The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson

May 18, 2011

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.


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

July 27, 2010

I now have the feeling you get after seeing a small mountain peak, making up your mind to climb it, and then looking out from it onto the valley from whence you came. It is not that Cloud Atlas is difficult to read or to enjoy. In fact, I was kidnapped by the story and soon developed Stockholm Syndrome. No, the feeling comes from having set out a plan to read Mitchell’s first three works in order and finishing them. The trek was delightful and I am sorry I will never feel the joy of discovering Mitchell’s genius in quite the same way. But, what a view.

Mitchell’s writing is connected by ideas more than by style or setting. In each of his first three books, randomness and chance play a large role, though perhaps less in this last one. Individual dislocation is another common theme. The role of storytellers is prominent throughout each of the works. Finally, Mitchell grapples in each with power imbalances and oppression, especially the struggle of individuals against the tyranny of organized groups. What I love about Mitchell is not only that he explores so many ideas and has interesting things to say about each of them, but that he ties the ideas together so artfully.

Mitchell is a writer who not only manages to produce a book that argues a coherent thesis, but has put together a body of work that fits together nicely so that the works together enrich and expand on the ideas put forward separately in each book. I think Cloud Atlas can be best and most easily appreciated in light of the earlier two works. They give context and background, not to the characters, but to the ideas Mitchell explores with such brilliance in his master work.

Cloud Atlas, if you do not know, is comprised of multiple storylines which are only lightly connected by character or plot. The story begins as a historical piece set, largely, on a ship sailing the Pacific in the 1800s, moves to a music-filled Chateau in the 1930s, turns into a 1970s mystery, then a modern (1990s/2000s) story about a smalltime con artist and publisher running from thugs, switches gears to an interview with Sonmi-451 (a genetically-engineered fastfood waitress, somewhat in the future), reverses to a nicely dystopian-future-based bildungsroman set far in the future, and back through each until the loop is closed in a most satisfying way. The arc of the story is genius.

The tying together of multiple, nearly independent, storylines reminds of Ghostwritten as both works present a nifty puzzle for the reader to enjoy while living the stories. I pointed out in my review of Ghostwritten how Mitchell carefully constructs these puzzles and, simultaneously, manages disparate plotlines that seem like they should be unwieldy. Mitchell, though keeps them tamed and relevant. He is a masterful storyteller, who tells stories with a purpose. Each character says and acts precisely as Mitchell wants them to speak and act, yet they live, wonderfully.

While all this storytelling and mastery of character and plot are going on, Mitchell gives us some brilliant prose too. Adam Ewing, seafarer of the 1800s, writes in his diary:

[T]he mind abhors a vacancy & is wont to people it with phantoms, thus I glimpsed first a tusked hog charging, then a Maori warrior, spear held aloft, his face inscribed with the ancestral hatred of his race.

‘Twas but a mollyhawk, wings “flupping” the air like a windjammer.

The allusion to Spinoza’s “nature abhors a vacuum” is both appropriate to the time and character and beautiful to the ear. “Flupping…like a windjammer” is lovely and, again, a gifted mimicry of a diarist of a century or two ago.

As the quote demonstrates, Ewing has the racial hangups of his time. Those are tested when he leaves, as a passenger on a ship, the island on which the story begins. On sailing, Adam Ewing believes he has left the Maori and their outfought rivals, the Moriori, but one of the latter has stowed away in Ewing’s cabin. The Moriori implores Ewing to either save him by pleading with the captain of the ship or to kill him with an offered knife. The Moriori, named Autua, does not want to be turned over to the captain whom he fears will torture him. One of Ewing’s friends, Mr. D’Arnoq, helped Autua hide aboard the ship and now Ewing must make a choice.

Cursing my conscience singly, my fortune doubly & Mr. D’Arnoq trebly, I bade him sheath his knife & for Heaven’s sake conceal himself lest one of the crew hear and come knocking. I promised to approach the captain at breakfast, for to interrupt his slumbers would only ensure the doom of the enterprise. This satisfied the stowaway & he thanked me. He slid back inside the coils of rope, leaving me to the near-impossible task of constructing a case for an Aboriginal stowaway, aboard an English schooner, without attaining his discoverer & cabinmate with a charge of conspiracy. The savage’s breathing told me he was sleeping. I was tempted to make a dash for the door & howl for help, but in the eyes of God my word was my bond, even to an Indian.

Ewing has more to deal with than just the stowaway. He also suffers from mysterious headaches. A fellow traveler, Dr. Henry Goose, promised, before they set sail, “to turn his formidable talents to the diagnosis of [Ewing’s] Ailment as soon as we are at sea.” The diagnosis is unpleasant. Dr. Goose informs Ewing that he has been infected by a parasitic worm that travels to the brain, lays larvae, and, when the larvae hatch, kill the victim. Ewing is relieved that Dr. Goose is one of the few who could have managed the diagnosis and has the potion which may destroy the parasites. Unfortunately, Dr. Goose tells Ewing, the treatment is a balancing act between killing and curing the patient.

