Howard Jacobson’s midlife marriage story has emotions in spades

A couple walk in the snow in Saltburn last week
A couple walk in the snow in Saltburn last week - Ian Forsyth

“What will survive of us is love.” It’s one of the most treasured lines in English literature, but return to Philip Larkin’s poem, and you’ll find it was to be understood as “our almost-instinct” and “almost true”. Howard Jacobson’s 17th novel, What Will Survive of Us, might seem, from its initial pages, to have overlooked that fact. On the very first, filmmaker Lily meets writer Sam to discuss his involvement in a D H Lawrence documentary, and – “kerpow!” – she falls in love. It’s a while before Sam feels the same, later still before the midlife pair can admit it to each other, but there’s no question that what they have is real.

Then they remember themselves. Both are in relationships of 20-plus years, and however stale those are – Lily’s partner is known as “the man with whom she played Scrabble” – they cannot follow their feelings without causing pain to others. They also have their careers to consider: Lily is an award-winning documentarian who has only found success in a male-dominated field by prioritising work over all else, while Sam is a famous playwright, a man “long and widely lauded as supreme puppet-master and magician of the English stage”. Do they even have time for love?

There will need to be compromises. As a writer of plays that “scorn constancy and… justify infidelity”, that “have been charged with immorality and even masculinism”, Sam doesn’t fit with Lily’s feminism. “My subject is the inside of people’s heads”, he says with characteristic self-satisfaction. “Modern Man in Search of His Manhood.” That Lily turns out to be the more untrammelled adulterer of the two, then, comes as a surprise. On the other hand, that Sam’s “fits of marital compunction” turn out to be self-serving comes as less of one. He has always dreamed of playing the Dane, and now, faced with the decision to leave or not to leave his wife, he imagines he is.

In literary fiction, marriage lost its sanctity in the 1960s, thanks to Updike, Roth and the lifting of the Lady Chatterley ban. Today, to make a plot point of marital compunction is to risk seeming very old-fashioned indeed. Aware of that, Jacobson spices things up by having Lily and Sam discover BDSM, a subject he treated with great verve 40 years ago in his second novel, Peeping Tom – albeit, in a section of more than 50 pages, he rather labours it here.

Jacobson’s sentences have always been things of beauty: ornate yet vigorous. But they have also become more aphoristic in recent books, used to expound general truths. Some examples from What Will Survive of Us: “Erotic thrall is admiration heated up”; “A writer is not fully alive to himself until he has found the language that tells him he is”; “Love is like authorship. You don’t know where it’s going to take you.”

Howard Jacobson at home earlier this month
Howard Jacobson at home earlier this month - Heathcliff O'Malley for DT

Whether these are the ideas of the characters or the narrator – there’s frequent slippage between the two – their sheer fluency can sometimes feel inapt to the emotional turmoil Sam and Lily are experiencing, and you don’t share in it entirely, not to the extent that Jacobson’s more discursive novels involve you, such as his Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question (2010) or his masterpiece, Kalooki Nights (2006).

Yet the turmoil doesn’t go on indefinitely. After finally committing to each other, Sam and Lily begin to build a life, and the final third of the novel comprises a touching gallery of moments from the decades of companionship that follow. They marry, they honeymoon, they lose their sex drive, they lose other faculties. Through all of it, their love endures – “at this moment I love you more than I have ever loved you,” says Sam 20 years in –  but they’re never wholly at peace. Lily receives a life-altering medical diagnosis; Sam is too busy blaming himself to support her. Sam remains jealous of her former lovers; Lily insists on telling him about them.

“The[ir] mistake”, Jacobson suggests, with an ambivalence that recalls Larkin’s, “is to think that to be happy in love is to be forever smiling.” It’s an insight that justifies the entire novel.

What Will Survive of Us is published by Jonathan Cape at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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