Howard Jacobson, The Finkler question

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler question

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler question (Courtesy: Bloomsbury Publishing)

Whispering Gums, as you would expect, writes erudite marginalia and so you’d be in for a treat if you ever obtained my copy of Howard Jacobson‘s 2010 Booker award winning novel, The Finkler question. The margins are peppered with my reactions, like, you know, “Ha!” and “Oh dear”. Riveting stuff … and yet, what comments would you make in this book? Ah yes, “stereotyping” is another one, because that, really, is the springboard from which this rather funny book is written.

Do I need to summarise the plot? I feel that I’m about the last blogger to read this book, but just in case I’m not, here goes …  It concerns three longstanding friends: Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler who have been friends since schooldays, and Libor Sevcik who was their teacher at school. At the beginning of the book, Finkler and Libor, both Jews, have been recently widowed. Treslove, the non-Jew, is the “honorary third” widower because he is single (yet again). The novel’s premise is that Treslove would like to be a Jew …

Why, you might ask, would Treslove want to be a Jew (or, a Finkler, as he privately calls them – and hence the title)? It is not an accident that Treslove’s occupation when the novel opens is to be a paid double (or “lookalike”) of famous people at parties, conferences, corporate events:

Treslove didn’t look like anybody famous in particular, but looked like many famous people in general, and so was in demand if not by virtue of verisimilitude, at least by virtue of versatility.

And that’s pretty much how his Jewishness goes too. He might look and play the part but, deep down, can a non-Jew ever really be Jewish? Treslove is about to find out.

Jacobson has a way with words. It was this, together with the endless discussion, using every Jewish stereotype going, of what makes a Finkler (a Jew, remember!) a Finkler, that kept me going through a book that I wasn’t really sure was going anywhere. I laughed at Treslove’s incomprehension of Finkler (the character, this time):

“Do you know anyone called Juno?” Treslove asked.
“J’you know Juno?” Finkler replied, making inexplicable J noises between his teeth.
Treslove didn’t get it.
“J’you know Juno? Is that what you’re asking me?”
Treslove still didn’t get it. So Finkler wrote it down. D’Jew know Jewno?
Treslove shrugged. “Is that supposed to be funny?”

Oh dear! “Julian Treslove knew he’d never be clever in a Finklerish way” but, despite this, he continues with his goal to be Jewish. Meanwhile, Finkler, grieving for his wife and a marriage he still doesn’t understand, tries to dissociate himself from Jews (particularly Zionists) through membership of the ASHamed Jews. And Libor, grieving heavily for his true love, tries to dissuade Treslove from his ambition.

The book chronicles a year or so in the life of these three as each confronts his particular challenge. Treslove falls in love with Libor’s (Jewish) great-niece, Hephzibah, furthering, he hopes, his path to Jewishness; Finkler starts to fall out with the ASHamed Jews though not with their anti-Zionist principles; and Libor starts to fall out of life itself. All of this is told with both warmth and humour. The humour is always there, and yet is never pushed so far that the humanity of the characters is lost. You feel for them, despite their flaws and foibles. You want Julian, the hopeless father and failed lover, to make a go of it this time. You want Finkler to make peace with his Jewishness. And you want old Libor to get over his grief and join the world again. But through all this, you wonder, why? Why is Jacobson writing this story?

I have a few ideas. One may simply be to capture the diversity of Jewishness. Through all the stereotypes that made me laugh (Jews are musical, brokenhearted, rich, clever, comic, and so on), Jacobson shows that Jews, like any other group, are not all the same, cannot all be put in the one basket. Another  reason, though it’s depressing to think it’s needed, may be to defend Jews in an anti-Semitic world, to show their humanity. You care for these characters whose troubles with identity, love and loss are universal. And another may be to explore Zionism, safely. Can Zionism be defended? Has it changed into something more ugly, something that undermines its original conception?

In the end I did like this book because, while I was contemplating the “why”, I was engaged by the characters and their stories. The novel commences with Treslove, the would-be Jew, but it concludes with Finkler, the troubled Jew. Here he is, towards the end:

He was a thinker who didn’t know what he thought, except that he had loved and failed and now missed his wife, and that he hadn’t escaped what was oppressive about Judaism by joining a Jewish group that gathered to talk feverishly about the oppressiveness of being Jewish. Talking feverishly about being Jewish was being Jewish.

Ha! You said it, Mr Jacobson, I’m tempted to say. But that would be too smart-alecky of me because the book is, in fact, as much about humanity as it is about being Jewish.

Howard Jacobson
The Finkler question
London: Bloomsbury, 2011
ISBN: 9781408818466

26 thoughts on “Howard Jacobson, The Finkler question

  1. Believe me, you are not the last blogger to read The Finkler Question! It doesn’t feel like my cup of tea though, and I have so much else on my reading table. Good to read your review however, grazie.

