Book review: ‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson
Julian Treslove is having an identity crisis. He’s not sure where he stands on circumcision, on Israel and Palestine, on Holocaust memorials, on pretty much every aspect of Jewish culture in contemporary London. But the real problem with Julian’s identity is that he’s not at all Jewish — not that the simple fact can stop him from obsessing about Jewishness for the duration of “The Finkler Question,” which was just awarded England’s Man Booker prize.
As the novel opens, Julian, 49, has left a dinner with his old school friend Sam Finkler and their one-time teacher, Libor Sevick. Sam and Libor — both Jewish — have recently lost their wives: Sam’s to cancer, Libor’s to old age. Julian’s history with women, while vast, is less grounded — no marriages, two adult sons he’s largely ignored — and he is in the midst of an amusing reverie about them when he gets mugged by a woman. When she departs, she spitefully calls him “You Jew” or at least that what he thinks she said.
Julian, who isn’t Jewish, takes the attack as a license to explore all aspects of Jewishness, which has fascinated him since childhood. It was then, thinking of his friend Sam Finkler, that he adopted Finkler’s name for his own silent euphemism: “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.”
This duality is likely to either strike readers as an amusing way to toy with stereotypes, or a vaguely offensive stereotyping itself. It stems from Julian himself — he’s well-educated, in middle age, yet also unformed. Once a BBC documentary producer, he makes a passable living as a vaguely handsome impersonator — he can stand in for anyone, Brad Pitt, Billy Crystal, Colin Firth. His identity, his vocation, his sons, their mothers — nothing sticks. He’s blank. And strangely sympathetic.
Julian’s greatest gift is his wry, witty perspective: He tumbles ideas over and over in his head, as if they’ll somehow be polished to a conclusion when he’s done (they rarely are). His path through life is knitted with switchbacks and internalizations; it takes more than 30 pages for him to replay the mugging through to the end, setting him on his quest about Jewishness.
Aiding him in the attempt are Sam and Libor, who share the story. Sam is now a pop philosopher, a successful author who makes television appearances and bends his belief system to suit his appetite for fame. Although he doesn’t pay much attention to the religion to which he was born into, he helps found the ASHamed, a group of celebrities and public intellectuals more B-list than he’d like, who have gone public with their unhappiness about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
Czech-born Libor, who survived World War II, has a longer view. “No I’ve never been there and I don’t want to go there,” he says of Israel, “But even at my age the time might not be far away when I have nowhere else to go. That’s history’s lesson.”
But Libor — dapper, intellectual and artistic — is losing his energy for argument, fading away after the death of his wife. By all accounts, the relationship was ideal, and he’s heartbroken.
“How do you go on living knowing that you will never again — not ever, ever, ever — see the person you have loved?” Julian wonders. “How do you survive a single hour, a single minute, a single second of that knowledge?”
This kind of inquiry, the frank and felt questions of loss and living as considered by three aging men, speak to the heart of what it means to be human. It makes sense that such a novel could garner the Man Booker, England’s greatest literary prize.
Yet these questions are subsumed by the book’s central conceit, a goy’s pursuit of Jewishness. Because what Julian thinks about is Jewishness rather than Judaism, the book is not a religious investigation but a multi-voiced meditation on the cultural side of Jewishness.
Cultural identity is not universal, and ultimately, the culture in England seems different than in America. This novel-length meditation on Jewishness seems, to this American reader, to veer unfortunately close to a midcentury comic routine, sacrificing the complexity of multiple, mixed and competing identities of our moment for oversimplifications last heard in the Borscht Belt.