Howard Jacobson: The Finkler Question

Before The Finkler Question, I was wondering how much longer I could claim to be a fan of Howard Jacobson’s novels. I’ve read most of them, but with greater attention to his recent ones, from No More Mister Nice Guy (published 1998, and a comic masterpiece) on. I loved The Mighty Walzer (1999) and Who’s Sorry Now? (2002), and while The Making of Henry (2004) had its longueurs, the vim of the opening sections drove me through it with a kind of mad momentum. However, it was with his biggest and most-praised novel, Kalooki Nights (2006), that I finally came unstuck and couldn’t finish the thing. The same with his next, The Act of Love (2008). Frankly, if his new novel hadn’t been longlisted for the Booker Prize, I probably would have avoided it rather than face frustration and disappointment once more.

The Finkler Question, luckily, is a triumph. It is a novel which rounds up its themes and runs them to ground exhaustively (and sometimes exhaustingly). One of those themes is one which will not surprise any admirers of Jacobson. When he published Kalooki Nights, he described it as “the most Jewish novel that has ever been written about anyone, anywhere.” He should have added, “except for the one I’m going to write in a few years’ time.” This needn’t put readers off; after all, some of the finest American writers of the last century – Bellow, Malamud, Roth – restlessly interrogated their own Jewishness. Jacobson does not shirk the challenge.

His central character, Julian Treslove, is not Jewish. He worked for Radio 3 (having “found himself with a degree so unspecific that all he could do with it was accept a graduate traineeship at the BBC”) and, having become disillusioned (“‘Would anyone notice if my programmes weren’t aired?’ he wrote in his letter of resignation. … He received no reply”), now works as a celebrity double. He keeps being mistaken, however, for Jewish stars, and when he is mugged one night in the street, becomes convinced that he – a Gentile – has become the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. It’s just as well, then, that Julian has two Jewish friends with whom he can chew it all over. Sam Finkler, Julian’s middle-aged contemporary, is a philosopher of the de Botton school,

making programmes to show how Schopenhauer could help people with their love lives, Hegel with their holiday arrangements, Wittgenstein with memorising pin numbers.

The other Jewish friend, Libor Sevcik, taught Julian and Sam at school, and so is a generation ahead. Both he and Sam are recently widowed, leading Julian to wonder how “you go on living knowing that you will never again – not ever, ever – see the person you have loved?”

He wanted to ask Libor that. ‘How did you get through the first night of being alone, Libor? Did you sleep? Have you slept since? Or is sleep all that’s left to you?’

Libor, in his ninety-first year, re-enters the dating game, forgetting his etiquette, risking offence to a flat-chested young woman with the “mercantile gesture” of eyeing up her breasts. “The things you had to remember with a woman you hadn’t been married to for half a century! The feelings you had to take into account!” In the end he concludes that “I could use the company but I can’t go through the pain of getting it.”

This “proof [that] everything exacted its price in the end, and perhaps happiness exacted it even more cruelly than its opposite” is all the more powerful to Julian because he seems never likely to experience it himself. He has two sons he barely knows to two women he rarely sees. He envies Libor’s long, uxorious marriage, but not enough to want to have one himself. He struggles to form a relationship with his sons. “He didn’t have much of a grasp on family life but he guessed that a son doesn’t want to hear that about his father.”

These themes of loss and longing are not deadening or dull: everything here is presented with spark and vigour, giving (I can’t improve on this critic’s comment on The Mighty Walzer, so I’ll just repeat it) “a pleasure akin to humour even when it’s not actually being funny.” And most of the time, it is actually being funny, and not just in one-liners (“At a certain age men began to shrink, and yet it was precisely at that age that their trousers became too short for them. Explain that”). Jacobson’s comedy is something that is internal to his writing and impossible to extract while giving full justice: the effect is cumulative. The corollary of this is that if you don’t find it funny to begin with, you’re unlikely to be persuaded through persistence. There’s no gainsaying laughter, or its absence. But Jacobson’s nimble footwork, supple manipulations and layering of character and observation had me drumming my heels with deep satisfaction literally from the first page.

This enhances the feeling when the comedy shrinks back, and leaves us with thoughts like this on Libor’s loss of love after half a century of happy marriage, the riposte to claims of having had ‘a good innings’:

At any age there is future one doesn’t have. Never enough life when you are happy, that was the thing. Never so much bliss that you can’t take a little more.

