“The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson

“The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson (2010) – 307 pages

“The Finkler Question” has the trappings of a comic novel, but it really is a grim political diatribe.  There are a lot of puns (“crying Wolfowitz”).  There are some good lines.

    “He’s always been in denial,” Josephine said. “He’s in denial that he’s a bastard.”

One of the jokes of this Booker prize-winning novel is that one of the main characters is named Samuel Finkler, and soon into the novel the word “Finkler” is used interchangeably with the word “Jewish”, thus “The Finkler Question”.  Finkler is a humorous name, and according to the main protagonist it ‘takes away the stigma’, ‘sucks out the toxins’.

The novel centers on Jewish identity in England with the various characters being Jewish in their own way.  The main protagonist Treslove is not a Jew but very much wants to become one.    Despite his Jewish friend’s words “you can’t be us”, Treslove studies Yiddish, keeps a kosher diet, and moves in with a Jewish woman named Hephzibah.     

The main issue in ‘The Finkler Question’ is a political dispute between two camps.  In one camp are those Jewish people who believe that no matter what Israel does to the Palestinians and other Arabs, Israel is always right.  In the other camp are those Jewish people who don’t think so and question some of the actions Israel has taken.  Howard Jacobson is clearly in the ‘Israel is always right’ camp.  In “The Finkler Question’, Jacobson has the other camp organizing a group called ASHamed Jews.  He even goes so far as to call those Jewish people who disagree with him anti-Semitic.  It was at that point that any sense of fun or comedy in the novel completely deflated for me just like a balloon that has been pricked with a needle.  ‘The Finkler Question’ at that point became a grim un-funny tirade with a few jokes tossed in to somewhat disguise the venom.  Throughout the novel Jacobson stacks the deck so that his ‘Israel is always right’ camp is shown in the most positive light and the questioning Jewish people are shown in the worst possible light.  Jacobson uses the story and his stock characters to relentlessly pursue his political goal, and the result is a lame novel.  

I am not Jewish.  I have read and enjoyed many novels by Jewish writers.  As a young child, I was completely devoted to Mad magazine which had and has mostly Jewish writers.  “The Finkler Question” would not make the ‘Top One Hundred’ list of my favorite novels by Jewish writers.   If you are looking for a great novel written by a Jewish writer, read “Call It Sleep” by Henry Roth which is one of the finest novels of the twentieth century.  Read any work by Cynthia Ozick who is one of the best living fiction writers.  Read “Enemies, A Love Story” by Isaac Bashevis Singer.  Read Joseph Heller, Nathanial West, and Anita Brookner.   Read A.B. Yehoshua and Alberto Moravia.   There are a lot of wonderful alternatives.  Italo Svevo, E. L. Doctorow, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, David Grossman, Irene Nemirovsky, Mordecai Richler, Evgenia Citkowitz, Hans Keilson…

Of course, Howard Jacobson might claim some of these Jewish writers are anti-Semitic, but that is his problem.

Advertisements

28 responses to this post.

  1. Kevin from Canada had already convinced me that this book was not for me, but you have certainly closed, barred, and nailed shut the door. It sounds terribly unfunny. Present-day politics is very hard to do in fiction, I think, without sounding like a loon. I don’t think Franzen managed it very well in Freedom, but it sounds like Jacobson was even worse. With Franzen, at least, he pokes almost as much fun at “his” side as at the other.

    I know some bloggers/reviewers refuse to write negative comments, but I appreciate your honest reaction to this book. Thank you for that.

    Like

  2. Hi Kerry,
    Thanks. I read all those glowing reviews of “The Finkler Question” with only a few negative ones, and I was wondering whether I read a different book than they did. One hopes that that reviewers aren’t praising the political viewpoint rather than the novel. Few of the reviews even mentioned the ‘ASHamed Jews’ of the novel. With “Freedom” which I thought was only somewhat good, at least I didn’t feel I was being beaten over the head with the political viewpoint.

    Like

  3. Oh dear, it doesn’t sound like much fun, and I’m signed up to read all the Booker winners on The Complete Booker!

    Like

    • Hi Lisa,
      Good luck! I’ve read some quite lame Booker winners in recent years. If you recall, I wasn’t very excited about ‘Wolf Hall’ either.

      Like

  4. I agree with much of what you have said and my response to the book was similar to yours. I really had to force myself to read it. However, where I disagree is in your description of Jacobson as someone who is in the ‘Israel is always right’ camp. I felt exactly the opposite, that this book was written by a self hating Jew, someone who can use humour to cover up the uncomfortable position that he finds himself in when he feels so alienated from his people. I was disturbed by Jacobson’s desire to poke fun at things like the Holocaust, disturbed by Finkler’s response to Treslove’s interest in Judaism and all things Jewish, disturbed by the under current of the novel which, quite frankly, left me with a very sour taste in my mouth. I would hazard a guess that it is this tendency toward political incorrectness which won Jacobson the Booker.

    Like

    • Hi Justine,
      Thank you for your intriguing comments. It all depends on who one thinks is Jacobson’s mouthpiece in the novel. I assumed it was Libor and Hephzibah and Treslove, because he portrays them in such an impossibly positive light. You seem to think that Jacobson was talking through Finkler and saying all these outrageous hateful things. I saw Finkler as a straw man that Jacobson uses to beat up on Jewish opinions he doesn’t like. I agree with you that Jacobson went way overboard in some of his rhetoric such as calling some Jews anti-Semitic.

