Much has been made of Howard Jacobson’s “Surprise!” Booker Prize win earlier this month, largely because The Finkler Question, his eleventh novel, is unapologetically comic, a book brimming with moments that inspire laughter. Humor is its modus operandi, its raison d’être. It bristles and overflows with set-ups and punchlines, with observations and jests. That this never becomes tiring or tired is reason enough to award Jacobson literary prizes aplenty. But the very headlines inspired by the mere fact of a comedic novel taking home Britain’s highest literary prize belie the very many strengths of the work, the way its comedy bleeds into tragedy, the way it plays with pathos and longing and devastation. Though Jacobson once dubbed himself the “Jewish Jane Austen” in jest—and largely as a refutation of the “British Philip Roth” label, which has somewhat awkwardly stuck to him (really, the “Jewish Martin Amis” strikes me as far more accurately descriptive)—there really is something to that comparison. The Finkler Question is a novel of (occasionally bad) manners, one that, in turning a penetrating eye, an alert ear, and a mordant pen on contemporary mores, lovingly ridicules what it accurately chronicles.
What The Finkler Question chronicles are the intersecting lives of three men: old, school friends, Julian Treslove (disgruntled former BBC employee and current celebrity double, though he is the double of no particular celebrity) and Sam Finkler (pop-philosopher, author of The Existentialist in the Kitchen, and frequent television guest), and their onetime history teacher, Libor Sevcik (Czech émigré and former Hollywood gossip reporter). Finkler and Libor have recently been widowed; they also happen to be Jewish. Treslove, neither widower nor Jew, experiences his exclusion from both states as a serious lack indeed, having aspired, his entire life, to tragedy, to the sort of monumental loss that concludes the “popular Italian opera” he is drawn to. Julian knows he is in love with a woman when he can see the
aftermath of her—his marriage proposal and her acceptance, the home they would set up together, the drawn rich silk curtains leaking purple light, the bed sheets billowing like clouds, the wisp of aromatic smoke winding from the chimney—only for every wrack of it—its lattice of crimson roof tiles, its gables and dormer windows, his happiness, his future—to come crashing down on him in the moment of her walking past… she passed away in a perfected dream of tragic love—consumptive, wet-eyelashed.
But such is not the lot of Julian Treslove, who instead consistently finds himself unceremoniously dumped by the sickly-looking women whose lives he intends to make better before the romantic finale, the soaringly-sung death thrall. As he dines with his two friends at Libor’s house, Treslove feels discomfiting envy. An outsider at this feast of mourning, he wants simply to belong.
Treslove’s chance comes when, melancholically walking home, he is assaulted, “pushed… face first against a shop window, told… not to shout or struggle, and relieved… of his watch, his wallet, his fountain pen and his mobile phone.” But it is the assailant’s parting words that truly trouble and traumatize. “Your jewels,” Treslove thinks he hears. But no, that cannot be quite right. “You Jules,” then, an attempt to cower him further by darkly noting that his identity is known. No, no, still. “You Ju,” the assailant said. “You Ju.” He has been, Treslove concludes, the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. No matter that he, Julian Treslove, is not, technically, a Jew.
What technicalities—the ways of thinking and being and feeling—make one a Jew becomes, then, the central question of the novel, as Treslove, his account of events dismissed by his friends, becomes determined to explore the nature of Jewishness, though, in honor of his friend Finkler, the first Jew Treslove had ever known, he privately refers to Jews as “Finklers.” (“He would have liked to tell his friend this. It took away the stigma, he thought. The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins. But he was never quite able to get around to explaining this to Finkler himself.”) As Treslove ponders the mysteries of being Jewish—how is it, for example, “that Jews didn’t have to mention the Holocaust in order to have mentioned the Holocaust”? Are they perhaps “able by a glance to thought-transfer the Holocaust to one another”?—Sam Finkler has his own crisis of self to tend to, having enthusiastically committed himself to the cause of the ASHamed Jews, whose shame is officially directed at Zionism (Finkler speaks of “Palestine,” or even, for good measure, “Canaan”), though the group’s rhetoric increasingly blurs the line between Zionism and Jewish identity. When, then, does a Jew become an anti-Semite? And, if he can be one, why can’t a Gentile be a Jew?
Some British reviewers have suggested that the novel’s concern with Jewishness is merely cover for a larger concern with the self. Writing about the novel in the Observer, Edward Docx concludes that “Jewishness” is here “a metaphor for human culture in general.” This is true in so far as The Finkler Question is finally interested in the way a particular personal identity intersects with the larger world and in what it means to be an outsider in the very worlds that we expect to be most welcoming. But it also seems false to deny the particularity of the way in which such issues are explored in The Finkler Question. For one thing, there is Jacobson’s own identity, which, despite his lack of religious feeling, he has repeatedly identified as Jewish: “What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence,” he remarked in a 2004 interview with Tablet Magazine. “I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past. I don’t know what kind of trouble this gets somebody into, a disputatious mind. What a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that’s what shapes the Jewish sense of humor, that’s what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness.” There seems to be, for Jacobson, a personal concern with what it means to be a Jewish writer, especially in a country that has given rise to a number of anti-Israel boycotts, measures that Jacobson has publicly opposed, and it is this concern that gives The Finkler Question so much of its energy, its frisson. Having said that, it would indeed, be unfortunate to reduce the novel to identity politics, or, rather, to any one set of identity politics, given Jacobson’s enthusiasm for poking fun at the highmindedness brought to discussions of what it means to be anything. And anyway, what the novel is about is hardly half as important as how it goes about being about anything. The Finkler Question is never portentous, never precious. It swells with laughter and with sorrow, and you are glad to be its reader, whatever your identity.