Questions of belonging
An evocative novel about the search for meaning and coherence in our chaotic lives…
The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson, Bloomsbury, 2010, price not stated.
A “story waiting for a plot” describes Julian Treslove, the protagonist of The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. Treslove's sense of ambiguity about life in general is underlined by his profession; i.e., he harnesses his indistinctive good looks to play various celebrity lookalikes. The plot that finally propels his story begins with a seemingly small incident that occurs one night, after he dines with his two closest friends, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik.
Finkler and Sevcik are both Jews who have been recently widowed, but there the similarity ends. Nonagenarian Sevcik, once a teacher to the other two, is open-minded, stable, faithful. Though his former job of reporting on Hollywood celebrities placed him on friendly terms with such glamorous stars as Marilyn Monroe, he remained dedicated to his late wife Malkie. Finkler, less faithful in more ways than one, is a hugely popular pop psychologist and — shades of Alain de Botton — author of such books as The Existentialist in the Kitchen.
Treslove is not Jewish, but is fixated on the Jewish culture. From the outside, it seems to him a special club; if he could somehow belong to this fellowship, it would finally give him that sense of “belonging” he so craves.
But, back to the fateful dinner between the three friends; after the meal, Treslove decides to go walking down Regent Street and much to his shock is mugged by a woman, who calls him a Jew. Or does she? Either way, this becomes the tipping point that Treslove has been waiting for; he convinces himself he is a Jew, and sets about trying to integrate into the faith.
Between Finkler and Treslove runs a strong undercurrent of male competitiveness, and for Treslove, the issue of Jewishness is synonymous with Finkler. He figures that “Finkler” is a better name for Jewish people than “Jew”, and that's what he calls them in private. Treslove obsesses about what is Finklerish and what isn't. “Finklers did tone,” he muses. “As with music, they might not have invented it, but they had mastered its range”. At another point he wistfully wonders if “Finklers only permitted other Finklers to tell Finkler jokes.” At any rate, he reasons, the “minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”
The book's title, then, “translates” as meaning, The Jewish Question — a pretty accurate description of Jacobson's preoccupations. He examines with angry wit and nuanced arguments, what it means to be Jewish, especially in the UK, and what it means to become Jewish. Taking on a religion that you weren't born into isn't an unusual fact. Even Taylor, Finkler's dead wife, became a Jew only when she married him — but she then turned into a truer member of the faith than her husband. In Treslove's case, however, it is no act of faith; he merely wants entry into what he sees as a united, special and closed group.
The irony, of course, is that the Jews are not a homogenous group, and Jacobson raises provocative questions about the anti-Semitic Jew and the anti-Zionist Jew. For example, though Finkler refuses to be categorised as a self-hating Jew, he is anti-Israel and a member of the “ASHamed Jews”.
Certainly, all this social history and philosophy adds up to a specialised investigation into a specialised topic, which might seem far removed from the Indian reader. Jacobson goes into tedious details at times, when excavating the hard-to-define sense of “Jewishness”, and the needy Treslove is someone you often lose patience with. A fair query then is this: if the Jewish question isn't one that deeply interests you, is it worth reading the book?
Personally, I would suggest it is, in part to enjoy the unusual treatment of the language, which does more than merely tell the story. Jacobson's gifts as a writer are apparent in the throwaway observation and the evocative metaphor, which are part of the structure, rather than self-conscious “effects”. The satire is well done: an observation of a minor character to be American, because “looked too amazed by life to be English”, or a comment that “Nosebleeding, like grief, is something you do in the privacy of your own home”.
The Finkler Question also offers interesting insights into male friendships, male vulnerabilities and male romantic relationships. For instance, when the ever-doubting Treslove questions Sevcik about whether he believed his dead wife was faithful to him, the old man replies: “Of course I can't be sure. But if she allowed me to believe she had never played me false, then she never played me false. You don't judge fidelity by every act: it's the desire to say you're faithful and the desire to be believed.”
Treslove strikes a chord with people who are unsure of their place in the world. It is one of the strong incentives for why we join churches or kitty groups, play golf or Scrabble, sign up for a political party or a cult: to feel the security of being part of a larger group that promises to give meaning and coherence to our chaotic lives. Weaving together satirical and compassionate commentary, Jacobson's own obsession with the quality of Jewishness thus offers an entry into a more generic human dilemma - how we define our identity based on a religious or socio-political construct.
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