The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson - The Finkler Question

This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and so, since reading the Booker Prize winning books is something of a project for me – I’ve read all of them right back to the first winner in 1969 (yes, I really am that sad) – it was never not going to make it onto my reading list.

Julian Treslove, 49, a former BBC radio producer cum serial job-hopper who now makes a living as a look-a-like, spends an evening with two friends, both recently widowed: Sam Finkler, an old school friend/rival, and Libor Sevcik, their former teacher.  Walking home in the dark from Libor’s house, Julian is mugged by a woman.  In the confusion he thinks he hears her say ‘You Jew,’ and so becomes convinced the attack was prompted by anti-Semitism, even though Julian (unlike Sam and Libor) is not Jewish.  This is the catalyst for Julian to explore ‘The Finkler (i.e. Jewish) Question’ and  learn more about the Jewish faith – though at first (by a somewhat bizarre process of reasoning, it has to be said) he seems to think the attack means he must actually be a Jew already and/or is destined to be Jewish.

OK, I’ll admit, it doesn’t sound that promising a premise for a book.  And having read it I still I don’t really know what to make of it.

Right from the word go I was put-off by the digs at the BBC because they read too much like in-jokes. (Jacobson’s Debretts’ listing has under recreation ‘appearing on television’, which I guess is also a ‘joke’).  Laugh? You might if you are part of the media ‘in-crowd’ which, of course, excludes me and most of the potential readership.

And then there’s Treslove.  His ‘year of being an adopted Finkler’ seems to have nothing at stake – he has a history of drifting between jobs and relationships, why not take in a major world religion en route? – so it is hard to care what he thinks or what happens to him.  Ditto Finkler – although by the end of the book he accepts he’s failed – as a father, as a husband, as a friend – so at least, with him, there is more of a narrative arc.

And there were parts of the book that made me squirm when I felt I was supposed to be smiling: Finkler rebranding the ‘Ashamed Jews’ group as ‘ASHamed Jews’ with a view to shortening it to ASH ‘the peculiar felicity of which…he was sure it wasn’t necessary to point out’; and Hephzibah’s ex-husband, Ben, a Jew, who boasts about ‘sleeping with a Holocaust denier and negotiating numbers in return for favours.’  Perhaps a confused reaction is the whole point.

Or is it?

Ah, yes, the rhetorical question.  The title, of course, is suggestive of self-examination but the rhetorical question is used so much as a device throughout that book that it does tend to grate at times.

However the main obstacle for me was that there was too much angst: about Israel, about Zionism, about everything.  In one flashback, Finkler’s wife asks Treslove ‘Don’t you get sick of (Jews’) self-preoccupation?’ If this book is anything to go by, then the answer is yes, yes, yes!

But then…there were parts that made me smile: Libor, telling his wife, Malkie, on the day they first met, that she had a neck ‘more graceful..than a swan’s’ but because of his Czech accent she mistook ‘swan’ for the Yiddish ‘svontz..meaning penis’; or Marilyn Monroe ringing Libor in the middle of the night because he made her laugh (‘Fucking Marilyn again’); or Treslove lovingly watching his partner, Hephzibah, cooking supper ‘using every spoon and every casserole she owned…like Vulcan stoking the fires of Etna..and at the end of it there was omelette and chives for Treslove’s supper’, while remembering how his mother ‘had prepared five-course meals in an egg pan’.

And then…there were parts that moved me: Libor and Finkler, both recently widowed, sharing a takeaway and their thoughts on ‘the sadness of unused things’; Libor explaining how he and Malkie had considered a suicide pact off Beachy Head (‘Bitchy ‘Ead); or Libor visiting a bereavement counsellor and speaking ‘the words which he imagined the bereaved spoke…the heart did not speak…there was no genuine expression of how he felt.’

As I’ve already said, I don’t really know what to make of it.  My main point of confusion, though, is about why this book – of all the books published in English in 2010 – won the Booker prize. I’ve been told Jacobson’s book Kalooki Nights is his best book.  I’ll read it one day, I’m sure, but reading the Finkler Question hasn’t made me want to rush out to buy it just yet.

Rating: * (not for me but worth trying)

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