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Customer Review

216 of 235 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What it means to be Jewish in 21st century Britain - with added self-analysis, 23 Sept. 2010
This review is from: The Finkler Question (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 23 Feb 2011 19:06:33 GMT
I've just read the winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize and I'm disappointed. I didn't read it because it won, although perhaps I did because had it not won I might never have heard it mentioned on BBC R4. It was described, I recall, as a book about three elderly Jewish men, living in London. If 49 is elderly then what hope for me! One of the trio was old, two were widowed, one unmarried, two had grown up children they didn't care about, one was child-less, two were serial philanderers. All were troubled. I feel duped!

My daughter-in-law read the book before I did and said parts of it were gross. Lots of it, actually, I was shocked. An obsession with male genitalia. Shocked that this is thought to be great writing. What else have the judges read to compare this to? In the midst of reading it I heard the author on Desert Island Discs and that was illuminating. (Interesting that in the book one character describes being on D.I.D. as a good career move.) Listening to him it became apparent that two of his characters were based on him. He was needy, they were needy. Much married, dependent.

The best bit of this book is the dustjacket if you have a hard back, or the cover of the paperback. I love the cover! But when I read the plaudits on the back I think they've read a different book from me, I don't recognise the fine writing they describe. If you want fine writing, really fine, on a Jewish theme, read Chaim Potok, he's the master.

Posted on 10 Mar 2011 16:47:32 GMT
A. Reeves says:
Philip Roth is Canadian!

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Mar 2011 17:01:45 GMT
Ripple says:
Roth was born in Newark, NJ of American parents, grew up in Weequahic (also NJ) and was educated in Newark public schools - I don't think Canada can claim him! (you had me worried for a second though, so I double checked!)

In reply to an earlier post on 28 May 2011 11:54:50 BDT
Last edited by the author on 28 May 2011 11:55:38 BDT
P. J. Martin says:
I think you're thinking of Saul Bellow! He was born in Montreal I think. Another good Jewish writer worth a read, and also Canadian, is Mordecai Richler.

Posted on 30 May 2011 12:28:13 BDT
Ramonber says:
This was agreat review and very professional. I loved the book and will say no more other than to comment on the fact that this reviewer says "little is made of the UN's judgements on Israel's actions". Perhaps it was just as well, since the UN's judgements, have since, in most cases, been found innacurate, misleading, and contrary to the facts as reported back to them by their staff.

Posted on 15 Sep 2011 10:27:30 BDT
js56789 says:
Hi there - would you like to put a question to Howard Jacobson about his book The Finkler Question? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him on 23rd September and would love to hear from you. If you could email me at as soon as you can with your question about the book (anything - doesn't have to be particularly clever!), we can either arrange for you to talk to Howard Jacobson himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you get to hear your question on BBC World Service Radio. The programme will air on 5th May 2012 on the BBC World Service. Please do get in touch.

Best wishes,
BBC World Book Club

Posted on 17 Sep 2011 18:54:14 BDT
excellent review!

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Jan 2012 21:19:56 GMT
canmus says:
This is what you latched onto from this review?? How trivial!

Posted on 29 Jun 2012 18:34:43 BDT
Amelia says:
I really like your review and feel you summed it up very well. I enjoyed reading the book and found it very funny in parts.

Posted on 1 Jul 2012 15:02:06 BDT
H Newby says:
I am finding this book very heavy going and as for describing it as an English comic novel, I have completely missed the joke. It is a seriously unfunny analysis of the Jewish position, and the three men are all the sort that I wouldn't touch with a barge pole. I find the women characters slightly more interesting, especially Hephzibah, as they seem less self pitying. Treslove is an obnoxious person, so self centred he can't even remember which of his two lovers (ex) had which of his two sons. Do people really go around impregnating women then having no further imput into their lives? Isn't there something called the CSA?
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