Sunday, 14 November 2010

Book Review: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Read: October-November 2010 (not completed)

Reviewed for Borewrimo, a month in which I aim to experiment with the form and purpose of book reviewing by writing 50,000 words of book reviews as short stories.

She begins in a fit of exuberance.

The Booker winner has just been announced and it comes as a complete surprise to her. She shouldn’t be surprised – she’s never once accurately predicted the winner – but she is. It was the only one she thought couldn’t possibly win.
Inevitably, she is delighted: it feels like a personal gift from the judges. Yesterday she would never have considered reading it; now she cannot wait to start.

She jogs home through crisply deserted streets. Stars visible in the clear autumn sky, cars keeping watch over the deserted urban landscape. Her head buzzes from too much elderflower cider and socialising. She cannot wait to be alone with that book in her hands. It is the lover she longs to undress.

As she takes it gently from the bag her nails trace its pages. She is ready for a life-changing experience.


Sometimes it is difficult to stay awake.

It becomes apparent after only a few short pages that this is not to be the literary panacea she imagined. It’s clunky in her hands and on her mind. They do not move gracefully together as lovers should, but fumble against each other without connection or intimacy.

Days later, she wonders why she started this. She should be more discerning, more circumspect. She should take other people’s advice and test the water first: read a page or two first, see whether the plot synopsis draws her in. Had she done so it would never have come to this. There were warning signs blazoned across the inside jacket: an overly long blurb that seemed to be attempting the exaggerated absurd without managing to make even the corner of her mouth twitch into a smile.

Had she only read page 100 she would have found this passage, so convoluted it sums up everything she comes to dislike about the book, and never read any further.

“Finkler, as it happened, was well aware of his old friend’s sons and felt warmly disposed to them, not impossibly because he was Treslove’s rival in fatherhood and unclehood as well as in everything else, and wanted to be seen to be making up to the boys for what their real father hadn’t given them. Making up the them and giving them a higher standard to judge by. Alf was the one he knew better, on account of an incident at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne – the gist of it being that Finkler had calculated on the Grand being a reliably romantic and discreet place to take a woman for a Friday night and Saturday morning – seagulls outside the windows and the other guests being too old to be able to place him or to do anything about it if they had – but he hadn’t calculated on finding Alf playing the piano during dinner.”

But that is not her way. She is all or nothing. A book is a projection of who she might be rather than who she is. She is interested in the story of why she has picked up a book perhaps more than the book itself. And so she finds herself in situations like this: stretched out in bed in the company of three aging men who neither excite, make her laugh, or even elicit sympathy.

The Finker Question is middle-aged male literature at its worst, a tawdry affair comprising little more than ambivalent sex and an absurd attempt by the protagonist Julian Teslove to manufacture a Jewish identity for himself. It is a biting satire about Jewishness – The Finkler Question of the title being Treslove’s private way of saying The Jewish Question – and society’s obsession with stereotyping certain groups with certain traits, but it’s too absurd to be meaningful and too flippant to find amusing.

Enjoying a leisurely walk home late one night, Julian Treslove is attacked, shoved against a shop window and mugged. Shocked by this unprovoked violence, his shame is further exacerbated by the discovery that his assailant is female. But as the days pass by he becomes troubled by another element of the attack. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he is sure she called him a Jew. A Jew! Could this have been a mistakenly anti-Semitic attack? He finds himself associating this violence with the violence he feels Jews must have suffered throughout history, and comes to identify with them.

Two things trouble her about this premise. Firstly, she cannot help but feel that the shock engendered by the mugger being a woman is symptomatic of the insipid maleness of the entire book. This makes her uneasy and ostracises her, not as a woman but as a human being who doesn’t understand the need to categorise men and women so starkly.

The second thing that troubles her is more practical: she knows nothing about Jewishness. Other than references to global political issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict she feels herself swimming against the tide. On every page, she imagines there to be some kind of Jewish joke being made, or else some subtle Jewish commentary, but it goes over her head. For all she can see, it is essentially about Treslove’s desire to find belonging in an otherwise disassociated life. In an intellectual sort of way, he’s sympathetic, as are his recently widowed friends. But it goes no further than this. She cannot care for them, cannot even whip-up disinterest.

