I have to admit initial ambivalence about this book. It’s very clever in the way it deals with the eponymous character’s interior life even though written in the third person. But its challenges lie in its very success. I found it really hard to like Henry. I know; one isn’t supposed to like all protagonists. And oh Henry is such a protagonist in the sense that he initiates conflict, in this case the conflicts in his own mind. I’m going to give in and make a bad pun. A lot of Henry’s agony is self-inflicted. Henry’s self image problem is written in capital letters. Or perhaps I should say, given Henry’s inferiority complex, subscripted letters.
“‘I’ve cocked up my life,’ Henry told himself, early on the first day of his first term as an assistant lecturer at the Pennine Way College of Rural Technology. That was not simply a description of what had happened, it was also a statement of intent. Henry conjugated verbs differently from other men. ‘I’ve cocked up my life,’ as Henry inflected it, also contained the meanings ‘I will cock up my life,’ ‘I will have cocked up my life,’ and ‘There was never a time when I wasn’t going to have cocked up my life.’
As I said, it is rather hard to have patience with Henry. He seems to wallow in his own sense of being second rate. Then, there’s his attitude to women. Oh dear. He borrows his friends’ wives, one of whom tells him, “everything you have is on the side” (114). “[Un]certain of his own judgement,” Henry “can’t handle the reponsibility” of a woman; he borrows other women because “if they’re attached that means someone other than him desires or has desired them, which confirms and vindicates, or at least seconds, his interest in them” (99). He suffers still from the fact that at school the boy who became his best friend called him “you girl” (79).
The novel begins in St. John’s Wood when a neighbor dies. Henry is living in a flat he believes to have been his father’s, a place where, Henry surmises, his father betrayed Henry’s mother Ekaterina and came to meet a mistress. Retired early from the college that became a polytechnic and then a university, where students recorded “‘Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz’ in their notebooks” during his lectures and where his department head had to remind him “a salaried academic couldn’t expect to do nothing with his professional life except read and reread Jane Eyre and yet never publish a syllable about it” (179), Henry contemplates mortality and loss and attempts to make sense of his life.
By the end of the novel, many of Henry’s assumptions about his past and about his family have been overturned, and, liberated from his past, he is somewhat closer to a real self-awareness than at the beginning of the book. The future “Could be Hell, Henry thinks,” but “Then again, [it] could be the making of . . . [him]” (340). Perhaps it will be. After all, the woman who treats him with the “tact bred of benevolence bred of love” (326) is called Moira. She is his fate.
Even if I’m not enamoured of Henry, there is a lot to appreciate in this novel. Jacobson’s handling of his plot is fluent and sophisticated; his evocation of time and place, nuanced and recognisable even if somewhat ironic. This is particularly true for me in his presentation of the divide between north and south Manchester, and even more so in his presentation of academic life in the eighties. I couldn’t help wondering at times whether Henry speaks for Jacobson when he confronts the idea of “plaisir de texte” being “a masculine concept” (172)and regrets the “burying . . . of the thing that’s written rather than the thing that’s not” (173). According to the back cover of my edition of the book, The Spectator described The Making of Henry as “Stuffed with brilliant hilarity.” I don’t think I would go so far as to say the work is hilarious. However, The novel is wryly comic; characters and events, just a little larger than life. Henry’s mother is a Nietzsche reading cake decorator, but not cake maker; his father, an upholsterer turned fire-eating origamist who as a child was duped into thinking that Pesach celebrations celebrated his own birthday.
In its tone, The Making of Henry reminded me somewhat of early Kingsley Amis, the Kingsley Amis of Lucky Jim and Take a Girl Like You. I rather enjoyed the 2003 adaptation of Lucky Jim with Stephen Tompkinson, and it was when I began to think about how The Making of Henry might adapt to the screen that I began to appreciate the novel’s comic possibilities. But it is a black comedy, or at least a comedy tinged with grey. After all, the book begins and ends with death. Henry is obsessed with death and dying and the passing of time, and in some ways the passing of time is one of life’s greatest ironies, life’s last cosmic joke on us. It is also, perhaps, the making of us.
The Making of Henry is a worthwhile book.
The pictures, such as they are, except for one of the graveyards and for the rainbow, are of north Manchester, The rainbow is over Withington, a situation that I suspect would be of significance to Henry.