It’s hard to say exactly why I enjoyed reading Howard Jacobson’s 2004 novel “The Making of Henry”.
Not a lot happens throughout its 340 odd pages. The reader is largely stuck inside the head of retired English lecturer Henry Nagel, 59, Jewish, morbid, mildly misanthropic and with little libido (His chief love was his aunt, Marghanita, who introduced him to books).
After an utterly unremarkable career as an English literature lecturer at an undististinguised academic institution in the Pennines (where his chief accomplishment was to have slept with most of the wives of his friends and colleagues – and to have published virtually nothing), he finds himself living alone in a grand old St John’s Wood apartment, given to him for life by a mystery benefactor, whom he assumes was his father, Izzy’s, mistress.
This is just one of his many ruminations.
It might have all been so very different for Henry if his estranged best friend and rival Osmond “Hovis” (because his head was shaped like a loaf of bread) Belkin hadn’t called him a “girl” on their first day of grammar school or if his father hadn’t chosen a career as a fire-breathing children’s entertainer or if Henry had had plan for his life or a desire for one in the first place:
“I’ve cocked up my life.” Henry told himself, early on the first day of his first term as an assistant lecturer at the Pennine Way College of Rural Technology. That was not simply a description of what had happened, it was also a statement of intent…”I’ve cocked up my life”, as Henry inflected it, also contained the meanings “I will have cocked up my life” and “There was never a time when I wasn’t going to have cocked up my life.”
Not exactly an inspiring figure, but in my eyes the true Jewish male intellectual anti-hero.
Without any real ambition, without any noteworthy achievements, great wealth, wives or children (the standards by which many Jewish men are judged) Henry obsesses over his own mortality, finds his life to have been mostly pointless, but who drudges along anyway, holding out a flicker of hope that some meaning or purpose may yet come, even at this late stage.
He encapsulates what Alvy Singer, the neurotic main character in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall means when he says, telling an old joke, that: “Life is full of heartache and misery – and over far too quickly.”
Now 40 and wondering how I got here so fast or where the years went, I could relate to this passage (though not quite so morbidly):
Does Henry feel, then, that his has been a disappointing life? No. Henry feels his has not been a life….There was his childhood – say from zero to twenty-one; all right, say from zero to thirty – then whoosh! (he teaches, he is borrowed by his friends’ wives, he resigns, he moves to St John’s Wood, he meets a dog) and suddenly it’s now.
Where has the time gone? What have I achieved? Is it too late? Should I be ashamed? What would my parents think of me now?
Howard Jacobson has been celebrated for being the unofficial laureate of the Jewish male persona and in ‘The Making of Henry” he has unearthed many of its characteristics.
Also, ‘The Making of Henry” made me laugh out loud, particularly at Henry’s interaction with the outside world, of which his experiences are mainly bad, shameful or unsatisfying.
In one scene, Henry, reluctantly agrees to walk a friend’s dog, who then pisses against the tyre of a BMW:
“Hey!” someone calls.
Neither Henry or Angus (the dog) take any notice.
“Hey! I said hey!”
Henry looks up. They are outside Bar One or something similar. A man in shiny metallic suit…is standing in the doorway, pointing rhythmically. He is on his mobile phone, and expects Henry to put up with his half attention.
“Your tyre?” Henry wonders.
“My wife’s tyre”
“Well I’m sure she drives through worse.” He does not intend to apologise. Not on Angus’s behalf. For Angus, Henry will now lie on a bed of broken glass.
The man goes on shaking his finger. “You should know you’re not to let dogs foul the footpath.
“That’s not the footpath. He wants the gutter, but your wife’s car is in the way. And on double yellow lines.”
“In the way! You shouldn’t be walking him here at all.”
“I take my dog,” Henry says, “For walks where he wants to walk.”
“And my wife parks where she wants to park.”
“Then your wife and my dog have much in common.”
Henry may be morbid and depressing, but he is also witty,darkly comic, free of the burden of being polite, considerate and nice.
Salvation, and a re-awakening of Henry’s loins comes when he meets and falls in love with flat-shoe wearing, yet flirtatious, Moira, the Eastern European scented waitress who serves him his coffee and cake at the Viennese pâtisserie he frequents on the St John’s Wood high street.
It is Moira who brings Henry back to the world of the living and literally snaps him out of the moments when he disappears into his own head and thoughts about his dead parents, or lost friendship with Hovis Belkin.
So, really, The Making of Henry is a love story.