I 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.
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.
Hello to May. Before I get into the snapshot of my reading life on the first of this month I wanted to share with you some wonderful news. You’ll have seen from a post t the start of this year that I’ve been dealing with a serious health issue. It’s almost a year now since I was diagnosed with cancer and started the treadmill of treatment. First chemotherapy, then radiotherapy, followed by liver surgery in January and then just five weeks ago further surgery. Going for the post-op check up today I expected the consultant to tell me that I’d need to do yet more chemotherapy but to my surprise – delight I should say – he not only told me that it wasn’t necessary but the recent tests have shown a full recovery and no sign anywhere of malignant cells. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said. Since this month also sees a landmark birthday for me, I am in celebration mode. I might even be able to risk a small glass of wine (my first drop of alcohol since January 26).
On May 1 itself I was nearing the end of The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths, a book I bought late in 2016 as part of my intention to read more work by authors from Wales. It’s her debut novel and has attracted a lot of praise with good reviews in a number of the more popular UK newspapers. My edition includes a lot of quote from bloggers too – from CrimeFictionLover who called it a “cracking debut from an author who shows great promise” and Bibliophoenix who thought it “disturbing, mysterious and quite unpredictable.” I wouldn’t call it ‘cracking’ but I was certainly impressed by Griffiths’ ability to manage multiple narrative threads and bring them to an unexpected ending.
Most of the books I read in April I really enjoyed with the star being The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Unfortunately I also encountered a book which I could not finish – Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It was one of the first books I bought when I decided about four years ago it was time to expand my reading to countries outside of UK/USA. It started off well with the introduction to the two main characters – one is a concierge of an apartment building who secretly conceals her intellectual interests in books, films, philosophy and the other is the daughter of a wealthy family in the building who decides to kill herself because of all the hypocrises she sees in the world. The novelty of Barbery’s alternating narrators soon wore off – by the time I got to page 100 I was finding it tedious. So off its gone to the charity shop.
State of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. It’s not a book ban as such – I know that if I really, really wanted a particular book I would just go and buy it or borrow from the library. So far I’ve been restrained – I haven’t bought anything and have just two books on loan from the library (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and one about the Wars of the Roses.). Having done a little bit of a clear out of books I realised I would never read my level of ‘owned but unread’ books is now down to 280.
I’ve been rather restrained with my wishlist on Goodreads. In March I added Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout which is a collection of linked stories about one community and also Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera which has been described as one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. I haven’t done brilliantly with Spanish authors until now so I hope that description proves to be true. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the Shadow Panel for the International Man Booker Prize (you can see all their reviews of the shortlisted novels here). The one calling to me most is The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen which is about a family living on a small Norwegian island.
On the reading horizon…
After my recent post about reading books that are out of your comfort zone, I’m ready to take the plunge into my own dark zone of sci-fi. Armed with a list of recommendations from bloggers in response to my question ‘where do I begin’ I went off to the library only to find that most of these titles were not available. Some of them are buried in the basement of the county library (a place where it seems the library staff are not keen to visit) so I shall have to wait for Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series and also for anything by William Gibson to come back from the deep. In the meantime I shall give Station Eleven a go.
There are a few other titles jostling for attention however which might squeak in before Station Eleven. Do I go for A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki? Or Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question? Or All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. As always, when the moment comes to take a book from the shelf, it will invariably be none of these – something else will have taken my fancy.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday looks to that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and asks what we’ll be reading this Autumn from our TBR. Making a list of what I’m going to read is always tricky for me since I don’t like planning too far ahead knowing that I am highly unlikely to stick to the list. I prefer the serendipitous approach where I can. Plus I have (foolishly??) embarked on a university module about children’s literature so will need to devote some reading time to those texts. But in the interests of playing along with the game here’s a list of books that might have a chance of being read in the next few months. I’ve gone for a mixture of Booker prize winners, crime, books in translation and classics.
- Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. I’ll be reading this as part of my Booker prize project. It won in 1988 (he went on to win the Booker again in 2001 with True History of the Kelly Gang. This will be my first experience of reading Carey’s work but so many people have said this is a great book that I will begin with high
- Another from my Booker list is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson which won in 2001. I know from various comments on this blog that it’s not to everyone’s taste but I dipped into it a few weeks ago just to get a feel for the style and didnt have an issue with what is generically labelled ‘Jewish humour’.
- An Elergy For Easterly by Patina Gappah: This is a collection of short stories that was on my #20booksofsummer list but I never got to finish
- Frog by Mo Yan. My knowledge of authors from China is pitiful so this is an attempt to remedy the situation,spurred on by the deeply moving experience of reading about the Cultural Revolution last week via Madeleine Thien’s knock out Man Booker 2016 shortlisted title Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Mo Yan won the Nobel literature prize in 2012. Frog, first published in Chinese in 2009 is ostensibly the life story of the author’s aunt, a midwife, told through a series of letters to a celebrated but unidentified Japanese writer. It covers a broader period than Thien’s novel because it goes back to the Japanese occupation of China, then moves ahead to the victory of the Communist party in 1949, the hunger and violent political upheavals of the first 30 years of communist rule and, finally, the lurch to a peculiarly rampant form of state-directed capitalism. It’s going to be powerful I suspect.
- Continuing on the theme of China, this seems like a good time to finally get around to reading The Good Women of China by Xue Xinran. She is a British-Chinese journalist currently living London and writing for The Guardian. The Good Women of China is primarily composed of interviews Xinran conducted during her time as a radio broadcaster in China in the 1980s. However, she also details some of her own experiences as a woman in China.
- English Music by Peter Ackroyd. This has been on my shelf since 2011.It was recommended when I asked for suggestions of books that would typify England. I ended up reading a different recommendation – Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea but now think it could be time to revisit Mr Ackroyd.
- Candide by Voltaire. This is book number 4 on my woefully neglected list of books for the Classics Club challenge. With less than a year to go I find I’ve read 28 out of the targeted 50 so time to put a spurt on.
- Ditto for the Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith which is on the list at number 5 and I did actually start reading it about a year ago but other things intervened. I don’t normally go for overt humour in novels but this sounded wry rather than laugh out loud.
- And now it’s time for some crime. Those misty/rainy days are perfect excuses for insulting in something a little dark but not too bloodthirsty. The British Crime Classics imprint sounds the perfect solution to me and thanks to the generosity of Ali at I am the possessor of The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts which is set deep in the English countryside. You can see Ali’s review here and why I’m keen to read this.
- 1947 club: This is an initiative by Karen at Kaggsy’s Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book which will run October 10-15. It’s only a few weeks ahead but I still don’t know what I am going to read. Maybe Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin which is based on the true story of a working class husband and wife who, acting alone, became part of the German Resistance. .More on the 1947 club is here
The order in which these books appear in my list has no significance at all. I reserve the right to read in whatever sequence I want ….
I equally reserve the right to read only some of them or indeed none of them if something else comes along that exerts a greater pull. 🙂
Right on the eve of the announcement of this year’s long list, the Man Booker prize website has undergone a makeover. It does seem to be a substantial improvement on the older version.
Some of the content has been retained but the new site includes a wider variety of material including video interviews with writers, podcasts from the prize season, and interviews with shortlisted authors. One of the current features is an video interview with Howard Jacobson in which he talks candidly about the ‘immeasurable impact’ of winning the prize in 2010 for his novel The Finkler Question. Aside from the material benefit from the boost to sales, winning something like the Booker has a strong psychological impact. It helps, says Finkler, to still the little voice that “lives inside every author – the voice that says “what if this book isn’t a great book?” I’ve not yet read The Finkler Question but I warmed to Jacobson through this interview.
There’s also an interview with Ian Trewin, literary director for the Man Booker prize in which he talks about this year’s award (though is very careful not to drop any hints about the forthcoming announcement). They had 147 novels entered this year – I calculate it would take me more than 2 years to read my way through that lot so the judges must be made of finer material than I am.