Jewishness, magic and wine". The Daily Telegraph. 14 June 2013. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  26. ^ "Howard Jacobson's world: Jewishness, magic and wine". The Guardian. 14 June 2013. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  27. ^ Polly Vernon (7 September 2008). "Love. Sex. Marriage. Affairs. – Novelist Howard Jacobson on why jealousy is at the dark heart of male sexual passion". The Observer. London. Retrieved 11 August 2019.
  28. ^ "Celebrities' open letter to Scotland – full text and list of signatories | Politics". 7 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  29. ^ Sugarman, Daniel (6 November 2017). "Schama, Sebag-Montefiore and Jacobson unite to condemn Labour antisemitism". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  30. ^ "Jeremy Corbyn is Unfit to be Prime Minister".
  31. ^ Boscia, Stefan (14 July 2019). "Jewish figures rail against Labour's handling of antisemitism charges". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
  32. ^ Tim Adams (8 July 2019). "Live a Little by Howard Jacobson review – wonderful". The Guardian.

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