Monday, January 24, 2011

Howard Jacobson`s The Finkler Question

So who's read the 2010 Man Booker-winner, Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question? I used to pride myself on reading the Booker winner and a few of the short-lists every year, but have missed a few in the past five. Trying again, though, so picked up the Jacobson from the (very decent) bookstore in the San Francisco airport.

I'll admit that the first third of the book, at least, I remained at a distance -- and felt quite justified given the pervasive sense of satire which, I think you have to agree, is a distancing mechanism. The characters are more caricature, and what they're caricatures of are middle-aged males specific to a British class-based context. This kind of male writing, no matter how good, tends to bore me even if it entertains me, even if I recognize clever, deft, stylish writing -- as is the case here.

Furthermore, while the central character`s fixation with suffering, even dying, women is as laughable as it is irritating (or should that be the other way `round), his fixation with Jewishness verges, I thought for the first third to half the novel, on the irrelevant as much as the comic. I puzzled over how different the British context could be for this to be the case. Although I know the Holocaust`s still-echoing effects must haunt Jews any and everywhere, Jewishness as any kind of social impediment at all seems unimaginable in my circles. I questioned why this might be so -- why, after all, is Jewishness so nearly invisible around me -- but at the same time, felt validated in some of my impatience when Treslove and his friend Finkler talked about the relative appearance of circumcised and uncircumcised penises -- the former apparently belonging almost exclusively to Jews. This is simply not the case in my geography, where the prevailing practise for at least 60 years has been circumcision for Jew or Gentile.

So I felt alienated from the novel`s central argument, wondering why I was so resistant to this protagonist in this setting when I`d been so sympathetic to Edeet Ravel`s Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth.

And then somewhere about half way in, the tone and the momentum and my engagement all began to shift. I`m still not sure how and why, but the turn coincides with the protagonist, Treslove, falling in love and moving in with Hephzibah. It also coincides with a series of escalating, apparently disconnected anti-Semitic attacks that begin to make Treslove`s Jewish friend Finkler (the titular synonym for Jew, in Treslove-speak) question his shame over Zionist imperialism. Characters whose absorption with what initially seemed to me a non-issue gradually convinced themselves, and me, that theirs was an unavoidable concern. As Treslove`s much older friend, Libor, a grieving Jewish widower tells him `There`s no escaping the Jews for anyone`(245).

By the end of the novel, I had been moved and saddened and convinced by the ethical struggles of these three male friends from whom the author had distanced me for so long at the outset. Were I to take the time to re-read this, I`d be watching for the exact point when this change of engagement began to happen for me. Should you read this, I`d love to hear if and when you experienced such a shift.


  1. I just picked it up and started it last night (Spouse finished reading it a couple of days ago). Thus far, I'm with you as far as this 'type of male writing' - I'm not hoooked, and I'm vaguely irritated, even when also vaguely amused. If I become engaged, I'll be sure to note whereabouts in the novel it happens.

    And as a somewhat trivial aside, in Australia also it was standard for boys to be circumcised until very recently - all men of my generation were, although my son is not. Non-circumcision was a very English thing, rather than a gentile thing.

  2. I'll be very curious to see if you experience the same shift as I did. I still wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it, but by the end I did feel it was saying something important . . . and it's undeniably well written.
    Sounds like Canada and Australia are similar, as far as the circumcisions go . . . my oldest daughter is 35 this year, and if she'd been a boy, we would not have had the surgery, although we would have been in a fairly progressive vanguard at the time. . . even by the time my son was born 25 years ago, there were still many of my friends choosing to have their sons "match" their dads, but it was much more common to give the scalpel a miss. So that whole part of the novel -- which is pretty integral to his overall argument, seems to me -- was pretty much lost on me as, it seems, on you.

    Do let me know what you think when you're done . . . and I'd be curious to hear how your reading of the book differs from your Spouse's

  3. I used to pride myself on reading the short list and the winner, but I've not been good at keeping up with this kind of thing of late. I remain intellectually intrigued by the book, but given the length of my current list, and the fact that I've also issued a book buying moratorium it may be a while, if ever. It is possible however that by the time I've worked my way down the list I will reconsider and the moratorium will either have been rescinded or the wait list at the local library will be down to reasonable levels.

    So many books......

  4. Curious about the book moratorium . . .why, and for how long? just material books or the virtual as well?

    I've fallen behind with the Booker and its shortlists, but hope to catch up a bit, although not if it feels too much of an obligation. Still, it's good to push a bit beyond what I'd naturally read, I guess. Did you ever read John Banville's The Sea? I missed that and wonder if I should pick it up?

  5. keeping up with the booker never felt like a burden, and I found lots of things I enjoyed and would have otherwise missed. Banville's The Sea is still sitting on the shelf, waiting for me to read it.

    The moratorium is due to a few things, a need to eliminate books, but I don't mind having shelves full of books I hope to read, they are shelves of promise, like dreams of the self I might be when I read them all. Mostly though the moratorium is because I have lots of unread books and am shelling out huge bucks right now for home care for G and am feeling a bit financially squeezed. After I wrote that message however I got a call from the insurance carrier and they will approve the claim, retroactive to October, so I am quite relieved and the moratorium will fall by the wayside before it ever really got entrenched.

  6. What a relief re the health coverage! I know what you mean about a moratorium, though. I could probably spend the next five or ten years just re-reading books I once enjoyed but have forgotten enough for a re-read to be productive and entertaining. Even some I haven't forgotten, of course, I'd love to read again. I'll certainly never run out of smoething to read!

  7. Mater, I just thought I'd mention I'm now past the halfway mark with this and definitely far more engaged than I was. Is it because there's now a living (rather than dead or dying) woman in it? It's as though the characters subtly shift from caricature to more believable people. In other ways I am also irritated by that - it seems so obvious to replace the thin dying women with a Juno (are there no women in between?), but maybe that's me.

    And re The Sea, I absolutely loved it. It's what I think of as classic 'English' writing - pared back, understated, ineffably sad.

  8. Tiffany: Yes, this is much of what frustrates but also engages me with this novel, the way it teeters between caricature and then fully animated, really struggling humans. And I had to keep checking myself for fairness -- was it the author I was annoyed with? or his characters? I suspect more men that age (and that class, that nationality/ethnicity) than we'd like to think of have rather appalling frames through which they view women. . .
    I'm going to try to get to the Banville this year, for sure, now, based on your rec. (as well as the Booker panel, to be sure, but you count more with me!)