Friday, 26 August 2016

Book Review: The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson

2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

We all know – if not from own experience, then from what we see, hear and read every day – that the years of adolescence are an enormously formative period of life. Moreover, they can be a terribly confusing and difficult time for the youths. They are even harder for a boy who grows up surrounded mostly by women, moreover Jewish ones in 1950s England, and who happens to be so shy that he is blushing virtually for no reason and that he prefers to hide on the toilet for hours on end. As a woman in my mid-forties I can relate only to some of it, but this is the life that the scarcely teenage protagonist of the award-winning comic novel The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson has until an unexpected talent for table tennis opens a whole new world to him and eventually even allows him to study in Cambridge.

Howard Jacobson was born in Manchester, England, U.K., in August 1942. After his studies of English at Downing College, Cambridge, U.K., he worked for several years as a teacher in Sydney, Australia, and later in the U.K. Only in 1983 he made his debut as a novelist bringing out the book Coming From Behind. It was followed by more than a dozen novels since, most notable among them The Mighty Walzer (1999), Who's Sorry Now? (2002), Kalooki Nights (2006), The Finkler Question (2010), and Zoo Time (2012) along with critically much acclaimed The Act of Love (2008). The author is also well known in the U.K. as newspaper columnist, scriptwriter and TV/radio presenter. His latest published novels are J (2014) and Shylock Is My Name (2016). Howard Jacobson lives in London, England, U.K., with his third wife.

In the 1950s in Manchester eleven-year-old Oliver discovers his talent for table tennis that turns the extremely shy Jewish boy into The Mighty Walzer, but such transformations never happen overnight. In fact, he is quite content hitting the ping-pong ball that he found bobbing on a nearby lake against the living-room wall with a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the only one of his “soft green pitted-leatherette Collins Classics” not written by a woman, until some months later his father takes him to the Akiva Social Club and signs him up for the table tennis team to get him out into the world more.
“‘Play,’ my father said. ‘I’ll be in the bus waiting for you. I’ll wait as long as it takes. But don’t come back out in under two hours.’
His father has even brought a bat to play with instead of the book, but it’s a self-made one and ridiculously big. The ping-pong players are all older than Oliver and ignore him, until one of them makes a joke about his bat and another – Theo Starr called Twink – invites him to play lending him his own bat. When he hits a ball past Aishky Mistofsky who expects nothing like it, Oliver first gets the full attention of the team and it’s the beginning of his friendship with Twink and Aishky. Soon he is the top player of the club and goes through the usual turmoil of adolescence. Almost grown-up he acquires a taste for losing his ping-pong matches first against beautiful Lorna Peachley and finally against anybody who wants to win too badly.
“… If he wanted it that badly then he could have it. If I’d been any kind of fighter I’d have made the opposite resolution. …
So I did the next best thing. I gave it to him as a gift. I had neither the character to win nor the character to consent graciously to his winning. So I gave it to him. You want it that much? Here, have!”
At the time Oliver already has a good enough renown as a ping-pong player, though, to get a place in Golem College in Cambridge where he is (in vain) expected to boost the performance of the table tennis team and where he reads moral sciences majoring in classical literature. But also in other respects he continues in a line with his past…

Like many coming-of-age novels The Mighty Walzer is a first-person narrative written from the retrospective point of view of the adult protagonist, in this case of the classics scholar Oliver Walzer who is in his mid-fifties and on a visit home from Italy for the wedding of his daughter. Ever again he puts his reminiscences of life in the predominantly Jewish environment loosely in relation with the man he has become and with the life he had after his table tennis days. The author also puts much of his own experience as a ping-pong playing youth in Manchester of the 1950s into his novel giving ample room to the influence of a Jewish background in the process of growing up. In addition, the novel is spattered with Yiddish expressions that too often lack explanation. Yiddish being akin to German, I understood most of them although sometimes only after thinking hard, but it might be more difficult for native speakers of English unless some of the expressions are part of colloquial language (which I doubt). At any rate, they broke the flow of the text and this quite annoyed me. Otherwise, the language is unpretentious and full of irony that sometimes slips a little from the subtle into the vulgar.

Admittedly, The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson hasn’t been the best nor the most engaging book that I read this year, but it gave me an interesting and for being a comic novel also an entertaining insight into Jewish life in post-war Manchester. Of course, I could have done without table tennis as a red thread – I don’t care for sports of any kind – and the workings of the mind of a shy adolescent boy don’t particularly thrill me, either. Despite all, I enjoyed the read because I liked the author’s sense of humour, notably his way of making fun of himself and his kin. The protagonist may be quite a loser, but at least he’s a loveable one and therefore I recommend this novel.

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This review is a contribution to
(image linked to my reading list):


  1. I've only read one Howard Jacobson book, The Finkler Question, which I didn't enjoy at all and found it very self-indulgent. My partner did quite like the book though so maybe I needed to be an older man to understand it!
    I liked reading your The Mighty Walzer review as it gives me a good sense of this novel, its strengths and weaknesses.

    Stephanie Jane @ Literary Flits

    1. I haven't read The Finkler Question or any other book of Howard Jacobson. However, "self-indulgent" may be a good word to describe this one too, but then it's the story of a teenage boy meaning that it's probably quite appropriate to have the not particularly successful protagonist scratching on old age tell it just in this way.

      I'm glad that you liked my review of The Mighty Walzer because it gives you an idea of the book. I can hardly expect to achieve more. Thanks for your comment!

  2. I have read two books by Howard Jacobson and enjoyed both: The Finkler Question and Shylock is My Name. I like how he can be both erudite and witty at the same time. Your review reminded me to read more of his books.

    1. Considering your comment and that of Stephanie Jane, Howard Jacobson seems to be quite a controversial writer. Understandably so! His sense of humour certainly isn't to everybody's taste. I know only this one book of his that I reviewed and it's an early work.

      Anyways, thanks for your comment and for drawing my attention to The Finkler Question and to his latest novel Shylock is My Name.


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