The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson

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The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: A man so adores his wife that he shares her with others. A far-fetched premise... or is it? A witty, highly literary, exquisitely-written exploration of this and many other paradoxes of desire which, in the end, didn't quite convince.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099526735

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Many of us like to share our enthusiasms. If we love a piece of music, a place - or even a book - we tend to urge others to experience it. In the case of Felix Quinn, that impulse extends to his wife, Marisa. Not content with knowing that Marisa has affairs, Felix so adores his wife that he finds her a new lover, Marius, so that he can more fully share the experience.

Perverted? Why, of course. Felix is nothing if not self-aware. This whole book is an extended mix of confessional and self-justification as Felix dissects his uxorious abasement in obsessive, masochistic detail.

However the twist is that Felix would also have us believe that his taste is nothing unusual. No man has ever loved a woman and not imagined her in the arms of someone else, he defiantly asserts. In one of the book's torrent of paradoxes he claims that we want the thing we dread. Although you can often discern an inkling of truth in such arguments, they are rarely borne out by experience.

But Felix finds precedent everywhere. His inevitable early encounter with adult sexuality was with Victor Gowan, a man who sought, not to interfere with him physically, but to reveal his naked, bedridden wife to the teenage Felix. Compound this with a girlfriend who manages to be unfaithful to Felix during the course of their first date, and it only takes the sight of a Cuban doctor's hands on Marisa's breasts to trigger the full force of Felix's desire to imagine his wife with other men.

Just as Victor Gowan justifies himself through literary precedent – in his case, Cervantes – as an antiquarian bookseller, Felix does likewise throughout the book. Authors since time immemorial, he implies, have pimped their female characters. The book is as much a thesis on willing cuckoldry in literature as it is en exploration of deviant psychology – whether it's Othello almost frantic to be a cuckold, or the unfaithful Molly Bloom from James Joyce's Ulysses, whose ecstatic soliloquy is parodied more than once.

Other characters are called to the witness stand to prop up Felix's case. A female member of his staff is implored by her husband to become a hot wife for the delectation of others. There's even a precedent in Howard Jacobson's work. His 1984 novel Peeping Tom also featured a character who spied on his wife's extramarital activities. The Act of Love is in many ways a reworking of those themes, but this time as a refined distillation of adultery into the most exquisite game.

For this is not, as Felix points out with characteristic self-consciousness, a fluidal narrative. In fact, for a book about sex, it is easily the least erotic novel I have ever read. When it does descend into an infernal depiction of an S&M club, Felix switches to the third person, to distance the action from his rarefied plane of consciousness.

The problem for me is that despite all his psychological and literary validation, it is still very difficult to sympathise with Felix. Although most of us can probably think of marriages containing three (or more) people, few of us would believe that any partner would willingly go to the lengths that Felix does.

The overall effect of the book is like being cornered by a pub bore. A witty, refined, highly literate bore, but a bore all the same. The writing is superb, with sentences as finely wrought as any I have read. But the underlying sadness of the narrator's plight undermines the often successful comic intentions of their author.

Despite the wit - and there is plenty of sardonic humour in Felix's assessments of his situation, and even in the gentle punning of the character's names - the reader constantly struggles with the fact that Felix is hard to like. And ultimately it is hard not to cheer inwardly when, to rid himself of his pursuer, someone gets their comeuppance.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Dreams of Rivers and Seas by Tim Parks.

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