Former BBC radio producer Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, are old school friends who have never lost touch with each other - or with their former teacher, Libor Sevick. Now, both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed. When the three dine at Libor's apartment, it's a bittersweet evening of reminiscence.
However, the one thing that Julian desires most of all is to become Jewish, like Sam and their mutual friend and former teacher Libor Sevcik, a Czech whose tell all biographies of Hollywood starlets such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich have earned him fortune and notoriety. Julian refers to Jews as Finklers, after his friend, and frequently wonders how they think, why they are smarter and more successful than him, and how he can understand and be more like them. The three men engage in frequent discussion about Israel, Palestine, and Jewish life in London; understandably, Julian is always an outsider, despite his desire to become one with his friends.
Libor and Sam are contrasts in character. Libor is pro-Israel yet reasonable in his beliefs, whereas Sam is fervently anti-Zionist, and openly supports the Palestinian cause.
At the beginning of the novel, the three men meet for dinner at Sevcik's lavish apartment in Regent's Park. Their discussion is more somber than usual, as Libor and Sam have recently become widowed, and Julian acts as a honorary third widower. Julian refuses Sam's offer of a ride in his limousine, and decides to walk home. While gazing at violins in a store window he is suddenly attacked and robbed, and he convinces himself that his assailant has mistaken him for a Jew. Other than a broken nose and a loss of pride he isn't badly injured, but the crime and its aftermath lead him to examine who he is (is he Jewish after all?), and his relationships with his friends, women he has dated, and his two sons.
As the crisis in the Middle East worsens, acts of violence against Jews and their establishments in London become more common. Sam is invited to join a group, which he co-opts and renames ASHamed Jews, which engages in verbal warfare against supporters of the state of Israel. Through his close friendships with Libor, Sam and other Jews of various backgrounds and beliefs that he meets, Julian becomes more exposed to their lives, in his fervent attempt to answer "The Finkler Question": what does it mean to be Jewish in the 21st century?
The Finkler Question touches on a number of other vital and compelling topics: men and their relationships to each other; male competition; the insecurity of middle aged men and women; infidelity; and multiculturalism in the modern society. Jacobson deftly weaves these topics throughout this brilliant novel, which is filled with humor and pathos. This is definitely one of my favorite novels of the year, and it replaces The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as my favorite of the current list of Booker Prize finalists.
It took me a long time to really get into this book. I could tell that it was going to be funny from the start, but then it looked like Julian, the main character, was going to irritate me for 307 pages. He's a pessimist, good-looking in an unstriking way, obssessed with tragic endings, and longs to be the centre of attention. He had a job at the BBC, lost it, had a string of arts administration jobs and a string of girlfriends, and now works as a celebrity double. But he got better - and Jacobson's characters are all so well written that you feel like you really know them. By the end of the book, not just the 3 main characters but their wives and partners and exes and kids were almost real. That's probably the biggest similarity to last year's Booker winner, Wolf Hall, which I adored (and probably explains my initial grumpiness - this book was always going to have trouble matching that one.)
Sam did philosophy at university and became rich and famous by writing high-falutin' self-help books. He has a TV shows, a fancy house overlooking Hampstead Heath, and 2 kids. His marriage to Tyler was less than blissful. He's really anti-Israel, and during the book he sets up a group called the ASHamed Jews. Libor was a famous show business journalist, devoted to Malkie and devastated by her recent death.
There is lots in here about grieving, getting older, wondering what you've done with your life, and being male and either unable to stick to one woman or embarrassed that that's what you've have decided to do. But the main theme of the book is Jewishness, and that was the part that got me back to really liking it. If you don't know the difference between Reform and Orthodox Jews, have never heard of seder or Passover or any of the high holy days, and have no interest in Israel and middle east politics, this might not be the book for you. I can think of plenty of friends who would not get into this book because they would find it hard going without a bit of background. If you liked The Chosen, you would probably like this book.
