22 June 2011

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Bloomsbury, 2010
The Finkler Question really is about what you might call the Finkler question.  It is an almost perfect title. Early on in the piece, Jacobson makes it clear that the word "Finkler" is a substitute for "Jew" or "Jewish".  And so the book is an exploration by a Jewish author of the various lines dividing Jews and non-Jews, whether those lines are clear or indistinct, and, perhaps more importantly, whether or not they can be crossed. And by whom. This, to me, is perhaps best summed up by a line in the book:

As always he wondered if he would ever get to the bottom of what Finklers were permitted to say about themselves that non-Finklers were not.

I did and continue to wonder whether Jacobson would have been able to write this book were he not himself Jewish.

The book sets up the Finkler question via two of its main characters - Julian Treslove and Samuel Finkler.  They are, naturally, foils: Treslove overflows with love for women and all things Jewish.  In a lovely bit of nomenclature, the opening chapter of the book says:

Treslove's clocks were all wrong. He no sooner saw the woman than he saw the aftermath of her - his marriage proposal and her acceptance, the home they would set up together...

Treslove comes across as soft, emotional and fickle. Finkler is hard, barbed and intellectual. Jacobson plays irony with these two characters: While Treslove obsesses with his love for Judaism and eventually does realize his dream of becoming Jewish, he is the very vehicle through which Jacobson explores a subtle anti-semitism. In Treslove's lifetime he has assumed many identities (the latest of which is an amourous Jewish lover),  but is loyal to none.

Finkler is Jewish but has in turn spent a lifetime trying not to be identified by it; indeed he is is anti-Zionist and leads a support group called the 'ASHamed Jews'. Yet Finkler, when pushed, is unable to find the emotional wherewithal to persist in looking at matters concerning his race and identity from a purely intellectual standpoint. At the end of the day he remains staunchly, firmly Jewish.

A third character, Libor, stands apart. In contrast to Treslove and Finkler, he is portrayed as a real person, not defined by his race or religion, nor by the correctness of his views, but by the very human - indeed universal - feelings he experiences, particularly for his late wife.

It took me a long while to come to terms with the fact that some of the book's political incorrectness was ok. I see that my awkwardness was understood by Jacobson by virtue of his use of the word "Finkler", as mentioned above. But that's where his carefulness ends. In a stark and offhand manner, Jacobson confronts Jewish stereotypes head on, unabashedly:

For some reason he always poured when he was with Finkler. In over thirty years of taking tea together he could not remember a single occasion on which Finkler had either poured tea or paid for it.

No book on "the Finkler question" would be complete without some commentary on the Isreali-Palestinian conflict.  Jacobson handles it in a way that is sensitive and quite agreeable. Take for example a speech by one of the characters at an ASHamed Jews gathering: 

Don't we have to show that to be a Jew is a wonderful and various thing, and that it carries no more of a compulsion to defend Israel against all criticism than it does to live in constant fear? We are not, are we, a victim people? ... It is we who are keeping the Holocaust alive today, we who continue where the Kapos left off.  Yes, of course it demeans the dead to forget them, but to disinter them in order to justify carnage demeans them even more.

Agreeable, but Jacobson does take effort to show that even such views might be considered simplistic, as they mask layers of complexity concerning not only the practical difficulties of putting opinion into action, but also the question of where a person's identity ends, and his views begin.

The Finkler Question is meant to be funny, so say the critics, but I didn't think it was. Perhaps I could describe it as a tragicomedy.  How can I find it wholly funny when at one point it discusses an Israeli man, about to be forced out of his settlement home, who shoots three Arabs in cold blood on board a bus? I felt an overwhelming sadness when, at the end, I realized there is a divide of fundamental identity - of those that belong inside and those outside - that doesn't seem capable of being resolved. How is it that this question of identity can result in so much angst - that results in so much conflict - that results in so much bloodshed?

I appreciate being given the opportunity to reflect on these real, current and serious matters of our day, I truly do. However I must turn now to my thoughts on the novel. Jacobson in my view sacrificed compelling characterisation (perhaps with the exception of Libor) for debate, satire and allegory.  I do not understand and have no sympathy for Treslove.  I cannot find anything human in him.  It is as if his character was created to illustrate a point and to be the subject of Jacobson's acerbic wit.  Finkler I have slightly more sympathy for, but not much.  Him I see as the focal point for the discussion on Zionism.

I say with the exception of Libor because I loved Libor - he reminds me of an old Czech friend of mine who speaks in the exact same way and also lost his wife to illness. I felt a pang when, discussing Libor's inability to speak truthfully about his bereavement, Jacobson wrote:

Because the heart did not speak, that was why. Because language presupposes artificiality.  Because in the end there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to be said.

Perhaps then I should come to the conclusion that a good balance was struck by Jacobson between the intellectual and the emotional. My stubborn inability to connect in a deeper way notwithstanding, this was a brilliantly executed piece of work and I have a feeling I might agree with the Booker panel on their awarding this novel the prize, but I shall for the moment reserve judgment.

No comments:

Post a Comment