The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson

I owe an explanation for the long absence of reviews. I would like to tell you that I have been developing a grand theory of book/literary blogging, that The Great Ape’s always interesting observations sparked a desire to blog with purpose rather than haphazardly. Or, I would like to tell you that I have been engaged in such a stimulating reading project that I could not take a break to tell you about it, but that, now, the results will astound you. (For that, you can click through to The Rat in the Book Pile where Sarah is entertainingly blazing a trail through Russian lit.) I even would be satisfied telling you that I have been too busy compiling billable hours to dash off a review.

I cannot truthfully tell you any of those things and it’s Howard Jacobson’s fault. The Booker jury bears some responsibility too, but, mostly, I have to blame Jacobson. I could even blame myself for allowing this one book to derail my blogging. And there is the fact that, after the Tournament of Books, a short slowdown likely was inevitable. But none of this makes me willing to absolve Jacobson. He is to blame.

His sin is not in writing an astonishingly bad book that, nevertheless, garners an outsize share of readers. That would actually make me eager to post and blog. The problem is that the book is, at least on a sentence-by-sentence level, very well written. During the entire 307 pages, I felt I was in the hands of a skilled author who knew what he wanted to do and that, at any moment, I might be blinded by the brilliant coming together of the text into something coherently beautiful. But I never was. This last probably cannot be laid at the author’s feet.

The “well written” thing should be explained. I find it difficult because I marked very few passages. My own deduction from this evidence would be that, while there were no painfully bad sentences (though there were painfully unfunny jokes, possibly meant to be), there were few great ones either. I marked this:

His self-consciousness surprised and appalled him. What need was there for this? Why did he not simply speak his heart?

Because the heart did not speak, that was why. Because language presupposes artificiality. Because in the end there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to be said….

He should have howled like an animal. That at least would have been a genuine expression of how he felt. Except that it wasn’t. There was no genuine expression of how he felt.

That’s good. The truth in that passage is written so we feel the inadequacy of language. A nice trick, Mr. Jacobson. It only really takes one good passage to redeem a book, so that should have done it. It didn’t. Though not because of the plot, more ably capsuled here, here, or here than I could manage at this point. Nor mostly the characters. The humor played a part.

I never laughed or smiled. There were things even I could tell were meant to be funny, that probably were. Whether, objectively, the jokes were any good, I felt no amusement. The obstacle to that was probably Treslove.

Treslove is a raving racist. That’s a lie. He is sort of the opposite of a racist, if a racist is someone who exalts his own heritage and/or hates and denigrates “the other.” Treslove is in love with the idea of “the other”, specifically Jews. He wants to be around Jews, to become a Jew, to fuck a Jew. I am not sure what can be said about a character who, after rogering a (Jewish) friend’s wife, is disappointed when he learns she is not Jewish. Treslove seems to be the embodiment of a brainless, reflexive anti-Semite, but with his conclusions running in precisely the opposite direction. This makes him nearly the same thing. It’s hard spending a book with such a fellow.

My sense is, after a couple weeks or so of thinking about the novel as little as possible, that the ridiculousness of Treslove, in contrast to the more normal characters, was Jacobson’s point. There is some utility in avoiding a direct indictment of anti-Semites, because the obvious evilness of their worldview obscures the equally important ridiculousness of it. Only an idiot really holds something against Jews because they are Jews and, therefore, only an idiot could really exalt Jews simply because they are Jews. Jacobson gets to make a point without wading into too much outright ugliness.

But that cannot be exactly right either because there are anti-Semites of a more conventional sort within the book, including, arguably, Jewish anti-Semites. The world is much more complex than anti-Semites vs. non-anti-Semites. Perhaps, instead, his point was that, post-Holocaust, we are all anti-Semites now…..But that cannot be right either, and not only because the sentiment would be only a vacuous ripoff of a more famous but still somewhat vacuous early-century statement. What I actually meant by that is I have no idea what the point of the novel is.

The crux of the problem is the lack of definition of terms. A late exchange between Treslove and a Jewish character begins to address one of this logical problem with Treslove’s idealization of, and anti-Semites’ villainization of, Jews.

‘Is it like being gay? Is there a Jewdar that enables you to pick one another out?’

‘Again, depends. I rarely think someone is Jewish when they’re not, but I quite often don’t know I’m talking to a Jew when I am.’

‘And what is it you look for?’

‘I’m not looking for anything.’

‘What is [it] that you recognise, then?’

‘Can’t explain. It’s not one thing, it’s a collection of things. Features, facial expression, a way of talking, a way of moving.’

‘So you’re making racial calculations?’

