‘The Dog’s Last Walk’ by Howard Jacobson
An irresistible collection of columns from a master storyteller
You would have no trouble picking Howard Jacobson’s sentences out of a line-up. They jab. From one to the next, they provoke a flurry of emotions. Read Jacobson to laugh. Read him to be confronted. Read his latest collection of nonfiction, The Dog’s Last Walk (Bloomsbury; $24.99), and scratch your head at his range and the elegance with which he connects seemingly disparate subjects.
In The Dog’s Last Walk, Jacobson’s second collection of columns originally published in the Independent, we witness a writer’s mastery at forcing us to see anew. Any good story tells at least two stories and these columns achieve nothing less. Jacobson has an oblique approach to his topics. A column that begins with reflections about women’s lack of freedom in Turkey segues into thoughts on Marx, Kundera and Baudelaire. Writing about the identity of Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” sparks an investigation into identity, authorship and narration. A journey to New York prompts discourse on the meaning of hip. Jacobson writes about darts and diet. He ponders the multiple meanings of Nazi salutes, Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, pornography and ageing, death and suicide, nostril hair and gender politics. If it’s been on the evening news, Jacobson has most likely written about it.
As he hones in on the way we live now, Jacobson’s focus remains, first and foremost, that of a novelist. He often returns to literature for his touchstones. A column devoted to the 2015 British elections unfurls in the breathless, one-sentence voice of Molly Bloom. “Yes they’re all big infants making promises,” Jacobson begins, only to end with the Joycean “I say no I would not like to no and my heart and my brain are hurting and no I say no I won’t No.”
In a column he devotes to the death of Robert Hughes, Jacobson writes, “I can’t claim him as a personal friend, though we met occasionally when he came to editorial meetings of that once fine journal Modern Painters, breathing fire, heaping scorn, laughing like Jove, and reminding us by his very presence that there are few higher callings than talking well about art.”
Throughout, Jacobson invites us to re-evaluate what it means to read and think deeply.
Asseveration is today the rage: a passion to pronounce with certainty, to aver or declare if you’re the writer; an impatience with discourse of any other sort if you’re the reader. Irony, whose methodology is often slow and covert, finds little favour in those channels of conversation which the social media have made possible. The writer, literal-mindedly meaning what he says, stands and delivers, whereupon the respondent, literal-mindedly believing him, gives the thumbs up or thumbs down. If you happen to believe that most judgements worth making occupy a hazy, indeterminate space somewhere between ‘like’ or ‘dislike,’ and are in a perpetual state of being formed and reconsidered, you will find there are few symbols on the Internet you can make use of.
Collecting these columns in one volume rather than reading them weekly, as they originally appeared, allows us to spend uninterrupted time in the company of a writer whose charm and culture continually disarm. Jacobson, ever-effacing, presents himself like the figure in Stevie Smith’s poem ‘Not Waving but Drowning’. He’s at once vulnerable, revealing his own weaknesses as he invites us to acknowledge our own. After offering thoughts on the health benefits of turmeric, he discusses the character traits he admires in a writer. “In the end it’s the idea of writing from a pulpit that troubles me,” he writes. “The writer as priest. I prefer him down and dirty. Companionable, comfortable and unfit, a man you’d like to share a vindaloo with.” These essays offer an occasion to spend that kind of time with a singular writer – and to reflect on where we are now.