Sunday, October 31, 2010

(ARTS) An Exuberant Comedy Of Jewishness

"Booker prize-winning novel thought-provoking amid belly laughs.

'The Finkler Question' - Howard Jacobson

His latest book has won this year's Man Booker prize, the most prestigious award in English literature, but fans of Howard Jacobson might be alarmed to discover that the main character in The Finkler Question is a gentile.

As it turns out, though, they needn't worry. Julian Treslove may not be Jewish, but in most other respects he's a typical Jacobson protagonist: a middle-aged man much given to tears, self-interrogation, a sense of imminent doom, falling heavily in love and regarding his male friends as his rivals. Above all, he's obsessed with Jews and Jewishness.

When The Finkler Question begins, Julian, a failed BBC producer, has just had dinner with two of his oldest friends/rivals. His old schoolmate, Sam Finkler, is now an irritatingly successful popularizer of philosophy and so Jewish that Julian privately thinks of Jews as 'Finklers' (hence, among other things, the book's title). Their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, is solidly kosher too -- and locked in an endless argument with Finkler about the State of Israel: Libor's for it, Finkler isn't.

Then, on the way home, Julian is mugged by someone who, he later becomes convinced, used the words 'you Jew' during the attack. What if the attacker knows more than he does? What if he is -- as he's perhaps always wanted to be -- Jewish too? Before long, he's certainly giving it his best shot, brushing up on his Yiddish, wondering if it's too late to get circumcised and moving in with a woman called Hephzibah Weizenbaum.

Not that he finds it easy to blend in with his 'fellow' Finklers. For one thing, there's their puzzling custom of telling jokes about themselves that they'd angrily resent from anyone else. (Luckily, this custom allows many of Jacobson's own gags to be fearlessly tasteless.) For another, even he can't really match their obsessiveness. After all, 'you have to be born and brought up a Jew to see the hand of Jews in everything. That or be born and brought up a Nazi.'

Meanwhile, Finkler is on a very different trajectory. Appearing on BBC's iconic Desert Island Discs (much, naturally, to Julian's envious horror), he declares that

Israel's treatment of the Palestinians makes him 'profoundly ashamed.' As a result, he's invited to join a group called 'Ashamed Jews,' who meet regularly to debate, often rancorously, just how outraged they are by the Zionists.

As this might suggest, The Finkler Question is quite a schematic novel, with the characters there primarily to embody the ideas that Jacobson wants to discuss. In a book never short of competing theories, plenty are put forward as to why Julian is so keen to be Jewish, but the main reason is surely just Jacobson's desire to set up a bitterly comic contrast between him and all the real Jews who seem so keen not to be.

There's also a full supporting cast representing every possible shade of Jewish opinion -- and, while Jacobson tries to follow the approved fictional practice of presenting the conflicting viewpoints and leaving the reader to judge, it's increasingly obvious which side he's on. The Ashamed Jews get a merciless (but extremely funny) kicking throughout.

And just in case that's not clear enough, the final sections deliver a series of fairly transparent author's messages warning about the uncomfortably close links between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and savaging the glib parallels drawn by Israel's critics between the Holocaust and the events in Gaza.

By the end, in fact, the urgency of these messages is so unavoidable as to create the sense of a book that changed its own idea of what it should be as it went along -- as if Jacobson had gradually decided that, in such perilous Jewish times, some things are more important than turning in a well-ordered novel.

All this might have been more damaging if he wasn't so good at the disordered kind. The spectacle of him letting rip remains as exhilarating as ever -- and in any case, nobody will ever read his work for its decorous understatement. Jacobson has often said that one of his key writing mottoes is 'More is more' and here again he sticks firmly to that principle (only more so).

For some writers a thorough investigation of the situation of Jews today might do as the subject for a single book. In The Finkler Question it's combined with his characteristically unsparing -- but not unkindly -- ruminations on love, aging, death and grief. He also manages his customary -- but not easy -- trick of fusing all of the above with genuine comedy.

And sentence by sentence, there are few writers who exhibit the same unawed respect for language or such a relentless commitment to re-examining even the most seemingly unobjectionable of received wisdoms.

No wonder that, as with most of Jacobson's novels, you finish The Finkler Question feeling both faintly exhausted and richly entertained.

As the chair of this year's Booker judges said, it is 'a completely worthy winner of this great prize. The Finkler Question is a marvellous book: very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle.'

It is the 68-year-old author's 11th novel, though his first novel, Coming From Behind, only appeared when he was 40. He has been longlisted twice before for the Booker, in 2006 for Kalooki Nights and in 2002 for Who's Sorry Now.

Britain's press praised the Booker choice, with the Guardian newspaper hailing 'a victory for that most overlooked genre on literary prize lists, the comic novel.'

The Independent said awarding the prize to Jacobson 'broke the mould. It was predicted to be the most likely loser, not least because a comic novel has never satisfied the tastes of high-minded judges.'

Jacobson has often been compared with the American writer Philip Roth, who has also written on the themes of Jewishness and relationship. Jacobson himself however, begs to differ: 'I'm not the English Philip Roth, I'm a Jewish Jane Austen,' he told the Guardian newspaper in a recent interview.

He deplores the false categories of 'literature' and 'entertainment' as if they are mutually exclusive.

'I mean, I am a pleasure giver. I am an entertainer. I give fun. I make people laugh. I am not difficult, though there might be the occasional Yiddish word people don't know. It has always bewildered me that people don't want to read me in large numbers.'

Tongue-in-cheek? The point about Jacobson is that he's at his most serious when he's joking." (source)

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