I finished this book today. I now owe the Brisbane City Council Library $1.75 in late fees for it. I was determined to finish it by hook or by crook. I think I laughed maybe twice.
This year for me seems to have been marked by books about vampires and books about Jews or Jewishness. I haven't deliberately chosen this path. I merely remark upon it and I mean nothing by the association. I am just intrigued by it. So far I am finding neither genre or subject matter an easy read - certainly not funny.
And perhaps herein lies the genius of Howard Jacobson.
Let's talk about the Jews we know. Or what it means to be Jewish. Yes, let's talk about stereotypes. Bette Midler. Woody Allen. They come to my mind. I often quote Bette Midler's line in Beaches "But enough about me, let's talk about you,........what do You think about me?" Neurotic. Self-obsessed. Funny. Sad.
The Finkler Question is about three men who come together in grief. The main character Julian Treslove is a kind of an anti-hero. He was born to be miserable. He is excruciatingly pathetic. He is so miserable he secetly fantasises about being Jewish. A bit like you fantasise about being adopted....anything not to have been born into this awfully boring suburban family. Give me a bit of the exotic...make me Jewish! His best friend from school Sam Finkler is Jewish and all that Julian wishes he was - smart, successful, a bedder of countless women. They keep in touch with an old teacher from their school days - turned friend - Libor - an eccentric loveable Czech, also Jewish. Libor and Sam are recently bereaved and Julian revels with them in their misery.
Spoiler alert! The book is called The Finkler Question. And, of course, as the reader you thirst to know why. It is Julian's secret way of internally de-stigmatising the word "Jew". And I quote..."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. He had extravagant features, a prominent jaw, long arms and big feet....If this was what all Jews looked like, Treslove thought, then Finkler....was a better name for them than Jew.....The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins. But he was never quite able to get around to explaining this to Finkler himself."
That last sentence I believe holds the key to the book. Why not? And therein lies the genius I guess of Howard Jacobson. I loathed reading about Julian. I loathed Julian. He was like some kind of small dark beetle...a secret person. He, like a vampire, sucks the lifeblood out of his friends and girlfriends/wives/lovers. He purports to be deeply interested in being Jewish but is frustrated when the going gets tough....His lover Hephzibah recommends reading Moses Maimonides' The Guide for the Perplexed when he seeks enlightenment with regard to Jewish thought.....but poor Julian can barely make it beyond the first sentence and feels "like a child lost in a dark forest full of decrepit lucubrations." He is lost because he is never honest with himself about his motivations and he is certainly never honest with his friends about his innermost thoughts.
I wonder if by The Finkler Question in fact Jacobson is referring to the Human Question. Ultimately I felt I loathed Julian because I was seeing a reflection of myself.....see it's all about me!!! He disappointed me the same way I disappoint myself. There was no great triumph or change in Julian's character...he was excruciating from beginning to end...failing to see what a tosspot he was...as indeed no doubt we all do of ourselves. For me, The Finkler Question is about the mystery of the human condition...about our eternal quest to label, categorize, blame and explain the inexplicable. Laugh? I could have cried.
The book opens with a middle-aged man, Julian Treslove, getting mugged one night after a dinner with his friends Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik. Sam and Libor are recently widowed; Julian has gone from one woman to the next, leaving the detritus of relationships -- including two now-grown children -- in his wake. Sam and Libor are Jews, which fascinates Julian. As he recovers from the shock of being mugged, his fascination turns into an obsession. He attempts to "become Jewish," although in more of a cultural than religious sense.
At first, I thought perhaps I just didn't understand the Jewish cultural references. And I really didn't like the characters. Then I read a review that gave me hope, saying the second half of the book was better. I persevered. And it was better, but not enough to salvage it for me. It was a very "talky" book, with endless conversation about both big ideas and minutiae. I found the chapters devoted to Libor the most moving, as he mourned the recent loss of his wife. But Sam was a stuffy prat, and Julian was a selfish jerk.
