The Finkler Question: a powerful portrait of contemporary Jewish London

This review appears in the June 2011 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida). It also appears in the July 2011 issue of The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. Bloomsbury USA. 320 pages. $25 hardback, $15 paperback.

Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for fiction, the highest literary award for English publications in England, Ireland, and the Commonwealth of Nations.

This unusually controversial book has not only won a major literary prize, but it has also attracted a heap of scorn. Most of those who denigrate Jacobson’s achievement find it slow-moving and populated by unpleasant, unlikeable characters. It is possible, however, to say much the same thing about other English language masters; different as they are, Henry James and Philip Roth come to mind. 

This reader luxuriated in the pace. What’s the rush when an author is peeling the onion of personality with such precision, such insight, such humor, such honesty, and such an odd mixture of compassion and contempt?  Or is it three onions? Or four?

The Finkler Question is about many things. It is about coming to terms with old age and life’s limitations. It is about the mid-life crises of hypersensitive individuals. It is about the complex nature of male bonding. It is about the afterlife of failed relationships and the bottomless hope of new ones. As its title hints, it is about the early 21st century version of “The Jewish Question” as it exists in the Western World at large and in London in particular. A sprawling book, it does much of its journeying within the head of one or another of its major characters.

For Julian Treslove, his old school friend Sam Finkler represents everything Jewish: Jewish speech patterns, body language, manners, politics, taste, achievement, victimhood, and destiny. Jews seem to have power and vulnerability, bravado and guardedness.  A popular writer, media personality, and philosopher, Finkler seems to have it all. Whatever “it” is, Julian needs it.

Treslove’s other Jewish friend, Czech immigrant and former Hollywood commentator Libor Sevcik, became, after marriage to his beloved Malkie, the teacher of young Treslove and Finkler. He is now ninety, at least twice the age of his former students. The three men have kept in touch over the years and decades, and now they meet together in the wake of two losses: both Finkler’s wife and Sevcik’s have recently died. Treslove, who has never married but sired two sons whom he has failed as a father, joins his Jewish widower friends in a bout of mourning and remembering. Each is looking for the terms of understanding the past, accepting the present, and moving on with his life. 

As non-Jewish Treslove walks homeward from the engagement with his friends, he is assaulted by a woman who, as his shocked system understands it, has accused him of being a Jew. Is this a coronation or a damnation? A fulfillment or a challenge? The experience rocks Treslove to the core. His identity has been at once threatened and possibly reformulated. Is he a Finkler? Does he inhabit the Finkler question?

Howard Jacobson’s marvelous book is made up of supercharged and occasionally outrageous versions of familiar conversations: who and what defines Jewishness? What accounts for the tenacity of anti-Semitism? What is the proper relationship between the world Jewish community and the modern State of Israel? Is there an Israel that is separate from Zionism?

Through these issues, Jacobson engages readers with questions of longing and belonging, loneliness and relationship. He does so both within and outside of the confines of Jewish particularity. Slowly, haltingly, and with seeming inevitability, his characters transcend the fixed positions held when we meet them. They grow in complexity and self-knowledge. Do they finally emerge as likeable? Not really. Jacobson’s achievement is to make them utterly and magnificently human. At once angry and funny, piercing and perplexing, The Finkler Question is a towering achievement by a major talent.

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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