Book 51: The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question - Howard JacobsonI’m not sure how to review this book. I’m surprised I’ve not heard more about it, but simultaneously not in the least bit surprised I’ve heard so little about it. I don’t know anything about the author and the only reason I know this book is because it beat Emma Donoghue’s Room for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. I read it because it was the first book I came across on my new Kindle (see I got a Kindle!!!) under $5.

This book is about being Jewish, or wanting to be Jewish in today’s London. It’s hard to say what was good and what was bad about The Finkler Question. There were times where the comedic and playfulness of the novel bordered on irreverent or even blasphemous. I definitely recommend reading it as it was a hell of a lot easier than most of the other Man Booker Prize novels I’ve read and is about a fascinating subject. There are quite a few quotes thanks to the Kindle’s Notes feature. I recommend checking them out as they might give a better idea of the breadth of the novel than this review.

There are three main characters, Julian, Sam and Libor, as well as their significant others and hangers-on. Julian and Sam are childhood friends and Libor was their school teacher. Sam is a relatively famous/successful layman’s philosopher, Libor is a journalist to the stars and both have recently been widowed and are Jewish. Julian is a failed BBC producer and currently works as a celebrity doppelgänger and desperately wants to be Jewish. Also of note is Hephzibah, Julian’s lover in the latter half of the novel and Libor’s great-great-grand-niece. Her character was written and described exquisitely.

The novel starts off with what Julian perceives as an anti-Semitic attack which sends him on a tail spin journey into the depths of Jewish gloom and guilt. Although the story is written from all three perspectives, Julian’s story dominates the book space wise, but I believe it is the relationship between Sam and Libor throughout the last half of the novel which steals the show.

Sam has banded together with a group of Jewish artists, academics and famous people to create a group called ASHamed Jews where they portray their shame not in being Jewish, but in the way some Jews behave and react. Many of them appear to be pro-Palestine, but not necessarily anti-Israel. Whereas Sam is ASHamed, Libor only knows the threat and the trouble of having escaped persecution in Czechoslovakia. However, by the end of the novel, with what appears to be a rise in anti-Semitism in London and around the world, Sam and Libor appear to have swapped ideologies in an intriguing twist.

Through affairs and flings and a lot of Yiddish, the story continues to move forward and was clearly a moving read as I read it in less than a week. As mentioned above, I’m surprised I’ve not heard much about the novel, what with its tetchy subject of Israel/Palestine and the fact that you don’t have to be anti-Israel to be pro-Palestine or anti-Palestine and pro-Israel. It’s an interesting novel on humanity and identity, now if only the people who should read it would.

Quotes from The Finkler Question
“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?” (14)

“What moved him was this proof of the destructibility of things; everything exacted its price in the end, and perhaps happiness exacted it even more cruelly than its opposite.” (15)

“At a certain age men began to shrink, and yet it was precisely at that age that their trousers became too short for them. Explain that.” (37)

“I’m a philosopher, I’m not sure about anything.” (41)

“At any age there is future one doesn’t have. Never enough life when you are happy, that was the thing. Never so much bliss that you can’t take a little more.” (43)

“She looked too amazed by life to be English. Her curls were too curly. Her lips were too big. Her teeth too white and even, like one big arc of tooth with regular vertical markings. And her breasts had too much elevation and attack in them to be English. Had Jane Austen’s heroines had breasts like these they would not have worried about ending up without a husband.” (69)

“No, it’s at your age that the glass is half full. At my age we don’t want half a glass, full or empty. In fact we don’t want a glass, end of. We want a tankard and we want it overflowing. We are the have-everything generation, remember.” (103)

“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.” (172)

“Since you don’t know where you’re going to be tomorrow, or indeed whether you’re going to be alive or dead, why worry over dishes?” (181)

“He could have gone to the bar of one of the obvious Park Lane hotels, where the pickup was more discreet, but it was the prowling he liked. Prowling mimicked the fruitless search for the hidden face or memory which was all the pursuit of sexual happiness amounted to. Prowling was romance skinned to the bone. You could prowl and then go home empty-handed and still tell yourself you’d had a good night.” (216)

“Is it like being gay? Is there a Jewdar that enables you to pick one another out?” (242)

“Hephzibah was right about their splendour. But not about their breaking. The verb was wrong. It suggested too sudden and purposeful a disclosure. From her terrace the great London dawn bled slowly into sight, a thin line of red blood leaking out between the rooftops, appearing at the windows of the buildings it had infiltrated, one at a time, as though in a soundless military coup. On some mornings it was as though a sea of blood rose from the city floor. Higher up, the sky would be mauled with rough blooms of deep blues and burgundies like bruising. Pummelled into light, the hostage day began.” (289)


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