Now that Howard Jacobson’s new novel, Zoo Time, is out, I thought I might finally get around to reading his last novel which, some may remember, won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. I have vague memories that people were impressed and excited that a comic novel had won, which is certainly a rarity in the Booker world. Recent winners like The Inheritance, The Sea and The Sense of an Ending don’t exactly scream hilarious. And then Howard Jacobson was on Q&A and he was great and I wanted him to be there every week. So I’m finally here, reading Finkler.
Walking home through London after dinner one night, Julian Treslove is mugged. By a woman. Shaken and confused, the thing he remembers most about the attack is that the woman said something. Something that sounded like “Because you’re a Jew.” Confused as to why anyone would think him Jewish, he begins a journey through the Jewish tradition, led by his friends Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik. Enthralled by what he finds, Treslove moves in with a Jewish woman and tries to be Jewish. Hilarity ensues.
When I read Philip Roth, I remarked that one of the defining features of his writing was its Jewishness. Certainly Jacobson is continuing this tradition, but it’s safe to say he goes about it in a completely different way. Ok, it’s obviously not laugh out loud hilarious. But the ostensibly light tone, along with all the ridiculous things that happen to Treslove, and all the word-play going on, make this a fun novel to read, despite the serious questions it asks of us. Maybe it’s more absurd than comic. In any case, Jacobson gives us three models from which we can choose – the Gentile who wants to be a Jew, the Jew who doesn’t want to be a Jew, and the old man who wants to die.
It’s hard to like Julian Treslove. His obsession with wanting to be Jewish borders on the racist – the idea that being Jewish is intrinsically better because of all the culture and history. His stereotypical image of the perfect Jew is so completely ignorant it borders on the naive. I love the irony of him now wanting to upset anyone, referring to Jews as Finklers in his internal monologue. He – and I say this as a young white atheist – completely misses the point of the history of suffering of the Jewish people, thinking he can somehow latch on to that and create a new identity. He just wants to be one of the cool kids – it just happens that, in this case, all the cool kids are Jewish. He thinks learning some token Yiddish will somehow make him more Jewish – it’s as though all he wants to do is learn the theory and study for the test, and not actually live as a Jew.
In the other corner is Sam Finkler, Treslove’s more attractive, more successful high school friend, whose wife has just died. Finkler is an “ASHamed” Jew. Finkler finds Israeli politics abominable, and with a group of other prominent Jews, makes sure the rest of the world knows just how ashamed he is to be associated with Israel, simply by being Jewish. Does this make him anti-Semitic? Certainly a lot of people think so, including members of his own family. For a man who has never been particularly concerned with leading a proper Jewish lifestyle, his attacks on Israeli policy certainly seem mistimed and inappropriate.
Of the three men at the centre of the plot, it is hands-down Libor that comes off most sympathetic. While the two younger men are caught up in their own ridiculous problems, Libor is left to play the grieving widower, coming to terms with the fact that his wife of more than sixty years is no longer with him. Though his narrative strand is shorter and smaller, it’s nice that Jacobson contrasts these self-absorbed, self-obsessed younger men with
Has Jacobson ever given a definitive answer as to what the eponymous Finkler question is? Maybe he just thought calling a book “The Jewish Question” might not go down so well. But there is one question with which he seems more concerned than any other: what does it mean to be Jewish? That overarching question seems to be more of a quest than a question – the quest for an “authentic” Jewish identity, with a proscribed set of rules and regulations that can be followed, and if you follow them properly, you become Jewish. But the only one of our suggested models that is even sympathetic is Libor, and even he doesn’t want to be defined by his Jewishness. Does Jacobson see the old guard as the way forward? Does he despair of the new generation of Jewish intellectuals and critics?
So maybe that’s the answer to the question. You can’t become Jewish, but it doesn’t matter. You can be born Jewish, but it doesn’t matter. As with Christianity, as with Islam, as with Buddhism, there is no one right answer. A plurality of voices exists even in a minority community, and we shouldn’t be surprised that the collision of politics, religion and identity creates more viewpoints than it breaks down.