Thursday, November 11, 2010

Howard Jabobson’s latest novel treats the topic of British anti-Semitism.

I read about this novel when it was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, the English equivalent to the Pulitzer. By the time I finished reading it, it had been awarded the prize. I can certainly understand why.

The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (307 pages, Bloomsbury,$15) tells the story of two men, a Jew and an non-Jew, who are friends from school and who stay friendly as they pursue their professional lives in London. They also stay close to an older man who was their favorite teacher, now a retired widower, who lives near Regent’s Park in London.

Julian Treslove has never been married. Women seem to drift in and out his life, but he hardly notices their coming and going. He has had two sons, though, now both grown, but he feels as remote from them as he does from their long-forgotten mothers.

Sam Finkler, his close friend, had been married to a wonderful woman called Tyler. Finkler loves Tyler deeply, and since her death some time before the opening of the novel, he is mourning her loss. A rather big and fairly demonstrative Jewish man, Finkler can hardly contain the grief he feels. He misses his wife Tyler terribly, and he also feels bad that he cheated on her—but surely this was the Jewish husband’s right, he thinks—as much as he did.

Tyler appears in the novel during various flashback scenes, and she is a wonderful character. More than a match for Finkler, when we see him in her company, we realize how deeply she could humanize him. In losing her, it is true that he lost a remarkable woman.

The older friend and former teacher to these guys, Libor Sevcik, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, has also recently lost a loving wife. An almost sardonic counterpoint to the younger men, Libor tries to create a place where they can seem at home, but their evenings together have a deeply funerary feel. They also spend their time—or at least Finkler and Sevick do—arguing about Zionism and the presence of the Jews in Palestinian territories. Sevcik’s life experiences and his deeply ingrained political views cause him to support Israel and defend Israeli choices, political and social. Finkler takes a far different position. He finds, as a leftist and thinker—he is a professional philosopher, as it turns out—that he is ashamed at what has been perpetrated under the name of Zionism. Once these conversations start, needless to say, they are intense and long-lasting.

Julian merely watches when these two go at it. Not Jewish himself, he recognizes the pain that these two men express, but he cannot really feel it. This is a great cause of chagrin to him, for he almost feels as if he has missed the boat somehow.
As Sam finds himself founding and going public with a group he calls the ASHamed Jews, Julian stumbles his way into the arms of a wonderful Jewish mother figure, who offers to take care of him. What he really wants from her is an experience of Jewishness, and before long she learns that his wanting to be close to things Jewish has become something of an obsession.

It would be hard to capture the rich and wonderful humor of the novel. But Jacobson is truly humorous, even at the level of style. The novel is a pleasure to read, and it is sometimes so funny that I found myself laughing out loud.

The novel is also deeply upsetting. What it exposes about British anti-Semitism is breathtaking in some ways. But Jacobson tells this story so lovingly, so humanely, that it is possible to feel consolation, even as these characters do ridiculous things.

The bond that these three men share, and even more elementally the bond between Julian and Sam, as complex and sometimes ruthless as it is, is one of the great friendships of literature. These men—Sam, a larger than life public personality, and Julian, a nowhere man if there ever was one—share a bond that sometimes almost makes them the same person. They are rivals, to be sure, but deep down they are also unmistakably in love.

Howard Jacobson

Get a copy of The Finkler Question at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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