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.


Anonymous said...

Dear John,
Thank you for your review which is a particularly good example of your fairness and insight . I must say I find this is a difficult book to analyse . I liked some of it but I have reservations and I think you have pinpointed them for me viz, - the characterisation overall , the idea that the novel is "comic" (I do think it is somewhat ironic however) , and the lack of any depth in the female characters in the book.

What I liked about it was the central thematic approach of examining Jewishness and behavourial relationships accordingly in our type of "tolerant" society . I think this "debate" (as it were) worked to some extent . I did find I was trying to think the matters through along with the dreadful Treslove . But it probably went on too long and overdid the point .
However the hapless Treslove (a Zelig type perhaps ) has no noticeable redeeming human qualities - as you point out.

I had the thought that Treslove was a type of inverted joke by the author - a charicature - a sort of neurotic intellectual Jew of the comic turn variety - who was himself a gentile wanting to be Jewish. Perhaps I am wide of the mark with this thought but it did amuse me at times.

So I did found some the scenes and ideas amusing in their irony - Treslove himself , the "pop" philosophy of Sam and the family dinner scenes at Libor's and Hepzibar's.

In summary, I thought it was worth reading. I gather it is controversial as a winner of the Man Booker . I heard of one critic complain that it is a good example of a lesser book by a good author being rewarded when he should have been recognised for other works of his which had been short listed earlier ie "Kalooki Nights". A subset discussion about the way literary prizes are awarded seems to be going on strongly with this one - glad we had a look at it and thanks again for a great review.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks for your comments, Faye (I strongly suspect the anonymous author is you!). I think you quite rightly point to some merits of the book (the irony, some memorable scenes) that I tended to overlook.

I do indeed wonder if the award of the Man Booker should be regarded as more a recognition of Jacobson's body of work than a tribute to this particular novel. In theory the award recognises a particular novel, but it is well known that the Academy Awards to actors, which in theory reward a particular performance, have over the years gone from time to time to performers perceived as being in the twilight of their years and as having been distinguished actors, but who have never quite made it onto the stage to receive the Academy's acolade. Jacobson at sixty-eight was the oldest Man Booker winner since William Golding in 1980, and while one hopes he is not exactly in the twilight of his career yet, there does seem to have been a feeling that he was someone who had been unduly neglected by Man Booker prize panels. I understand Jacobson himself made no great secret of his belief that his award might have come sooner.

John Kennedy said...

Thank you once again for the picture of the author, Mylee.

Fayelawrence said...

Dear John,
You are right - I was the commentator. I hadn't meant to go in anonymously - I just didnt tick the right box.
Thanks for the extra points about the lifetime awards . I find the discussion around winners of major awards of real interest - gets some good arguments going. The recent Pulitzer winner for fiction "Tinkers" by Paul Harding gets that sort of discussion going also. I wonder what you might think of that work. Very interesting book - maybe rewarded for being a little outside the traditional. However i am hunkered down in" The Brothers Karamozov" at present and should not be reading anything else. I will post soon on this master work.

Faye said...

Dear John,
Anonymous was me. I somehow or other missed out on signing off properly. Yes - the way literary awards recipients are arrived at is often cause for much discussion. This one fits that category . Talking about Awards , I have just recently finished "Tinkers" by Paul Harding which won the most recent Pulitzer for Fiction -it is a most interesting book , a bit from the "left field" in a way, I think. Is that what caught judges imagination - I wonder? "Tinkers" by comparison with "The Finkler Question" is by a relatively new writer . It is fun to keep pondering - these major awards garner publicity for writers and literature which is a good thing even if sometimes the publicity is a might controversial
Again thanks for introducing me to "The Finkler Question" - it has stayed fresh with me after several months and I find I am still conscious of the debate it promoted in me. A tantalising work , I think.

Pat Gallaher said...

Having just returned from UK, where I enjoyed Jacobson's regular comments in the Independent Newspaper, I was interested in these postings. I did try to read the book, but was one of those who found no interest in the characters ( although the topic is imortant) and preferred to read other more worthy books, as my reading time is so limited.
An interesting article,of his was about Genre Fiction in the world of Prizes, "the best fiction does not need a label"! The article resonated with me,as I am struggling with the way many libraries are now shelving fiction by genre, some NF too!Dumbing down, I call it!
I hope to read other titles from you lists eventually.
Thanks. Pat Gallaher

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Pat. Interesting to see an older posting getting a comment. I must admit I rarely trawl back past the current one and perhaps the one before that.

Howard Jacobsen was one of my tutors at University of Sydney forty-five years ago, and his classes were interesting, stimulating, and enjoyable then. Much more recently I have seen him present interesing television programs. But 'The Finker Question' did leave me cold.

John Kennedy