The Act of Love – Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson
The Act of Love
Penguin Canada, 2009
Softcover, 308 pages

The Masochist: Inside Out

 

Well, here is a peculiar situation. I have just read a book I didn’t much like, one that left me with somewhat ambivalent feelings about the man who wrote it. But that book has also tempted me to read more works by the same author: I’m fairly sure I’ll like his others better.

The Act of Love is the tenth novel and 14th book by British writer and academic Howard Jacobson. My interest was piqued by an interview I read last fall with Jacobson about the book, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard of him before. He is an award-winning author whose 2006 novel Kalooki Nights was long-listed for the Man Booker prize, and he’s a regular contributor of opinion pieces to major British newspapers. According to Wikipedia, his propensity for creating fictional doppelgangers of himself and for writing comic novels involving Jews have earned him comparisons to Philip Roth.

The protagonist of The Act of Love is the singularly unsympathetic owner of an antiquarian bookshop in the Marylebone district of London by the name of Felix Quinn. Felix has come to believe that the search for pain is fundamental to human nature, deriving his evidence primarily (and at some times more convincingly than others) from the literary and visual arts. He also believes that of all human activity, love offers the most opportunity for pain, and he sets out to explore his own masochistic tendencies by turning himself into a cuckold. In the depths of misery, jealousy and humiliation he is certain he will find fulfillment.

“No man has ever loved a woman,” he insists, “and not imagined her in the arms of someone else…. No man is ever happy—truly genitally happy, happy at the very heart of himself as a husband—until he has proof positive that another man is f***ing her.” [asterisks mine]

Previously unlucky in love, Felix has managed to win the sophisticated, aloof and beautiful Marisa away from her first husband—partly thanks (he says) to his exceptional ability to carry on an intelligent discussion, and partly because he knows the location of the neighbourhood’s best restaurants. Marisa is so lovely and so self-possessed that one would think that the very fact of being in love with her would in and of itself have been enough to bring Felix to his knees in exquisite agony. However, he discovers that the usual piquancies of married life will not be enough for him when, during their honeymoon in Cuba, Marisa falls ill and is attended by a physician who touches her breasts in Felix’s presence as part of the examination. This sets Felix off on his marital mission (or obsession)—one that eclipses all of his other interests—which is to secure the perfect lover for his wife.

After a few false starts, during which Felix leaves the selection of the lovers to Marisa, he decides that a man named Marius, whom he has previously met at a funeral in Shropshire and who has now come to live in Marylebone, will be the ideal instrument to assist in his own betrayal.

“He was handsome, if you find high and hawkish men handsome. As a non-predatory man myself, I felt intimidated by him. But that’s part of what being handsome means, isn’t it: instilling fear.”

Felix is no voyeur: he has no interest in actually seeing his wife physically engage in the act of love with another man; rather he gains his pleasure (or at least the pain that masochists define as pleasure) first by imagining and later by hearing Marisa relate the intimate details of her passionate afternoons with Marius.

“I ceded preference to Marius. I liked following him. It satisfied my sulphurous desire to be demeaned, the last in a line of obscene pursuit—Marisa laying down her scent, Marius tracking her, and I trailing in the rear of them both, like a wounded dog.”

How charming.

The perambulations Felix must go through to bring this relationship to fruition (according to the rules he has invented for his game, Marius and Marisa must fall for one another of their own accord) would surely be enough to discourage most mortals, even the obsessive ones. But Felix takes as much pleasure from the challenges of accomplishing his mission as he does in its achievement.

As his scheme gradually unfolds, Felix regales us with a list of his literary and artistic predecessors—which includes not only those with clearly masochistic perspectives, such as Georges Bataille, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the artist Pierre Klossowski, but also the less obviously complicit—Vladimir Nabakov, James Joyce, George Eliot and Charles Dickens to name a few. Felix even argues at some length and with a fair degree of success that Shakespeare’s Othello was driven by a lust similar to his own (‘“I had been happy if the general camp had tasted [Desdemona’s] sweet body,’ Othello says”). And yet we feel that the most appropriate fictional counterpart to Felix’s efforts to deploy Marisa and Marius in the fulfillment of his twisted fantasies can be found in Dr. Hannibal Lecter (to whom he also refers)—for his erudition as well as his cruelty. Felix Quinn is so intelligent and sly, and so manipulative, that we suspect that he may even be aware that he is a literary invention himself, and be looking forward to assuming a position of prominence among the great sexual masochists of world fiction.

Felix is a highly unreliable narrator. He keeps readers on our guard, constantly forcing us to step back from the tale to assess whether the information he conveys to us is something he could actually know or not. By the end of the novel we are so uncertain of our footing that if Felix were to tell us that the entire affair he has so carefully engineered between Marisa and Marius had been a fabrication (and indeed, he does hint that this may be the case), we would not doubt him for a moment.

Well, at least not at first. Later, maybe we would. Later still, maybe not again.

As uncertain as we may be about the reliability of the stories Felix tells us, The Act of Love is a novel, not a reality show, and we never feel (as we might with a newer or less talented writer) as though our ambivalence been achieved with anything less than deliberate manipulation on the part of the author. Furthermore, as unpleasant as Felix is, Jacobson has created a highly sympathetic character in Marisa: beyond her beauty, aloofness and betrayal of her husband is an obviously kind and conscientious person, a woman who protects those she loves even from her own pain. It is not easy to create a sympathetic character through the eyes of an unsympathetic one: it takes talent to do that.

The scope of the philosophical deliberations into which Jacobson invites us are also tantalizing. Among the moral issues we consider as we read The Act of Love is whether Marisa’s willing participation in the betrayal makes Felix less of a scoundrel for having engineered it. Further, we wonder whether Felix should still be defined as a masochist if he has facilitated the affair…does he not thereby become a sadist? Finally we ask ourselves whether Marisa’s relating the details of her dalliances in Felix’s ear, because she knows it gives him pleasure, does not transform her betrayal into its own act of love.

The questions and issues Jacobson raises are intriguing on artistic as well as ethical levels. At one point, Felix asks us to consider whether some of the great novelists have not been masochists. He compares himself, for example, with Thomas Hardy who first creates the lovely, trusting, innocent Tess—and then defiles and destroys her.

Ultimately, the formality of Felix’s prose and his endless self-analysis create such a distance between him and the reader that we feel no empathy or even sympathy for him, nor do we experience any satisfaction when he is finally discovered and handed his just desserts. But Jacobson is a writer of no small talent and interest. His narrator is very funny when he’s not being repulsive, and there is a way in which this entire novel can be read as a black comedy — a twisted mockery of romance.

And so, although in the end I wasn’t all that keen on The Act of Love, I’m glad I read it. Next I think I’ll try Kalooki Nights.

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2 Comments

  1. KOLOOKI NIGHTS was one of my favorite novels for a bit of time….I even gave it as a gift to my ex-husband! I really want to read this new one, not so much because I think I'll like it, but more because he writes on the subject of love and sexuality, which FRANKLY, really interests me. Thanks, Mary!

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  2. Mary: Thanks for the introduction to an author I hadn't heard of 'til now. I'll have to give him a try. It's an excellent review, but, as you suggest, sometimes it's hard to read even a well-crafted novel whose characters or subject matter are repulsive. I'm having a problem getting through Revolutionary Road for similar reasons.

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