There is little that actually happens in the course of Howard Jacobson’s “Live a Little.”
For Beryl Dusinberry and Shimi Carmelli, two 90-something Londoners, similarly well-versed in the oddities and humiliations that are part and parcel of spending so much time on Earth, life has already happened (or so they believe).
Shimi spends his days reading the fortunes of uninterested diners at the Chinese restaurant he lives above, and Beryl, whose powers of recollection are fading just as her desire to use them grows, busies herself by stitching, writing and bumping around her stately home, antagonizing her immigrant caretakers.
Shimi is quiet, childless, lonesome, Jewish, devoted at a soul level to cartomancy and phrenology and mostly healthy which, without much competition, makes him a hot commodity among the widows of North London; Beryl is a firecracker, of uncommon wit and bluntness, highly educated, sustained by irony and scarred by a lifetime of disappointing lovers. As far as she knows, she’s had four sons, and as far as she’s concerned, they’re not her concern.
The novel begins by alternating between Shimi and Beryl chapters as Jacobson tallies up the indignities particular to their respective experiences of aging. They’re brought together by a funeral, and as they begin to find the ways in which their lives intersect, so too do their chapters. The things that were once the unspoken major plot points of their own lives, as they understood them, turn into conversation. Monologues become dialogue.
You know what happens next. After initial friction, they fall in love, and are married. Shimi and Beryl, who had closed themselves off to the idea that they would ever find true lovers in this life, find that they have much left to give each other, more than they had ever imagined possible. It’s a lovely story.
If the ending was ever in doubt, this would be a “spoiler.” But it is not.
What makes “Live a Little” worth reading, then, is that the plot is delivered along a track of perfectly laid sentences, a book’s worth of surprising, clever, poignant and downright beautiful sentences.
Shimi’s dying mother’s wheelchairs and bedpans are the “hardware of infirmity.” In a memory, his brother Ephraim is “the rascal, the urchin, the wily schmoozer.”
Beryl, when Shimi pleads with her to recall the long-ago drama of her life, says, “You’re asking me to piece together what I never fully grasped because I never chose to grasp it. Forgetting isn’t always involuntary.”
This could keep going, but then I’d simply have to transcribe the whole book.
One gets a sense of Jacobson’s absolute control of his writing. There’s not a page of fat, not a chapter ending wasted, nary a line that doesn’t fit snugly into the one that follows. Every conversation is parry and thrust, and ends just when it should. It’s not unlike reading a stage play.
Occasionally, that quality works against him.
Beryl’s repartee with Euphoria, her Ugandan caretaker, and Nastya the “Moldovan tart,” as she puts it, are little comic treats that bridge the weightier sections, and serve the story well. But Beryl never fails to come out on top with a perfect zinger to button up the section, typically mocking her caretakers’ home countries, and by the end, it feels a bit like Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.
And Jacobson cannot help but write the characters that he likes as ridiculously fluent in the work of European thinkers and artists. Debussy! Borodin! Holbein! Eliot! It can verge into self-parody — Beryl names one of her sons after a character from Greek mythology, because he was “eaten alive by his own mother.”
Regardless. The richness of “Live a Little” is such that it begs a reread. For me, at least, there will be a time when Shimi’s laments about the need to rearrange social interactions such that a bathroom is never too far will read differently. Ditto with his and Beryl’s exasperation in the face of changing social norms.
But more than anything itself, it’s those damned sentences.