The Finkler Question, By Howard Jacobson
Sunday 01 August 2010
There's a gag in Woody Allen's Annie Hall in which the world's favourite bespectacled neurotic carps on to his squash buddy about a paranoid encounter. "I was having lunch with some guys at NBC," says Woody, "so I said 'Did you eat yet or what?' and Tom Christie said, 'No, Jew?' Not did you? 'Jew eat?' Jew?"
A similar moment of linguistic confusion forms the narrative springboard to Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. This charming novel follows many paths of enquiry, not least the present state of Jewish identity in Britain and how it integrates with the Gentile population. Equally important is its exploration of how men share friendship. All of which is played out with Jacobson's exceptionally funny riffs and happy-sad refrains.
A dinner between three long-time friends sets the bittersweet mood for what follows. Julian Treslove is a failed BBC producer and hapless romantic; his old school pal Sam Finkler is a populist and popular Jewish philosopher; and Libor Sevick is an old Czech who once taught them the history of Prague. Sam and Libor have recently become widowers.
Sevick is the steady hand of the trio. Suddenly alone at 90 and living in a cocoon of mourning for his beloved wife, his constancy puts the two younger men's shambling love lives into focus. He's a lovely character, a one-time film journalist who was confidante to Monroe, Dietrich and Garbo, yet remained relentlessly faithful and happy in his little Mittel-European bubble. Finkler, however, rates pomp over domestic reality (his laughable Alain de Botton-style bestsellers include The Existentialist in the Kitchen).
After dinner, Treslove walks back to Regent Street. Lingering outside the oldest violin dealer in the country, he is mugged. By a woman, no less, and one who may, or may not, have called him a Jew in the process. From here on in, everything is under question.
Treslove, whose perspective is the core of the book, is as jealous of his friends' bereavement as he is their success. He is J Alfred Prufrock with an Ophelia complex, longing for a lover to worship who will then majestically expire in his arms. Only he can't keep any of them long enough. If women are a mystery to him, then so is Finkler, who ultimately becomes a byword for his faith: Jewish becomes "Finklerish". Jacobson cunningly crafts sublime pathos from comedy and vice versa. As such, he is the literary equivalent of Tony Hancock, illuminating the conflict, anger, love and dependence created by friendship while wincing at the ignominy and absurdity of the characters' predicament.
Jacobson's prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line. "Nosebleeding, like grief," states page 49, "is something you do in the privacy of your own home".
The contrary nature of existence was once nailed by Allen in another dining joke. "Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountains resort and one of them says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,' and the other one says: 'Yeah I know – and such small portions.'" Now Jacobson has plated up this sentiment in a dish as hearty as Libor's favourite dumplings.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Dog thinks owner is drowning in lake, dives in and tries to pull him out
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Chilling drone footage captures Auschwitz ahead of 70th anniversary of liberation
- 5 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after that Wembley Stadium rant
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Mortdecai becomes Johnny Depp's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Last Tango in Halifax, review: Can we ever really move on from Kate?
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
Leaked documents show Ukip leaders approve NHS privatisation once it becomes more 'acceptable to the electorate'