The Finkler Question
Howard Jacobson, 2010
Winner, 2010 Man Booker Prize
He should have seen it coming. His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one…
Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular former BBC radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they've never quite lost touch with each other—or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech always more concerned with the wider world than with exam results.
Now, both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and with Treslove, his chequered and unsuccessful record with women rendering him an honorary third widower, they dine at Libor's grand, central London apartment.
It's a sweetly painful evening of reminiscence in which all three remove themselves to a time before they had loved and lost; a time before they had fathered children, before the devastation of separations, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. Better, perhaps, to go through life without knowing happiness at all because that way you have less to mourn? Treslove finds he has tears enough for the unbearable sadness of both his friends' losses. And it's that very evening, at exactly 11:30 pm, as Treslove, walking home, hesitates a moment outside the window of the oldest violin dealer in the country, that he is attacked. And after this, his whole sense of who and what he is will slowly and ineluctably change.
The Finkler Question is a scorching story of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and of the wisdom and humanity of maturity. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best. (From the publisher.)
• Birth— August 25, 1942
• Where—Manchester, England, UK
• Education—Cambridge University
• Awards—Man Booker Prize
• Currently—lives in London, England
Howard Jacobson is a British author and journalist, best known for his comic novels that often revolve around the dilemmas of British Jewish characters. Born in Manchester, Jacobson was brought up in Prestwich and was educated at Stand Grammar School in Whitefield, before going on to study English at Downing College, Cambridge under F. R. Leavis. He lectured for three years at the University of Sydney before returning to England to teach at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His later teaching posts included a stint at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in the 1970s.
Although Jacobson has described himself as "a Jewish Jane Austen" (in response to being described as "the English Phillip Roth"), he also states, "I'm not by any means conventionally Jewish. I don't go to shul. What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence. I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past. I don't know what kind of trouble this gets somebody into, a disputatious mind. What a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that's what shapes the Jewish sense of humour, that's what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness." He maintains that "comedy is a very important part of what I do."
His time at Wolverhampton was to form the basis of his first novel, Coming from Behind, a campus comedy about a failing polytechnic that plans to merge facilities with a local football club. The episode of teaching in a football stadium in the novel is, according to Jacobson in a 1985 BBC interview, the only portion of the novel based on a true incident. He also wrote a travel book in 1987, titled In the Land of Oz, which was researched during his time as a visiting academic in Sydney.
His fiction, particularly in the novels he has published since 1998, is characterised chiefly by a discursive and humorous style. Recurring subjects in his work include male–female relations and the Jewish experience in Britain in the mid- to late-20th century. He has been compared to prominent Jewish-American novelists such as Philip Roth, in particular for his habit of creating doppelgängers of himself in his fiction. Jacobson has been called "the English Philip Roth", although he calls himself the "Jewish Jane Austen."
His 1999 novel The Mighty Walzer, about a teenage table tennis champion, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing. It is set in the Manchester of the 1950s and Jacobson, himself a table tennis fan in his teenage years, admits that there is more than an element of autobiography in it. His 2002 novel Who's Sorry Now?—the central character of which is a Jewish luggage baron of South London—and his 2006 novel Kalooki Nights were longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Jacobson described Kalooki Nights as "the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere."
As well as writing fiction, he also contributes a weekly column for The Independent newspaper as an op-ed writer. In recent times, he has, on several occasions, attacked anti-Israel boycotts, and for this reason has been labelled a "liberal Zionist."
In October 2010 Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question, which was the first comic novel to win the prize since Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils in 1986. The book, published by Bloomsbury, explores what it means to be Jewish today and is also about "love, loss and male friendship." Andrew Motion, the chair of the judges, said: "The Finkler Question is a marvellous book: very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be. A completely worthy winner of this great prize." Jacobson—at the age of 68—was the oldest winner since William Golding in 1980.
Jacobson's 2014 dystopian novel, J, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
He has also worked as a broadcaster. Two recent television programmes include Channel 4's Howard Jacobson Takes on the Turner, in 2000, and The South Bank Show in 2002 featured an edition entitled "Why the Novel Matters." An earlier profile went out in the series in 1999 and a television documentary entitled "My Son the Novelist" preceded it as part of the Arena series in 1985. His two non-fiction books—Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews (1993) and Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (1997—were turned into television series.
In 2010 Jacobson presented "Creation," the first part of the Channel 4 series The Bible: A History. (From Wikipedia.)
Mr. Jacobson doesn't just summon [Philip] Roth; he summons Roth at Roth's best. This prizewinning book is a riotous morass of jokes and worries about Jewish identity, though it is by no means too myopic to be enjoyed by the wider world. It helps that Mr. Jacobson's comic sensibility suggests Woody Allen's, that his powers of cultural observation are so keen, and that influences as surprising as Lewis Carroll shape this book.
Janet Maslin - New York Times
Although there is a plot, The Finkler Question is really a series of tragicomic meditations on one of humanity's most tenacious expressions of malice, which I realize sounds about as much fun as sitting shiva, but Jacobson's unpredictable wit is more likely to clobber you than his pathos. In these pages, he's refined the funny shtick of Kalooki Nights (2007) to produce a more cerebral comedy about the bizarre metastasis of anti-Semitism and the exhausting complications of Zionism.
