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.