The story is quite good. But if not to your taste, it trails off, mid-sentence, at page 39. From there, we meet an arrogant young musical prodigy who has alienated his wealthy father and gets by on high charm and low morals. The prodigy stumbles upon the journal in an old chateau while working for a syphilitic and renowned composer. This section is also very good, but lasts only a bit longer before also leaving the reader happily unsatisfied.

Each story is stopped in the middle, sometimes with tension, other times it just seems to fade. In all cases, the reader is left with a yearning to know what happens to the characters, but has little time to lament, because the stories are each more urgently engaging than the last.

Every section has a voice entirely different from what has gone before. I have quoted from the diary of the 19th century gentleman. “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is told in the present tense voice of the hard-boiled detective novel. Later, Sonmi-451 (Bradbury, anyone?) responds to an interview question by an Archivist:

To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.

The effect is remarkable. I tend to have a book on the nightstand and one I bring with me during the day. Cloud Atlas can be a bit like having four or five novels going at once. And, yet, somehow much easier than that. The cast of characters is never burdensomely large and the sections, even when completed, are barely novellas. They are all tied together by common themes and connections between characters. For instance, the two longer quotes I have provided both relate to slaves, subjugation, and the power of society over the individual. A peculiar birthmark recurs throughout. Mitchell is like a master cutter with a diamond. This gem of a book sparkles in ways I have not seen before, in ways I did not know a book could shine. It is a classic.

But I do not want to scare anyone away. The wonderful discovery for me was that, despite its intimidating reputation, Cloud Atlas is not difficult to read. It is not the struggle that, say, Crime and Punishment, in all its greatness, can be. While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Mitchell’s first three novels in the order of publication, it certainly is not necessary. It may be the best way to read Cloud Atlas, as I would like to think. My suspicion, however, is that the most enjoyable way to read Cloud Atlas is to read it. Mitchell demonstrates that brilliant need not be difficult, at least in the reading. Writing about it or fully understanding all of Mitchell’s literary tricks, philosophical points, and cultural references, these things could take a career. But enjoying the book: you don’t even have to try.


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

May 17, 2010

I discussed this book during my coverage of the 2010 Tournament of Books, but, until now, had not posted a stand alone review. This book was too good to pass by without my writing a full review, notwithstanding that there are already numerous, excellent reviews on the web. Forgive my self-indulgence.

The story is that of Thomas Cromwell. When we first meet him he is still a child suffering under the tyranny of his abusive father, Walter. Neither Cromwell nor the reader remain with Walter for very long.

What is clear is his thought about Walter; I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason.

Mantel’s dark wit suffuses the book, providing welcome relief to the tense struggle for power and survival in Henry VII’s England.

The narrative picks up when Cromwell has returned to England and is beginning his upward climb through the Royal Court. Cromwell serves Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, another very ambitious man. Of course, Thomas More is an enemy and the clash between Cromwell and More is central to the book. Mantel takes her time in getting us to that crucial point, though. Her deliberate speed is offputting to some, but the prose is so well written and the suspense so carefully, steadily built that I quite enjoyed it.

History has been more kind to Thomas More than to Cromwell. Mantel brings some balance to the comparison by heavily favoring Cromwell. The reader is brought inside the mind of this man of (relatively) low class birth as he strives to achieve on merit alone. Because of Cromwell has to earn his social status, his wealth, and his power, he is a very practical man. Where Thomas More takes pride in unbending adherence to religious duty, Cromwell values efficacy.

The conflict between Cromwell and More is not just that between a practical man and a principled one. Cromwell is more than an opportunist. Mantel has created a true Renaissance Man. Cromwell and King Henry discuss Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione’s idea of “sprezzatura”; it is clear to the reader, if not to King Henry, that Cromwell is the embodiment of Castiglione’s ideal. Cromwell is reputedly able to quote the entire New Testament, he speaks multiple languages, he is a fearsome fighter, and he is knowledgeable about textiles, packing, falconry, canines, and people. He exercises that “dignified public restraint” urged by Castiglione, openly asserting himself only when necessary.

Cromwell himself places less stock in his “sprezzatura”. He does not believe his graceful excellence in a breadth of fields is what allows him to succeed where lesser men fail.

You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook…

So is Cromwell the good guy or a crook? He is both. He is easily the hero of this book and, in fact, is painted with perhaps a bit too much humanity (e.g. the scenes of caring for animals, children, and/or the elderly where others are more cold-hearted). He sees himself as a “subtle crook” and he is. He is a crook like Robin Hood. Those he swindles are the powerful, the overbearing, and the undeservingly rich in either wealth or esteem. Cromwell’s crookery is heroism. He beats the bad guys at their own game.

