Howard Jacobson – The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, 2010)

The Finkler Question was the winner of the 2010 Booker Prize – an annual award for the best novel by a writer from the Commonwealth – but I bought it after seeing Jacobson appear on ABC’s Q&A earlier this year, where he was very articulate, interesting and principled.

The novel centres around three friends, united by their loneliness and grief. Sam Finkler is a recently widowed Jewish popular philosopher (if you can imagine such a thing). Libor Sevcik is a retired Jewish Hollywood columnist, also recently widowed. And Julian Treslove is an unaccomplished man with many loves, or rather infatuations, which he treats with pathetic seriousness. He is not widowed but is the kind of person who is always able to manufacture an excuse to mourn. Nor is he Jewish, though he likes to imagine that he might be.

The novel is superficially light-hearted, surprising given the darkness of its themes: anti-Semitism, grief, jealousy and infidelity. But on the whole, I found the novel disappointing. I dislike Jacobson’s humour, which appeals to the uglier side of our nature. He is crude and much of the humour comes from ridiculing the worries and self-ignorance of the characters. Regardless of the fact that they are fictional and contemptible, I think it debases one to enjoy this.

For me, The Finkler Question was also tediously middle-aged. The world of Treslove and Finkler is of little interest. This may just be that having never been middle-aged my capacity for empathy is limited. But then I have never been a widowed octogenarian and yet I found the Libor’s experience very moving. If only Jacobson had done away with Treslove and given more of Libor.

Jacobson is responding in the novel to the current political discourse which defends the actions of Palestinian terrorists as a natural and justifiable response to their disenfranchisement by Israel. He suggests that people have grown tired of listening to Jews harp on about the Holocaust and now explicitly equate the Holocaust with contemporary war crimes by Israel. The fact that many of the proponents of this discourse – which he sees as both flawed and dangerous – are Jews in no way precludes the identification of the discourse as anti-Semitic. I am no Zionist, but I do think Jacobson offers a reasonable critique of the current situation.

Unless you are really interested in issues of Jewishness, I don’t think The Finkler Question is worth reading.