Review: The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

Update 13 October 2010.  Depite my prediction below, The Finkler Question DID win the Booker Prize.  My congratulations to Howard Jacobson
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Howard Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Question is another Booker long-list selection, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make the short-list, although my guess is that it won’t actually win the prize.

Howard Jacobson writes with sophistication and verve.  I often found myself pausing over a sentence to take in the meaning, double, or triple sometimes, for Jacobson’s use of language is always inventive and occasionally startling.

The story centres on Julian Treslove, a former radio producer whose career has failed to rise as it should have, mainly because of his lack of focus on the task in hand and a degree of self-doubt which robs him of the certainty he needs to succeed.

Treslove has two close friends, Sam Finkler, a television producer and Jewish philosopher and the former teacher of Sam and Julian, Libor Sevcik, an elderly widower, also Jewish, who in some ways acts as a mentor to the two men.

One day, while walking near Broadcasting House Treslove is mugged and all his valuables are stolen.  Treslove is mortified to realise that his assailant is a woman.  And to complicate matters, although the words she uttered at the time of the robbery are indistinct, on further reflection, Treslove comes to believe that they were the words, “You Jew!”.

The thought of being the victim of an anti-Semitic attack, when he is in fact a Gentile begins to worry Treslove.  Because of his two friends Sam and Libor, Treslove is already familiar with all things Jewish, and he begins to think about anti-Semitism, reading of attacks on Jews in Canada, France, Germany and Argentina.  Slowly, his mugging begins to take the form in his mind of an “atrocity”, and as the novel unwinds, poor Treslove begins to question whether he is not in fact Jewish after all, something discerned by the mugger due to innate characteristics which he had not previously recognised –

Wouldn’t it have made sense, if my father didn’t want me to know we were Jews, or for anyone else to know we were Jews for that matter, to have changed our name to the last Jewish one he could find? . . . No one knew my family.  We kept ourselves to ourselves.  I have no uncles.  My father had no brothers or sisters, my mother neither.

It is not my purpose to spoil this novel for other readers and so let me just say that the rest of the novel follows Treslove on a complex journey through a new lifestyle and a new set of relationships.  Jacobson uses the naive and deluded Treslove to explore facets of modern-day Judaism, in large part by handing over the narrative reins to Treslove’s friends Finkler and Libor.  Libor, now in his 90’s looks back over his colourful life and offers a reflective view of what its been like to be Jewish over most of the last century.  Sam Finkler is a colourful character, who joins a new organisation of “Ashamed Jews” who lament the deeds of the state of Israel and stand on public platforms denouncing Israelis and supporting Palestinians.   In their conversations with Treslove we gain a picture of a Jewishness which is flexible, even vague, but is always a vital part of identity.

The book is very funny, particularly as Treslove forms a relationship with Hephzibah, an earth-mother type who takes him under his wing and into her bed.   A colourful character in her own right, she involves Treslove in setting up a museum of Jewish culture, a project which has been close to her heart for many years.

Despite its obvious qualities, I wouldn’t say that I found this book particularly easy to read.  It took me a surprisingly long time to get through it and I think this is because although I recognised its qualities, it didn’t really engage me as much as I thought it would.  Its clever and funny, but there is perhaps a little too much of the introspective Treslove and the workings of his mind.  I’m not sure that thought processes always make for good reading, particularly when the thoughts are those of an indecisive and confused man who fails to make much of his life.  The concepts are funny, and the other characters are interesting, but with the focus on the sometimes idiotic Treslove,  I sometimes lost a sense of forward movement while wallowing in Treslove’s muddied thoughts.

However, I wouldn’t quibble about the Booker nomination – I don’t think this year’s selection are anything like as good as last year’s and The Finkler Question is at least original and well-written.

13 comments to Review: The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

  • Original is good. The concept sounds really intriguing. Not sure if I’ll get to it – unless of course it wins the Booker, because I usually do end up reading the Booker winner eventually – but if it comes my way I’d certainly give it a go.

  • Old fan of Howard Jacobson, here – so a new novel by him is greeted with fanfares chez moi. Love his humour, which is curiously capable of appearing darker and more savage the further you investigate it. ‘Sophisticated’ is definitely the right term. I’m familiar with much of the background already, and Jacobson sounds as if he’s using comedy in characteristic fashion – ie to explore complex questions and demonstrate some harsh veracities which are most would rather ignore. And, of course, a resolute and strong-minded hero simply wouldn’t ‘work’ within such a plot.
    Can’t wait to read it! Hope it wins (but, of course, it won’t …).

  • I m not huge fan of Jacobson ,partly as I find him a little annoying when he is on tv or the radio and also the one book I read just didn’t grab me ,not writing him of completly thou I may get this at some point as you have made it appeal slightly and I know John Self is enjoying it too ,all the best stu

  • Kevin From Canada (KFC) really disliked this one, so it’s interesting to read your totally different take on it. After reading Kevin’s review, I knew I wouldn’t like this, and even though you enjoyed it, I still know I wouldn’t like it.

    Anyway, thanks for the tip on Tim Lott. I ordered one of his novels.

  • I’ve always been meaning to read one of his books and have Kalooki Nights on the pile somewhere. I very much enjoy books with an inate sense of humour, but think I may wait for the paperback on this one.

  • Tom

    Sue – I really don’t think this one is going to win – its good, but not good enough. If it wins I’ll feel that the Booker was scraping the barrel this year. Thanks for visiting!

  • Tom

    Minnie – I’m familiar with HJ myself and have read earlier books by him. Its funny how there is a distinctly “Jewish” style of writing and I think this one fits within that genre. My only additional thought would be to question why this one should be so VERY Jewish – in fact, I’d say its mainly an exploration of modern Judaism in Britain. Its good, but just misses the mark somewhere along the line – in my view. Thanks for vistiing

  • Tom

    Thanks Stu – glad to see you back in circulation! I also find him slightly annoying and like you it just doesn’t grab me somehow. I ‘d be surprised if it wins. all the best, Tom PS – DQ has been on the back burner this week!

  • Tom

    Guy – I’m sure you’ll enjoy the Lott more than the Jacobson. I wonder which one you ordered? Oh gosh, what a treat you have in store.

    I shall go now to read John Self’s and Kevin’s reviews of the Jacobson.

  • Tom

    Annabel – I think Kalooki Nights may be better than this one – although I haven’t read it. Reputation alone suggests KN is a great read. I ‘d give this 4 our of 5, which just isn’t good enough for a Booker winner in my view. Thanks for visiting

  • I ordered Rumours of a Hurricane.

  • Tom

    Hope you enjoy it Guy

  • [...] at A Common Reader did like it, albeit with reservations: Despite its obvious qualities, I wouldn’t say that I found this book particularly easy to read. [...]

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