Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Catching up on the Booker Prize: Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question

If Jacobson lived here, he'd order from Amazon.
Today at Barnes and Noble, I perused a chapter of Howard Jacobson's Zoo Time.  According to The Guardian, it is "a "400-page tantrum against book groups, Amazon, the Kindle,...vampire books," etc. I hardly think Jacobson would approve of my blogging, but I did enjoy The Finkler Question.  We do what we have to do to support our book habit (this isn't London or New York), and that includes reading Ann Patchett's  State of Wonder, i.e.,  Conrad for Girls, for book groups; shopping at Amazon; reading e-books on apparati, as Gary Sheyngart calls them; and, yes, it's the end of civilization.

Jacobson's The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize in 2010.  It is a comedy, everyone said.  I was expecting Lucky Jim, or possibly Portnoy's Complaint.

I did not expect a novel about Jewish identity. I am Catholic, and though that is another religion with strange rites, vestments, a penchant for foreign language (Latin till Vatican 2), and titanic amounts of guilt,  I have alienated so many Catholics with my criticisms that I am leery of talking about  The Finkler Question.    I am sure there is a great Catholic novel that parses Catholicism in the same way The Finkler Question parses Jewishness, but I am not familiar with it.  The closest I have come to analyzing  great Catholic literature is probably Flannery O'Connor's short story, "Parker's Back," and that is symbolic, mostly about Christ and tattoos.

Although the characters in The Finkler Question are comical, Jacobson somberly analzyes Jewish ethnicity, religion, stereotypes, anti-Semites, Israel, Palestine, Nazis, sex, and death.  One of the main characters, Julian Treslove, a gentile ex-BBC producer who works as a movie star lookalike, is envious of his smart Jewish friends.  He refers to Jews as Finklers, because his friend, Sam Finkler, the famous Jewish author of philosophy-cum-self-help books with titles like The Socratic Flirt:  How to Reason Your Way to a Better Sex Life, is annoyingly brillaint and successful, as Jews are supposed to be. Libor, their former teacher, who spent time in Hollywood, is also a Jew. And after Julian is mugged by a woman--he fantasizes first that she called him "You Ju" for Julian, and then that she called him a Jew--he decides to be Jewish.

The early chapters about Julian are acridly funny:  he is a romantic, never marries, and is the indifferent father of two sons by  girlfriends who left him when they were pregnant.  

But the humor isn't light.

"Though it wasn't Kristallnacht, the unprovoked attack on him for being a Jew had become in Treslove's imagination little short of an atrocity.  He admitted to himself that he was overexcited.  The night with Kimberley, her misattribution of Jewish characteristics to him, as a consequence of which, he was bound to consider, he might just have had--at forty-nine!--the best sex of his life (well, at least they had both smiled during it), and the sense of history swirling around him, all made him an unreliable witness to his own life."

Finkler and Libor are new widowers, and when they spend time together alone, they talk about being Jewish.
"Oh, here we go, here we go.  Any Jew who isn't your kind of Jew is an anti-Semite.  It's a nonsense, Libor, to talk of Jewish anti-Semites.  It's more than a nonsense, it's a wickedness."
Finkler is narcissistic:  he founds Ashamed, a group of Jews ashamed of Israel's involvement with Palestine.

Libor is the saddest of the three, the one to whom being Jewish means the most, and the one who finds it hardest to adjust without his wife.

One of our questions throughout the book is:  will Julian remain Jewish?

It is an exuberant, beautifully-written, sometimes rambunctiously entertaining novel with undertones of gloom.  I look forward to reading some of his earlier fiction, like the novel that won the P. G. Wodehouse Award.

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