      Like

      • Coming late to the fray. Justine asked the question I was going to ask, because I didn’t feel I could say that Jacobson is in the “Israel is always right” camp. It could depend on who you see as the mouthpiece … and I wonder whether in fact Finkler is (moreso, anyhow, than the others) because it is he who closes the novel. I sometimes look to structure to give me clues. I’m not convinced though. Libor is the more sympathetic character but does that mean, particularly given what happens to him, that his views are to be given more weight? Is Jacobson trying to present a particular view or is he intending to be a little more open. I’d really have to read the book again to answer that one I think.

        Like

        • No, I don’t think Finkler is the mouthpiece. He is the anti-Semitic Jew. Of course, I see the entire novel as hard right-wing propaganda.

          Like

          • Interesting Tony, cos I just didn’t get any particular viewpoint that strongly. Still, we did have my mother-in-law die in the middle of my reading it and that distracted my concentration somewhat.

            Like

  5. I am being selfish in saying this, but I was heartened to read this review. I “read” The Finkler Question before the Booker shortlist was out — “read” in the sense that I abandoned it in annoyance after about 275 pages. Like you, I found that whatever humor or perceptiveness was present in the novel, it disappeared under the weight of a polemic that simply didn’t interest me.

    Reviews and comments since then, not to mention the Booker win, had me wondering about my initial reaction. I did actually complete the novel on a second read and still felt that the experience was one of listening to a very tedious and uninformative lecture. Again like you, it caused me to put together a mental list of how many Jewish authors had done the same thing as Jacobson, only much better.

    I remain intrigued that the novel has provoked such different reactions. I can usually understand why other readers like a book that I don’t (Wolf Hall is a very good example) — for the life of me, I can’t see what people find in this one.

    Like

    • Hi Kevin,
      Taking from your comment “whatever humor or perceptiveness was present in the novel, it disappeared under the weight of a polemic that simply didn’t interest me.” My reaction was very similar except I’d change a couple words. My reaction was “whatever humor or perceptiveness was present in the novel, it disappeared under the weight of a polemic that simply irritated me.” I admit my reaction wasn’t purely literary. My guess would be that a lot of Jewish people would be irritated by this novel as well, since Jacobson is telling them “It’s my way or else.”

      Like

  6. It’s all about perspective I guess. You might like to read Jacobson’s other book, Roots Shmoots (although maybe not!). My favourite character in The Finkler Question was Libor and I wanted to read more about him. I think that Finkler so repulsed me – as did Treslove and his inadequacies that I was consumed by this negative sentiment and unable to see past it. If you are interested, you can read my review at longingtobe.wordpress.com
    Justine

    Like

  7. Hi Justine,
    I’m afraid it will be a while before I return to Howard Jacobson. I read your review and it seems you really wanted to like this novel, but it disappointed. You were moved by certain characters and some of the writing.

    Like

  8. Ah, I saw this book the other day, but somehow never felt compelled to pick it up. After your review, I think I feel even more so! Did you read the Room though?

    Like

  9. Hi Soul Muser,
    ‘Room’ is still on my to-be-read list. From what I’ve seen of the end of the year lists and also your review, I would guess ‘Room’ is the defacto novel of the year. It is just that for me to read a book that has that many pages, I consider it very carefully. I know Donoghue is an excellent writer, and from your review, it also is one of the most original.

    Like

  10. I enjoyed the FQ but didn’t think it was good enough to win the Booker Prize. I found it a little heavy going at times.

    You provided an interesting list of Jewish writers and will look out the Roth Call it Sleep straightaway (thank you amazon)

    Like

    • Hi Tom,
      Hope you enjoy ‘Call It Sleep’. Probably one of my strongest recommendations for the writers I mention is Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua. His novels ‘Mr. Mani’ and ‘A Journey to the End of the Millenium’ are superb. He is an outspoken Israeli nationalist; his writing is strong enough I can emphasize with his opinions.

      Like

  11. Well, that’s a pretty good recommendation Tony – so thanks for that.

    Like

  12. Tony, please do a top 10 books by Jewish writers! I’d love to see what you’d choose 😉

    Like

  13. […] “‘The Finkler Question’…became a grim un-funny tirade with a few jokes tossed in to somewhat disguise the venom…..Jacobson uses the story and his stock characters to relentlessly pursue his political goal, and the result is a lame novel..” Tony’s Book World […]

    Like

  14. Your review is certainly more thoughtful and complete than my snarky one, but we essentially agree. It was just tedious and unpleasant and I soldiered through, but I wish I would have abandoned!

    Like

  15. Hi Jenny,
    Oh mine is pretty snarky too. That was one book that got on my bad side and stayed there. Strange how it won the Booker.

    Like

  16. I believe that is one of the so much significant info for me.
    And i’m happy studying your article. However want to
    commentary on few basic things, The site style is perfect,
    the articles is truly great : D. Good activity, cheers

    Like

  17. magnificent post, very informative. I ponder why the opposite specialists of this sector don’t realize this.

    You must continue your writing. I’m confident, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

    Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: