Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review : The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury 2011)

I hesitate to start to write this review, as I feel a bit like Treslove, the main character of this book. Julian Treslove is a disappointed unmarried middle-aged man working as a celebrity look-alike whose two best friends are both Jewish, and both have recently lost their wives. Samuel Finkler, a friend of Treslove since school, is a successful philosopher, academic and TV pundit, writer of "The Existentialist in the Kitchen". The elderly Libor Sevcik was their teacher. Both may be Jewish, but they have conflicting attitudes to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Libor supporting the Israeli government's position, whereas Finkler takes the lead of the ASHamed Jews who are opposed to Israeli aggression in Palestine.

Julian has always had an ambiguous relationship with the confident, successful Finkler, defining his attitude to Jewishness through him (to Treslove, all Jews are "Finklers"). However, after being the victim of an possibly antisemitic attack in London, he starts to learn more about the religion before striking up a relationship with Hephzibah, Libor's niece. Nevertheless, despite trying to learn Yiddish, contemplating circumcision and recognising rising antisemitism on London's streets, Treslove never quite manages to fully reconcile himself to his nascent Judaism.

This is such an intimate, affectionate portrait of the varieties of Judaic experience, that, like Treslove, the gentile reader feels as if they are an onlooker, peering in to lives that are similar yet different to our own, trying to understand yet always conscious that there is a gap - religious, political, cultural, historical - that is impossible to transcend. In Treslove's case this is partly because he seems emotionally deficient at times, but a non-Jewish reader can only imagine the complexity of feelings and responses generated in Jews by the Palestinian conflict.

This is also a book about families and of death. Finkler and his wife Tyler coexisted up until her death in what was basically mutual enmity driven by Finkler's numerous infidelities (Treslove is surprised to learn that she  wasn't originally Jewish, but converted on her marriage). Libor, on the other hand - and despite being intimate with Hollywood's most beautiful actresses - was always loyal in his heart to his beloved Malkie. Both find it difficult to come to terms with their loss. Treslove, meanwhile, fantasizes about a beautiful woman dying in his arms.

It is not easy to summarise all the themes of such a sensitive, intelligent novel. Jacobson eschews easy solutions and trite answers. Themes are argued back and forwards but none of the characters find easy resolutions and neither does the reader - questions are simply raised and left hanging. All this is done is the most beautiful prose by a master of the well-turned sentence and ironic juxtaposition. This is not laugh-out-loud funny like previous works by Jacobson, but it demonstrates a wry humour throughout.

However, this is not meant to be a funny book - it's a deadly serious one. In Treslove's terms The Finkler Question is nothing less than the Jewish Question, a fundamental set of issues for a Jewish writer such as Jacobson. With its subsidiary reflections on life, love and death, this is as serious as it gets.


James G Basker said...


Given your choice of pseudonym and your literary focus, you may be interested in reading a new edition of Smollett's RODERICK RANDOM forthcoming from University of Georgia Press, edited by the late P.-G. Bouce, Nicole Seary, and myself (Jim Basker). It is a scholarly edition, with hundreds of footnotes, but also many historical illustrations and much new material.


roderick random said...

Thanks Jim, Sounds interesting. I shall certainly check it out.