Someone might be able to make something new and clever out of this old tired plot, but that someone is not Howard Jacobson. In “Who’s Sorry Now?” Jacobson has taken bits of ancient sexual farce, shuffled them around, tinkered and toyed with them, grown weary of them, and packed them up again . . . and then tacked on a moralistic ending.
“Who’s Sorry Now?,” published in 2002 in the UK, eight years before Jacobson’s Booker Prize-winning “The Finkler Question,” promises to deliver a tale of sexual hijinks. Best friends Marvin Kreitman and Charlie Merriweather meet regularly to compare their sexual histories. Marvin, the luggage baron of South London (son of the purse king) reports that, although he makes frequent robust love to his wife, Hazel, he has time, energy, and desire to pleasure several steady mistresses and enjoy countless brief encounters. Marvin, a lusty, hungry Jew, feels that he is in constant sexual competition with all men and begrudges others any pleasure at all. All women should be rightfully his. Charlie, married to another Charlie, called Chas, has been steadfastly faithful to her for 20 years. They have contentedly had “nice sex” twice a month throughout their long productive marriage. They live in a nice house on the river, have nice friends, and collaborate on nice children’s books. Cautious Charlie savors the joys of fidelity and predictability.
The question always in the air between the two men is: Who’s happier? Or sometimes, who’s unhappier? By changing places they intend finally to answer the question. Marvin will taste the joys of fidelity; Charlie will experience passion.
Of course, these plots never run as smoothly as planned. For one thing, the women, whose cooperation is required, have their own discontents and curiosities. By the time the men have contrived the conditions of the experiment, Hazel, who sheathes her hard edges and determination in tailored Max Mara suits, and Chas, who wraps her long limbs and flat chest in “a top that might have been knitted out of cucumbers, and a long canvas skirt resembling a spinnaker” have embarked on their own adventures. When the swap is finally accomplished, Marvin living with Chas, Hazel with Charlie, they find themselves in unfamiliar worlds. Chas teaches Marvin to cook. Charlie and Hazel read aloud to each other. They amaze, surprise, delight, and reinvent themselves and each other . . . for a while. Then Marvin misses Hazel, and the Charlies feel incomplete without each other.
The Charlies easily return to their old balance. What had begun in idleness had ended in silliness. They put the experience behind them as a harmless joke. But Hazel and Marvin’s plot demands a harsher conclusion. Marvin’s behavior has robbed Hazel of her self-respect and dignity. Marvin’s daughter Juliet, who has chosen men modeled on her father, has most recently been beaten up by one. Marvin has seriously hurt the women he loves, and he must pay. He must not only lose these women, but must also lose his desire for all women.
This strict moral ending goes against the playful tone of the rest of the novel and seems hardly to be intended seriously. Marvin doesn’t deserve this punishment and neither does a reader.