Newest Review: ... with his memories. Despite their age and circumstances, Libor and Finkler both have two specific traits that Treslove is unerringly voca... more
Raising some thought-provoking questions
The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson
Member Name: melinda3536
The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson
Advantages: Great character and story development, thought-provoking
Disadvantages: Caution - some strong language and graphic bedroom scenes
The Finkler Question is a curious book - I initially pigeonholed it under 'male midlife crisis'. It was a surprise birthday gift from my Aunt, and initially I was quite shocked since it contains strong language and quite graphic bedroom scenes. Not the sort of book that I'd have expected her to send. I persevered through the shock though, as there was something about he character development about a quarter of the way through that made me suspect that there was more to this book than at first met the eye.
As a sweeping generalisation, this book is about the self-identity of a small group of fictional British Jewish intellectuals in London, and their gentile friend. It centres on three main characters - Libor Sevcik, recently a widower at 89; Sam Finkler (also recently a widower)and Julian Treslove (just single) who are both ex-pupils of Libor. The older man still maintains Jewish traditions and talks reverentially about his "Issrrae". Sam has turned his back on his heritage and supports the Palestinians almost out of spite for his own background. Julian the gentile is a man who has always been somewhat adrift - eternal student, producer of obscure late night programmes on Radio 3, and now a 'hire-a-lookalike' man, due to his similarity in appearance to several celebrities. The title of the book refers to Julian's strange decision to refer to all Jews as Finklers, after his friend, as he felt it would be less offensive. The 'question' part I shall leave you to discover for yourselves!
The widowers' late wives and Julian's women are all part of the story too, told in flashbacks and confessionals. Julian also meets the woman of his destiny in Hephzibah, Libor's great-niece, and it is this relationship that eventually allows him to work out his place in his own world, a process that it begun when he is mugged on his way home from Libor's apartment one evening, and that has far-reaching and catalysing consequences not just for him but for all of those around him.
What struck me increasingly as I was reading, and more so as I came to the end, is the way that Jacobsen gradually wove in a growing awareness of anti-Semitism (the hatred and persecution of Jews). The characters eventually found the news unavoidable that Jews around the world were being targeted in revenge attacks for Israel's actions against the Palestinians. (This sadly was very topical as I read, since the news broke about the shootings at the Jewish school in Toulouse, with the gunman claiming that he was "avenging Palestinian children".) For this particular group of people, you get the feeling that these issues are far away from their normal existence - none of them is devoutly religious, and the traditions that they retain are largely cultural. In fact, the devoutly religious Jewish community are given short shrift by the author and always referred to dismissively as the Zionists, and portrayed as disruptive and overly superior. However, the author does not take sides or preach a political message. He seems to want to make his cast aware, and through them, us, of what is going on outside of Israel, and that the Palestinian conflict is by no means confined to the Middle East .
And then you have Julian Treslove in the middle of all this, the unknowing catalyst of many of the other characters' revelatory moments, as he navigates and blunders his way through his own identity crisis, making surprising decisions, unwanted confessions, and ultimately reaching a conclusion that leaves his friends with more unanswered questions. I found myself wanting to re-read this book again straight away, to try to understand better what had just happened. I have held off until I'd got this written down though, as I know that it will now in a sense be a different story, knowing better what his character is like.
What started for me as a slightly irritating view into intellectual men's personal crises and political debate turned slowly, subtly into a study, full of pathos, of a micro-section of a nation in exile struggling to come to terms with world (and very personal) events imposing themselves on their comfortable circumstances, and the genuine pain that resulted. There is a great deal of humour along the way too, much of it darkly ironic. I suspect I'll 'get' a lot more of it when I re-read it - Jacobsen was a new author to me so it took me a little while to get into his style of writing, but eventually I found it a captivating story and genuinely can't wait to re-read it. So please take that as a hearty recommendation!
About the author - Howard Jacobsen was born in Manchester, has been a University lecturer, and has been writing since the early '80s. He has won several major literary awards, including one for this book, which won the MAN Booker prize in 2010. He has also been a columnist for the Independent (in fact if you Google about a bit you can find one from 2009 which directly relates to some of the things covered in this book regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict), and has written and presented several television documentaries.
My copy is the paperback version, published by Bloomsbury with an RRP of 7.99, but I suspect that it can be had for less from the usual online suppliers.
Summary: A thought-provoking, humorous and emotional journey through a group of friends' crises