Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

(Contains a few spoilers.)

When Jacobson read from "The Finkler Question" in Manchester before he'd won the Booker Prize, he asked the audience whether he should read the funny or sad bits, this being a funny novel about death. He's a consummate reader, and the scenes he read leapt off the page. There's little that's actually laugh out loud funny in the novel itself, but neither is it morbid. He's a consummate writer as well, and "The Finkler Question" uses all his skills for what might well have been a difficult sell.

Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler were at school together (in the sixties and seventies, though it feels longer ago) and kept in touch with their ancient teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech emigre. Two of the three - not Treslove - are Jewish and the book is primarily about different kinds of Jewishness in contemporary Britain. Primarily, but not entirely, from Treslove's perspective. The book's one consistently good joke is the replacing of the word "Jewish" with the word "Finkler." For Treslove wants at first to understand Jewishness, and then to be Jewish.

It is around this modus operandi that Jacobson spins a comic novel of ideas. Not since Daniel Deronda has the average reader had such a grounding in the finer points of Jewish doctrine, and Jacobson's real triumph is in doing this in a way that doesn't feel hectoring or forced. All the learndedness - basically "what it is to be Jewish" - is taken with a pinch of salt (beef.) Not that Jacobson's comedy is the laugh out loud variety. It relies on the spinning of yarns, dreadful puns, and a certain sprightly joi de vivre which enlightens even the darkest passages.

Both Finkler and Libek have lost their wives. For the older man it is a tragedy - the loss of his life partner and part of himself - but for Finkler it's never quite so clearcut, and we never really find out of what she died (cancer, perhaps?) That his best friend has been having an affair of sorts with her, in the mistaken belief that she is both kinds of a "Finkler woman" (she's a convert to Judaism) means that it is Treslove who is also in mourning. Treslove is the comic figure of the novel. A thinly-drawn 49-year old who has accidentally had two children, and makes his living as a celebrity lookalike (not one celebrity in particular - he looks like lots of different ones a little bit.) Getting over the solipsism and unbelievability of Treslove is one of the novel's first stumbling blocks; you feel that for Jacobson he's the useful fool, who anything can happen to. It's therefore also a novel about male friendship, which remains one of the defining themes of a certain generation of writers (think "The Information," "Talking it Over", even "Small World"). The tropes of a contemporary London come and ago, and provide a number of set pieces for these three very different men to share their very different thoughts on being (or not being) Jewish.

The comic tropes are themselves a little wearisome - and already seem a little dated (Amy Winehouse listed in a list of famous Jews for instance) - and in the group of "ASHamed Jews" that Finkler joins, you feel a joke as throwaway as Zadie Smith's KEVIN in "White Teeth." But satire has to risk falling, if it is to risk being funny. As the novel progresses, Treslove's fascination with a religion and culture he doesn't belong to becomes more serious, as anti-semiticism, even in the leafy environs of St. John's Wood, comes to the fore. There seems a lingering - and quite powerful - message here; that vigilance against anti-semiticism can never be enough. For such a political novel to have won the Booker is surprising in itself, but its concerns, though not to be dismissed, seem relatively trivial. There has to be an uneasiness, even in a novel where most of the Jewish characters are uneasy about Palestine, that Gaza is used as a throwaway backdrop to what is essentially a comedy of manners. Is this (to use one of Jacobson's favoured rhetorical questions) a comic novel about a serious subject or a serious novel about differences of opinion? To be fair it doesn't purport to have any answers: and the tackling of difficult subjects with quite a bit of flair, and not a little levity is to be applauded - yet so difficult are the subjects that they never quite go away. Can you joke about the Holocaust? Well, Jacobsen does, but to make the point that you shouldn't.

If this was purely a political book it's appeal would be limited however; it's far better a novel when it concentrates on the relationship between the three men and their relationships to the women (and children) in their lives. When Treslove goes against type and falls in love with a buxom Jewish woman, his two friends note with authority that he was looking for a mother figure. Amidst the comedy, the politics and the mourning, this is a novel primarily about male frailties, and can be both painful and acute at the same time.

It's the first of this year's Booker shortlist I've read, and there feels an element of long service award about it, though its pleasing that a novel that contains serious ideas, as well as seriously bad puns can be applauded, presumably on the sheer bravado of it's writing. Though engaging, the writing - or should we say the editing - is a problem. As a mid-list writer, maybe Jacobson wasn't given the time he should have been, but there are typographical errors, inconsistencies and far too many sloppy lines. One imagines the first of these will be fixed in any reprints, but the second and third are probably now set in aspic, as they were clearly not a problem for the Booker judges. It is, when all's said and done, a curiously old-fashioned novel, though set in a contemporary Britain, which won't frighten any conservatively minded readers, though they might be a little put off, as I was, by the detailed riff on the Jewish character who is trying to un-circumsise himself. In the matter of aesthetic taste, I'm as uncertain as Treslove finds himself when trying to pigeonhole Finkler.

No comments: