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Easy Reader: Howard Jacobson's Novel Takes the Prize

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The similarity between the above by-line name and the title of The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson's latest novel, is only part of the reason I grabbed the volume when I was in London a month or so ago. I knew the book had just been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (the jacket-cover top banner already said "Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010"). Forever intrigued by potential prize winners, I thought I should dig into at least one of the short-listees.

I choose The Finkler Question because, yes, the title contains my surname, but also because I've read Howard Jacobson before and found his work undeniably amusing and his treatment of Jewish issues -- as a Jew -- compellingly off-beat. It also occurred to me that Jacobson, often termed "the English Philip Roth," stood a good chance of pulling down the award because he's been around a while (longlisted twice before) and could be seen as deserving of the nod (and the approximately $80,000) over, say, Peter Carey, nominated this year for Parrot and Oliver in America, but also a previous winner.

I even thought he could prevail over Tom McCarthy for C, which was the front-runner, and this is before I cracked the book. (McCarthy's output was so heavily favored that odds-makers had to shut down a few days before the winner was announced. Too bad that I -- not a betting man -- didn't bet the farm this time.)

I can't say whether Jacobson's selection is better than the others. I haven't read them. I can say, however, that The Finkler Question had me laughing from cover to cover as well as thinking about the Jewish Question in a Great Britain where many contend anti-Semitism remains an issue, if not an overt one.

Curiously and hilariously, the protagonist, Julian Treslove is not Jewish, although as the book unfolds his best friends, Sam Finkler and the wise and aging Libor Sevcik, are. Julian only wishes he were Jewish and for most of the narrative's duration set outs to do everything in his power to embrace Judaism. He only hopes to be as Jewish eventually as Sam, whom he regards as the quintessential Jew -- a Jew synonymous with Jewishness. Therefore Jacobson's title, The Finkler Question, equates in Julian's mind with The Jewish Question.

Julian's quest to be Jewish is accelerated after he's mugged by a woman. He's convinced his assailant was a woman, just as he's also convinced the attacker called him a Jew and was therefore committing a hate crime. Having difficulty getting over the embarrassment of an assault by a woman, he repeatedly seeks out Sam and Libor for advice and reassurance. It's reassurance he doesn't always receive, since Sam adamantly asserts his membership in a group called ASHamed Jews, the avowed shame stemming from Israeli policies towards Palestinians.

Sam Finkler lets Julian down in other ways as well, particularly when it turns out that his wife, Tyler, whom Julian covets, is a convert. Explaining her conversion, Tyler says of her husband in one of Jacobson's many thigh-slapping sequences, "It's the Gentiles he's out to conquer. Always has been. You must know that. He's done Jewish. He was born Jewish. They can't reject him. So why waste time on them? He'd have married me in a church had I asked him?"

Tyler goes on to give as good an explanation as there is in contemporary fiction of the attraction of The Other (as opposed to the often prevalent fear of The Other) by commenting, "We were each out to conquer the other's universe. He wanted the goyim to love him. I wanted the Jews to love me. And I liked the idea of having Jewish children. I thought they'd do better at school."

Trembling as constantly as a leaf on a tree in November, Julian never feels comfortable in his pursuit. Bedding a woman named Hephzibah -- as bona fide a Jewish woman as he could find -- he can't accept that she's true to him and begins to suspect she's cheating with true-Jew Sam. Contemplating a belated bris, he worries when he "reads that circumcision reduces sexual excitation." He asks Libor, "Where do you stand on circumcision?" "Uncomfortably," Libor replies. Among the other numerous (at least one per page) lovable wisenheimer remarks is this definition: "A nebbish doesn't know he's a nebbish... A schlepper knows he's a schlepper, all right."

Incidentally, Jacobson's writing powers don't stop with his command of humor. This description of a certain woman's voice as having "the quality of organza tearing" attests to the breadth of his prose style. He may mean it to be risible, but it nevertheless is pretty impressive.

The Finkler Question ($15, 320pp., published stateside this week by Bloomsbury USA) is about chronic dissatisfaction. Furthermore, it's about the sad extent to which religion isn't a salve for dissatisfaction. Julian is a fool, no question, and his search is foolish. But foolishness can be fun, and here it definitely is.