Boyd Tonkin: He probes Jewishness – and human identity itself

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The Independent Online

At last, many fans will sigh. Other Howard Jacobson admirers will have dared to hope that this year their plea – "If not now, when?" – would find an answer. It has. Jacobson has delighted, stimulated, perplexed and even infuriated readers with 11 novels since, in 1983, Coming From Behind converted the woes of an ailing polytechnic into the funniest campus novel since Lucky Jim. He has made 'em laugh, made 'em cry, and made 'em wait. Over the past decade, The Mighty Walker, Kalooki Nights and The Act of Love looked like staying the Booker course. Yet The Finkler Question grabs the prize. A surprise? Not necessarily. Once this jury had proclaimed its taste for seriously comic fiction, the novel looked as if it had pace and legs.

The Finkler Question almost counts as Essence of Jacobson – even if one of the questions of faith and commitment it so robustly explores turns on the impossibility of defining an essence apart its accidental phenomena. Those phenomena have to do, as often before, with the liminal lives and times of Anglo-Jewry, torn between Continental (and global) tragedy and insular security, between the burdens of history and belief and the temptations – and pleasures – of a suburbanised heritage.

Yet (typical Jacobson) he tells these truths at a slant, and the disorientating angle gives leverage to his comedy. For at the novel's centre stands (or slouches) not Sam Finkler himself, the homespun media philosopher who seeks the remnants of the spirit in the ruins of doctrine. And not Libor Sevcik, the messenger from a totalitarian past who functions as a half-unwilling totem of atrocious 20th-century events. No: at the core of the action stands Julian Treslove, career failure at the BBC. And not Jewish at all – except in his fond aspiration. But for what? That is The Finkler Question, which probes the nature not only of Jewishness but of human culture and identity itself.

As the Babylonian rabbi Hillel the Elder asked just before that too-familiar question ("If not now, when?"), "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?" Judaism, as Jacobson explores it as culture and conduct far more than as religious practice, may have pivoted on those puzzles over several millennia. So, if they have any existential curiosity about their place in the world, so has every other people. The Finkler Question offers just the opposite of an "ethnic" or "exotic" Man Booker victor.

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