She doesn’t hate it. She certainly doesn’t love it. But ambivalence is the worst response one can have to a book. She can barely be bothered to pick it up. Night after night she lies cradling it in her hands. Night after night she falls asleep mid-sentence. On not one of the twenty-four nights that she tosses and turns does she manage more than fifteen pages before drifting into peaceful sleep. Most nights it is more like five.

She tells herself:
“I’m overworked. By the time I get to bed I’m so tired I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s not the book. It’s me.”

She also tells herself:
“If reading were easy then it wouldn’t be so rewarding.”

She always finishes books. In her entire life she can only think of only three she has stopped before the end. And one of those was only because another book came along that she wanted to read more. Only this year she ploughed through 200 mind-numbingly dull pages of Gone with the Wind to find she could no-longer put it down. The memory of this keeps her returning to Treslove night after night in the hope that love will blossom from disinterest.

She reminds herself that it is only by finishing the book that she is able to say whether she liked it or not. It is only by reading the final word that she can make sense of what has preceded it. And yet. Doesn’t that suggest that reading should be utilitarian? Doesn’t that create the impression that reading is about the end rather than the means, thus denying the tenet she holds most dearly: reading for the enjoyment of reading.

She should stop and read something else. But she cannot let go. To stop feels like denying herself the chance to understand, to square the circle and make sense of it all.

So she ploughs on.


Her life has not been without trauma. She spent her teenage years watching on as others fell in and out of love, getting close to people she longed to know. Once, aged fourteen she joined a group of bullies in the homophobic abuse a lapsed friend. The memory of that day will never be forgotten. Another time she opened up to her parents and now cannot get over how vulnerable she feels around them, how much their caring eyes haunt her. And then of course, earlier this year, she found out she probably couldn’t have children.
Perhaps none of these equates to the trauma of being mugged by a woman, or suspecting it to be an anti-Semitic attack. She could not say. But her reaction to everything that takes place in The Finkler Question can be summed up in the shrug of her too heavy shoulders.

And then, one day, she finds she no longer cares. Like a tired elastic band her patience has been stretched too thin and breaks without whiplash. She doesn’t pick it up again

That it saps her love of reading until there is nothing left for a while feels like the biggest trauma of all. For weeks she does not start another book, finds herself doing anything but making time for reading.
It is not the books fault and neither is it hers. Sometimes relationships don’t work out the way we wish them to.

Next time, she says, I’ll be more careful about what I choose to read.

But what one month of disappointment destroyed, it takes barely 10 minutes in a bookshop to rebuild. And before she knows it, she’s careering off into another relationship without a care in the world.

The Finkler Question is published by Bloomsbury (307pp, ISBN: 9781408808870, £18.99)


David Nolan (dsc73277) said...

What an imaginative approach to a book review. It also confirmed me in my belief that this year's Booker Prize winner is not something I am in any hurry to read. Maybe one has to be a certain age to get it? Though with my thirty-something birthday approaching this week, I'm not exactly a spring-chicken myself!

Sam Ruddock said...

You might be right, David. Certainly I didn't feel of that certain age to enjoy it!

Biblibio said...

First off, these reviews are really great. Though obviously there's a bit of a fictional spin (I presume...?), I really got a review out of this story. And a story out of this review. And... well... it's quite awesome.

As for the book itself, I've encountered fairly mixed opinions, though they do lean towards the unsatisfied. I'm intrigued by the notion of the "subtle Jewish commentary". I have to wonder how much this influences opinions...

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks for your comment Bibliblio: I'm quite surprised at how well this experiment has been received. I'm leaving it up to readers to decide where the boundary lies between fact and fiction in the reviews, but the aim is to get a story from a review and to explore whether it is more effective to discuss a book wihtin the confines of a story so if it worked on each level that's a huge bonus.

I'm not entirely sure how subtle the Jewish commentary is, but for an ignoramus like me who knew virtually nothing about it, it was subtle enough to go over my head! I do think you are right though that this feeling of 'not getting it' might be at the heart of a lot of complaints about it. But then it could also be that this bafflement is a deliberate aspect of the satire which seems primarily about inclusion and exclusion in social groups, and the desire to fit in to these groups. If so it's effective and very clever, but that doesn't necessarily make for good reading.