I normally enjoy Booker Prize winners. But not this one.
Lately writing reviews seems to involve a lot of time studying the blank screen. This one has me especially baffled. I can’t seem to understand why I can’t like this book, or how I could possibly not hate it.
I should hate this book because I found it offensive, intentionally offensive. Julian Treslove, the main character, is a nothing, a cipher, and of the most irritating type. He has romantic fantasies about women that somehow manage to take any humanity out of them, they become objects. He meets with two friends who are mourning the recent death of their wives, and finds the meetings “sweetly painful but not depressing.” I interpret “sweetly painful” as “invigorating.” Then he decides he should be Jewish, and my Jewish self cringes as he does about the same thing to Jews (the people, not the religion) as he does to women.
But, the book takes some thoughtful turns, creates some interesting characters and makes an attempt at exploring what it really means to be Jewish. (“The Finkler question”, is Treslove’s version of “the Jewish question.” It’s not meant to be antisemitic, but I think we are supposed to smile or something at his choice of wording.)
There is an art to this method of being offensive; it’s a type of satire that is supposed to be funny and revealing. I found it left me in an uncomfortable state of doubt.
Through the eyes and exploration of the backgrounds, relationships, friendships and love lives of three friends, Libor, Finkler, and Treslove, two Jews and one gentile, what it means to be Jewish once, now and perhaps forever, is thoroughly explored. The voice of the story is Julian Treslove, the non-Jew. He refers to all Jews as Finklers...it is his code word for Jews, identifying them with his friend Sam Finkler, an "ASHamed" Jew who does not wish to be identified as a "Jew" but rather identified with the "others". Libor is a traditional Jew, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, perhaps the quintessential Jew. It is not a stretch to transpose the book's title into "The Jewish Question".
Treslove appears to be a hapless man, a man whose face is not distinguishable, whose face assumes that of others easily, and therefore, not ambitious, his choice of career is to play the role of an actor's double. It suits his personality, since like his face, he too is a blank slate onto which the roles of others is easily transplanted. He seeks to be something "other" than he is and so he engages in many unsuccessful relationships in his search for his identity and his idea of "otherness".
From the outset, it is obvious that Treslove is not a contented man. He always seems to be walking around with a cloud above his head like the L'l Abner character, Joe Btfsplk. Perhaps, as he aspires to find Jewish roots or to identify with Jews, he could also be considered Job-like, since all of his endeavors somehow have a negative outcome, no matter how well-intentioned he seems to be.
This book leaves you with many questions. Does this book reinforce negative Jewish stereotypes or simply expose them for what they are? Is it an accurate picture of what a Jew is? Are Jews tired of “remembering” and “never forgetting” their past.
The book, published in 2010, is oddly prophetic, as with the referral to Obama and his policies about the settlements, which is a current controversy at this very moment.
For me, one of the most profound insights of the book occurred on page 230. These phrases summed it all up for me. Was this perhaps the "tongue in cheek" message of the book. After all, it is written by a Jew.
"A thinking Jew attacking Jews, was a prize. People paid to hear that." Could that also be one of the reasons for the book's popular reception in the literary world or was its fame largely due to its literary excellence? It is food for further thought.
If reading a 300-page fictional development along those lines seems interesting, this is probably a book you will love. The primary question the novel addresses—the Finkler Question, in fact—involves the Jewish identity in today’s society. In Finkler and Libor (Jewish) and Julian (Gentile, but confused), the author has created three unlikely friends in order to examine the intricacies of their various relationships. A wide range of emotions are covered as these characters struggle with one another to capture the moral high-ground: envy, bitterness, self-loathing, jealousy, greed and deceit—everything but joy and happiness. The book is also about coping with loss—especially the loss of a loved one—and this is where the story truly resonates.
