Tuesday, November 9, 2010
The Finkler Question
Just in case you have been living under a rock (which I sometimes do), this won the Booker Prize this year. On the back cover it is described as "A blistering portrayal of a funny man...." and "Our funniest living writer....". It is always dangerous to describe things as funny. A bit like saying to someone "I saw this great movie last night!"...a sure set-up for disappointment.
I finished this book today. I now owe the Brisbane City Council Library $1.75 in late fees for it. I was determined to finish it by hook or by crook. I think I laughed maybe twice.
This year for me seems to have been marked by books about vampires and books about Jews or Jewishness. I haven't deliberately chosen this path. I merely remark upon it and I mean nothing by the association. I am just intrigued by it. So far I am finding neither genre or subject matter an easy read - certainly not funny.
Let's talk about the Jews we know. Or what it means to be Jewish. Yes, let's talk about stereotypes. Bette Midler. Woody Allen. They come to my mind. I often quote Bette Midler's line in Beaches "But enough about me, let's talk about you,........what do You think about me?" Neurotic. Self-obsessed. Funny. Sad.
The Finkler Question is about three men who come together in grief. The main character Julian Treslove is a kind of an anti-hero. He was born to be miserable. He is excruciatingly pathetic. He is so miserable he secetly fantasises about being Jewish. A bit like you fantasise about being adopted....anything not to have been born into this awfully boring suburban family. Give me a bit of the exotic...make me Jewish! His best friend from school Sam Finkler is Jewish and all that Julian wishes he was - smart, successful, a bedder of countless women. They keep in touch with an old teacher from their school days - turned friend - Libor - an eccentric loveable Czech, also Jewish. Libor and Sam are recently bereaved and Julian revels with them in their misery.
Spoiler alert! The book is called The Finkler Question. And, of course, as the reader you thirst to know why. It is Julian's secret way of internally de-stigmatising the word "Jew". And I quote..."Before he met Finkler, Treslove had never met a Jew. Not knowingly at least. He supposed a Jew would be like the word Jew - small and dark and beetling. A secret person. But Finkler was almost orange in colour and spilled out of his clothes. He had extravagant features, a prominent jaw, long arms and big feet....If this was what all Jews looked like, Treslove thought, then Finkler....was a better name for them than Jew.....The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins. But he was never quite able to get around to explaining this to Finkler himself."
That last sentence I believe holds the key to the book. Why doesn't Julian get around to explaining his labelling to Sam? And therein lies the genius I guess of Howard Jacobson. Because Julian is a loathsome character. He is in fact like some kind of small dark beetle...a secret person. He, like a vampire, sucks the lifeblood out of his friends and girlfriends/wives/lovers. He purports to be deeply interested in being Jewish but is frustrated when the going gets tough....His lover Hephzibah recommends reading Moses Maimonides' The Guide for the Perplexed when he seeks enlightenment with regard to Jewish thought.....but poor Julian can barely make it beyond the first sentence and feels "like a child lost in a dark forest full of decrepit lucubrations." He is lost because he is never honest with himself about his motivations and he is certainly never honest with his friends about his innermost thoughts.
I wonder if by The Finkler Question in fact Jacobson is referring to the Human Question. Ultimately I felt I loathed Julian because I was seeing a reflection of myself.....see it's all about me!!! He disappointed me the same way I disappoint myself. There was no great triumph or change in Julian's character...he was excruciating from beginning to end...failing to see what a tosspot he was...as indeed no doubt we all do of ourselves. For me, The Finkler Question is about the mystery of the human condition...about our eternal quest to label, categorize, blame and explain the inexplicable.
Laugh? I could have cried.