This is my review of The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson.
You probably need to be a middle-aged, middle-class, urban-dwelling, arty, erudite Jewish male to appreciate this book fully.
The opening paragraphs irritated me enormously with Treslove's ludicrous fantasies about the women he met dying in his arms like opera heroines. Gradually, however, the narrative hooked me with the crazy roller-coaster of farcical scenes peppered with the dry Jewish wit that made me laugh out loud. Although the wordplay was at times too much to take, I particularly liked the Stoppard-cum-Pinter talking at cross purposes dialogues. The unlikely trio of friends, Libor, Treslove and Finkler were developed as distinct and interesting characters, arousing in turn dislike and irritation yet sympathy as regards the two younger men. The scenes between Treslove and Libor were very poignant. I also noted some telling little comments – such as the fact that part of Schubert's brilliance lies in the way he sounds as if he is improvising effortlessly music of great originality and beauty.
Although "not much happens" and there were quite a few points where my interest flagged, as in Treslove's obsessive speculation over the identity of his strange female mugger, and the meaning of her words "You Jew", or whatever it was, only for this particular incident to "fizzle out" anyway, the story gained pace, depth and some menace towards the end.
The final chapter disappointed me at first, and seemed a little tame and flat in its wording, yet was on reflection the only possible ending.
My feelings are mixed. I appreciate the quality of the writing, but it was a little self-indulgent or "too clever by half" at times. Likewise, the capacity to examine questions from all angles was sometimes tedious but also enlightening. I admire the fact that the author pulls no punches – but, as a Jew, he can of course "say the unsayable" in a way that perhaps a "Gentile" cannot. The anecdote about the Jew who had an affair with a holocaust denier went beyond the bounds of taste for me, but I could see on reflection that the point of the book was to cover every conceivable prejudice and twist associated with Jewishness. The author may in the process provide many readers with an increased understanding of "being Jewish" issues. Yet at the same time I did at times get heartily bored with the self-absorption, and endless agonising over being Jewish. Treslove's desire to become Jewish as a way of belonging was interesting (after my initial scepticism), but overdone to the point of becoming a "reader turn off". A slightly less neurotic character might have been more convincing and moving – but at the expense of some of the farcical humour.
I was touched by the relationships between "the trio" and the main women in their lives: Malkie, Tyler and Hephzibah. The descriptions of the latter's cooking – a mammoth effort and fifty pans to produce an omelette with chives- were hilarious, as was the image of her searching the bed for the small portion that was Treslove's. Portrayal of the mothers of Treslove's sons was less satisfactory. The male obsession with ogling women in wet bikini bottoms made me groan. Continual digs at the BBC as a ghastly workplace seemed like an overused "in joke" for friends reading the book. Some of the violence seemed gratuitous, such as Finkler's murderous lust for Tamara Krausz, and the overuse of the F-word by almost everybody.
So, I would recommend this novel but am not sure that it deserves to win the Booker, even though it reminded me at times of Saul Bellow, John Updike and Paul Auster…..Yet I have made a note to read "Kalooki Nights"….. (n.b. proved as unreadable as many reviewers have found this!)