Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blogging the Booker 12: The Finkler Question

So, after a short break from the Booker longlist - during which time I read a few other things, including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's latest (& wonderful) novel, and a 1930s English spy novel - I return to the Booker task at hand with Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which has made it through to the shortlist.

One issue I will be facing with these last few books from the longlist is knowing by the time I read them whether or not they've been shortlisted (of the five remaining when the shortlist was announced, two were, three weren't). That means that, to some extent, I'll be evaluating these ones - especially the two that did progress onto the shortlist - in terms of my thoughts of which other books didn't get shortlisted. Two books I really did want to make the shortlist - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet & Skippy Dies - did not, while two books I hadn't read - The Finkler Question & In a Strange Room - did.

All of which to say that I'm possibly going to be expecting a fair bit from those two novels. In fairness, they're on the Booker shortlist, so things should be expected of them.

Enough prologue, however. The Finkler Question is the first book of Howard Jacobson's I've read (or, to be honest, heard of), but it came with a quote on the front cover from Jonathan Safran Foer, who apparently enjoyed it. And, while I've been avoiding reviews of the Booker longlist entries until I've read them myself, I did know that this book has received some quite positive reviews to date.

However, it has left me a little cold. You remember that scene from Being John Malkovich where John Malkovich enters the portal to his own brain? And lands in a restaurant where everyone looks like him & keeps repeating the word 'Malkovich' with different intonations?

Well, The Finkler Question is a little like that, except the word is 'Jew'. We have three main characters - Julian Treslove, Libor Sevcik & Sam Finkler. Treslove & Finkler are late middle-age friends (since school), Sevcik is older. Sevcik & Finkler are Jewish (& both are also recent widowers), Treslove is not. But Treslove - who really is the main character - decides that he wishes he were Jewish, so he tries to become one. Other than his bond to the two other men, his reasons are not entirely clear. He just really, really fetishes Jewishness. Finkler is a celebrity philosopher (writing pop-philosophy books, making tv series etc), but is perhaps best described as a Professional Jew. He is, and indeed all Jewish characters in this book (which is to say: all characters other than Treslove) are, regardless of their level of religious observance, strongly opposed to the actions of the state of Israel. And they talk about it. A lot. To the exclusion of pretty much any other topic, with the occasional exception of sex.

One might call The Finkler Question a novel of ideas, but that's a little exaggeration. It's more like a novel of an idea. And that, for me, was its failing - if you're not really, really interested in the topic of Jewish identity among old, wealthy London men, then The Finkler Question gets a little tiresome. Jacobson can write well, and there are some wonderful sentences or descriptions, but for me this novel is just a little too monochromatic. I made reference in my review of The Slap to how that book often felt like it was inspired by the grand (particularly Russian) novels of the 19th century, in which characters sat around & discussed the problems of the day - social, political, philosophical, theological. The Finkler Question is the same, but with the difference that in those books, things actually happened in between those conversations - we had the Napoleon coming for a visit, shocking love affairs, murders etc. In The Finkler Question, those conversations are only broken up by things like Treslove going on a short holiday with his two estranged sons, reminding himself what a feeble father he was/is. (And even that scene only lasts about three pages.) Not every novel needs those sorts of things, of course - and I'm not even a particularly strong advocate of novels needing to have plots - but all I can say is that The Finkler Question, while well-written, never really grabbed me or made me care about its characters, other than to think that at least a few of them would've been well off to find themselves a hobby.

So, to return to the point I started with, perhaps I am unfairly judging this book against two that it beat onto the Booker shortlist - maybe I would've liked it better had I read it before I knew how the shortlist would pan out. And I don't regret reading it or anything, but I would be pretty underwhelmed were it to win the prize this year.

(Also: The Finkler Question is the first book I have bought & read via the Kindle app on my iPad. I might post some thoughts on that experience later.)

Next: Trespass, by Rose Tremain (which will invert the expectations I brought into this review, since it will be the first one I've read in the knowledge that it was longlisted but not shortlisted).

1 comment:

  1. I wasn't particularly impressed with this book either. Books that I preferred didn't make it from the longlist to the shortlist. Ah well.