Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Questions about "The Finkler Question"

Tonight [it was actually Tuesday] is the night we meet to discuss our past month's reading of The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson's Man-Booker prizewinning novel about three men who live in London, consider themselves friends, and are no longer young. Julian Treslove is the main protagonist in the book, though the concept of Treslove as a protagonist is a bit of a tall order to fill. Treslove is the kind of guy, now mid-forties, who has wandered through life without really inhabiting it, although he does seem to inhabit it long enough to have fathered a couple of sons who he doesn't really know very well or care very much about. NOr, for that matter, do they him.

Treslove is fixated on the idea of falling in love with a woman who will die in his arms. This doesn't make him a serial killer, as, despite the fact of wishing to be in on their death, he doesn't particularly wish them dead. His ideas of love lead him to a sequence of trysts with pale undernourished types. Unsurprisingly, none of them last very long.

Treslove seems to be the kind of guy who carries some very peculiar ideas in his head, which frankly, are no more interesting for being odd. He's pushing fifty, and seems still to be waiting for life to happen, despite having had the good fortune to have gone to a good school, be handsome enough to pass for Brad Pitt, or, any other famous celebrity seemingly (and quite improbably). He's even worked for the BBC, but despite having left it voluntarily, he feels resentment bordering on rage at having worked there for as long as he did.

As the story opens, he has fallen into the habit--nothing that Treslove does could actually be attributed to purposefulness--of dining with two old friends--one of whom is his peer and friend, though perhaps more rival than friend, and the other their former teacher, who is of much more advanced years. Both of these men are widowers, and though differing in their modes of grief, are in fact sincerly griefstricken. In their grief, Treslove finds them particularly congenial. Why they put up with him is another question.

His friends are both Jewish and Treslove develops a fascination with what this identity means. Much of the book is filled with his desire to try and fathom this, and it gives nothing away to say that the Finkler question is a kind of code in Treslove's own mind for 'the Jewish question'. If the book weren't written by a Jew himself, as my friends assure me Jacobson is, this whole premise would be offensive, and frankly, I am not sure it doesn't remain so in any case. Finkler is only the surname of his successful friend, and is not meant as a derogative, but to my ears it sounds like the kind of slang that has a negative slur built into it.

For me, the farcical elements of the novel are only mildly amusing at best, though it's obvious that Jacobson has put some thought into them. If the story stayed purely on the level of poking fun at a certain class of Londoner, it would be fairly enjoyable but forgetable. But it seems also to want to be truly about loss and grief, and also to tackle the enormous subject of anti-Semitism. In this last, I think it is probably the most successful. At least, it is the most uncomfortable aspect of the book, and the one that seems likely to remain with me.

The Jews of the book are highly successful people, much more successful than Treslove, I think, even at the business of living life. Yet behind the lives of these cultured and sophisticated Londoners, there still lurks the question of the Holocaust. In the aftermath of that history, what ease? Is 'one little anti-Semitic piece of graffiti something, or nothing? When does the defacement of a Jewish cultural center mean justg a bunch of louts and when does it mean something more?

Some of the way these questions are framed are odd to an American. Here, so often anti-Semitism and racism against many other races and cultures often get mixed up in one very foul pot. But the question of Israel, its policies and existence, are probably much the same. Jacobson has his characters discuss these things at length, and much to his credit, I am not really sure where he personally comes down on the issues. I think he might say that we can feel one way, and yet that events might lead us to a wholly different conclusion.

Frankly, I was not terribly engaged by any of it, but then the shootings in Tucson happened. In an oddly synchronous experience, I heard Sarah Palin use the phrase 'blood libel' and then found the term used on the very next page I read of  The Finkler Question. Although, I have no idea what harm if any Palin meant in using the phrase, certain alarm bells went off in the context of the book. Then the fact that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish struck me as an odd fact in the equation of tragedy  here. I hadn't actually known that, but it turns out that what I know or feel doesn't actually make much difference. Was the targeting of her anti-Semitic or just crazy? Or both?

That is the kind of question that progressively grows in The Finkler Question. Is it something, or is it nothing? Wisely, Jacobsen only poses it--he doesn't attempt to give some definitive answer.

*                      *                       *                     
Well, the book group as a whole liked this book a lot more than I did. I think that the strength of the inquiry into anti-Semitism trumped the weakness of main character for almost everyone else. I put my points across, but at one point one member looked at me and asked if we had been reading the same book. It turns out that when reading novels like this one, we can gravitate towards different things in our evaluation of it. Jacobsen purposely made Treslove empty and infantile. I didn't mind that so much but I did mind having to suffer through countless pages of his introspection. If it served the greater purpose, maybe that can be excused. That, I think is where the group split on this.

It was a great book for discussion, though. I think we all agreed on that. One member actually related that she had discovered that she was Jewish, or half-Jewish or whatever at her father's funeral a few years ago. Her mother was Jewish, but kept it a secret. I don't know how it all came out and it's not my story anyway. But it just goes to show, as Jacobsen points out, that all of these issues are a long way from being over.        

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