When the Booker longlist was announced, I didn’t feel compelled to read Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (2010). KevinfromCanada justified my initial feelings when he abandoned the book (when The Finkler Question made the shortlist, KFC did read the book through to the end, but still didn’t like it). Most of the people on the Booker forum seemed to think it a slog to get through. But then John Self at The Asylum mentioned how much he enjoyed it, from beginning to end. Due to his review, I started to get interested. Still, I was surprised when it made the Booker shortlist. The morning the shortlist was announced, I downloaded the “sample” to my iPhone. I zipped through it, loved it, and quickly purchased and downloaded the whole thing, making this my second e-read experience (I since have read Lemon on an e-reader).
It’s hard for me to say why I enjoyed this book so much. I can’t even really say what it is about thematically. There are several threads going on, and some seem to be crossing the other way. But the story about three men, all with their foibles, all trying to get on with their lives in London, was a great read that made me think deeply of contemporary society and religion in it. It certainly helped my enjoyment that the writing in this book is incredibly strong. I found Jacobson’s understated comedic touch wonderful throughout, and his style enhanced whatever tones he wanted to strike.
The character we follow most often is Julian Treslove. Well on the other side of middle age, Julian has never been married, though he wishes he could be a widower like his two friends. He’s nervous and picky and overly analytical. He’s bitter and grumbly about how terrible his job was at the BBC. Worse, he wants to suffer, and seems to be already lamenting his suffering. “It gave him a preternaturally youthful look — this unconsummated expectation of tragic event.” Here’s how one of his relationships went:
She shattered his calm.
True, he had no calm, but she shattered whatever calm there was to look forward to in the future. She was the future.
It didn’t work out. It is hard to live with Treslove. As one of his women friends said to him, “There’s something missing from you, but it isn’t goodness.” By which she simply means he is not malicious. Here was another failed attempt:
The actual director rewrote all his letters in simpler English and did the same with his conversation. They fell out over the wording of a brochure.
‘Why say exhilarating when you can say sexy?’ she asked him.
‘Because an arts festival isn’t sexy.’
‘And you want to know why that is? Because you insist on using words like exhilarating.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘It’s indirect language.’
‘There’s nothing indirect about exhilaration.’
‘There is the way you say it.’
‘Could we try for a compromise with exuberance?’ he asked, without any.
‘Could we try for a compromise with you getting another job?’
They had been sleeping together. There was nothing else to do.
The tone is usually quite dry, as you can see. Yet, somehow, into this comedy Jacobson insinuates an undercurrent of profound loss. We may never respect Treslove or his two friends, Finkler and Libor, but we cannot deny that they feel, and Jacobson made me feel for them.
For some time, after his friends lost their wives (Libor’s to old age and Finkler’s to cancer), Treslove would meet with them.
Though they complained of being without compass or purpose of their own, the three men — the two widowers and Treslove, who counted as an honorary third — enjoyed one another’s company, argued about the economy and world affairs, remembered jokes and anecdotes from the past, and almost managed to convince themselves that they’d gone back to a time before they had wives to lose. It was a dream, briefly, their falling in love, the children they’d fathered — Treslove had inadvertently fathered two that he knew of — and the separations that had devastated them. No one they loved had left them because they had loved no one yet. Loss was a thing of the future.
Of course, that is just a momentary dream. There loss is never far from the surface. And Treslove feels their loss keenly. For one thing, he truly loved their wives, thought they were wonderful women. But, and this isn’t flattering, Treslove has always longed for a tragic life: “For Treslove a woman’s death was a beginning. He was a man made to mourn.” So, it is with both true empathy and more than a hint of envious longing that Treslove ponders over his friend Libor, who lost his wife of half a century:
How do you go on living knowing that you will never again — not ever, ever — see the person you have loved? How do you survive a single hour, a single minute, a single second of that knowledge? How do you hold yourself together?
He wanted to ask Libor that. ‘How did you get through the first night of being alone, Libor? Did you sleep? Have you slept since? Or is sleep all that’s left to you?’
Libor himself is a fairly well drawn character. He was a teacher to both Treslove and Finkler, so he is quite a bit older than they. He loved his wife Malkie all through their marriage, and now he yearns for some form of companionship, but nothing is adequate. However, much more well drawn is Finkler, Treslove’s friend since their youth. He is a philosopher-celebrity. He no doubt did not deserve his wife, and he was almost openly unfaithful to her during their marriage. He likes to lead. In one such group, ASHamed Jews, here were his thoughts not long after the founding: “First among equals was how he envisaged his role, but where were his equals?”
Libor and Finkler are both Jewish, but they have opposing views on most matters. They even pronounce Israel differently. Libor inserts a few extra Rs in the middle and doesn’t pronounce the L at the end; Finkler includes a “seasick ‘y” between the ‘a’ and the ‘e’ — Israyelis.” Treslove is not Jewish.
Before he met Finkler, Treslove had never met a Jew. Not knowingly at least. He supposed a Jew would be like the word Jew — small and dark and beetling. A secret person. But Finkler was almost orange in colour and spilled out of his clothes.
Since they met, Treslove always called Jews “Finklers” in his head, and he can rarely get Finklers out of his head.
Now, that is just a small introduction to the characters. The book is much more varied. Much happens to each character (though I was never bored, and I never found that the comedy diminished). A central event in the book is a mugging. After a night visiting with Libor and Finkler, Treslove is walking home past Regents Park. As he spies into a store window someone mugs him. He’s shocked to see that it is a woman.
Treslove is never quite certain what she said to him before leaving him humiliated with a black eye. His first name is Julian. Some people call him Jules. There are many other words that sound like Jules. But increasingly Treslove suspects that he was the victim of an anti-semitic attack. He thinks the woman said “You Jew” upon mugging him. He “strained his retrospective hearing to catch an ‘s’ but it eluded him.”
At work — he currently works as a celebrity look-alike, and gets personal satisfaction mumbling “shitheap” under his breath when he passes the BBC — people keep mistaking him for Jewish celebrities. He’s always had a lot of respect for the Jewish people, and it thrills him to have a tenuous association with them now.
It is more than suggested that Treslove’s desire for suffering seems to have attracted him to Jews, however misguided and ignorant his perspective on the matter is. Perhaps his infatuation with Jewish culture is really “a search for some identity that came with more inwrought despondency than he could manufacture out of his own gene pool.”
It is a very strange story. Most of what I’ve mentioned above comes about in the first hundred pages or so, so there is a lot of time for Treslove to squander new relationships he forges, particularly with a woman he’s been waiting for all of his life. Finkler gets caught up in anti-Zionism. Libor becomes fairly appalled with both of them.
In all of this, Jacobson creates a story about Jewishness (which one can hardly pin down, so varied in all respects are the Jews in this book) and loss. However, and perhaps more at its heart, this is a story about identity and identifying with other people, particularly those who come from a background one doesn’t share and cannot simply imagine or adopt. I found it incredibly relevant, as I was reading it while many here in the United States were spitting anger about the Islamic community center being built close to the World Trade Center site. It is hard to watch these three men struggle to communicate who they are as individuals seen, often out of context (as they see others), in a larger community, and it is presented with loads of comedy and pathos.
While, for the Booker, I still rank Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room above this book, The Finkler Question gave it a run for its money, and I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed to see it take home the Booker Prize.