A.J. Howard's Reviews > The Finkler Question

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
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Dec 19, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: finished-in-2010
Read from December 19 to 21, 2010

I don't like the idea that literature is written "for" or "not for" any people. Sure, you might be able to appreciate War and Peace better if you are a member of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia. But you're a fool if you let a smaller share of comparative appreciation get in your way. I mean, I can't let the fact that I'm middle class and white distract me from the fact that I enjoy listening to Public Enemy. I'm not comfortable with the idea that anything is beyond my empathy. What I'm saying here, however inelegantly, is that I don't want my background fucking with the way I react to novels or movies or music. I say all this because, although I enjoyed The Finkler Question, my background totally kept getting in the way and kept me from giving it a higher recommendation.

Let's start here. The Finkler Question is about three friends. Two are middle aged, one is elderly. Two are Jewish, one is a gentile who is obsessed with Jewishness / convinced of his Jewishness / attempting to transcend Jewishness and become some sort of uber-Jew. Two are recently widowed, the other aspires to widowerhood. All three are Londoners. I was aware of most of this going in, as I am similarly aware that some of this might not absolutely resonate with me, a 20-something, single, American, Irish-Catholic agnostic. Although, like Treslove (the gentile) I sometimes feel like certain tastes, beliefs and idiosyncrasies could be better explained if there were some trace Semitic branches in my family tree. Nobody wants to just interact with fictional characters exactly like themselves. But you do want some relatable sentiment. For me, through no fault of Howard Jacobson, there was a lack of this. And there are certainly parts of the novel that I throughly enjoyed. But a lot of it left me feeling like a witness to an engaging debate whose interference would be unwelcome. The best way I can put it is this: the table next to you at a restaurant is having a intriguing but non-obtrusive family argument. Even if you want to put your two-cents in, it would be wildly inappropriate, and it's likely they could give a shit about your two cents. While this argument of strangers may be engaging, you still can't really relate to it.

As of now, there aren't a ton of reviews on this site, so let me go into greater details gist-wise, if anybody's interested.
- There isn't really a plot to speak of, and the elements of plot present don't matter.
- The novel is mainly concerned with the relationship its characters have with Judaism and "Jewishness."The novel explores what it means to belong to a group, what obligations you have to this group, and what obligations this group has to you. A lot of this can be implied to anything, such as country, religion, family ect.
- Jacobson is very talented, and often funny. He deals with serious issues but never loses grasp of his sense of humor.
- I'm from the South, where all forms of bigotry and prejudice haven't exactly been eradicated. However, I was somewhat shocked at this novel's depiction of London's contemporary anti-Semitism. I mean, I know it's not extinct or even close to it, but I had no idea it was as prevalent as Jacobson depicts it.
- Israel is almost the MacGuffin of the novel. Jacobson gives an interesting cross-section of how the policies of Israel both unite and divide the Jewish community.

I'm not wildly enthused, with this review, it's not particularly well-thought out, and I've feel like I've spent too much time worrying about, to steal a joke from Always Sunny. dropping the "hard J." but I've spent too much time on the damn thing to scrap it. Let me try to somehow tidily sum up what I'm basically saying. It's not that you have to be Jewish & English & middle aged & widowed to enjoy this novel. I'm none of those things, and I did enjoy it on many levels. However, this book actively seeks a certain intellectual engagement that can only come through fully with a sense of relation. Therefore, any lack of relatable feelings might compromise your enjoyment of this book.

Ugh, look don't take my word for it. I don't regret spending time on this and it has giving me a good share of things to ponder on. Maybe you guys should figure this one out for yourself.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Veronica (new)

Veronica Soaib Love the review. Thank you. I'll take your advice and figure it out for myself, but I won't reccommend it for my book club.

Paul Baldowski Good review. I think I'm of a like-minded opinion about who would or would not get the fullest benefit or experience out of reading this novel.

Annie Kookie I haven't finished reading the book as of yet, but I don't have to have, to agree with and/or like your review. There's a definite feel of being an outsider looking in, with no interested party willing to include you. The writing is there and, while slow at times, keeps the book entertaining enough that I will finish reading. I'm having a difficult time understanding why it is that Treslove was attacked but for to provide some sort of storyline for Jacobson to create his Jew/Gentile dividing line on... without the robbery (which is seemingly irrelevant thus far) this reads like an older mans' journal during a mid-life (quarter-life?) crisis.

Monique Great review. Agree completely. I'm Jewish so that's no qualification for enjoyment. I was wondering if it is just that it is a very masculine perspective. The narrative style is detached in some sense and so I feel is my reading experience. I don't really care for the characters or their experience and I find Treslove somewhat pathetic. No incentive to read beyond where I am at.

Anne This is so interesting--I was hoping to read a review from someone who wasn't Jewish to compare notes. I'm Jewish, and I related to so many of the dilemmas brought up in the book, but I felt that I couldn't fully enjoy it because I was a little too close, if that makes any sense.

message 6: by Anna (new) - rated it 1 star

Anna Thanks for all these points, so many of which resonate with me. I have nearly finished this book and I am baffled as to why it won the booker.
Interesting point about feeling as though you are listening to a conversation at another table - agree entirely and would add that so often you also feel, as I did here, that the conversation is not really worth listening to!

Judith Marren Great review. I finished Finkler but kept asking myself why I had continued reading. There is a voyeuristic feel created by the truly odd point of view. I felt self conscious, a bit embarrassed, even guilt ridden (easy to do as a RC who converted to Judaism for my first marriage) when trying to explain the book to a Jewish friend who is 90ish and open minded. I am closer to Treslove's age. Any comments on other of Jacobson's books?

Rita Very interesting review! I related to you when you said you think some beliefs of yours could be better understood if you had some Jewish branch in your family. But unlike you I thoroughly enjoyed the book and searched for other books from the same author after I finished it. I don't want to sound offensive or foolish (not sure I'm expressing myself correctly) but I am fascinated by Judaism and "Jewishness". I just like traditions and some of those resonate with me. So, my position would not be of an insider but also not completely of someone reading something about which they have no emotion or opinion. The reason I liked the book lies in the fact that the author created a character who has very real quirks just brought to an extreme and pointed in perhaps odd subjects. In a way he is a caricature of all of us in our deepest quirkiest thoughts. The author is also very funny. I agree that it may not be a book that the majority of people will like but I think it offers many interesting facts too so I think it's a chance to learn something at least.

message 9: by KB (new) - rated it 1 star

KB It wasn't your background. It's a terrible book.

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