In all this, I have said nothing of what I suggested above was a central subject of The Finkler Question: Jewishness, and what drives affection for and resentment of Jews, and how Jewish people in Britain today feel about Israel. Jacobson, in his sub-Bellovian way (discursive, digressive, thoughtful, but always pulling back with a joke, such as the scenes of a regretful Jew who keeps a blog recording his attempts to regrow a foreskin), pummels the subject into submission with Julian, Sam and Libor’s exchanges. “You had to be born and brought up a Jew to see the hand of Jews in everything. That or be born and brought up a Nazi.”

However for me, all these “emotional improvisations with a bracing undernote of intellectuality” are a stimulating sideshow to the main event, which is a bitterly funny and thrillingly heartbreaking story of friendship, love and loss. Near the end of the book, Libor reflects on what his wife experienced as she was terminally ill, the terror of waking up every morning to the knowledge of impending death afresh: “The morning was always waiting for her. No matter where they had got to the night before, no matter what quiet almost bearable illusion of living with her dying he believed her to have attained, the morning always dashed it. […] Nothing was ever settled. Nothing ever sealed. The day began again as though the horror had that very moment been borne in on her for the first time. And on him.”

The Finkler Question is the best sort of comedy: that which is not just adjacent to tragedy but fully steeped in it. If there’s one thing better than being funny, it’s being funny and sad at the same time. Of course, Jacobson says it better than I can: “[He] couldn’t keep up with the fluctuations of her feelings. She wasn’t, he realised, going from fear to amusement and back again, she was experiencing both emotions simultaneously. It wasn’t even a matter of reconciling opposites because they were not opposites for her. Each partook of the other.”


  1. ‘If there’s one thing better than being funny, it’s being funny and sad at the same time.’

    Indeed, and Jacobson gets the balance just right here – tremendously difficult. And therefore a tremendous achievement.

    I confess, I love Jacobson – I love his gruff candour in interviews and everything about the man. So I am hardly objective.

  2. Well who is, Lee? But I too have some sort of inbuilt appetite for Jacobson’s style. I am a literary pushover for him. I can see why others might find the looseness of the narrative frustrating, but I can’t see why others wouldn’t see the comedy, or see nothing of value in the book. (Yes, KevinfromCanada, this is an invitation.)

  3. I did find Kevin’s response fascinating, and genuinely surprising. And, as I mentioned on his blog, trying to predict responses to a book is often a mug’s game. That he found no merit in this book (and he did seem somewhat irked by the book) I find fairly staggering. But I love that! I know someone with great taste, like Kevin clearly has, that hates OK Computer with a passion I’d normally reserve for Scouting For Girls. And I haven’t found anyone else that likes Lydia Davis. Go figure etc!

  4. Oh well I have Davis’s Collected Stories in my work bag at the moment, where it’s been awaiting an opportunity for me to actually open it and read some of the damn things. I may be able to join you in due course…

  5. Lee – whatever about Jacobson (never read him, but interested in the disagreement this provoked on KfC’s blog) – you can add me to the list of Lydia Davis appreciators.

  6. leroyhunter – Hurrah! I am genuinely chuffed to hear that!

    John – I am very interested in seeing how you find those stories. Hope you enjoy.

  7. Ummm…..well I didn’t find any humor at all in the first part, so that probably explains why I failed to connect even more so with the rest of the book. I actually thought the three characters had potential (despite not finding it comedic in any way) but that disappeared when Jacobson switched direction. From that point on, I felt I was reading a tedious, didactic lecture, which probably led to some of the emotion in my negative response.

    Those who have liked the book do seem united in finding comedy in the first part — and those who don’t seem not to. I can think of other examples that provoked similar responses (I liked Vernon God Little because I found it very funny, but can understand those who loathe the book and don’t find it funny at all.) I’m certainly not going to trash anyone who liked this book — I said in my review of my 202 page reading experience that it was “dreadful” and for me that was a totally accurate summary. More power to those who found things that I didn’t.

  8. This book does seem to divide people! Like Kevin I found no humour in this book (but I didn’t find Vernon God Little funny and still enjoyed that one?!)

    It looks as though my opinion follws Kevin’s very closely as I also felt I was reading a tedious lecture. I’m quite pleased I gave up fairly early on and didn’t subject myself to any more of it.

    It is great to see the opinion of someone who loves this one though – it is good to know that some people out there love it 🙂

  9. A very thought-provoking – and inviting – review: thank you so much. Have often lurked here, and was recently directed via Tom’s review of Tove Janssen’s ‘The True Deceiver’. About time I emerged to say ‘hello’.
    I’m a great fan of Howard Jacobson, & hadn’t read the two more recent novels you found so disappointing (might well avoid on that basis). This one sounds right up my street, as I love dark humour done well – ie, as you suggest, ensuring that the true sadness or even tragedy are present in a way that adds to the humour yet doesn’t detract from their seriousness: they’re not cheapened, in other words, and moral weight is present without weighing the writing down too much.
    Adore the notion of Wittgenstein helping anybody with anything, let alone forgotten PINs! ‘Whereof you cannot speak, thereof you must be silent’ just wouldn’t cut it at the ATM …

  10. He read from the new novel in Manchester earlier in the week, and it was a funny, well-read performance, and his answers to (sometimes tedious) questions were both gracious and comprehensive – including questions about the comedy in his writing.

