The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson

I finished The Finkler Question and it has taken me an age to come to writing this review. I suspect that this is largely due to the fact that I have struggled to get a grip on this novel. Yes, it is well written, a lovely combination of humour and dissent, of emotional distress and longing, of delicious language and revolting self loathing. A difficult book to access. It is possible that this is a man’s book, written by a man, about the friendship between men and their respective relationships with their partners. At times I felt quite alienated by this aspect of the novel and while I related, in part, to the general desire of these characters to belong, I struggled to properly empathise with their journeys.

Although I will credit Jacobson with stellar writing, I still find it difficult to understand why this book was the recipient of the Booker Prize. Yes, it is different and confronting, but I find myself wondering whether perhaps this book outshone the other nominees simply because it is so politically incorrect: a Jewish author writing about a Jewish character who is ASHAMED of being affiliated with Israel and her actions, specifically in Gaza. At times this aspect of the book is so confronting and the author’s self-loathing so over bearing that one has to put the book down and take a breather. Jacobson does a superb job of covering this tension with humour and there is no doubt that there are many many moments of ‘laugh out loud’ comedy. For me, this was one of the saving graces of this book. The other redeeming factor was that I fell in love with the elderly Jewish man, Libor and his all consuming love for his late wife, Malkie. The tenderness and sensitivity with which Jacobson has painted this relationship is miraculous, especially in confrontation with the angst which devours most of the book.

Libor is a delightful character, filled with wit and wisdom. “Libor’s position with regard to Israel with three ‘r’s and no ‘I’ – Isrrrae – was what Treslove had heard described as the lifeboat position. ‘No, I’ve never been there and don’t ever want to go there,’ he said, ‘but even at my age the time might not be far away when I have nowhere else to go. That is history’s lesson.”… But whereas Libor pronounced Israel as a holy utterance, like the cough of G-d, Finkler put a seasick ‘y’ between the ‘a’ and the ‘e’ – Israyelis – as though the word denoted one of the illnesses for which his father had prescribed his famous pill. ‘History’s lesson is that the Israyelis have never fought an enemy yet that wasn’t made stronger by the fight. History’s lesson is that bullies ultimately defeat themselves.” For Jewish readers, there is a subtext here that grates uncomfortably as this discussion so resembles life in Israel and in the Diaspora. Although Finkler detests his “fellow Jews for their clannishness about Israel, Finkler couldn’t hide his disdain for Treslove for so much as daring, as an outsider, to have a view. ‘Because of the blood that will be spilled while we sit and do nothing,’ he said, spraying Treslove with his contempt. And then, to Libor, ‘And because as a Jew I am ashamed.’”

Treslove, who spends the entire book trying to work out what it is that is so special about his Jewish friends and then aspiring to join their tribe, is baffled. “Such confidence, such certainty of right, whether or not Libor was correct in thinking that all Finkler wanted was for non-Finklers to approve of him… Libor was right – Finkler was seeking love. A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.”

Treslove and Finkler’s relationship is quite tortured and in some ways irritating. Treslove is desperate for Finkler’s approval but unsure why and Finkler is so arrogant and unknowing that he cannot comprehend the lengths to which his friend would go for him. “But that was Finkler’s way. He would lift the hem of his life infinitesimally, just enough to make Treslove feel intrigued and excluded, before lowering it again.”

There are many poignant moments in this text which leave readers pondering some of the deeper implications of the way that we live our lives:

“what moved him was this proof of the destructibility of things; everything exacted its price in the end, and perhaps happiness exacted it even more cruelly than its opposite. Was it better then – measuring the loss – not to know happiness at all? Better to go through life waiting for what never came, because that way you had less to mourn?”

And, clearly, Jacobson himself has “a timid awareness of one’s small –place in a universe ringed by a barbed-wire fence of rights and limits”. Ultimately, this is a novel about identity and each of the characters is on their own quest to find themselves and to understand the nature of their connections to the world that they inhabit.

“What am I?” Treslove stared at the ceiling. It felt like a trick question.”

While this is certainly a worthy theme, it is not what stayed with me from this text which in truth I really did not enjoy. What I have retained is the marvellous way that Jacobson uses language and I will leave you with just one example below:

So these were the reluctant, resented dawns. Hephzibah was right about their splendour. But not about their breaking. The verb was wrong. It suggested too sudden and purposeful a disclosure. From her terrace the great London dawn bled slowly into sight, a thin line of red blood leaking out between the rooftops, appearing at the windows of the buildings it had infiltrated, one at a time, as though in a soundless military coup. On some mornings it was as though a sea of blood rose from the city floor. Higher up, the sky would be mauled with rough blooms of deep blues and burgundies like bruising. Pummelled into light, the hostage day began.



7 responses to “The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson

  1. You seem to have worked harder to like “The Finkler Question” than I did. I can empathize. For a time, Rose Tremain was my favorite writer. But then I had difficulties with “Music and Silence” and then couldn’t even finish “The Colour”. Then this year I read “Trespass” and thought it was wonderful.

  2. I think my policy is to always try and enjoy a book. If someone has taken the time to write something then it is simply respectful to try and see some good in it!
    Having said that, Finkler really grated on my nerves and it is the first book in a long time that I had real difficulty reading. Upon reading your review, I wonder whether I need to revisit my ideas about this book, perhaps my cultural and religious affiliation have somewhat clouded my interpretation of this text!

  3. My feelings about the book were mixed, but mostly I enjoyed it. (Although I think some of the reviewers were overly enthusiastic.) What I liked was what you picked up: the tension between the humor and the pain. My brief comments:

    • SilverSeason, thanks for forwarding the link to your comments. I find it fascinating that a book can cause such diverse comments from readers. I still don’t think it deserved to win the Booker, but, what do I know!

  4. Ah, Justine, you sort of grappled like I did, but came down more negative than I in the end. It’s not an easy book to get a hold of is it? When my reading group discussed it a couple of weeks ago, I had unfortunately not managed to finish it due to a death in the family. What interested me was that they didn’t discuss what it was ABOUT. All they discussed was how well it represented Jewish culture.

    PS I love the quotes you’ve chosen. It would be easy to fill up a review with clever, poignant, and/or funny excerpts, wouldn’t it?

  5. Interestingly, Sue, I don’t think it represents Jewishness at all well. For me it stinks of a sort of commercialized stereotype that comes from popular media. Perhaps this was Finkler’s point?

  6. Interestingly, Sue, I don’t think it represents Jewishness at all well. For me it stinks of a sort of commercialized stereotype that comes from popular media. Perhaps this was Finkler’s point?

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