What Will Survive of Us by Howard Jacobson review – end of the affair
The Hampstead adultery novel, a rare breed, seems to constantly reemerge despite its supposed extinction, similar to the coelacanth. This type of novel typically features middle-class London media professionals engaging in extramarital affairs – Iris Murdoch’s 1961 novel A Severed Head is a notable example. It is likely that this theme will continue to be explored, unless climate change renders cities uninhabitable and media careers obsolete. After all, many novelists are themselves middle-class media professionals residing in London and may also partake in affairs outside of marriage.
Complaints about stories of infidelity have been around for a long time, as old as the stories themselves. In 1899, Henry James commented that there are many other topics to write about besides the classic love triangle of husband, wife, and lover. He had been reading through a series of recent French novels. One can only wonder what his thoughts would be on Howard Jacobson’s newest novel, What Will Survive of Us. The story follows the affair between Sam and Lily, with Sam being a famous playwright and Lily directing TV documentaries. Sam is married to Selena, while Lily lives with Hal in a sexless arrangement. All of the characters reside in London, giving the story a quintessentially British feel.
James may have realized that the triangle concept does not apply in this situation. Even the concept of a square – two spouses, two lovers – is not relevant. Lily is struck by the immense impact of her attraction to Sam (“Kerpow!” she thinks upon first seeing him); and the story primarily focuses on their intense and suffocating relationship. Selena and Hal – mere hovering ghosts – are hardly given any attention.
Lily and Sam, both in their late 40s, embark on an affair that sets them apart. With no children to hold them back, they are free to indulge in their newfound attraction without any distractions from school runs or family obligations. The dissolution of their respective marriages is handled with practicality rather than sentimentality. The novel tracks their relationship from their initial encounter in 1995 to the present, chronicling their journey through middle age and beyond. Spoiler alert: the ending is inevitable, leaving readers to wonder who will be left standing in the end.
When Sam is introduced, he is known for his fame, much like how torn jeans are known for their fashionability. Lily, who is in her prime middle age with intense eyes and a wide forehead (as Sam describes her to himself), is producing a series about writers who have been forced into exile. She offers Sam the opportunity to host an episode about DH Lawrence’s visits to Taos, New Mexico in the 1920s. After meeting and feeling drawn to each other, they hesitate before finally giving into their desires in Albuquerque while waiting for Lily’s film crew to arrive. A narrator with vast knowledge and a love for literary sayings (such as “Happy endings should not be denied or thrown around carelessly like confetti”) jumps between perspectives, switching from Lily to Sam. Things take a turn towards the unconventional as they explore kinks and fetishes. Lily even buys Sam a braided leather belt with a snake-shaped buckle, which she uses to tie him up during their sexual encounters. Eventually, they progress to visiting leather clubs and BDSM dungeons.
The situation becomes uncomfortable as well: “Initially, they viewed spending their limited time together talking instead of engaging in physical intimacy as wasteful, until they realized that their conversations were just as intimate. He expressed himself to her through words.” This final statement is more unsettling than any explicit depiction of BDSM. Additionally, in the progressive era of 2020, BDSM clubs have lost their rebellious reputation. However, Jacobson’s message is not about breaking societal norms, but rather about the intense nature of love and how it changes as the body ages.
The Lawrence element is the clue. What Will Survive of Us (the Larkinian title, quoting An Arundel Tomb, is really a feint) is a Hampstead adultery novel as Lawrence might have conceived it. But where Lawrence’s sons and lovers were young, Jacobson’s are getting on in years. Where Lawrence’s settings were pastoral, Jacobson’s are urban. Where Lawrence was parochial, Jacobson is cosmopolitan (Lily and Sam are forever jetting off to Venice, Bali, Rome).
Lawrence believed that engaging in sexual acts in literature was a way to defy societal norms and break free. Jacobson, inspired by the literary freedoms achieved through “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” sees it as a challenge to push the boundaries even further. However, he is torn between celebrating love and sex as raw and unapologetic, or acknowledging the inevitable consequences that come with it. There is a hint of criticism towards those who view literature and sex through a politically correct lens, as Sam debates with a feminist teacher who accused Andrew Marvell of objectifying women in “To His Coy Mistress.” “What Will Survive of Us” seems to challenge outdated ideas of political correctness, with Lawrence serving as Jacobson’s symbol of rebellion against Puritan values.
It is debatable whether this conflict truly warrants a battle. However, it is not up for debate how genuine the characters of Sam and Lily appear to the reader. What Will Survive of Us, which closely follows their every move, is a highly skilled novel in many respects. Yet, it falls short in one crucial aspect – it fails to make us root for the lovers to triumph in the end.