Archive for the ‘Jacobson, Howard’ Category

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

August 11, 2010

Purchased at the Book Depository

I will admit that I abandon few books. My reasoning is that once you start a volume you owe the author the obligation to finish it. Unless, of course, as happens rarely, the author himself breaches that contract. And on page 202 (out of 307) I abandoned this one. After a couple of a hundred of dreadfully boring, sanctimonious pages on what it might be like to be Jewish, the following quote was all that I could take:

But if you’re asking me whether circumcision as a means of inhibiting the sexual impulse is specifically Jewish, I would say not.

Anthropologically speaking, it isn’t primarily about sex anyway, except in so far as all initiation ceremonies are about sex. It’s about cutting the apron strings. What is Jewish is interpreting the circumcision rite in the way Maimonides does. It’s he — the medieval Jewish philosopher — who would wish us to be more restrained and imagines circumcision as the instrument. But I have to tell you it has never worked on me.

And did not work on me either.

I haven’t finished this book but I have read enough to say that it has no place on the Booker longlist. It is dreadful. I don’t rubbish books on this site, but this is one that deserves the full rubbishing. And if you want to read a novel about being Jewish, Philip Roth has more than a dozen that are better than this one.

Let’s start with the original conceit from the author –“Finkler” is the name of one of the central characters, but the narrator uses it as a handy alternative to “Jewish”. Would you have bought this book if it was called “The Jewish Question”? Probably not, and if that was your interest, there are far better alternatives. If you are Jewish, you would be embarrassed by the convention; if you are not (that would be me), it verges on the painful.

Jacobson “frames” his book with three characters. Libor is in his 90s, Jewish and his wife has just died — he is in heavy mourning. Finkler (yes, he represents everything that is Jewish) is a generation behind — a successful “philosopher”, he is the CNN version of success in our time, he is the spokesperson for ASHamed Jews. Treslove is the third, currently earning his living by hiring himself out to parties as a “double” — Brad Pitt or whatever.

Treslove “wants” to be Jewish. Libor, ready to die, is happy in his circumstances. Finkler exploits his background. Duh?

I would like to say there is more to this book, but there is not. The three characters wander along, we have incidents of alleged anti-Semitism, there is quite a bit of not very good sex, and a lot of thoughts about being Jewish, none of which are useful to those of us who are not. I am not a religious person and admit I react badly to fiction about religion — perhaps this book’s greatest strength is that I felt badly for any Jew that it has been published.

When I don’t like a book, one of the first things I do is consider who might like it. I cannot imagine who would find value in this book — and if you do, please say why in the comments. And I have not read the last 100 pages, so if there is something there that I missed, please let me know.

What bothers me more than anything else is that this is the only Bloomsbury Press book that made the longlist. The jury thinks that it is better than Even The Dogs? Or The Memory of Love? Or Chef?
And all of those are from the same publisher. What on earth was this hapless jury thinking?

Regular visitors here know that I have found few books this year that I think are worthy of the Booker. But I must say, after dredging my way through two thirds of this dreadful novel, I have to wonder about the qualifications of this year’s jury crew. So far, I’d say their performance is approaching the down-side of hopeless. It isn’t that there have not been great books — they have just failed to see them.

EDIT: I promised to go back to The Finkler Question if it made the shortlist and I have — and this time I did get to the end. While I will say that my original post was perhaps a trifle excessive, I can’t say that my overall opinion has changed much.

Those who like the novel find its opening funny (and the Booker jury seems to have that opinion) but I did not. Clever, yes, and I can see why some would find it funny — alas the humor passed me by. I can’t help but think that that affected my judgement of the rest of the book. I found the latter half cumbersome and tedious. Jacobson does develop his three characters, but I was not very interested in any of them. Despite not finding the humor, his set-up of the three had potential for me, but it was not realized. Instead, the back half of the book read more like a lecture.

Certainly, it is not the first time I have been out of step with a Booker jury on a shortlist book. And I don’t think it will be the last.


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