The Age

Winning novel shaped by a love affair with Australia

Date: 14/10/2010
Words: 582
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: News
Page: 5
HOWARD Jacobson and Germaine Greer don't seem like natural bedfellows. But then, Jacobson, the winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for The Finkler Question, declared himself to be the "love child of a Jewish Jane Austen and a British Philip Roth". So there may be more than meets the eye.

In fact, the Manchester-born Jewish writer and broadcaster, 68, replaced Greer as an English lecturer at the University of Sydney when she left for London in 1965. It was his first job. He fell in love with Australia and, for that stint, stayed three years. In the time since he has spent a further nine years in the country that he describes as "Lotus Land". He moonlighted for a time as a rep for Cheshire Publishers in Melbourne and has written two books about Australia  Redback, a novel, and In the Land of Oz, a travel book.

In 1965 Jacobson was married to an Australian, Rosalin Sadler. Their marriage lasted 30 years but was put under strain after Jacobson had one of many affairs.

As the three-times-married author wrote in The Guardian in August: "I fell in love, of course. Not just with the bridge and the harbour it spanned with such unsubtle majesty, but with my colleagues (on the right side of the fence), with their children and their bush houses and their swimming pools, with the cleverness of Australians, with their sense of humour, their affability, their sentimentality and their recklessness, with the friends I made and, inevitably, with a student. I was too stimulated not to fall in love."

Sadler said in Sydney: "I am delighted he has finally had the recognition his wit and technical skill deserves. But it will always be a tremendous challenge to my intelligence and humanity to endorse his disreputable, preposterous, engaging and vigorous progress."

It was not just the student and the lifestyle he fell in love with; it was also Australian men. He adored the mateship and forged close bonds. His most treasured friendship was with Terry Collits, who died last year while Jacobson was writing The Finkler Question  a story of mateship, envy, Jewishness, grief and humour. Collits was a former master at Chisholm College at La Trobe University and a former head of the English department at the University of Melbourne. "We just used to make each other laugh and laugh and laugh."

The Finkler Question is dedicated to Collits.

So, was the book  which deals with the experiences of three ageing men, two of whom have recently been widowed  partly autobiographical? No. Most certainly not. It was inspired by meeting a 90-year-old man who was "fully alive" but struggling to deal with the death of his wife. Dread is the thing that underpins The Finkler Question.

"That tragedy, of this fully, fully alive 90-year-old man. So intelligent, so funny and still attractive, and grieving for his wife. It affected me very deeply."

Jacobson's Australian experiences taught him a great deal about comic writing, he says. "Cadence" is the word that he uses to describe the humour of men like Collits  "so aggressive" and yet playful and spirited.

Given Jacobson is the first author of a comic novel to win the coveted #50,000 ($A80,000) prize in the Booker's 42-year history, this is telling. He says he fears he has been forgotten in Australia and, as he's ushered away, he says over his shoulder: "Make sure you emphasise it. Australia was a huge influence on me. It was very, very significant."

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