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Thursday, June 30, 2011

1+1+1 for 365, day 39: About friendships, wry smiles and tears

"In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit."  - Albert Schweitzer

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

(This is a slightly longer version of a review I wrote for the Cape Times and which was published towards the end of last year.)

When Sir Andrew Motion, chair of the panel of judges for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, announced that the prize worth £50,000 (about R550 000) was won this year by London author and columnist Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, he commented:

The Finkler Question is a marvellous book: very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be. A completely worthy winner of this great prize.'

This novel about male friendship, loss, love and above all about being Jewish today, is the third book by Jacobson to be included in the long list for the Man Booker prize after Who's Sorry Now (in 2002) and Kalooki Nights (2006).

Much has been written about the fact that this is the first humorous book to win the Man Booker. Opinions have differed about the merits of literary works that are also comic – and the discussion will continue. The author himself commented in a column for The Guardian: 'show me a novel that's not comic and I'll show you a novel that's not doing its job.’ He also contended that ‘we have created a false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness … and whatever else it is we now think we want from literature.’

Although The Finkler Question is unashamedly comic, it is much more than that. It examines themes of loss, grief, love, wisdom and self-doubt, of betrayal and rivalry within close male friendships with candour, yet also with surprising delicacy despite the straightforward and robust nature of the language.

The novel is filled with irony – not least of all because the main character Julian Treslove is a middle aged, single Gentile who develops an obsession with Jewishness and becoming a Jew. His two best friends - both Jewish and recently widowed - are Treslove’s school friend Sam Finkler who has made a successful career popularising philosophy through self-help books, and their old teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech-born octogenarian who once had a moderately successful career in show business and Hollywood. Since childhood, Treslove has viewed Sam as such a typical Jew that he privately calls all Jews Finklers. ‘He would have liked to tell his friend this. It took away the stigma, he thought… but he was never quite able to get around to explaining this to Finkler himself.’

In his youth a fortune teller warned Treslove about a ‘Juno’ who holds danger for him and although he seeks to avoid names that sound similar to the word, he invariably ends up with women whose names start with “J”. Yet he also comes to understand that the word as spoken out loud may refer to more than women. He once resigned from an unhappy job experience as a BBC3 producer when told he played too much mournful music and his seriousness got him fired from another job by a woman named Julie. He is good looking, but in a way that makes him ‘look like many famous people in general’ and allow him for a while to make a living as a double for well-known personalities ‘if not by virtue of verisimilitude, at least by virtue of versatility.’

His life takes a new direction one evening after supper at Libor’s home when he is mugged by a woman who apparently mistakes him for a Jew. Thus starts his obsession with being Jewish. He falls in love and moves in with a Jewish lady called Hephzibah Weizenbaum, who suggests that he assist her in setting up a Museum of Anglo-Jewish culture. He feels like he is in love ‘with the whole world’, becomes fixated on all things Jewish and among others considers circumcision. However, he is only beginning to discover how tough it is to become a Jew. All too often he finds himself failing ‘tests’ and being out of step with what it means to be Jewish because as Libor says (by implication, although not in so many words) ‘you do not understand because you’re not one of us.’. In time Treslove comes to realise that maybe he has, ‘bitten off more than he could chew’.

Finkler, on the other hand, is a Jew who does not like Jews. He argues at length about Zionism with Libor. After appearing on Desert Island Discs when he declares that ‘in the matter of Palestine… I am profoundly ashamed’, he is invited to join a group called ‘Ashamed Jews’ who are outraged by Zionism. His late wife Tyler, who was not Jewish, once told Treslove that Finkler was ‘one of those Jews, to whom, in another age even the most avidly Jew-hating emperor would have given high office.’

Yet Finkler is not blind to the dilemmas his new association poses: ‘There were moments when he wondered what he let himself in for here. If I don’t particularly want to be with Jews, where’s the sense, he asked himself, in being with these Jews, solely because they don’t particularly want to be with Jews either.’

This is where Libor provides the balance and Finkler is ‘pleased to remember Libor, a Jew he liked.’

The humorous juxtaposition of the Gentile who would be Jewish and his Jewish friends who critically examine their heritage and identity is sustained throughout most of the plot.

As most South Africans would know, dilemmas of identity are certainly not unique to Jews and for that reason the novel may resonate with those who question their individual roles in society - as well as the roles of those cultural groups with which they identify. We are no strangers to the dichotomy of someone like Finkler who is both in love with his own culture, yet hates some of it. Whether you are Jewish or not, the way in which Jacobson examines the many aspects of being Jewish will leave you with a more textured understanding of such complexities.

The lingering influence of Finkler and Libor’s late wives and the way in which the two men deal with their grief, while Treslove remembers past indiscretions and examines the new identity he is trying to create for himself, is told with compassion yet often with black humorous twists.

While the stories of the three main characters, their women and their complex relationships with one another unfold, Jacobson examines emotions relating to violence and revenge on a larger scale, while also delving with candor into the complexities of love, fidelity and jealousy in the context of male friendship. Although the female characters are keenly observed, their emotions are not examined to the same degree. They are loved, desired and often feared by their men, but not necessarily understood – which is in a way also a reflection of Treslove’s love affair with the concept of becoming Jewish. Yet despite the fact that their emotions are suggested rather than examined, the main female characters Tyler, Malkie and Hephzibah are essential to the plot and they are deeply missed when they are gone (‘It is a terrible thing to lose the woman you loved’). Jacobson’s sardonic humour is never far away – even when he describes how each man grieves and learns to ‘sorrow for himself’.

Although Jacobson’s command of language is undeniable, his syntax is often complex and even confusing. Some phrases and passages require being read more than once for their meaning to become apparent. Somehow, like Treslove, the reader is often an outsider looking in, searching for exact meanings that remain just out of reach – possibly a reflection of the inscrutable nature of being Jewish. Yet you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this book. Part of its charm is perhaps exactly the fact that ‘Finklers’ will read something different in it than ‘non-Finklers’.

Do not expect a book full of humour of the belly laugh kind. Indeed many might not immediately take to Jacobson’s brand of humour or classify the book as a ‘comedy’. Of course there are passages with some very funny descriptions. But most of the text is filled with humour of a refined nature - full of wit and irony, yet laced with darkness.

The Finkler Question demands the reader’s full attention, but is a rewarding read of substance.

* Howard Jacobson was born in Manchester in 1942. He read English at Cambridge under F.R. Leavis. He taught at the University of Sydney, Selwyn College, Cambridge and Wolverhampton Polytechnic. In addition to novels, he also writes documentaries for television and a weekly column in The Independent.

The book is published by Bloomsbury
Also see


This goes with the theme of friendship.  These 3 ladies and I have been friends for decades.  Ina and Lorraine at the back, and Sarie next to me in the front, are more like sisters.  We've been there for one another through every shade of human experience, have mourned one another's losses and have shared in fun, laughter and more.  We sometimes argue, but not often.  We matter to one another.  I'm lucky to have them as the core of the friends in my life. 

Taken a number of years ago when we spent Christmas together.  Three of our moms were there too, and of course Sarie's husband.  All of our moms have since  passed away, and we were there for one another when it happened...

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