The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson, Bloomsbury RRP£18.99, 307 pages
Howard Jacobson’s novels are invariably concerned with the trials and rewards of being Jewish – with what one of his characters, Oliver Walzer, calls “the impossibility of ever putting any of it behind you”. Comparisons with Philip Roth are inevitable, but Jacobson always approaches the subject with a bracing humour, whereas Roth, once so scandalously funny, seems to have renounced comedy in favour of a cranky, meditative inwardness.
Jacobson’s latest, The Finkler Question, is on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize and could be mistaken for a change of direction. Its protagonist is neither a Jew preoccupied with Judaism nor a Jew in flight from his origins. Instead he is a Gentile. But Julian Treslove, a middle-aged BBC producer of little note, is in fact a typical Jacobson creation, obsessed with Jewishness. He loves what he sees as the Jewish cult of rivalry and expertise in introspection. His friends are Jewish; he is intrigued by them as individuals and as cultural specimens. Their angst seems wonderful in its intensity.
The novel begins with Treslove making his way home from a dinner with two friends. One is Sam Finkler, the author of cheapjack works of pop philosophy that sell embarrassingly well. He is a guru, celebrated for his simplifications of complex ideas. To Treslove he is so quintessentially Jewish that one cannot help thinking “Finkler” whenever Jewishness is at hand.
Treslove’s other dinner companion is Libor Sevcik, who was once his history teacher. Ninety years old, Sevcik is recently widowed; for years a model of uxorious attentiveness, he now seems hopelessly lost. Sevcik’s great theme is Israel, but more important to Jacobson are his age and his bereavement, which enable some poignant reflections on mortality. What does it mean to grow old, and how does it feel to be cut off in old age from the person whose life has become most thoroughly intertwined with your own?
These concerns resonate, but from the outset the main focus is the often rather irritating Treslove. Returning from his dinner with Finkler and Sevcik, Treslove is mugged. His attacker is a woman. He convinces himself that the motive was racial; he believes he was wrongly identified as Jewish.
This inspires Treslove to look more deeply into Jewish traditions. He learns – and we learn – about the differences between Jewishness and Judaism. His sensibility is part Woody Allen, part Larry David, with a significant dash of Sigmund Freud. He likes to think that everything is going wrong, but that the sudden flowering of love can brighten the cosmic gloom. He answers questions with questions. He’s disappointed when a new girlfriend’s apartment affords an excellent view of the cricket at Lord’s rather than – despite its being a geographical impossibility – the Wailing Wall. Yet there’s something about his Jewish friends’ humour that he can never get: they crack wicked jokes at their own expense that, uttered by anyone else, would draw howls of protest.
Why exactly does Treslove want to be Jewish? It’s hard not to sense that the chief reason is that it allows Jacobson to have great fun with Treslove’s non-Jewishness – and to draw a succession of enjoyable contrasts between Jewish and Gentile behaviours. Some of the nicest of these come about as a result of an awkward appearance by Finkler on Desert Island Discs. He receives a letter of appreciation from a group who call themselves The Ashamed Jews. This affiliation of famous figures who wish publicly to distance themselves from the baggage associated with their ethnicity gets mercilessly ridiculed.
Yet while The Finkler Question is both an entertaining novel and a humane one, it isn’t Howard Jacobson at his best. The characters are not as satisfyingly developed as in 2006’s superb Kalooki Nights and his writing here feels less precise than is his wont, less fresh and less frighteningly mordant.
Henry Hitchings is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English’ (John Murray)