THE FINKLER QUESTION by Howard Jacobson

Book Quote:

“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.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (DEC 23, 2010)

Nevertheless, Howard Jacobson does talk about it, together with gentile anti-Semitism and that philo-Semitism that may well be anti-Semitism in disguise. This brilliant novel, at once comedic and penetrating, is nothing less than a study of Jewish identity, at least as reflected by a group of middle-class Jews in contemporary London. This is satire, but equal-opportunity satire; there is nobody who may not be offended by it at one point or another, yet nobody who will not recognize the wisdom of Jacobson’s insights, as loving and humane as they are witty.

Libor Sevcik is an aging Czech emigré, a cosmopolitan Jew of the old school. After achieving fame as a Hollywood gossip columnist, he finds himself teaching in a London grammar school, where two of his pupils are Sam Finkler and Julian Treslove, a connection that he has maintained even as the younger men are nearing fifty. Finkler studied philosophy at Oxford, and has parlayed this into a career in print and television, processing the great philosophers in the cause of self-improvement, publishing best-sellers such as “Descartes and Dating” and “The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life.” Treslove, however, had been “a modular, bits-and-pieces man at university, not studying anything recognizable as a subject, but fitting components of different art related disciplines, not to say indisciplines, together like Lego pieces. Archaeology, Concrete Poetry, Media and Communications, Festival and Theatre Administration, Comparative Religion, Stage Set and Design, the Russian Short Story, Politics and Gender.” He now hires himself out as a handsome near-lookalike to any one of a number of famous figures.

Perhaps as a product of their schoolday rivalry, Treslove, who is a gentile, is fascinated by the mystery of Jews (whom he thinks of collectively as Finklers), members of an exclusive club that he can never join. But a random mugging near the start of the book (which he takes to be a misdirected hate crime) sets him on the path to becoming a Jew himself. After one misconceived attempt to plumb “the deep damp dark mysteriousness of a Finkler woman,” he eventually finds a genuinely Jewish partner in Libor’s zaftig niece Hephzibah, learning Yiddish phrases in order to woo her, then reading Maimonides under her direction. Finkler, meanwhile, moves in the opposite direction. Using a guest appearance on “Desert Island Discs” as a career-booster, he gratuitously proclaims that he is ashamed of Israel’s policies in Palestine, and finds himself almost overnight the spokesman for a group of anti-Zionists in the arts and academe that he calls ASH, for ASHamed Jews. “They’ll soon realize their mistake,” his wife had prophesied; “with a greedy bastard like you around they’ll soon discover how hard it is to get their own share of shame.”

Increased anti-Semitic attacks at home and Israeli actions in Gaza and the Occupied Territories abroad take the action of the second part of the book well beyond passing comedy. Most importantly, Jacobson’s characters grow on us as people, giving their lives as much heartbreak as humor. I was reminded of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which treats similar issues of Jewish identity in a comic vision of American academe, but Howard Jacobson is richer as a novelist, wearing his smartness more lightly. I also thought of Ian McEwan’s recent Solar, another London-based satire of contemporary issues, but while McEwan seemed to be slightly out of his comfort zone, Jacobson is very much in his; this is satire that never sacrifices character to humor, and says something profound at the same time. And my goodness, the man can write:

“The 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.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 158 readers
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury USA (October 12, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Yes!  Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: British Council on Howard Jacobson
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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December 23, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Humorous, Man Booker Prize, Satire, United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

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