I found all of this to be occasionally thought-provoking and enlightening, but never particularly entertaining or enjoyable. Although Jacobsen’s satire is sharp and can be quite funny at times, more often he is just heavy-handed in his fierce examination of anti-Semitism. Further, among the main characters only Hephzibah (Julian’s zaftig girlfriend and Libor’s distant relative) was even remotely likeable and that made it difficult to care much about what became of them. This may well be an Important Book—the honors it has received would suggest so—but it is a difficult one for me to recommend.
Or is he Gentile? It would appear so until Treslove is the victim of an attack by a woman, an attack which maybe anti-Semitic. Accordingly, Treslove becomes conflicted about his origins and so adopts a stance that he in fact is Jewish. Hence, Treslove becomes the source of ridicule. A Gentile who thinks he’s a Jew apparently can raise the merely silly into the farcical and a farce into highbrow comedy.
The writing in The Finkler Question is masterly. The prose is contemporary, casual yet intelligent. The characters usually are believable and yet comic. The balance in these elements usually falls in the novel’s favor.
Unfortunately, all too often the positions the characters find themselves in seem contrived. The resulting competing questions in Jacobson’s conception often fail to rise to a universal standard of humanity so that the novel can be counted as anything more than a stylish entertainment with a few plot problems thrown in based on the experiences of Jews, Gentiles and Arabs in the 21st century. That it won the Booker award is a bit of a mystery and reminds me somewhat of the award to Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, a a shallow mockery of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair that must have tickled the fashionable literati with its facile plot twists. Yet, The Finkler Question is not exactly shallow. It simply is not as deep as it pretends and has blatant, unfortunate failings. Despite the inclusion of numerous good-natured opinions, judgments, thoughts, etc., demonstrating the diversity of thought within Jewish intellectual debate, Jacobson all too often appears to espouse prejudices that exist within certain segments of Jewish communities. Are they his beliefs?
1. The Gentile world is composed of 2 kinds of people: Jew haters and those who want to be Jews.
2. Jews are intellectual, urbane and witty. They are theatrical and full of life. Gentiles are obtuse failures.
3. Victimization in hate crimes is a special province of Jews.
4. Although there is plenty of bad behavior, including infidelity and betrayal, by Jews and Gentiles alike in the novel, there is only one betrayal committed by characters that matter. A conspiracy of Gentiles against a Finkler. The type who want to be Finklers.
With respect to number 3 above I have found it almost always shocks people to know that the overwhelmingly favorite targets of hate crime, at least in the United States, are not Jews but rather African-Americans. It’s not even close. Blacks are the target of choice more than 51% of the time while Jews are the target a little over 20% of the time. A disproportionate share to be sure but remember that much of it is property crime, the obscene Swastika painted on Synagogues, while most of the crime against Blacks is against persons.
Blacks (or even East Indians) are curiously absent from Mr. Jacobson’s world except in one instance. The singular, derisive, gratuitous and ultimately crass “Thus spake Obama” in reference to a condition the fictional president (presumably) makes on Jewish settlements in Palestine. One is left to wonder what Mr. Jacobson’s stance is to the Other, that is not Gentile or Jew.
I thought it was such an impressive ode to the way families work, or don’t work, through tradition, love, sadness, life and death.
The rumor on the street, at the time, was that Hollywood wanted it to be less, well, Greek. My Big Fat Irish Wedding or My Big Fat Italian Wedding or even My Big Fat Jewish Wedding. Something more mainstream and “get-able”. Greek was obscure.
Apparently, it wasn’t. The thing about the movie that wasn’t obscure was that it was a “fill in the blank”. I grew up around Jewish celebrations, Catholic celebrations, Eastern Orthodox celebrations and, for me, they all seemed to be asking the same questions, living the same “goodnesses”, loving the same family ties. Of course, to say “We’re all alike” is to misunderstand each culture but the true essence of how we live, work, love, play and pass away, inherent in every culture, seems to be at the core of our being, no matter how manifested.
Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, strikes me in the same way. It is, at once a hugely Jewish work in voice and reason but also a rather universal introspection of gain, loss and identity in between.
Julian Treslove, excommunicated BBC reject, finds himself in a Jewish ocean, wearing a Gentile life vest. His two best friends are Jewish and many of his colleagues are, as well. His discovery and study of the “Finkler” Culture (so dubbed by Treslove for his closest confidant and bitter rival, Sam Finkler) through music, humor, kisses, body awareness and other topics, tend toward a satirical “insider cum outsider” view of Judaism in Jacobson’s voice, rather than simply a window into a world unknown.
We also see history, culture, family and faith through the eyes of Sam Finkler, self-help philosophy writer and Libor Sevcik, the boys’ former professor and now friend. Young and old come together and break apart over issues of cultural identity, defining infidelity and upending dominant Western Jewish paradigms.
The idea that struck me so deeply in reading The Finkler Question, is the one that I left the theater, so long ago, with. “This could be about anything”. I just finished Molly Fox’s Birthday which is heavily steeped in Northern Ireland conflict but could, very well have used Jew and Muslim plugged in for Protestant and Catholic.The same thing for many novels on conflict, past and present.
This is, of course, not to make light or fun of any of these long standing bloodbaths. Nor is it to say that each faith worships, plays or eats in the same way. It is only to say that all of these questions of identity, faith commitment, moral fiber and the place we stand with our traditional values, are human, rather than subdivided and attributed to one circle, alone.
The Finkler Question is a beautiful piece of work, a meditation on the way we live and how we forgive, even when we can’t forget.
I was hooked from the start by its great opening line "He should have seen it coming" and from then on the novel had me in its grip right through to the end. The book is both funny and sad and like many great novels sweeps the reader along into the realms of tragedy. The humour is one aspect of the book that keeps nudging you along, sometimes witty sometimes black and sometimes just plain laugh out loud funny. Jacobson laughs at his characters: their foibles, their self righteousness, their pride and in Treslove's case his ineptitude. He also pulls off the trick of his characters laughing at themselves and so I found myself laughing both with them and at them. Jacobson comments towards the end of the novel that "You never know what a Jew was or was not going to find funny"
The books title led me to ask what is The Finkler question? One answer is and a major thread running through the novel is the pressures on Jews living in Western societies in today's increasingly hostile world. All aspects are covered and each person in the novel finds him/herself coping with the feeling that there is a continual battle to justify their existence in the world. Even the non Jew Treslove who desperately wants to become part of the Jewish culture is affected he becomes a kind of a sponge for the feelings of the Jews around him.
For me the big theme and therefore the Finkler question is guilt. Everybody tries to deal with or cover up their guilt. The tragedy is that mostly they fail and either destroy themselves or become so bent out of shape as to become unrecognisable to themselves and to others. Along with the guilt comes grief and this is reflected by many of the characters suffering actual grief for a lost love or friendship.
I know that some readers have found the characters annoying especially Treslove. I found them very human and sad person that I am I could identify with most of them. On a personal note my first wife was Jewish and we lived with her family for a while and so like Treslove I found myself absorbing the culture all around me, which is all embracing; you can get kind of smothered by it all and this comes across in Jacobson's novel. Many of the Yiddish phrases used had become part of my language and brought back all sorts of fond memories.
There are other important themes running through this novel: friendship, fidelity, hatred, ageing, cross cultural difficulties to name a few all given intelligent and thought provoking analysis by Jacobson. This is a great novel.
Treslove feels like an outsider within his circle of friends and agonizes over his desire to be one of The Chosen. When not pre-occupied by his non-Jewishness and mounting consciousness of anti-Semitism, he is preoccupied by his desire fo a woman’s love – preferably a Jewish woman’s.