    • Oh dear (there I go again), people sometimes ask me that after they read a review of mine. Sometimes, with books I enjoy but don’t rave over, I tend to write a more descriptive than subjective review I think! Anyhow, yes I did enjoy it really, mainly for the language and the characterisation – and, yes, the humour. But, I’d love to better understand exactly what he was wanting to express. Maybe he simply wanted to express the diversity of viewpoints among Jews about the issues raised, maybe he wants to tell us that we can’t just assume that all Jews feel the same way about issues relating to them? I think he certainly achieves that.

    • I was thinking about it again this morning Tony … I think it’s a funny novel but not a comic novel, if that makes sense. But, I didn’t really see the political diatribe as being the overriding issue. I think it was more open than that and more about Jewishness and humanity, and a bit about identity. The politics are just part of all that, I think, particularly for Jews now.

    • Hmm, Guy. Does that mean you won’t try him again? That is a much older book I think isn’t it? Still, this book is one I would recommend with qualification – it depends on whether you like the humour to a degree. I can see why people react very differently to it. It is, in a way, a bit of a grab basket book — hard to tie down. BUT I found enough to enjoy …

  2. I have not read The Finkler Question and didn’t even know what it was about! I remember when it won the Booker and there was a bit of a stir about it and I just filtered it all out. It sounds like fun though and now I am going to have to read it!

    • There is some very funny stuff in it Stefanie … but it’s a book that has greatly divided people so I’m not recommending it unreservedly. But I think you can tell that from the review?

  3. Its always interesting to read another book blogger writing about a book you’ve read. Although I thought it was a good book (obviously!), I found a little too much of Treslove’s introspection and wish this hadn’t been such a key part of the book. I struggled to finish it – which is unusual for me as I tend to enjoy humorous books. Great review – you did better with than I did

    • Agree Tom … the trouble is remembering who’s read the books you’ve read when you read them so much later, though a Google search helps as does considering which bloggers you read might have read it. I agree too that it’s not a perfect book … a bit loose feeling, and I took a long time to read it (though a family death in the middle didn’t help matters), but I thought it has much to recommend it nonetheless. Not having read many (if any) of the Booker shortlist last year I can’t comment on its worthiness.

  4. Great review, I enjoyed reading it. It’s funny but I keep passing by these books at the bookstores, sometimes I pick them up and sometimes I just remember the title (like this one) and some time later I get to read a review and say, oh, so this is what the book is about… 🙂 It does sound like an interesting book and one I would probably like to read.

    • Thanks Delia … the title certainly doesn’t give away its subject does it? I hope you do read it because responses have varied … it’s a book that doesn’t lend itself easily to one response so it’s interesting to see the different takes people have on it.

  5. Gummie: I’m not interested in The Finkler Question. Unfortunately when your first exposure to an author is negative it is hard to persuade yourself to try another–especially when there are so many other books I want to read.

  6. The Finkler Question is a tricky one I think. Of the six books that were on the shortlist for the Booker prize last year I found it hard to see how that won. I much preferred all of the other five, and some of the longlisted books! For a book that is alleged to be a “comic novel” I didn’t find much to laugh at and had to persevere to get through it!

    • Fair enough Graham … and, really, I don’t think it is a comic novel. I think it’s a humorous novel but it’s not what I would call comic. Does that make sense? (I did though find it humorous, but Kerry of Hungry Like the Woolf would agree with you re the humour, or lack thereof).

  7. WG,

    I’m so glad you review this book! I started reading it last year, up to about 50 pages, and decided to put it down. But now, after reading your post, I think I just might pick it up again some time this year and start all over. I did go pass the “J’you know” joke. And d’you know what? I think that’s from Woody Allen, could be Manhattan or Annie Hall. If not exactly the same, it’s very similar… his friend asks him as they’re walking down the road: “D’you eat?” And he finds he’s saying “Jew eat”, and he gets all worked up. Come to think of it, this book is kind of “Woody-Allen-esque”. 🙂

    • Oh dear, the pressure Arti. There were rather mixed feelings in my reading group on this one, as there have been around the blogging traps.

      The d’you know/jew no joke has an added layer in this book due to (jew to!!) the fortune teller’s mention of a Juno. It’s probably an old joke amongst people who love playing with the sounds of words and you’re right it does sound Woody Allen-esque but perhaps that’s because Woody Allen sounds Jewish! Are we going around in circles here!!?

  8. Pingback: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson « H is for Happiness

  9. Pingback: Reading The Bookers

  10. Plot:The story revolves around 3 central characters.One of whom is a jew an who plays the ‘Race card’ for his benefit.The story is nothing exceptional and it revolves around adultery and jews as such.The critics have said that it is first comedy to win a booker.

    Comment:To be honest,i did not get most of the humour the Booker guys talked about.Either it was too subtle for my understanding or by humour i may have become use to crass and loud jokes.Either way i didn’t not find the book as anything out of ordinary.

    Given an opportunity again i may give it a skip for something else.

    • Thanks Amt Sharma for sharing your response. I know you are not alone in your response. Many on my reading group did not get the humour, but I was spluttering. Humour is probably the hardest emotion to convey, it seems to me. Tragedy, grief, happiness seem easy by comparison but funny? Not so.

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