‘I wouldn’t call them racial, no.’

‘Religious?’

‘No, definitely not religious.’

‘Then what?’

She didn’t know what.

Neither do I. Maybe the amorphousness of the concept of “Jew” (ethnicity, religion, culture, ???) contributes to anti-Semitism. Some may convince themselves they are only criticizing a religion or a culture when, perhaps, they are not as clear on their categories as they imagine. On the other hand, perhaps sometimes people really are criticizing just an aspect of the religion Judaism and get accused of or lumped with or confused with actual anti-Semites. (I don’t believe religions, whether specific ideologies or the whole god enterprise itself, are beyond criticism. In fact, I think organized religions ought to be criticized and often and loudly.)

In the end, I only knew with certainty that Jacobson was lampooning Treslove. There are other candidates (the Zionists, the Jewish anti-Zionists, etc.), but I am too ignorant of Jacobson’s writing, his frames of reference, and Jewish culture generally to draw any reliable conclusions. I think he was making fun of (having fun with) most of them (fun for him, not for me), but I am not sure that is entirely right either. I have no answer to the “Finkler Question”, the “Finkler” question, or any other question posed, referenced, or tackled by this book.

I am dismayed that I cannot more ably identify why the novel and I did not get on. The dividing line between fans and the rest of us is the humor. Those who liked it, like it. Those who do not like the humor, close The Finkler Question with irritation. My annoyance puts me in the esteemed company of Kevin from Canada and James Wood (The New Yorker), but at odds with the equally esteemed John Self (Asylum) and Trevor (The Mookse and the Gripes). That’s it. That’s all I have.

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28 Responses to The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson

  1. Justine says:

    I’m with you on this one. I am confounded by the fact that I actually read the book despite not enjoying it and I did so because it received such reviews and acclaim … why, I am not sure … I think that I have decided that it won the Booker based simply on the fact that it was controversial on some level, that it was a satirical view of Jewish people and Israel from the supposed “inside” – although, how “inside” Jacobson is in reality I am not sure. It is interesting to me that you didn’t flag the critique of Israel because that stayed with me beyond the whole Jewish question which I thought was rather poorly tackled. Jacobson seems to be writing against Israel from under the covers of his positioning as an author whose Jewishness makes him by inference or implication “for” Israel. Not sure if this makes any sense. I think what disappointed me most in this book was the fact that we didn’t hear more about the wonderful Libor whose tenderness and tenacity were the shoulders upon which this book stood (for me, anyway!). In contrast Treslove and Finkler seemed pale and silly (for want of a better word) and I can’t help but think that Libor’s beloved Malka and all the pair of them stood for are the essence of Jacobson’s lament about all that is lost in the past.

    (You will excuse my ramblings but this book has become the bane of my existence quite simply because it grated so against my sensibilities.)

    • Kerry says:

      I share your disappointment that there wasn’t more of Libor or, alternatively, that there weren’t more characters drawn as Libor was (that is, characters who were not simply caricatures written in for laughs and to make his point). In other words, I much preferred the sensitive realism displayed in the writing of Libor to the not-so-funny comedy and the geo-political-racial axe-grinding that predominated.

      I think “silly” is an excellent word. And, of course, silly humor either tickles a person (e.g. Monty Python for me) or it doesn’t.

      I am not sure I agree that Jacobson was writing against Israel. I thought the ASHamed Jews came in for the most pointed criticism. I was thinking of this example: “The Holocaust had become negotiable” among them (or their types), as one character jokes, in exchange for such trivialities as sexual favors. (p. 292) This doesn’t negate the criticism of Israel, but it seems to me the critics ended up more dirtied than the Zionists. They are portrayed as, almost uniformly, falling prey to an “us vs. them” mentality with “them” being Israel. In other words, it seemed to me the ASHamed Jews ended up being portrayed as essentially anti-Semitic. Even Finkler cannot, in the end, stomach them and some of their antics.

      Or maybe I entirely missed the point, which I half suspect.

      You need no excuse because, obviously, I have been able to do nothing but ramble. Plus, your comments have been quite temperate. If anything, feel free to increase the volume of your discontent.

  2. Justine says:

    I think I am tempered because I read the book quite some time ago and therefore most of the dust has settled for me in some way. Perhaps I focused on the Israel side of things because the Jewish stuff seemed so paltry and I suspect that Jacobson was writing against the Israeli incursion into Gaza?

    In any event, I did bother to read some of Jacobson other writing because he does resonate as a great writer with wonderful turn of phrase and wit. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far – perhaps I was too traumatised by Finkler’s many questions!

