The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson #BookerPrize #bookreviews

finkler question-1I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).

The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish.

One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular  mainstream books on philosophy.  Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”  Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.

In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.

A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family.  In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”

According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew.  Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.

That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.

Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know  whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C . 

About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the remaining 10 titles in my Booker prize project. I also made it one of my 20booksofsummer titles 

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 6, 2017, in #20books of summer, Book Reviews, British authors, Man Booker Prize and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 65 Comments.

  1. Treslove’s persistent introspection. Exactly this which had me putting the book on the shelf, to be read later – maybe.

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  2. (Back from overseas and trying to catch up with my favourite bloggers!) I’m one of those who loved it, and agree with The Guardian, but I have to say that when my reading group did it, there were only two of us who really liked it, and found it funny, and the rest were along the spectrum from didn’t like at all, through mystified, to liked it somewhat. My kids will never forget my telling the family about some early scenes as we were on a family drive somewhere. I was laughing so much that they could barely understand me.

    I think you have to get Jewish humour, perhaps, to like it? My reading group friend who really liked it in Jewish, and I had a lot of contact with Jewish people through my late teens and early twenties.

    I have reviewed it on my blog, if you are interested (or maybe you’ve seen it, as I have a feeling we’ve discussed this book before.)

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  3. That sounds horrend! I read his one about table tennis but haven’t been attracted by any of the others, I have to say. I would never be able to do a Booker Prize project as I can’t face so many of the books, so you’ve done very well to only DNF two so far!

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  4. I read J a couple of years back when it was on the Booker shortlist. It was quite dull. Someone told me that The Finkler question is much better. Doesn’t really sound like it.

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  5. I haven’t read this one but I have read Zoo Time. It starts with an author stealing his own book from a charity shop and being arrested (as far as I remember). Since I work in a charity bookshop and sometimes come across my own books the set up appealed to me but the whole of the book didn’t quite live up to the excellent beginning.

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  6. Lisa Guidarini

    Same here. I had such a tough time with it I can’t recall anything about it. I know I tried, but nothing even rings a bell. Weird.

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  7. Yes yes yes! My book group read it a few years ago, and I also gave up. I found it so dull, and I couldn’t even work out where it was *supposed* to be funny, let alone finding it funny myself.

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  8. Dull, redundant and self indulgent sounds like so many books I read which have received high accolades! I sometimes wonder if there’s something wrong with those who praise, or award prizes; surely it couldn’t be me who is mistaken! I wish I could give myself permission to abandon a book as you did. Too often I wonder if I would be missing something great. For example, I gave up on Possession twice, and then when I finally read it all the way through it became one of my favorite books. Who knew?

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    • It took me a while to get comfortable with the idea of abandoning a book mid way if I wasn’t enjoying it. I’ll still give it a fair chance – probably read about 100 pages before giving up though sometimes I can make the decision much quicker. I suspect some people load praise on a novel because it seems the trendy/fashionable thing to be seen to praise – a kind of signal that you’re in the know on such things

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  9. Never read him (and probably won’t do!) – I can understand why you gave up! 🙂

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  10. It feels always good when I know I don’t have to waste my time with a book, lol

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  11. I was never able to finish this book but thought I’d try his new one – Pussy. Have you heard of it?

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  12. It sounds like Waiting for Godot meets “we’re not sure if this line of thought is offensive.” Yeesh! Well, at least it’s only been two DNF on your journey to read all of the Booker Prize novels!

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  13. I enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago. Here’s why: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8664368-the-finkler-question (Link to my review on Goodreads)

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  14. “To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent.” – YUP. I read it not long after it was announced as the winner, only because it beat Room by Emma Donaghue, which clearly should’ve won. I have no recollections of it, but even with my response it’s just sort of meh.

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  15. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out the book, The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson, as featured on the Booker Talk blog

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  16. Ah, shame… I have to admit I wasn’t even tempted to try this one. Humour is such a personal thing, that it’s hard to succeed.

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  17. I did manage to finish this though it was a struggle. I didn’t like it at all.

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  18. I, too, gave it up, long before page 150 but for the same reasons as you. I’m impressed that you made it that far, Karen.

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  19. So glad to read that you echo my own dislike of the novel. I’ve yet to find a reader who (a) finished it or (b) enjoyed it. And it won the Booker? Goes to prove that judging panels are neither omniscient nor infallible and are a group of humans with subjective approaches.

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  20. I feel like I mozzed you with this book – it was a very rare DNF for me (and I think I mentioned to you that no one in my book group managed to finish it). I’m yet to meet anyone who has finished it and enjoyed it!

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  21. Actually, 2010 was the year In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut should have won as far as I’m concerned. 🙂 I did make my way through this back when I still believed in the Booker Prize. I even made it to about page 120 in Famished Road.

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  22. Me too, I started and then abandoned it. And yet I’ve seen the author on TV and really liked his wit. Oh well…

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    • It’s so odd to see reviewers comment on how witty Finkler Question is – I wasn’t looking for laugh out loud stuff but I did think there was some joke going on that i failed to see

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  23. I tried his No More Mr Nice Guy and didn’t care for it

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  24. At some point, I plan to read this one but I read have Jacobson’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in January. His version is Shylock Is My Name and he really got into the comparisons between Jews and Christians in that one. I wonder if that’s a characteristic of all his writing.

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  25. A common occurrence with this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. I wasn’t that impressed with it either but I didn’t have any trouble with finishing it. I certainly couldn’t see why it would win a major prize. I felt the same about Amis’s The Old Devils only I felt that one was pretty terrible. I think this is why I’m more or less indifferent about what wins the Booker, or any other prize.

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