on 19 March 2013
This is a book about Anti-Semitism, especially London Jewish self-loathing Anti-Semistism.
If you are someone who could not possibly find this an interesting subject, I wouldn't even bother starting it.
As a Jewish Londoner, I do find the subject very interesting indeed...but maybe in a newspaper article. In a novel there has to be, surely, something more, like a decent story or touching, realistic characters.
I did really laugh at the beginning of the book; proper laugh-out-loud laughing. But I'm not sure if you are not Jewish and have had little contact with Jews, you'd see the joke. Lots of Yiddish expressions and in-jokes, which mean a lot to me as a middle-aged North london Jew, but to the gentile world? I'm not being condescending, but have you ever given thought to the difference between a "shlepper" and a "nebbishe"? Jacobson says a "shlepper" knows he's a "shlepper", but a "nebbishe" is unaware that he's a "nebbishe". To me, that is a very observant comment by the author and I have given it much thought since reading it. I think he's right. What do you think? Do you have any idea what he's talking about? Do you care?
Reading the first 50 pages or so I thought I was going to love this book and was looking forward to writng a positive review, but suddenly, and I don't know exactly when, I felt...ENOUGH ALREADY!
It's like going to a friend's 50th birthday party, having a great time dancing to all the old 70s disco classics and then, almost without warning, a wave of fatigue sweeps over you and you want to go home...right now!
Unfortunately, despite its very promising beginning, this novel rapidly turns into a very tiresome rant, but I'm not sure about what...and I couldn't wait to finish it. I can't even tell you what happened in the end. I couldn't care less. Most importantly, it doesn't give a very favourable impression about people of my background...and that really upsets me. So, dear freinds from other faiths and no faith, I ask you please to watch Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm instead...and laugh yourself to sleep every night.
Julian Treslove is a middle aged former BBC radio producer now working as a professional look alike but quite who he looks like varies. Although never married, he has fathered two sons, neither of whom he sees regularly. Dismissed from the BBC for being too morbid on his late night Radio 3 programme, he is given to depressing levels of self-analysis in his small flat that's not quite in Hampstead. What Treslove lacks is a sense of belonging and this, he notes his Jewish friends have in spades, particularly his old school friend and rival, the best-selling philosopher and TV personality, Sam Finkler. Treslove, by contrast, always feels on the outside of life.
When the book starts Treslove is again excluded as Finkler and their mutual friend and former teacher, Libor Sevcik, an elderly Jewish Czech, have both been widowed. Although the two Jewish friends have differing political views on Zionism, Treslove sees them united in their Jewishness and their sense of mutual loss. So much does Treslove want to be like his friend Finkler, a term he uses to describe all Jewish people, and for a range of other amusing reasons, when he is attacked on the way home from Libor's flat one night, he is convinced that it is an anti-Semitic attack and that Treslove is, in fact, a Finkler himself and pursues the task of answering `The Finkler Question': what does it mean to be Jewish in the 21st century?
It's not hard to see why this book has caught the attention of this year's Man Booker judges who have short-listed it for the prize. It touches on a number of compelling subjects including middle age insecurity, male competition and friendship, death, infidelity, multiculturalism and of course religious faith and the implications of this on nation states. On top of that, it is beautifully written and often very funny both in a gentle way and at times in an angry and urgent manner. It reads very much like some of the works of the great American novelist Philip Roth, but with a more British dark humour to it, and that is high praise indeed in my book.
And yet, and yet.....
The problem I had with it is that it's a very difficult book to love because the central characters are so loathsome. The most sympathetic is the wise Libor, although arguably he is the most caricature-like of characters in the book. His story though is sad and wholly believable. Finkler himself is ambitious and craves the limelight to a detestable degree and as for Treslove, you just want to shake him into action. Given Finkler's character, I find it difficult to believe that he would have any truck with the pathetic Treslove who has taken self-analysis to a level of self-paralysis. Far from wanting to find out how his Jewish conversion was progressing, I found myself thinking more along the lines of `oi vey, he's off again. Enough with the navel gazing already'.
There's an inherent contradiction in arguing that you cannot stereotype a faith and then suggesting that this weight of self-analysis is a `Jewish thing'. Finkler himself joins a movement of ASHamed Jews, against Zionism, and yet while this is an important issue, little is made of the UN's judgements on Israel's actions.
I was left in two minds about it as a book. There's no denying the quality of the writing or the urgency of the subject, but for all the humour, the characters themselves are so dark and unlikeable, that it loses force and the net impact is a very dour read for such a book filled with so much genuine humour. How can this be? Well perhaps that's `The Finkler Question' question.
Three elderly men, lifelong friends, meet to look back on their success and failures, their loves and losses. Two of them are Jews, the third, Julian Treslove isn't, but would like to be. What follows is an exploration of Jewishness and identity and Treslove's attempt to make sense of his life.