    On to greener pastures I say!!

    • Kerry says:

      Your supposition makes sense. Perhaps I focused on the Jewish stuff because I kept trying to comprehend Treslove. His obsession seemed so ridiculous (both in motivation and in result), and I mean “ridiculous” to suggest lack of seriousness (which goes to your point that it was paltry).

      Yes, to greener pastures!

  3. Justine says:

    PS – as someone who is Jewish and has lived in Israel, I don’t think you missed the point at all!

  4. Steph says:

    Oh dear. When I first heard about this book, I wasn’t at all interested in it at all and actually thought it sounded kind of obnoxious. But then it won the Booker prize and I heard that Jacobson considered himself something of a “Jewish Jane Austen”, so I thought maybe I should try it. When one of our local Borders was going out of business, I decided to pick up a copy because it was so deeply discounted, but after reading your review, I am thinking I am probably going to hate it. I guess I will have to try it and see, but I am nervous!

    • Kerry says:

      I think if you find anything funny or amusing in the excerpts (here and elsewhere) or in the first 20 pages, then you’ll probably like it, at least a bit. If you don’t, well, it was not the most painful read I’ve had.

      As for Jacobson being the “Jewish Jane Austen”, it could be if I knew what that meant. I certainly did not enjoy him as much as I have Austen, but maybe a comedy of Jewish manners is simply asking too much of my imagination. I will be interested to see what you think. Opinion is very divided.

      • Justine says:

        I hadn’t heard of the Jewish Jane Austen comparison. Food for thought. I definitely found parts of the book extremely entertaining. I think that it lost me when I started to feel as though the author was beating me over the head with his repetitive humor. I would definitely be interested to hear what others think, especially in light of Kerry and my discussion here!

  5. Justine says:

    Kerry, I feel like a dog with a bone, but I have to tell you that I heard Howard Jacobson talk last night – he is in Sydney for the Writer’s Festival and he really was exceptionally entertaining. Does that change the way that I feel about his book? Not really. But I was certainly enlightened about the man himself. The Jane Austen comment is his own (about himself) and he has been compared to Philip Roth too (of International Mann Booker Prize fame) – his preference is to consider himself the love child of the two (what a thought!). Although he did comment that he couldn’t quite imagine what Austen and Roth might have to say to each other!

    I expect that Jacobson would be a marvel to listen to in the context of literary studies and/or criticism. I can’t say that I would like to have him critique any of my writing though – he has very fixed opinions, prefers long flowery sentences which are well rooted rather than floating above ground (his words). He couldn’t read The Road because from a glance the sentences were too short!

    As you can imagine, it was a very interesting evening. If you have the opportunity, I would recommend listening to him.

    (Sorry to harp, but I thought you would like to hear about the man himself!)

    • Kerry says:

      Justine,

      Thank you very much for sharing your experience at the Writer’s Festival. I am pleased that you had a great time and find very interesting the Austen/Roth mix he imagines of himself. I am also quite happy to hear that Jacobson, in person, is quite engaging and brimming with intelligence. That is what so flummoxed me about his novel, it was engaging somehow despite my, frankly, not liking it so much and, perhaps worse, it was obviously written by a very intelligent fellow. It never came together for me which, given the foregoing, made me constantly feel that I was too obtuse to appreciate the subtleties that must be there (something I am more convinced of now).

      I think part of the problem is that I was (am) insufficiently steeped in “Jewish culture” (which really means the multiplicity of Jewish cultures that nevertheless overlap and intersect in, to me, mysterious ways) to get the “Jane Austen” part and I have read far too little Roth to be able to notice any similarities there (well, except I do see some similarities in his treatments of sex…maybe this whole Austen/Roth thing does make some sense). Basically, I would have dismissed the book as dreck, but I kept having a nagging suspicion that I was not well-read enough to fully appreciate the book.

      And Treslove was uncommonly silly.

      Though The Finkler Question does not make me want to read more of Jacobson, I think I will. It will be awhile before I can tackle another, though.

      I really enjoyed the comment, so please, any further thoughts are most welcome.

  6. Reading your review I get almost a sense of baffled frustration on your part, and yet you do I think communicate a lot of the book’s themes.

    I’ve not read the book, but if it’s seeking to address what it means to be Jewish (the Jewish “question”) then it would have to grapple with the fact it’s a very nebulous concept.

    Is it a religious affiliation? Cultural? Historical (and what would a historical affiliation look like?)? Ethnic? A bit of all of the above? A pick and mix?

