ROBERT HARRIS and HOWARD JACOBSON at Crossing Border Festival in The Hague

Robert Harris
Photo by and © Claudio Sforza

Two of Britain’s best-selling novelists spoke about their most recent offerings yesterday at the Crossing Borders Festival. These two established writers could not be more different but each embody the style and essence of their latest novels almost perfectly.  Jacobson’s rambunctious humour and larger-than-life persona seems very much in keeping with ‘Live a little’ (2019). A funny, sometimes ridiculous but deeply touching love story between two 90 something Londoners. One of whom can remember very little, and the other who remembers all too much. While Harris’s casually stylish suit and calm, measured tones echoes the elegance of his most recent thriller, ‘Second Sleep (2019)’.

Jacobson’s first novel, Coming from Behind was written in his forties. Although he dreamed of being a great writer in the style of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Henry James in his youth, he tells us candidly, ‘ I was over-educated. I had impossible ambitions and not enough skill.’ The impetus to finally write something that was his own, came at a real low point for him. ‘Unless you’re in total despair, forget it,’ he says of writing. Working in a job he hated, recently divorced and living in a small flat eating curry for breakfast lunch and supper, he finally decided  ‘it was now or never’. Jacobson began work on a comic novel, ‘I wanted to do something greater than funny but then I realised there’s nothing greater than funny.’ And funny is what Jacobson does best – he has since written a series of comic novels from Seriously Funny to Pussy a satirical take on Trump  and The Finkler Question  for which he won the Man Booker Prize. Referred to by some critics as the Jewish Jane Austen, Jacobson is categorical in his position that ‘no writer must ever have a plan. You go into the dark’. This, apparently, is how his latest book came about. He had a vision, he tells us, of a beautiful, blue, Mediterranean Sea, out of which was rising a Botticelli Venus. She was ninety years old, elegant and fully clothed. ‘As soon as I saw her, I knew her’, he tells us with characteristic irony.

Robert Harris, on the other hand, is the antithesis of all the messy, hilarity of Jacobson.  Although he also studied English Literature at Cambridge and dreamed of becoming a writer from a young age, his rise to prominence was more conventional. He joined the BBC after finishing his studies and went on to become  political editor at The Observer by age 30. Although he initially wrote non-fiction, it was his first alternative history, Fatherland, that shot him to fame. A novel in which Germany  wins the Second World War, it was the first of a series of historically inspired thrillers. The Second Sleep is also a dystopian novel, set in a post-apocalyptic world 800 years into the future. Harris tells us that the idea for the novel began with the notion of a group of explorers on ‘a sort of treasure hunt’ to find clues about the destruction of a highly technologically advanced society. Harris has written extensively about Ancient Rome and his preoccupation with the issue of how advanced societies fall is clearly central to his work. He admits to drawing on both Brexit and the 2008 financial crisis in this novel but maintains that he is an optimist in general. Taken together, these two British writers offer an enjoyable mix of the comic and the thrilling, the utopian and the dystopian.     Souwie Buis  2nd November 2019

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