Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, read on the tail of Eat, Pray, Love and March and Three Cups of Tea and Franny and Zooey – that is, on the tail of a host of books that left me wondering why I was devoting so much of my winter to laying on my sofa reading (cold and miserable) instead of playing outside with my host siblings (which would also be cold and miserable) – is such a relief to me that I am not sure how to even write a review.

The Finkler Question, recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, deals obliquely (or not) with so many issues that I will leave these aspects of the novel largely unexplored, to better minds than mine. Judaism, Zionism, the Holocaust, hate crimes, swastikas, mistaken identity, ways of falling in love or something, the future, the death of a spouse, infidelity, children who are only children by blood, Jewish tradition, degrees of Jewishness (or Finklerishness), male friendship and competition, the arc of careers.

Mostly, this book struck me as one that is funny in unexpected places and ways, that often manages to bury its humor in the deathly seriousness of its characters. Julian Treslove, the main character, is a Gentile in constant search of a woman who appears likely to one day expire in his arms, a man with two sons by two women, none of whom he knows particularly well. After being mugged and hearing (so he thinks, maybe) “You Ju,” he is a man increasingly obsessed with Jewishness and adopting this melancholy culture. He describes the attack to Libor and Finkler as an anti-Semitic one, positing that his (female) attacker followed him from Libor’s home, questioning, “…what if this was a random anti-Semitic attack that just happened to have gone wrong only in the sense that he wasn’t a Semite?”

In innumerable aspects of attitude, Treslove seems more stereotypically Jewish than those surrounding him, and his attempt to claim Jewish roots is at times frantic. He describes himself:

Julian Treslove, son of a melancholy and friendless cigar seller who played the fiddle where no one could hear him; Julian Treslove, ex of the BBC, ex arts administrator, one-time lover of a host of hopeless unfleshly girls who wore too many bras, father of a sandwich-making in-denial homosexual and a Jew-hating opportunist piano player; Julian Treslove, Finklerphile and would-be Finkler except that the Finklers in their ethno-religious separatism or whatever one was meant to call it just didn’t fucking want to know.

Julian’s friends Finkler (a philosopher and founder of the organization ASHamed Jews) and Libor are both Jewish, both recently widowed. The novel explores not just Treslove’s view of the world, but the different ways Finkler and Treslove approach both their Jewishness and the deaths of their wives. Finkler, unlike Libor, isn’t able to mourn what his wife might have been had she not died: “He could not, as Libor did, throw his sorrow into the future. He did not miss the Tyler who never got to be, only the Tyler who was.”

It’s hard to find a real center to the novel, or a way of describing a plot, which isn’t to say that there aren’t things going on here or that the novel feels centerless, rather that its structure doesn’t lend itself to easy summation. Finkler, as already mentioned, heads an anti-Zionist organization called the ASHamed Jews, but finds his leadership and simplicity of thought wavering as the novel progresses. Libor struggles to find his life now that his wife is dead, and Treslove moves in with Libor’s great-niece.

This great-niece, Hephzibah, appeals to Treslove for various reasons: her nickname is Jude (one he’s been waiting for for years), she’s Jewish, she is, unlike other women he’s been with, sturdy and unlikely to expire in his arms. Hephzibah is, for much of the novel, readying the opening of a new Jewish culture museum, and Treslove’s role in this museum (he has a job, on paper, but has little real role at the museum) mirrors his part in the culture he has, with Hephzibah’s aid, begun to enter: a sort of motionless figure on the borders, watching and making notes but doing little himself.

One of my favorite sections in the book comes when Treslove compares Hephzibah’s style of cooking to his mother’s, who could make a five-course meal from a single pan:

In fact, in Treslove’s eyes Hephzibah didn’t so much cook as lash out at her ingredients, goading and infuriating them into taste. No matter what she was preparing she always had at least five pans on the go, each of them big enough to boil a cat in. Steam rose from four of them. Burning oil from the fifth. Every window was open. An extractor fan sucked noisily at whatever it could find. […] But Hephzibah ignored him, banging her cupboard doors open and closed, using every spoon and every casserole she owned, breathing in the flames and the smoke. The sweat poured down her brow and stained her clothes. Every couple of minutes she would pause to wipe her eyes. Then on she’d go, like Vulcan stoking the fires of Etna. And at the end of it, there was an omelette and chives for Treslove’s supper.

The Finkler Question, whatever this poor and scattered review suggests, is a book that deserves and needs to be read. Jacobson’s characters, particularly Treslove, verge so close on being repulsive that it’s nothing short of a miracle that he makes them whole and understandable, if not sympathetic, people.

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This might be the first favorable review I’ve read of The Finkler Question from a blogger and I’ve got to say, I’m intrigued.

Comment by Brenna

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