    It exists in the world, but things that exist in the world often have remarkably fuzzy borders. At school a friend of mine during adolescence learned that he was, technically, Jewish. His mother was Jewis, but non-practising and with no links to Jewish culture (whatever that might be). He’d been raised as Catholic.

    After that he defined himself as Jewish. We were teenagers, looking for identities. He became passionately pro-Israel (none of us had given it any thought really before that), started telling Jewish jokes (some to be fair quite funny) but for the rest of us it all seemed a bit odd. He was after all the same person he’d been before he’d found out. In what sense was he Jewish?

    My impression is that that’s a question Jacobson is trying to get to grips with in part. In what sense was my friend Jewish? He was, ultimately, Jewish because a rule of matrilineal descent said so and because being so had meaning to him (expropriated as that meaning may have been, though who am I to say that?).

    Big stuff. How well Jacobson addresses it I can’t say because this one hasn’t tempted me and still doesn’t, but they’re not small questions.

    • Kerry says:

      Max,

      Thanks so much for weighing in. I cannot recommend this for you, or anyone (John Self and Trevor can do that much more ably anyway). But, the points you make are excellent.

      I think I did miss an aspect of Treslove. He sounds very much like your friend from school, except (unfortunately in his mind) his mother, and hence he, is not Jewish in any way nor recognized by such as anyone. I think Jacobson not only is going after the despicable bigots who have a sort of reverse fetish towards Jews (or maybe, it is an anti-Jew fetish), but also making a point about Jews who (perhaps) fetishize Jewishness as such an abstraction (or technicality) that it really has no meaning.

      Because I do not (that I know of) run into those sorts of people (meaning both bigots and people with a Jewish fetish) often, the point did not have much resonance for me (though more resonance with respect to bigots because, unfortunately, I am more familiar with their existence than fetishists).

      I also think you are so very right about how many, if not most, categories have incredibly fuzzy borders. I have this vague idea that if you take any idea to the extreme it becomes ridiculous and the “fuzzy borders” idea fits that nicely. Regardless, it is a truth.

      Thank you, Max. Your input has further crystallized my conception of what Jacobson was trying to do and gives me more confidence that the book just wasn’t for me, though it is not at all a bad book and probably a very good one (John, Trevor, a Booker).

  7. Sarah says:

    The Finkler Question got a lot of bad publicity when it won the Booker. That is to say it was widely touted as representative of the comic novel.

    I recently had an argument with a friend who claimed that Dostoevsky’s Demons is a comic novel. Agreed, it is a novel in many ways comic, but it is not what I understand by the phrase “comic novel.” The outcome of the discussion was inconclusive.

    So maybe I have made an unfair judgement on The Finkler Question. I have never envisaged reading it, and following your review, Kerry, I am actually closer to doing so than I would otherwise have been. I find the idea of reverse racism interesting, but maybe not enough so to take on the dubious sounding humour.

    • Kerry says:

      Sarah,

      I think you are right that this is not a “comic novel” in the vein of, say, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Tristram Shandy. In other words, I do not think the main thing about it is the laughs, but a larger and deeper point he is trying to make. The point or the means, I am not quite sure which, was/were too particularized to resonate with me.

      If you do read it, I am sure you will find something interesting to say. (The Dostoevsky comparison is apt (though I haven’t read Demons so can we say The Idiot? instead) as there is comedy in Dostoevsky, but I am not sure it is accurate to call him comedic.) So, in that way, I sort of hope you do read it. But if it affects your canvassing of Russian lit, then I am against your reading it because that is a fascinating (in, as anothercookie suggests, an envy-inducing way…it’s a good-hearted, respect-induced envy).

      Thanks, as always, for stopping by!

  8. Mary says:

    I wish I had found your comments before as this evening I am going on the BBC World Book Program where we will be asking Harold Jacobson questions about the Finkler Question, and I was finding it hard to think one up but your comments have thrown up quite a few, so thanks for that!
    I read the novel because I was going on to the program and like the comments raised I found the novel problematic – Treslove annoyed me as he seemed unable to commit to anything, women, his children, his job and then mysteriously he wanted to become Jewish (which surely needs quite an amount of commitment) – stemming from being mugged by a woman who he imaged said Ju? What happened to her?
    I felt quite bombarded by the jokes, most of which I didn’t understand (I’m not Jewish) and wished, like others, he had told more of Libor’s story. To me he was the most genuine character.
    Mary

    • Kerry says:

      I very much appreciate your regret of not having found my remarks sooner, if that makes sense. I consider it a compliment, so thank you. I will try to look out for the program as I am interested in what he has to say about the book. Treslove is a confounding character, not least because it is difficult to determine whether he is meant solely as satire or as realistic. I have a hard time imagining a real Treslove, therefore I consider him satirical. But, I am not sure that solves everything. In short, I agree with you, Treslove was annoying. He was annoying both as a person and as a character.

