Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"The Finkler Question" by Howard Jacobson

Three men, Libor Sevcik, Sam Finkler and Julian Treslove, are the main characters in this novel, and all of them are widowers. Well, apart from Treslove, who never had a wife but grieves the lack of one altogether. Libor, a ninety-year-old Czech-born retired professor with Hollywood connections, is mourning his beloved wife Malkie, while Julian Treslove is envious of his long-time friend Sam Finkler for several reasons, one of them being that he is Jewish (and therefore, according to him, he is more intelligent, has the best women and tells the best jokes).

"The Finkler Question" is a brilliant book, very humorous and entertaining, but also thought-provoking and ultimately sad. As a matter of fact, Ron Charles of “The Washington Post” used adjectives like 'ruminative' and 'broody' to describe it. How can a book be both funny and gloomy? Well, I think this is one of the wonders of Jacobson's writing. “The Finkler Question” tackles topics like mourning one's family and, of course, identity. The whole book can be read as a compendium (albeit a crooked one) on Jewishness in England. I remember that a few months ago I read an article complaining about this. Incidentally, I think the author of the article has not grasped the real meaning of the book, to the point of wondering if he has finished the novel. “The Finkler Question” - which in fact reads as “The Jewish Question” (Finklers is in fact the way Julian Treslove calls Jewish people in general) – reflects on how Jewish people are perceived by non-Jewish people. It elaborates on stereotypes and anti-Semitism in a way that is never obvious. Until here, we all agree. What the author of that article failed to see, in my opinion, is that it is slowly revealed by the end of the book that it is Treslove's excessive love and respect for 'Finklers' that hides something disturbing and disquieting. I think that this can be read as a lesson, not only for those who hide their prejudice behind excessive admiration, but for everyone. In other words, Jacobson's book is a lecture on what it means to be human: to grieve, to love and to hate. We perceive Jewishness through the lenses of Julian Treslove, who for as much as he would hate to hear it, has a lot of preconceptions.  

The book vaguely reminds me of Zadie Smith's “The Autograph Man”, but it's not only because of the Jewish connection. They're both humorous books and they are both sprinkled with references to movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. “The Finkler Question” is nonetheless 'obsessed' with Jewishness as much as its protagonist is. Towards the end of the book it was annoying to read the word 'Jew' in every page, as it must have been annoying for Finkler's friends to hear Treslove babbling about Jewishness all the time.

Howard Jacobson got hold of the Booker Prize with this book. His style is precise and his novel is pleasant to read, while his puns and remarks are often witty and never weak ('D'Jew know Jewno' already feels like a classic). In spite of this, there was something missing: maybe more narrative complexity, if that is something desirable in a book. Too often the plot was put aside for endless disquisitions on Zionism that end up being tedious and abstruse, unless you are an expert on the subject. I appreciated the language in which the novel was written, though: the impeccable choice of words and the genius behind some of the musings and reflections. There is a passage about philosophy that I must report here because it feels so true for me (but if you don't care for such curiosities consider the review finished without this): 
Every few years Treslove decided it was time he tried philosophy again. Rather than start at the beginning with Socrates or jump straight into epistemology, he would go out and buy what promised to be a clear introduction to the subject - by someone like Roger Scruton or Bryan Magee, though not, for obvious reasons, by Sam Finkler. These attempts at self-education always worked well at first. The subject wasn't after all difficult. He could follow it easily. But then, at more or less the same moment, he would encounter a concept or a line of reasoning he couldn't follow no matter how many hours he spent trying to decipher it. A phrase such as 'the idea derived from evolution that ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis' for example, not impossibly intricate in itself but somehow resistant to effort, as though it triggered something obdurate and even delinquent in his mind. Or hte promise to look at an argument from three points of view, each of which had five salient features, the first of which had four distinguishable aspects. It was like discovering that a supposedly sane person with whom one had been enjoying a pefeclty normal conversation was in fact quite mad. Or, if not mad, sadistic. (p. 32-33)

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