The re-imagining of Cromwell as the good guy and Thomas More as the bad guy is not just a charming story of a bad boy hero, but corresponds with a shift in cultural and moral standards. Thomas More’s dogmatic religiosity is disfavored in today’s society, whereas a modern reader will almost certainly laud Cromwell’s rise on merit and his questioning of received wisdom. Mantel most clearly defines the contrast between the men in this paragraph in which Cromwell attempts to understand More:

Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

While I may be particularly situated to appreciate Cromwell’s aversion to received dogmatism, Mantel is tapping into a vibrant strain in current culture. In important ways, Mantel is telling us more about our world and our century than she is about the 16th century. This is a narrative about the England of the 1500s, but the questions it poses are modern ones.

Mantel manages the large themes well and supports them with sometimes stunningly intricate details. For an example, take the scene in which Cromwell and Rafe Sadler, Cromwell’s son by upbringing if not by birth, play chess.

For a long time they sit gazing at their pieces, at the configuration which locks them in place. They see it coming: stalemate. “We’re too good for each other.”

“Perhaps we ought to play against other people.”

“Later. When we can wipe out all-comers.”

Rafe says, “Ah, wait!” He seizes his knight and makes it leap. Then he looks at the result, aghast.

“Rafe, you are foutu.”

For those who know little about chess, the scene works excellently, I suspect. Rafe tries too hard to win and goes from a draw to a loss, a tempermental difference also shown by their relative interest in playing other people. Rafe is eager where Cromwell is cautious to wait until sure of his advantage.

I tend to waste far too much time playing chess, so the details of literary descriptions of chess games interest me. Books so often get chess wrong.

A stalemate is a very specific type of position which modern rules declare a draw. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the technical definition of stalemate with this accurate explanation of the circumstances in which it generally arises:

During the endgame, stalemate is a resource that can enable the player with the inferior position to draw the game. In more complicated positions, stalemate is much rarer, usually taking the form of a swindle that succeeds only if the superior side is inattentive.

What initially bothered me about the scene is that the implication is that both players see the stalemate coming and cannot avoid it, proving how equally matched they are. “Draw” would work, at first glance, better than “stalemate” in the scene because a draw without stalemate is the much more likely result in the case of evenly matched opponents, particularly in complex positions. Specifiying a stalemate invites the chess-literate (obsessed) reader to speculate as to what sort of position has arisen. The position must not involve a swindle or they would not both see it coming. The position must be complex. In a simple position, even a moderately experienced player would not try to avoid a stalemate if the only alternative were an losing move because it would be easy to see the alternative move was losing. It is extremely difficult to imagine a position where both sides have equal material and equal advantage but the game is headed to an inevitable stalemate absent error. “Draw” is less jarring than “stalemate”.

What works is that such a position is possible. And “stalemate” is the better literary choice because a stalemate is precisely what occurs in the larger story. King Henry VIII is left without any legal moves in his quest to marry Anne Boleyn. The parallel is nicely done. The coordination between this otherwise insignificant game and the subject of the novel would be lost if Mantel had written a more pedestrian draw. “Stalemate” is necessary, really, to her artistic purposes.

But there is another potential problem: historical plausibility. My examination of stalemate possibilities resulted in my stumbling across the history of the stalemate rule. It has not always been treated as a draw. In fact, in England stalemate was not considered a draw until the 19th century. Mantel is saved, however, because Italy adopted the rule that a stalemate was a draw in the 13th century. Cromwell spent considerable time in Italy and, therefore, could have adopted that rule and taught it to Rafe. Again, Mantel’s scene achieves, barely, plausibility.

And so my initial questioning of the scene resulted in a vindication of Mantel’s choice. The parallel between the game and the narrative is beautiful and, importantly to me, does not come at the expense of accuracy. My faith in Mantel’s research and fidelity to plausibility is strengthened; my admiration of her artistic achievement is enhanced.
Of course, most readers will care little about the chess details of that very short scene. It is only a very small reason why I am so impressed with the work. I tried to point out a number of the larger reasons before launching into my chess pedantry. But there are still more.

The use of “he” as usually referring to Cromwell is a pleasingly original narrative technique that has been pointed out and discussed by others. Likewise, Mantel’s ability to draw the reader into the King Henry’s court has been eloquently lauded before.

There is a great deal more to love about this book too. I found the prose always excellent and sometimes delightful. Rather than try to continue cataloguing all Mantel’s successes, I will leave you with one of my favorite snatches of her prose:

Anne struggles to sit up, she sees him clearly, she smiles, she says his name. They bring a basin of water strewn with rose petals, and wash her face; her finger reaches out, tentative, to push the petals below the water, so each of them becomes a vessel shipping water, a cup, a perfumed grail.