      It was, at least, a thought-provoking book. Thank you for your comments, which have given me more to consider and reminded me of what I liked about having read the book. It is good enough to take seriously, while sufficiently flawed to provoke strong reactions.

  9. Justine says:

    Mary, you will have to provide the link for the show! I would be most interested in watching it…

  10. Mary says:

    The program is part of the BBC World book Club and is being broadcast in May 2012 as part of something called London Calling.
    Howard was very interesting and amusing, he said the characters came to him and he let them decide what they were going to do. (I find this in my own writing, on a good day it’s extraordinary who comes into play) He liked Libor best too.
    He also said that all male friends were rivals too so Treslove was always trying to do better than Finkler (who was not such a loser as he was) and being the weaker of the two Treslove ‘had’ to sleep with Finkler’s wife to score against him and only later felt bad about it.
    Apparently Howard calls himself the Jewish Jane Austin and it would have been interesting for him to explain what he meant but there were so many questions we ran out of time. The one I was thinking of answering was covered by some of the others.
    It was a very good evening and I’m sure you’ll enjoy hearing it.

  11. Kerry says:

    Mary,

    Thank you for providing an update on the program. I will be looking forward to the broadcast (or podcast).

    I wonder if those who have seen Jacobson live get more out of his humor than those who haven’t. This is prompted by your comment that, on the show, he was amusing. That, or possibly, the more familiar you are with him, the funnier he is. Some comedians, in fact, probably the best comedians, are like that. Just a random, uncongealed thought.

    Either way, I likely will read something by him again. He is at least interesting.

  12. Mary says:

    The Jacobson interview will be on the radio in May 2012 on London Calling.
    Google BBC World Service and the links will come up.
    BBC World Book club and The Strand are also interesting with interviews with well known writers. It is possible to be part of the audience at these broadcasts (mostly held in London) and ask, send in or telephone a question. More info at worldbookclub@bbc.co.uk

  13. Have finally read the book and, as usual, love your review, particularly this:

    “In the end, I only knew with certainty that Jacobson was lampooning Treslove. There are other candidates (the Zionists, the Jewish anti-Zionists, etc.), but I am too ignorant of Jacobson’s writing, his frames of reference, and Jewish culture generally to draw any reliable conclusions. I think he was making fun of (having fun with) most of them (fun for him, not for me), but I am not sure that is entirely right either. I have no answer to the “Finkler Question”, the “Finkler” question, or any other question posed, referenced, or tackled by this book.”

    I agree totally with all you say here about Jacobson’s conclusions. I have no idea either … but I did think it was funny. It made me laugh … I love the way Jewish people do laugh at themselves. Somehow the humour was obvious but the way Jacobson uses language just worked for me and overcame to some degree my confusion about its overall meaning!

    • Kerry says:

      Whispering,

      I am glad you liked it. I remain conflicted. For me, it was okay, but I cannot say it has grown in stature in memory. This is one of those books with which I did not get on through no real fault of the book’s. I am happy the humor worked for you and there were funny parts.

      I also feel a little vindicated that you also found it unclear what Jacobson was ultimately trying to say, through whose mouth he was speaking as you put it in your review.

      Thanks for stopping back in to share your thoughts!

      • A pleasure always to join the discussion here Kerry. As Tom said on my post, it’s always good to read other bloggers’ reviews of books you’ve read (which is something I prefer to do rather than read reviews of books I might read). I’m glad you feel vindicated … though I don’t think you need feel you need to feel that!!

  14. Justine says:

    Argggghh, I am all riled up about this book again. Good news is that revisiting your blog has reminded me about the podcast that I meant to listen to and I have just visited the BBC page recommended above and am soooo excited by the selection!!

    (Thanks for helping me procrastinate further … those reports will just have to wait!)

    • Kerry says:

      I agree about the podcast reminder. I had not checked back for it. I think Jacobson is in May 2012, so I’ll have to remember to check back then. In the meantime, they do have a great selection.

      You are welcome. I am always happy to help otherwise productive people procrastinate. Heh.

      • Justine says:

        Yes, Jacobson was 2012. I listened to Lionel Shriver talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin and that was quite interesting. There is a great list of authors to choose from!

      • Kerry says:

        I listened to Lionel Shriver too. I do like that series and there is a great list of authors to choose from. Thanks for keeping that link on the radar. It is so easy to forget those resources or where they are.

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