A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has. – Howard Jacobson
Have you ever read a book that just didn’t do it for you, but had one character, one scene, or one line that has stuck with you forever? You’re going through life, feeling sorry for yourself that you don’t have more time to write, and then BAM. You remember a line from a book you had otherwise forgotten, and you thank God you read it?
That’s how it is for me with the line above from Jacobson’s prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question. The book itself was only okay to me. The characters, meh. Kind of endearing, but kind of annoying, too. The story was not funny in a laugh out loud kind of way, but was witty, in an internal chuckle kind of way.
But that line. I have come back many times to that line. And it made the whole reading worth it.
I met with a fellow writer this morning to trade critiques, and our conversation gradually transitioned to where to submit, who pays, who doesn’t, you could pitch it this way for this publication, that way for that journal. She is far more seasoned than I am, and when I asked whether her writing contributes substantially to her family income, she responded, “It doesn’t supplement my husband’s salary, but it pays for my writing studio.” And I was instantly jealous. A writing studio! God, how I’d love a studio. A room of my own, with a window seat, and light on my face, and a door that closes.
But more than that, a designated room would mean that writing was more than a hobby. That it was something serious, that I had time to do, that I wasn’t squeezing into an hour here, a half hour there. I’ve got 17 pieces I have started, then abandoned when it was time to wake the kids up, or volunteer at the school, or shop for groceries, or meet the school bus. By the time I get back to the essays, the mojo is gone. I’m not with the feeling anymore, and I can’t finish.
At these times I get frustrated. I fantasize about having large chunks of time to focus on writing, to research, to finish pieces, to edit, to polish. I go into my head, mulling all those incomplete essays, thoughts for this one jumbling with ideas for that one, and I think, if I were alone, and didn’t have all these responsibilities, I could take care of these. I could get them out, get them done.
A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.
And then that line from The Finkler Question snaps me back to reality, reminding me what it would really mean, at this stage in our family’s life, if I dedicated that kind of time and mental focus to a life of words. Because that line, regardless of its context within the novel, is about more than the emptiness of fame and fortune, or the loneliness of the writer’s life. It’s about throwing yourself into something so deeply, dedicating so much of your attention to this passion, or job, or hobby, that you risk losing contact, sacrificing closeness, with the most important people in your life.
There will come a time in the not so distant future, when our children leave home, and there will be silence where their voices once were. Like the writer in The Finkler Question who lost his wife, I will rattle around in our empty house, with all the time in the world to write, and every room will be a room of my own. I will think of the pies I made with our daughter, of reading The Old Man and the Sea with our son, of answering their questions about sex and bad words, and I will give thanks for that single line in an only okay book. The line that reminded me to take my time, to enjoy my kids. A woman can be lonely in a room of her own, no matter how many readers she has.
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. “Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Jacobson’s wry, devastating novel examines the complexities of identity and belonging, love, and grief through the lens of contemporary Judaism.” (Publishers Weekly)