The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson #BookerPrize #bookreviews
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.
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
68 thoughts on “The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson #BookerPrize #bookreviews”
Oh yes, how I hated this book. Unlike you, I was stubborn and persisted with it. If anything, it gets worse. My least favourite Booker winner of all those I’ve read, although I haven’t got around to your other DNF yet – The Famished Road is one of the four I still have left, and probably next up on the roster.
God luck with Okri. I don’t envy you….
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Treslove’s persistent introspection. Exactly this which had me putting the book on the shelf, to be read later – maybe.
(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.)
yes we dd indeed exchange come comments on this and it was your review that made me think it would be enjoyable. I sadly didnt get the humour….
Yes, I thought I’d remembered correctly. Ah well, such is life!!
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!
Im hoping that all the books I have left don’t end up being DNF….I left some of the least appealing ones to last
Well I think that’s the human thing to do, and you might be pleasantly surprised!
Cross my fingers I do get that pleasant surprise and not a nasty shock
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.
Well thats not exactly resounding praise is it to say it’s better doesn’t make it good
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.
The set up does sound good – I suspect I’d find all Jacobson’s books a bit disappointing
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.
We are in good company judging by the number of people who say they really couldnt get on with this book
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.
How can a book that so many readers found dull have ever got the Booker Prize?
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?
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
Never read him (and probably won’t do!) – I can understand why you gave up! 🙂
Im highly unlikely to want to pick any of his books in the future on the basis of this one
It feels always good when I know I don’t have to waste my time with a book, lol
Oh yes I love that feeling of relief
I was never able to finish this book but thought I’d try his new one – Pussy. Have you heard of it?
No thats a completely new one on me Rosemary. It would take a hell of a lot for me to read anything else by him
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!
Waiting for Godot is a masterpiece IMHO….
Yes, but it repeats itself. That’s the part I was thinking of 😊
Oh true – but only the once whereas Finkler is a serial repeater
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)
I couldnt find your review sorry Frank – the link just takes me to all reviews.
The link takes me to the book on Goodreads. Not sure how to link to the review. If you can be bothered you could scroll down to find my review among all the others.
Hi Frank, you have to find your own review, click on it so it is THE review displayed on the page, and then copy and paste the URL. It can be done, because in another role I receive links to many GoodReads reviews.
Thanks for the tip! For any who may be interested, try this: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/483688213?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1
“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.
it was one of the books remaining on my Booker list that I wasn’t looking forward to reading. I’m hoping the remaining 9 are more enjoyable.
I’ve always struggled with them, but like you I want to read them all. I just find the runner-ups often so much more rewarding.
Those runner up titles often just disappear into the ether after the award winner is announced and yet there are some wonderful books on those short/long lists
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Check out the book, The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson, as featured on the Booker Talk blog
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.
I tend to avoid books described as humorous just because they often don’t suit my idea of what is funny.
I did manage to finish this though it was a struggle. I didn’t like it at all.
I could have persevered and finished it but it would have been under duress and thats not how I want to read.
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.
I could have struggled on and possibly even finished the book but I reasoned that it was a waste of time when I could be reading something more enjoyable
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.
I was surprised too that it won the prize but then the competition that year didnt look as strong as in previous years
Me, me, me – I finished it, and I enjoyed it. Everytime I think of it, I feel a laugh coming on (even though it’s serious too.)
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!
It does seem to be one of those books that people struggle with – and yet the Booker judges and the Guardian loved it. Hmm
I think the Booker judges were the only ones who read it!
And the reviewer from The Guardian
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.
The Galgut does sound a lot more interesting. Kudos to you for finishing Finkler – you have more staying power than I do
Me too, I started and then abandoned it. And yet I’ve seen the author on TV and really liked his wit. Oh well…
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
I tried his No More Mr Nice Guy and didn’t care for it
I dont think I’ll try him again.
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.
It seems to be a pre-occupation of his
A common occurrence with this book.
yes it seems I am not in the minority with my reaction
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.
I enjoyed The Old Devils but maybe that was helped because I am Welsh so could understand when Amis was having a humorous pop at the Welsh