This book has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and has been long-listed for the Booker. Superlatives abound. "Our greatest living writer" and other such. But I remain unconvinced. Although I accept that this is a serious and original work, the self-absorbed Treslove with his implausible identity crisis, did not engage me, and the much vaunted comedy of the book passed me by. An occasional wry smile was all I could muster. Jacobson can indeed write, and he writes well, but has some irritating stylistic quirks, such as over-use of rhetorical questions and verb less sentences that begin to grate after a while.
It is often said that if Jacobson were American, he would be rated up there with Bellow and Roth. Quite possibly, for there are many similarities, not least the obsession with all things Jewish, the misogyny (women are always described in terms of their breasts) and the lack of empathy with children (are we supposed to find it amusing that Treslove muddles up his two sons?). Above all, the self-absorption and endless wordy philosophising.
Not one for me, this novel, and I remain puzzled by the fulsome praise bestowed on it.
However - and it's quite a big however - it would make a very good book group choice as there is much to discuss here. Issues of identity, male insecurity, belonging, love and loss, and perhaps most importantly, Jewishness and what it means to be a Jew along with the thorny problems of Zionism.
on 5 September 2010
This angsty London-Jewish novel shows off Jacobson's deep thinking about Jewishness: it is cleverly put together and (as a gentile) I found it rather illuminating.
The medieval thinker Moses Maimonides doesn't get into many mainstream novels, and disquisitions about the relative advantages and disadvantages of foreskins even fewer. So this is an exceptional novel in those senses.
Is it a good novel, though?
Not really; I didn't get very involved with the characters, and while some of the jokes made me laugh out loud, the unloveable central characters, and the author's preference for wordy philosophising weighed down the gaps between the humorous outbursts. And as for people trying to be Jewish, I got just as much from David Baddiel's (shallower, but equally affecting) film "The Infidel" The Infidel  [Blu-Ray].
P.S. Publishers who quote hyperbole on the cover tend to put me off. One-trick boy wonder Jonathan Safran Foer's reference to Jacobson as "A great, great writer" merely raises the bar too high for this book. The appropriate cover quote should have been "Sometimes funny, often illuminating". Or "Like middle-period Woody Allen, but with fewer jokes"
on 31 October 2010
I've read a couple of the 2010 Man Booker nominees, and Room was a superb book so I thought I'd give the winner a go. But this had me floored and out for the count.
After 50 pages I found it quite an amusing tale full of witticisms and turns of phrase... and I can only presume that's as much as the reviewers whose quotes spatter the front cover managed to read, because after a further 50 pages I was wondering when, and if, anything would actually happen. But nothing did for the next 100 pages and by that point I was so sick of the introspective, loathsome three main characters and their cliche-riddled support cast that I could not face another page of it! I want to erase those 196 pages of relentless questioning and philosophical droning from my brain for ever!!
The trio exist only to set each other up for another way to answer a question with a question, to chew the fat about Israel or Israyyye, to ponder Gentiles and Zzzzzionism, who's a Jew yet not a Jew, how a Jew can fail to be a Jew, who's ashamed of their Jewish kinfolk and who's appalled by themselves.... it's SO staggeringly, mind blowingly, terminally dull. And it just goes on and on and on and on!
I grew tired of this laborious introspection, and after forcing my way through half the chapters found I couldn't care less about who cheated with whose wife and why they did it, or who was happily married or who's having a cold physical relationship with who. Oh the tedium. And in particular, I grew tired of the references to issues and attitudes pertinent to Israel and Palestine, but not once did I read any background to these rapid references. They just appear and are supposed to speak volumes on behalf of the leads. Well excuse me for not knowing the details of all things Arab/Israeli, but what am I supposed to do - look up everything mentioned? The same goes for Jewish slang phrases, was I expected to know what a lot of the words meant? I don't use Jewish expressions, I'm not likely to, and thus I have no intention of consulting an English-Jewish dictionary.
So hands up, I give up. After 196 turgid pages I have no interest left in the three self-centred droners and will gladly dream up my own ending to the book. Here goes. They all get in a taxi and are driven off a cliff. I feel better now.
Clever writing is to be appreciated, and this is a book filled with clever writing (or so I'm told) - but my word, there needs to be something resembling a story worth reading as well.
on 26 November 2010
It is hard to know how to write a review that adequately sums up how poor this all is.
The book itself; tediously, crashingly dull; leaden humour masquerading as sharp wit; characters so unrealistic yet so unsympathetic that it must have take a measure of sadism to create them and a plot (not sure the word even applies) that consists of nothing happening to a nothing man.
The whole Finkler/ Jewish angle seems to consist of endless twists on political/ religious views portrayed so obtusely that very few people could hope to understand. I think the idea is to imply that somewhere inside all this nonsense is high-end thought. Yet when arguments meander so tortuously then I can't avoid the conclusion that the author doesn't even understand his own ideas.
Then there is the Booker Prize. "Hmmm, how to write a novel that will please the self-satisfied metropolitan luvvies? I know, write uber-knowingly about a subset of their friends, imply loftily that their milieu is meaningful, thoughtful and humourous and that their middle-class, middle-aged world is worthy of study. It's like that film 'Truly, Madly, Deeply Boring' or whatever. It's a winner!" Anyone doubting that the author was desperate to please the judges just needs to see his acceptance speech. And I just bet that the award-givers will justify the books poor ratings as "art always is contentious". Rubbish. This is just poor.
