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.

‘Love and Summer’

"Love and Summer"

ETA: A basic assumption of this review has been rather conclusively blown out of the water in the comments: somehow, I’d managed completely to misremember 2009’s Booker shortlist. Go me! Still, Love and Summer is still a deeply decent read…

Ever since John Self read and rated William Trevor’s Love and Summer last year, I’ve been wanting to get around to reading it. To some extent it was knocked back by reading 2009’s Booker shortlist – deeply unfair on it, as was its exclusion from that august company. It is a tender and clear-sighted tale of a youthful love affair in the small Irish village of Rathmoye. Its setting is indeterminate, Rathmoye’s stifling inter-connectedness as likely today as it might have been in the 1950s, which feels the closest fit if we were forced to choose one. The best we get is the clue that the novel takes place “some years after the middle of the last century”. The summer of the title is certainly seasonal – events take place over a few months, and end at the onset of autumn – but the closeness and stretched quality of both personal relationships and time exhibited in Rathmoye echo the qualities of uncomfortable, but lazy, days.

All of which is to suggest that Love and Summer is a quite careful novel: it is intricately plotted and intimately characterised, and even the most initially extraneous detail will, in the intensely shared environment of Rathmoye, prove significant. There is a Jamesian aspect to the novel, then – all internal monologue and pained interiority – which calls to mind Trevor’s countryman Colm Tóibín, and indeed Love and Summer reminded me distinctly of the latter’s Brooklyn, a novel which did manage to make last year’s Booker shortlist. Despite criticisms of 2009’s clutch (it was all ‘historical fiction’ and thus rather limited, apparently), it seemed to me that the novels were actually quite separate in time and approach; and so, surely, it was a straight contest between Trevor and Tóibín, two writers stumbling upon similar times and travails.

It’s a shame Brooklyn won out. Not because it is a bad novel – in fact, it’s exquisitely observed, and as John Mullan is noting in the Guardian at the moment, expertly executed. But Love and Summer, which most resembles the Irish scenes that bookend Brooklyn, achieves in its narrower focus a far greater versimilitude: its village gossip isn’t a caricature, its tortured pasts are equally torturously revealed, rather than slap-dashed across the page in the brief scenes allowed them. There’s something about the way in which Trevor slowly – again, carefully – reconstructs the pained histories he hints at from the very first page which makes their awful tragedy all the more acute.

Most interestingly, the way in which his character deal with this acuity is to disassociate themselves from the past. Some, such as the main female character, Ellie, can barely remember their past, their recalled childhood spent in the stasis of a convent; others, such as Miss Connulty or Ellie’s husband, Dillahan, are in denial or refutation of their pasts, suppressing their previous selves and attempting, with varying degress of success, to craft a new identity – almost a new person, a denial of self. Rathmoye, of course, cannot – will not – forget, and this puts it at odds with the novel’s strangest character, Orpen Wren, a former archivist whose memory now plays cruel tricks upon him, mixing past, present and future into an incomprehensible – and oddly comforting – melange.

Into this strained atmosphere appears the male half of Ellie’s summer of love, Florian. An Irish-Italian semi-bohemian of dubious motivations, he is at first introduced as a kind of hero, but ultimately might seem to some readers a picture of irresponsibility. The passion he arouses in Ellie is never quite recipocrated by him – although he certainly acts on whatever feelings he does experience – and the love affair of the title is something less than the sun-kissed idyll we might expect. Indeed, Trevor’s key success is to defy expectations: the withered and embittered village matriarch Miss Connulty is one of the novel’s most humane characters; Dillahan’s moment of revelation spins on an axis quite different to the one we are led to predict. The novel finds a way to judge each character on their own terms. One might suspect a novel such as this, written by a prose master such as Trevor, of concentrating on a perfection of the commonplace. It goes one better.