When you begin reading Howard Jacobson’s TheFinkler Question—just announced as this year’swinner of the Man Booker Prize—you may worry that you are headed into apolemic disguised as a novel. The characters spend a lot of time talking aboutGaza, swastikas, and “never forgetting.” As you keep reading, however, thebrilliance of the book comes clear: Jacobson is using the novel form preciselyin order to help us limn these polarizing issues through the consciousness of a flawed character as an excuse,freeing himself—and us—from the conventions of argumentation.
Although strong positions on Israel, Zionism, andanti-Semitism comprise the bulk of this talky book, they are expressed throughcharacters who each, eventually, change theirminds. More impressively, behind these characters it is impossible to find anypuppet master. You cannot deduce an authorial stance, only evidence of a frighteninglysmart and insightful thinker and stylist. Jacobson—anestablished British author who has been terribly under-known this side of thepond—has written a brave book. Even more welcome, he has written a seriously funny one.
Jacobson exploits the non-threatening veneer of anovel—”it’s just a story”—to make fun of everybody, defusing with an appealing lightness the heady politicaldiscussions the characters cannot stop themselves fromhaving. “‘I wonder whether we feel nothing,’” says a main characterabout Jews, “‘precisely because we rehearse our feelings on the subject toofreely and too often?’” “‘Crying Wolfowitz, you mean?’” responds anothercharacter, “with a wild laugh.”
The novel revolves around Julian Treslove, aformer BBC producer turned celebrity look-alike. Treslove is a textbookRomantic: he longs for an Ophelia, a lover who will die young and beautiful, sohe can mourn her. His daydreams end this way: “The curtain alwayscame down on Treslove’s fantasy of happiness with him crying ‘Mimi!’ or ‘Violetta!’ and kissing the cold dead lips a last goodbye that would leave himinconsolable for ever.” It’s not muchof a surprise that Treslove has never married, but has instead been involvedwith a string of women whose names all begin with “Ju” (or, as he laterwonders, “Jew”), the only syllable he could hear a psychic utter when he hadhis romantic fortunes foretold.
Julian Treslove (or, perhaps, “Jewlian VeryLove”) was childhood friends with Sam Finkler. Finkler was the first Jew Treslove ever met,and Finkler did not quite live up to the stereotype. Then, “he supposed a Jewwould be like the word Jew—small and dark and beetling.” The two develop anintensely homosocial relationship straight from the British school-chums genre, but with a twist. ForTreslove, Finkler represents the mysterious, desirable Other; he represents Jews,that is. Hence the novel’s title: since he first met his first Jew,Treslove has called all Jews Finklers—but only to himself, wondering andmulling the age-old question of what it means to be Finkler.
Finkler, meanwhile, grows upto become a hugely successful pop philosopher, writing self-help bookssuch as The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better SexLife. Raised Orthodox, Finkler has fallen away from any faith, and is soanti-Zionist Treslove wonders if he is at heart anti-Semitic.When Finklers’s wife, Tyler, a convert, dies young, Finkler mourns—as Jewsalways are doing, at least in Treslove’s romantic imagination—buthe also feels guilty (perhaps also as Jews are always doing). Finkler was aninconstant, distracted husband, is still a poor father, and spends his nightswith zaftig Jewish mistresses or playing online poker. He holds themost outrageous political views in the book, and he is also the least likable member of a cast of characters who, althoughfascinating, are not always sympathetic. He is the kind of person who,at a restaurant, always asks the waiters for more hot water, “no matter howmuch hot water had already been brought. It was his way of asserting power,Treslove thought. No doubt Nietzsche, too, ordered more hot water than heneeded.”
Finkler is also, of course, very funny. Tresloveendlessly and unsuccessfully tries to crack the code of Finkler humor. It isall in wordplay, he concludes,but you also have to time the linguistic cleverness correctly. Poor WaspyJulian’s jokes are usually met with confused stares.
Treslove and Finkler arealso linked by a mutual teacher from their childhood, now recently widowed andbereft, named Libor Sevcik, a Czech who has become, of all things, a celebrityjournalist. With this trio of lost,mourning men at the center of the story,Jacobson sets himself a tough task. How will a novel in which these men meet,talk, and fight about Gaza be engaging? Somehow Jacobson makes it work, in nosmall part because it’s funny.
Whenever the three get together, Libor and Finklerdebate the state of Israel. Libor always pronounced it, “Isrrrae.” Tresloveanalyzes his pronunciation: “Whenever Libor said the word Israel hesounded the ‘r’ as though there were three of them and let the ‘l’ fall away tosuggest that the place belonged to the Almighty and he couldn’t bring himselffully to pronounce it. Finklers were like that with language, Tresloveunderstood. When they weren’t playing with it they were ascribing holyproperties to it.” Finkler, on the other hand, refuses to pronounce the word atall, calling the country Palestine: he “spit out Israel-associated words likeZionist and Tel Aviv and Knesset as though they were curses.”
Treslove mainly listens and envies the witty,headstrong Finklers. After Finkler and Libor become widowers, Treslove is onlymore jealous: now they have even greater tragic auras! Finkler, in turn,always competes with Treslove, and perhaps wishing for himself a less troubledpast, envies Libor his memories of a better marriage, and therefore his greatershare of grief.
The action that sets the plot into motion ishilariously inconsequential: Treslove is mugged. Theimprobable consequence is his decision to convert to Judaism. He learnsYiddish, a language Finkler considers “the lost provincial overexpressiveness”of his Orthodox father. He visits a blogger who is trying to growhis foreskin back to discuss circumcision and sexual pleasure. What was his “Jewishthing” really? asks the Jewish woman he falls in love with. “A search for someidentity that came with more inwrought despondence than he could manufactureout of his own gene pool? Did he want the whole fucking Jewish catastrophe?”
With anti-Semitic attacks on the rise in London,Libor also undergoes a change of heart, as all the English Jews find themselveswondering of a swastika here or a smear of bacon grease there, “Was itsomething or was it nothing?” As thedebates migrate from past times or far away places to the streets of thediaspora, the characters all find themselves surprisedby their own reactions.
Rare is a work of fiction that takes on the mostcontroversial issues facing Jews so directly—and with enough humor,intelligence, and insight—that it changes a reader’s mind or two. Be warned: TheFinkler Question will probably distress you on its way to disarmingyou. Can we pay a novel any greater compliment?