The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

>> Wednesday, February 23, 2011

TITLE: The Finkler Question
AUTHOR: Howard Jacobson

PAGES: 307
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Fiction

REASON FOR READING: Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, so we chose it for my book club in November

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 lost touch with each other, or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik.

Dining together one night at Sevcik's apartment—the two Jewish widowers and the unmarried Gentile, Treslove—the men share a sweetly painful evening, reminiscing on a time before they had loved and lost, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. But as Treslove makes his way home, he is attacked and mugged outside a violin dealer's window. Treslove is convinced the crime was a misdirected act of anti-Semitism, and in its aftermath, his whole sense of self will ineluctably change.

The Finkler Question is a funny, furious, unflinching novel of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and the wisdom and humanity of maturity.
We chose The Finkler Question to read in my book club after the excellent discussion inspired by the book we'd chosen for the previous month, Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap. I suppose we kind of figured that if The Slap, merely on the Booker longlist, had been so good, then the actual winner must be amazing to have been judged better.

The book centres around three friends. Octogenarian Libor Sevcik and his former student, pop philosopher Sam Finkler have just lost their wives. Finkler's old school friend, Julian Treslove yearns to be like them. One night after the three have met for dinner, Julian is mugged by someone he's sure is a woman, and he's even more certain that she said something about him being a Jew. Treslove isn't, but in his yearning to be more like his two friends, this sparks off a certainty that he is, and a determination to become even more so.

I was slightly conflicted about this one. On one hand I recognised how good it was, how it tackled some interesting themes and did so in an original way. For instance, one could expect a Jewish author tackling the issue of identity in a book with several Jewish characters to concentrate on their identity. We do get that in Finkler, especially, but the emphasis is really on Julian. He, a white, protestant, male, is struggling even more. He's a nonentity (to the point that he works as an all-purpose celebrity look-alike), and he envies his Jewish friends the vividness of their identity.

On the other hand, I found it hard to care about anything here all that much. It's a book that's intellectually interesting, but emotionally very tepid, even when its characters are supposed to be in the grip of strong emotions. I didn't dislike it, but whenever I put it down, I didn't particularly want to pick it up, either.

MY GRADE: A B-. I know perfectly well it's a very good book, I just didn't particularly enjoy it.


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