The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

In October this novel won its author the 2010 Man Booker Prize for fiction. It was highly praised by the judges: Andrew Motion, the chair of the panel, described it as ‘a marvellous book: very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be. A completely worthy winner of this great prize’. Much of the published critical reaction has also been very enthusiastic. However, a check of customer reactions on the website tells a different story. There is certainly some enthusiasm, but a lot of the commentators speak of their disappointment, and of finding the book tedious, boring, and impossible to finish.

Although by his own admission not an observant Jew, Jacobson is a writer very conscious of his Jewish background and heritage, and this, apparently like many of his other books (though Redback set in Australian academia is an exception) focuses very much on the experience of being Jewish today. Set in London, its primary focus is on Julian Treslove, a melancholy middle-aged and middle class man who seems never to make much success of anything he tries. Prominent in the novel are two Jewish men, both recently widowed, the elderly Libov, who once had a successful journalistic career which brought him into contact with celebrities, and Samuel Finkler, a former schoolmate of Treslove’s but now a media celebrity on the basis of his work popularising (and trivialising) philosophy. Treslove and these two frequently meet together, and could be regarded as friends, though there is a good measure of rivalry and jealousy in the relationship between Treslove and Finkler.

Central to the novel is Treslove’s mugging one evening by a woman, who says something to him which he interprets as possibly being ‘You Jew’. This heightens in Treslove a desire to possess qualities he believes Jews to possess, and to become a Jew himself, a ‘Finkler’ as he calls it in his own mind, and much of the novel, which has little in the way of a ‘story line’, is concerned with his exploration of what being Jewish involves. (Perhaps surprisingly, the theology and religious beliefs of Judaism has little role in this. The emphasis is on social and attitudinal aspects of Judaism.) There is much introspection on Treslove’s part, and he and the reader encounter a great many varieties of Jewish experience, much of it involving anxieties and misgivings. A group called ‘ASHamed Jews’, in which Finkler plays a major role, though not without challenge, is prominent. This takes place against a background of significant anti-Semitism, which several of the Jewish characters, and one strongly suspects the author, see as a major problem threatening the physical and social well-being of Jews in countries like Britain today.

If the frequent suggestions that the novel is ‘very funny’ encouraged anyone to read it in the expectation of a good laugh, he or she would be disappointed. There are amusing moments, but much of the humour consists in the presentation of the bizarre, the offbeat, the hyperbolic – such as the Jewish man trying to reverse the physical effects of circumcision. Some critics have praised the characterisation, but readers may find it a problem that the characters are presented with little warmth or humanity. Treslove is a rather tiresome ‘loser’: he does not conspicuously display qualities of decency and honesty which redeem other losers in literature, and the fact that women are attracted to him, albeit some briefly, and two have borne sons to him, strains credulity. Finkler is frankly rather unpleasant, and Libov does not emerge far from the ‘elderly Mitteleuropa Jew’ stereotype. The female characters rarely if ever become more than foils to the men – this is perhaps most noticeable in the case of Hephzibah, who becomes Treslove’s partner in a relationship which seems to offer remarkably little to her.

Perhaps the greatest success of the novel is in its treatment of male grief. Neither Libov nor Finkler had a perfect marriage relationship, though Libov came a lot closer than the frequently unfaithful Finkler, and each feels quite complex emotions as they come to terms with their loss. Jacobson must also be credited with writing prose that is invariable lucid, and which carries the reader on even when he or she is suppressing an inward groan when yet more angst rears its head. The Finkler Question is probably to be regarded as a work for the connoisseur, no more readily and instantly enjoyable than the new classical music composition that the orchestra conductor slips in between the Rossini overture and the Tchaikovsky symphony, but it is interesting as an example of what expert opinion regards as outstanding novel writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century.