Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”

The Finkler Question has been good to me. I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in hospitals these last couple of days, and that enables long chunks of reading time. Thankfully, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel – short-listed for the Booker Prize, of course – has been intelligent, amusing, erudite company. It’s a beautifully composed piece of work, enquiring and fully whole in terms of character, vision and theme. If it is a quintessential Booker book – all bourgeois interiority and well-meant handwringing – it is also quite other – a comedy, for starters, but also an avowedly specialist book, one which on the surface entirely eschews universalist preaching for a tight and unyielding focus on a single small group.

For Julian Treslove, whose name is a fairly obvious pun on his habit of serial monogamy, a Finkler is a Jew. He has named them so after his schoolfriend Samuel Finkler, now know as Sam to the many readers of his hugely successful series of pop psychology books (Descartes and Dating, for instance, or The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life). What makes Treslove’s selection of Sam as the emblem of a whole ethno-religious grouping problematic is that, in his abandonment of ‘Samuel’, the philosopher has in turn symbolised a fierce frustration with – a broad distaste for – his fellow Jews, and in particular for Israeli Jews and Zionists. The pair’s old schoolteacher, the Czech ex-Hollywood journalist Libor Sevcik, argues with Finkler frequently about such topics – he survived the middle of the twentieth century, and this colours his view of the twenty-first.

Thus the stage is set for the novel proper, which begins in earnest when, on the way home from an evening at Libor’s during which the two Jewish widows and the Gentile singleton comiserate and dispute, Treslove is mugged. The complication of this mugging is two-fold: first, Treslove is convinced his assailant is a woman, and women are a source of considerable trouble for him; and, second, he comes to believe she accused him of being a Jew. Being “a man who did not function well on his own” [pg. 6], Treslove exhibits a terrible need for a tragic other, and this dual trauma exacerbates this need. The Finkler question comes to be, for Treslove at least, how to become one – how to be accepted into a group which offers a ready-made tragic history, an ersatz justification for “a man who ordinarily woke to a sense of loss.” [pg. 47]

For Finkler himself, the question is a much different one: how can one escape that weary self-awareness? For Libor, meanwhile, it is about living with it, about finding a way of managing an acute sense of all that has gone before you, all that has made you who you are – and whatever of you may be left when you go. This is why Jacobson is only superficially interested in the question of his title. In the Jewish Chronicle, Jonathan Freedland has suggested you might need to be a Jew fully to appreciate the novel; on one level, on a very important level, this might be true. On another, however, it is manifestly false: in the love affairs and museum openings, the dinner dates and holidays, of this novel of incident, Jacobson is on the trail of something broader – but also much narrower – than Jewishness alone.

The Finkler Question is certainly all about self-definition and self-absorption, about identity and the lack of it (Treslove works as a celebrity lookalike – he looks a bit like a lot of them, and therefore he’s in high demand), about how we choose whom we choose to blame for one thing or another (“say ‘Jew’ and it was like throwing a bomb” [pg. 186]), or to love for one reason or another (and in one way or another). Jacobson’s subtle and sympathetic characterisation provides ample and holistic scope in which to present a myriad iterations of his theme without repeating responses or dictating results. It’s a tour de force of literary imagination, a thorough examination of theme, but – crucially – also confoundingly inconclusive. In a word, it’s lovely.

Some, however, disagree: Kevin from Canada, in an excoriating post, wrote that the book “has no place on the Booker longlist. It is dreadful. I don’t rubbish books on this site, but this is one that deserves the full rubbishing.” I expect I missed an awful lot about the novel given the environment in which I read a lot of it, and yet I found infinitely more in it than Kevin believes there is. It is supply written, very often invisibly so, and the intellectualism which Kevin found so irksome I found both humane and gentle. Partly as a result of a conversation over at The Asylum, Kevin has formulated the theory that unless you find the opening of the novel funny, you will not like it. I do not disprove his hypothesis: I found parts of the first section, and indeed of the rest of the novel, laugh out loud funny. Jacobson includes everything from delightful dialogue to broad farce, and he carries it all off with prose which contains both the major and the minor voice. This is in my book writing very far from dreadful.

The Finkler Question has a line to remember on every other page, and I suspect a scene to stay with you in every chapter. Here is a small canvas with preternatural depth of field.


