Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2010
Julian Treslove is a man whose life has been “one mishap after another”. He is addicted to tragedy – he imagines almost everything in the context of an opera by Verdi or Puccini – “people who knew Treslove thought twice about inviting him to a deathbed or a burial”. But despite a failed career at the BBC and a series of unsuccessful relationships with Ophelia-like women, real trauma has so far evaded him. That is until he is mugged randomly in central London on the way home from an evening with his recently widowed friends Finkler and Libor.
But he is unwilling to accept the incident as the result of mere chance. The mugger is a woman, this alone unnerves him and she whispers something to him as she relives him of his belongings; he becomes convinced that she has called him a Jew. Treslove has always referred to Jews as “Finklers”. Sam Finkler was the first Jew he ever met and up to that point he “supposed a Jew would be like the word Jew – small and dark and beetling”. But even as a teenager Finkler was “almost orange and spilled out of his clothes” and his features were “extravagant”. For Treslove, using the word Finkler instead of Jew also “sucked out the toxins”.
This is, therefore, a novel about what it means to be Jewish. Treslove has long been obsessed by Sam Finkler and the question of his identity. The mugging crystallises this as in its aftermath he delves into the fundamental contradictions and tensions of Jewish private, public and intellectual life. For if he really was mistaken for a Jew, and this was the reason for the assault, then he has been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. Attacks on Jews in Britain doubled in 2009, with the majority of these occurring after the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. The emotional effect of this aftermath on the Jewish population has been immense.
The Finkler Question is a delicately balanced exploration of loss, love, friendship and identity. It is an exceptionally well crafted work – deserving of the many accolades that have been showered on it. Most recently it has been awarded the Man Booker Prize for 2010. I have seen it described, several times, as a comic novel but for me this is not an entirely accurate label. It is a novel with extraordinarily humorous moments but I was left with an almost overwhelming sense of sorrow at the lamentations that lie at the heart of the work. I can wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone seeking a wise and thoughtful literary work – and you’ll definitely get a few laughs along the way as well.
Howard Jacobson was born in Manchester, brought up in Prestwich and was educated at Stand Grammar School in Whitefield, and Downing College, Cambridge, where he studied under FR Leavis. He lectured for three years at the University of Sydney before returning to teach at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His novels include The Mighty Walzer (winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize), Kalooki Nights (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and the highly acclaimed The Act of Love. He lives in London.
Title: The Finkler Question
Author: Howard Jacobson
Category: Literary Fiction
Publication Date: August 2010