His own love for all things Jewish stands in stark contrast to his hatred of all things related to the BBC (non-Jewish?) where he’d worked as an ineffectual program director for years. It’s a comic novel in the vein of certain Jewish humor/comedy: Laughing at itself in a self-denigrating, at worst, and self-deprecating, when it’s better, way.
Does Jacobson aspire to be the English/Australian Philip Roth? The themes of this book anti- and philo-Semitism are muddied due to Jacobson’s ironic twist, making them forms of the opposite of what they are. Not sure I appreciated this novel, in spite of its Booker Prize. Not sure if it is an encomium or an indictment of everything associated with being Jewish. It may be because the novel seemed at times to be a bad Woody Allen film. And I like Woody Allen films. Just not bad ones.
Plenty of "inside" humor, great descriptive language, and beautiful writing. But we're left with the question, "What is a Finkler (Jew)"? Maybe it’s the kitchen sink that when thrown in the bathtub, drowned my interest in the answer?
Most of the action centres around Treslove who is the victim of a mugging and imagines that it was racially motivated, despite the fact that he is the gentile in his circle of friends. The ironic twist of the whole story is that Treslove ends up becoming more "Jewish" than just about everyone around him. The book raises some interesting questions about "Jewishness" - about how other people perceive Jews, about how they perceive themselves, and about how Jews perceive others. There is not that much plot, really, but the character studies that Jacobson has created here are beautifully written and realised in a subtle, gentle and disarming way. It was very clear to me as I read this book why it received the Booker Prize - it is crafted in a masterly fashion and destined to be a modern classic down the track, without a doubt.
The FInkler Question focuses on these three friends at a time when each of them are going through a major life change. In some ways, the interaction of the characters, and the interrelations of their lives contribute to the onset of these life changes; in other ways, these life changes color the interaction of the characters, changing the nature of their relationships.
I have a kind of love-hate relationship with this book. On the one hand, Jacobson's prose is beautifully crafted, making it easy to read the book despite its shortcomings. Character development is in some ways very good, but somewhat spotty. I never felt like I understood what Libor was all about, for example. I also failed to grasp a clear purpose of the work, though there seemed to be lots of clues pointing to something. Either the something was not fully formed, or the reader is expected to work harder at identifying it.
That being said, it was an enjoyable read. It was just not clear to me what it's overall purpose is.
Jewish expressions might help a reader. I was glad to get the end of the book, which improved a little towards the end. But for the humor and the end chapters I would have given the book a single half star.
I'm tempted to think that, if this was the Booker Prize winner, I'd best avoid any of the long- or shortlisted books which were, by default, less worthy ... however it seems that the Booker Prize judges and I rarely see eye to eye. I have previously enjoyed many of the long- and short-listed books, but perhaps I'd best steer clear of the actual Booker Prize winners in future.
Sam and Libor also share the recent loss of their wives. Julian has never seemed to have lost anything but is always on the brink of losing something. He is always longing for what he hasn't got -and this includes a Jewish heritage.
I find it hard to describe my feelings towards this book. I am glad that I finished it. I did not particularly like any of the characters. I can see the merit in the writing. I would not want to read it again.
Jacobson raises universal questions that will leave some readers uncomfortable, but the engaging wit of the novel will hold the reader in thrall from start to finish.
Julian refers to all Jews as Finklers, with Sam as his exemplar. But Sam is a member of the ASHamed Jews, who do not support Zionism. Libor does not share Sam's views. In the interplay between the three, we get an unflinching debate about Judaism. As a lifelong Christian who considers herself tolerant of and open to different religious views, there were parts of this book that were a bit shocking to me. Politically correct, it is not. For example, at one point in a conversation between Julian and his Jewish lover Hephzibah about whether Jews recognize other Jews, Julian says, "Is it like being gay? Is there a Jewdar that enables you to pick one another out?" I don't know people who have conversations like this. Yet, in the end, I had to appreciate the way in which Jacobson represented multiple viewpoints without backing down. Perhaps it was the extreme nature of the book that brought it the recognition it received.