17 thoughts on “Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”

  1. I expect I missed an awful lot about the novel given the environment in which I read a lot of it

    I don’t think you did. This is the most perceptive and valuable review of this book I’ve read. Great stuff!

  2. Cheers for the input, Tom. I didn’t find the book hard to read at all – and thought processes make up an awful lot of the word count in an awful lot of my favourite books – so I think I liked it a good deal more than you. If the judges are looking for a perfectly formed novel – rather than a formally ambitious one – I think it would have every chance of winning.

  3. Much less WTF about it than you, Tomcat – the novel is wonderful, and by far the most enjoyable of all the reads on the shortlist. It’s a safe choice, and a classic lifetime achievement award … but it is of a very high standard and as complete a book as there is amongst the six. C would have been the more interesting choice, but I can’t begrudge Jacobson.

    Cheers for the praise!

  4. I was being mire playful than acerbic; I’m not entirely irritated that it won. But I do think that he was awarded the prize by way of apology for having been over-looked so many times before – like Ian McEwan, I think he’ll be remembered for winning the Booker prize for a novel that isn’t his best work.

    I did enjoy TFQ, I just have my reservations about the book’s political agenda and heavy-handed criticism of Israeli anti-Palestinian aggression. I found the more subtle stories of Libor’s grief and Treslove’s identity crisis to be much more interesting than the book’s political posturing.

  5. Yep, I think it’d be fair to say that the jury took the opportunity to give the prize to Jacobson, rather than to TFQ – which nevertheless is, I agree, is an enjoyable novel.

    I’m not sure, though, that its politics is as simple as you say – aren’t all political positions in the novel held up to scrutiny and satire?

  6. Adam, I’d never deny your clownery, and I think I agree with you an extent – The Finkler Question isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. Having said that, it certainly made me laugh – out loud, in a grim old hospital ward. So it must have been doing something right on this front, even if it didn’t click for you. Hmm.

  7. Well I certainly can’t argue with your response. I suppose I’m not entirely convinced it’s really a comic novel, though. It seems to me more a sour-ish meditation on late middle age and Jewishness, this latter expounded at too great length and with too stare-eyed seriousness. The thing is that Jacobson, in that long Saturday Guardian piece a few weeks back, made a play for the ‘I’m a comic writer and comic writing gets the rough end of the stick’ camp. Actually, I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit recently (in a more general sense), and I wonder if my problems with this novel aren’t similar to the problems I had with McEwan’s Solar: to do partly with the timing of the prose, and partly with a failure of the ‘observation’ portion of the ‘observational comedy’ thing.

  8. The criticisms I’ve seen of the novel – from you, Mieville, and varied bloggers – do seem to focus on the Jewishness angle, and its perceived preachiness. For my part, though, I didn’t find Jacobson’s treatment over-serious – as I’ve written at Tomcat above, my sense was that every position was equally undermined. That’s where a large part of the humour came from in my reading.

    Having said that, I’d agree with you that the novel is more black than comedy, and its second half in particular sobers up rather rapidly. I also have sympathy for your suggestion that Jacobson has over-played his carping hand on the comic novel front (someone, I can’t remember who, noted that Midnight’s Children is as much a comic novel as anything else, so all this ‘no comic novel has ever won the Booker’ stuff was just nonsense). Nevertheless, I’d find it hard to dismiss the craft of The Finkler Question; it isn’t an exciting novel, but it’s pristinely fashioned. Maybe this, too, is a source of your issues with the book?

  9. I’ve not long started reading this, and am having trouble with it. Not for any of the more weighty issues discussed above, but merely that I’m finding Treslove to be far too self involved and annoying. It’s a shame because I think it’s a nicely written novel and the grief (and different ways of dealing with it) of Libor and Finkler is especially wonderfully observed. Hm, I’ll stick with it.

    Jacobson taught at Wolverhampton Polytechnic btw. Woot, I guess 😉

  10. I’ve read posts from others who’ve foundered on the rocks of Treslove’s conceit, Mr Who Can’t Be Bothered To Log In. I think it’s a fair enough reason to bounce off the novel, but as you say it doesn’t take away from the skill of the writing – agreed absolutely that grief is evoked beautifully.

    And, yes, I keep trying to imagine Jacobson having a swift half in the Varsity. Doesn’t quite come off. 😛

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