  11. Carey, Donoghue, Galgut, Jacobson, Levy, McCarthy.

    I’m off to Ladbrokes with a 5er on McCarthy (and maybe a 2er on Jacobson)…

  12. Lee: Great to see you betting and hope you have jinxed them both. When the longlist came out, I bet Galgut (at 12/1) and Levy (at 10/1) so I do have vested monetary interest in your ability to back losers being greater than mine ( 🙂 ) — although I have to admit we both have sterling records on that front. The smart money, of course, will now bet on Carey and/or Donoghue since between the two of us we have just about guaranteed that one of them will win.

    1. Ha, let’s hope one of us wins – Carey has had his share! And the Donoghue book doesn’t deserve it. I’d be happy for either of our two at the expense of the remaining. But you can absolutely guarantee, now, that neither of our choices will reign. And, to try and get a couple of people interested, I asked them to have a look at the shortlist and pick one at random. Both said ‘Emma Donoghue’. So there you have it! Doomed!

  13. I have placed a £30 bet on Howard Jacobson at 8-1. My only previous bet was in 2002 on Life of Pi, at the longlist stage, 16-1.

    Kevin, I found The Finkler Question very funny, I didn’t find The Ask funny at all. You, vice versa. So which of them is funny?

    1. I hope your inkling is correct, Linda – and you clearly have form here. I got 8-1 as well and put a 5 on it in hope. McCarthy 3-1. Me hexing it aside, I’m totally convinced that McCarthy will get it.

  14. Linda: I did find The Frumkiss Family Business by Michael Wex (a new Canadian release) very funny. It’s about growing up Yiddish in Toronto — the patriarch is “the Last Famous Yiddish Poet, who arrived in Canada in 1947, had a lengthy and famous career as the voice of a stuffed bird on Canadian children’s televsion and dies at the age of 103 in 2008 as the book opens.

    I just checked my review of The Ask — the parts I found funny were all set in the hapless university development office and probably very much influenced by the fact that I know a number of development officers very well. I will say that the book has dimmed rather than sparkled in memory. At this stage, I’d classify it as an interesting diversion but not much more.

    Now that I know that several readers whom I respect found the Jacobson funny, I’ll try to approach the shortlist read that I have promised with that in mind.

  15. I got about 1/4 of the way through The Finkler Question today, and I’m finding it very funny — and touchingly sad. Looks like we might land in the same place here, John. I hope it doesn’t start going downhill, at any rate.

  16. Michael Wex wrote one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Culture in all its Moods. It also has the funniest cover I’ve ever seen.

    Kvetching, by the way, is what Finklers do. When they’re not kvelling.

    I think you’re right, the decent parts of The Ask were in the development office, but I couldn’t finish it, and didn’t smile once despite the quote which tempted me. Either you like an author’s style or you don’t. In this case I didn’t.

  17. As someone who loathed this novel, I would like to be the first to comment that John Self saw something that I did not — and that the Jury obviously found as well.

    Some year, perhaps, I might actually be in step with a Booker jury. I admire those who are.

  18. I am absolutely delighted for Howard Jacobson. The Booker result has put a large smile on my face, and I only hope it turns people on to his other books as I’m sure it will.

  19. Hearty congratulations not only to Jacobson, of course, but to our own John Self, who was quoted from this very review in the programme/menu for last night’s Man Booker Prize event.

  20. Thanks amner. The fiver’s in the post.

    Tomcat, others have said that. All I can say for my own part is that I thought The Finkler Question better sustained as a whole than any of Jacobson’s other novels (or the eight I’ve read or part-read), so in that sense I think it deserved the win on its own merits and not as a ‘lifetime achievement’ award.

  21. dear John,

    i want to give you my thanks for recommending this book, which i just finished yesterday. Jacobson’s name had floated around my head but i’d never been compelled to buy one of his books until – until my wife bought this one for me (though i had been talking about it). best part, for me, was the ambiguity of the story. every time i thought it would slip into didacticism, it found a way out. nothing remained stable, no point of view was expressed before, even marginally, impugned.

    to have such loaded and emotional themes as your subjects and still be able to work through them without necessarily knowing where your ruminations will end up – that seemed to me very brave writing.

    thank you John, and thank you Howard.

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