I'm a literary snob. I like smart books. I like Kafka. I like Balzac. I read Sartre and enjoyed it. I would have thought that snooty literary prize-winning books were made for me. The White Tiger was great. Life of Pi too. The Sea was poor but OK, we all make mistakes. But this piece of trash is just awful.
on 8 March 2011
This book was billed as a comedy, and it does contain the odd witty one-liner. Unfortunately, the majority of it is taken up with unpleasant middle-aged men pontificating about what it means to be Jewish (or not).
Drippy Julian Treslove is not Jewish, but is weirdly obsessed with Jews and manages to convince himself he's one of them. His 'friend' (though they don't seem to like each other much), the obnoxious Sam Finkler, is Jewish, but spends all his time being loudly and publicly ashamed of the fact. Their mutual friend Libor, an elderly Eastern European gentleman mourning the loss of his wife, is Jewish and just gets on with it... which, as an atheist, is fine by me.
It could be because I'm not Jewish and have no experience of Jewish culture that this book left me cold. However, I think it's much more due to the thoroughly unlikeable characters, their disturbing attitudes towards women and the total lack of any credible female characters. I struggled to care about any of it - not an enjoyable read at all.
I do hate giving up on a book. Its like waving a white flag and admitting defeat, but I've not made it through this one.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not Jewish, I'm certainly not anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist. (or, particularly a lay-member of the ASHamed Jews!)
I love Jewish humour, I admire Jewish culture, read Jewish history, some of my best frie...you get the picture, but this book is so relentlessly, tediously Jewish I really found it really hard work and in the end just uninteresting.
I do accept that you don't have to sympathise or empathise with any character to make reading a book worthwhile, but eventually if you have absolutely no interest in the characters, if the characters don't seem to develop, if their environment and world outlook is so undeniably,unremitingly bleak, how far can you travel with them?
I'm sorry: I'm sure its my fault, and I'm no anti-Bookerite. I've enjoyed many winners, but this book seems to me to be elitist and smug. Its sharing a private joke from which I, sadly am excluded.
on 5 July 2011
The following contains spoilers, so stop reading if you think that an element of surprise is all-important. I doubt many Booker Prize readers read books mainly to find out what happens, though.
My partner and I aren't usually Booker Prize readers, but he holds a brief for Howard Jacobson so persuaded me to try The Finkler Question. I can see where the negative reviewers are coming from. A few sections into the book, the mannered, precious style and the meandering, make-a-meal-of-everything narrative almost had us both slamming it shut in annoyance. But if you persevere, you do get into it: the style grows less obtrusive and the subject-matter more compelling as the author fires up.
He fires up mainly when exposing the hypocrisies and absurdities surrounding the whole question of Israel, and the renewed menace of anti-Semitism. These pages are coruscating, raising the suspicion that he really wanted to write a polemic about our problem with Jews, but he knew that that would get him nowhere at all with the left-leaning literary lions of London, so he disguised it as a fashionably time-looping, open-ended tragi-comedy about a limp aesthete rather like the lions themselves, and must be laughing as he watches them lap it up.
Seeing what you want to see in a book is an odd phenomenon - as in the case of all the critics who describe this book as a comic novel, just because they have some idea of Howard Jacobson being a funny writer. He is a funny writer and there is a lot of wit and some great one-liners in this book, but overall it is bleak, sad and angry, and rightly so. The avowedly funny scenes, like the account of the blog of an American Jew who is trying to restore his foreskin, seem extraneous and pretty tedious.
My main problem with the book is the central character, the wannabe Jew Julian Treslove, who, as I suggested above, seems to be a vehicle for the book rather than a character. He just doesn't add up. He is mainly presented as an aimless, rather pathetic chap, stuck in a series of dead-end jobs and always falling in love with unsuitable women, but when Jacobson wants to make use of him as `author's voice' he suddenly becomes witty, assertive, and prone to brilliant epiphanies: as when he finally realises, with merciless clarity, that his relationship with the Jewish characters consists of 'sucking at their tragedy because his own life was a farce'. But after he has learned all this wisdom as `author's voice', the author at the end of the book dumps him, as a character, right back where he started. On the other hand, the smart-arse reluctant Jew, Finkler, is allowed to end the book as a dignified representative of grief and growth, although he has never been brought to realise just what a s**t he has been, let alone done anything to make up for it. This just seems unfair. I don't mind open endings but I am old-fashioned enough to like characters to get poetic justice.
Read it, though - it stays with you.
on 25 October 2010
I'm an avid reader and not unintelligent. Reading the reviews of others, perhaps there was something about this book that I missed. But, for me, this was without doubt the most tedious publication I have ever read. No sense of direction, characters caught up to such an extent in the author's own naval-gazing that they fail to stand out from the page as three-dimensional, believable human beings.
Worse still, I'm not really sure that it even achieved much in the way of a philosophical look at Jewish life.