Howard Jacobson’s top 10 novels of sexual jealousy

From Sacher-Masoch to Jane Austen, the novelist selects the novels which best anatomise the ‘dark, interior stickiness’ of a passion peculiarly well-suited to literature


Ray Fearon and Zoë Waites in the 1999 RSC production of Othello.

Howard Jacobson is the author of 10 novels, including The Very Model of a Man, The Mighty Walzer and Kalooki Nights. He has also written studies of Jewishness, Australia and comedy and is a prolific journalist and broadcaster. His most recent novel, The Act of Love, was described by Nicholas Lezard as “an almost frighteningly brilliant achievement”.

“The first story I ever wrote described a bout of jealousy I had suffered. Writing about it, first comically, and then not, was the only way I could gain any mastery of it. It was as though the shame associated with jealousy needed to be expiated in prose.

“There is a strange affiliation between literature and jealousy. Jealousy is wordy; it gorges on language. It is hyperbolic, growing fatter on every expression of itself. This is delicious for any writer who is not an understater of emotion. I love the dark, interior stickiness of the subject, where torment knows it should not be left to itself, but wants it no other way, and the victim forever haunts the border between the thing he fears and the thing he longs for. This is the subject of The Act of Love.

“Tales of innocence and wonderment leave me cold. Black obsessiveness is what the novel does best. And jealousy is its natural domain.”

1. Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

A great crazed story of desire, rage, real or imagined adultery – but why make fancy distinctions? – and murder, set to Beethoven’s nerve-strung violin sonata. If you’re going to do jealousy, this is the way to do it. In Tolstoy, the madness of jealousy goes all the way back to the madness of the sexual impulse itself.

2. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Angel Clare cannot live with the knowledge that Tess has known another man. But the novel’s real engine-house is Hardy’s not being able to bear it either. Tess is not in the end sacrificed to the malevolent Gods but to the writer’s palpitating desire to see her violated by a brute. Every sensitive man’s jealous dread.

3. Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Sexual jealousy in all its minute obsessiveness, watching 10 hours for a curtain to twitch. So accurate it’s boring. Not so much a book to read, as to know of.

4. Ulysses by James Joyce

The fact that Leopold Bloom has learnt to live with, and even love, his wife’s infidelities, does not exclude this great comic novel from the jealous category. Only a deeply jealous man can make so splendidly complaisant a cuckold.

5. Roberte Ce Soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Pierre Klossowski

Companion short novels charting the philosophic subtleties of faithless-wife worship, though wrapped around, in the French way, with theory. These novels itch with the husband’s desire to see more evidence of infidelity and suffer more jealousy than he ever quite can.

6. Persuasion by Jane Austen

Sexual jealousy is not normally what we think of as Jane Austen’s terrain. But her novels are full of jealousy’s tragic potential. If it weren’t for her intervention, her heroines would be forever losing men to more moneyed or vivacious rivals. In Persuasion she colludes with her heroine to the extent of throwing the other woman off a sea wall. Almost as murderous in its vengefulness as Tolstoy.

7. Herzog by Saul Bellow

Bellow’s heroes appear to be in charge because they are so dazzlingly smart. But they suffer tortures of jealousy at the hands of women who are bored with their dazzling smartness. Herzog more than most. If you want to write a great comedy make your hero a reflective cuckold who reads a lot.

8. The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Spooky story of a man who cannot tear himself away from the company of his wife’s former lover. Pinteresque in that you never know who’s doing what to whom and which character is causing the other the greater sexual discomfort.

9. Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch

Gleefully deranged study of a man’s desire to be his mistress’s slave, from which derives the word ‘masochism’. The tension comes from waiting for the punishment to culminate in the ultimate jealous pleasure for the sexual masochist – the woman’s infidelity.

10. Othello by Shakespeare

Only not a novel because novels weren’t a going form yet. Simultaneously ludicrous and heart-breaking, this is the most convincing of all studies of jealousy’s terrifying hold on the imagination, where trifles light as air hound the mind, and dread and desire are so closely intertwined as to deprive you of your reason.


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