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“Trapped in conviction, like rats in rat traps”

August 18, 2011

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question, Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2010

In Nam Le’s short story Tehran Calling, an American envies her Iranian friend for her traumatic past, which gives her life a depth the American feels she lacks. In Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, Julian Treslove is a gentile who becomes obsessed with Jews, envying their suffering, worshipping them for their confidence, believing they have something he hasn’t, trying to inhale that quality to give meaning to his own empty life, and even seeking to become Jewish himself.

Tehran Calling was short enough for the reader not to tire of the vacuous American, but The Finkler Question is a novel. Can Julian Treslove, nice enough but tiresome and shallow, sustain our interest over three hundred pages?

Yes, but only just, and only because of Jacobson’s skills as a writer. I did get sick of Julian, but two things kept me going: comedy and tragedy. And anti-semitism is at the heart of both.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Julian and his two friends, Sam Finkler and Libor Cevcik, who are both Jewish and both grieving after their wives have died. I grew very fond of Libor, and the moving story of his life-long love affair with his wife. Sam is a pop philosopher who, although almost as shallow as Julian at first, is spun around as the novel progresses and emotion takes over from his beloved reason in driving his life. The book is male-flavoured, and with one exception the female characters are only present to the extent that they advance the stories of the men. The exception is Julian’s eventual partner, the empathetic Hephzibah, who strongly feels the joy and sadness of life and adds depth to the comedic and tragic themes of the book.

Two main threads weave through the men’s stories. One is Julian’s obsession with Jewishness, which becomes more disturbing as it progresses because he uses the essentialism of the racist, allocating certain qualites to all members of an ethnic group. A nice man, he does not realise he is doing this, that he is representing Jewish people in ways not dissimilar from the old familiar caricatures and stereotypes: Jews as people with secret ways to achieve success, people with chutzpah, who can always go one better than you, and with an attitude to the world that allows them to brush off setbacks. Julian’s finklerphilia (he refers to Jews as Finklers) is the other side of the coin of anti-semitism.

The other thread arises from the contemporary manifestaions of anti-semitism, echoes of past horrors, and their relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Sam joins the ASHamed Jews, an anti-Zionist group, and this thread leads to a key scene in which the weapons of essentialism and group culpability are applied to those who use them against Jews.

The Finkler Question is a comedy because of the wit of the characters, their lively dialogue, the situations they negotiate and the heavy irony of the two main threads. And it is a tragedy firstly because it shows how anti-semitism is so embedded in our culture (or our nature?) that it seems we will never rid ourselves of this scourge, and secondly because of what underlies such human failing: our grasping for something that we can believe in with certainty. At a meeting to debate the Israel-Palestine conflict Sam Finkler looks at the two opposing factions and sees “humanity trapped in conviction, like rats in rat traps.”

This book both laments and laughs at our need for belief, for the certainty that allows us to justify anything we do because we know we are right.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2011 10:49 pm

    Ah, I haven’t read this yet but will be doing so later this year. I shall try to remember to come back then and comment properly BUT I love your reference to the Nam Le story.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    August 19, 2011 9:31 am

    Nam Le’s story had a big impact on me – his skill in depicting the idea that life in the West can be so empty for some that they envy oppressed people their suffering. I’ll be interested to see your comments on Finkler. Many readers have loved it because of the humour and the quality of the writing, but others have hated it because the style of humour doesn’t suit them – too jokey – and the feeling that Jacobson is showing off.

  3. Jacinta Arnold permalink
    August 26, 2011 11:13 pm

    I only managed it to page 234 of 307, but it was a slog. I am a bit resentful of the time I will never have back having read those 234 pages. I found it repetitive though mildly amusing in parts.
    You are very insightful saying this….
    “This book both laments and laughs at our need for belief, for the certainty that allows us to justify anything we do because we know we are right.”
    I thought the book was a kind of a LONG version of the Groucho Marx line that he would never join a club that would have him as a member.

  4. Bryce permalink*
    August 27, 2011 12:17 pm

    Yes, I can imagine many people loathing the book – the particular style of humour, the tiresomeness of Julian, and the way it goes on and on (unlike Groucho). But the humour appealed to me, and the novel dealt with things about human beings in which I’m interested, so I put up with Julian. I enjoyed it, but I do think it could have been shorter.

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