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.