Ron Charles - Washington Post
A striking novel and a subtle one… The Finkler Question has all the qualities we expect from Mr. Jacobson—especially a mordant wit, sometimes as acrid as it is exuberant. He has been called the English Philip Roth, and it is true that the two authors have in common a white-hot indignation, at anti-Semitism and much else... With The Finkler Question, Mr. Jacobson has managed to channel his themes and his characters' emotions... with nuance, insight and, yes, laughter.
Wall Street Journal
It is tempting—after reading something as fine as The Finkler Question—not to bother reviewing it in any meaningful sense but simply to urge you to put down this paper and go and buy as many copies as you can carry … Full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written … Indeed, there’s so much that is first rate in the manner of Jacobson’s delivery that I could write all day on his deployment of language without once mentioning what the book is about.
Edward Docx - Observer (UK)
This charming novel follows many paths of enquiry, not least the present state of Jewish identity in Britain and how it integrates with the Gentile population. Equally important is its exploration of how men share friendship. All of which is played out with Jacobson’s exceptionally funny riffs and happy-sad refrains … Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.
Christian House - Independent on Sunday (UK)
There are some great riffs and skits in The Finkler Question.... But at the heart of the book is Julian the wannabe Jew, a wonderful comic creation precisely because he is so tragically touching in his haplessness. The most moving (and funniest) scenes are those in which he and Libor, the widower with nothing more to live for, ruminate on love and Jewishness.
Adam Lively - Sunday Times (UK)
(Starred review.) Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Jacobson's wry, devastating novel examines the complexities of identity and belonging, love, and grief through the lens of contemporary Judaism. Julian Treslove, a former BBC producer who works as a celebrity double, feels out of sync with his longtime friend and sometimes rival Sam Finkler, a popular author of philosophy-themed self-help books and a rabidly anti-Zionist Jewish scholar. The two have reconnected with their elderly professor, Libor Sevcik, following the deaths of Finkler and Libor's wives, leaving Treslove—the bachelor Gentile—even more out of the loop. But after Treslove is mugged—the crime has possible anti-Semitic overtones—he becomes obsessed with what it means to be Jewish, or "a Finkler." Jacobson brilliantly contrasts Treslove's search for a Jewish identity—through food, spurts of research, sex with Jewish women—with Finkler's thorny relationship with his Jewish heritage and fellow Jews. Libor, meanwhile, struggles to find his footing after his wife's death, the intense love he felt for her reminding Treslove of the belonging he so craves. Jacobson's prose is effortless—witty when it needs to be, heartbreaking where it counts—and the Jewish question becomes a metaphor without ever being overdone.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Finkler Question:
1. What's wrong with Julian Treslove? Why has his life been such a disappointment? What is missing in him?
2. How does Julian view his friend Sam Finkler? Why does Julian consider him a prototype of Jews? What is the catalog of traits he ascribes to "the Finklers"?
3. What is the significance of the mugging incident, and why does it awaken Julian's desire to become Jewish?
4. Do you find Julian's regard for Judaism funny, endearing, or disturbing? Is he anti-semitic? Can you tell if (or when) he's joking?
5. Describe the contrasting stances on Israel and Judaism taken by Sam and Libor Sevcik? Why, for instance, won't Sam even use the word "Israel"? What are the range of positions on the Israel-Palestine question? Whom do you side with?
6. What is the significance of the book's title, the "Finkler Question"?
7. Does Jewish exceptionalism exist? What are the arguments for or against?
8. Talk about the meaning of Sam's group, ASHamed Jews? What is the butt of author Jacobson's satire here?
9. Sam tells Libor that he has no anti-Semitic friends, and Libor replies, "Yes, you do. The Jewish ones." Is Libor right: does the primary bastion of anti-semitism lie within the Jewish community? And what does the Jewish film director mean when he says anti-semitism makes perfect sense to him?
10. A resurgence of anti-semitic attacks begin to filter in. Care to comment on this passage?
After a period of exceptional quiet, anti-Semitism was becoming again what it had always been—an escalator that never stopped, and which anyone could hop on at will.
11. During dinner early in the book, the three friends—Julian, Sam, and Libor Sevcik—conclude that happiness is sad because we mourn for it when it's missing in our lives. Agree...disagree? Make sense...nonsense?
12. Julian sees his life as "an absurd disgrace, to be exceeded in disgracefulness only by death." What does he mean, and how do you view the statement—is it funny, tragic, correct, dead wrong...?
13. There is a lot of wit in this book. What did you find especially funny—when Libor, for instance, tells Julian at the Lewis Carroll Seder (!) that “the chicken symbolizes the pleasure Jewish men take in having a team of women to cook it for them”? What about Sam's bestselling book titles?
14. Is there far too much rumination, navel-gazing, or self-analysis in this book? Do you find it tedious...or does Jacobson's humor enliven the book's introspection?
15. Is this book a comedy or tragedy?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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