Bloomsbury £18.99

The Finkler Question, By Howard Jacobson

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before