Has anyone other than the Man Booker judges read all their prize winning authors? Mostly I don’t seek out books just because they’ve won major literary prizes, as I’m a bit cynical about whether this means a book is great.
But a couple of years ago I reviewed Whatever it is I don’t Like it, by Howard Jacobson, for a newspaper, and I enjoyed it so much I decided to buy The Finkler Question, by Jacobson, which won the Booker in 2010. Whatever it is is a selection of his weekly columns for The Independent, a British literary/cultural magazine. I found these short pieces witty, lyrical, surprising, suffused with melancholy delight in the absurdities of people, including himself. I expected more of the same in The Finkler Question. But I ended up skipping a large chunk of it and not being any less wise as a consequence.
The central theme of the novel is Jewish identity. The unusual narrative device is to have the central character, Julian Treslove, as a non-Jew who wants to be Jewish, whose two male best friends are Jewish, and whose lover/partner is Jewish. The name of the novel is from the surname of one of his best friends, who stands, in the friend’s mind, for the quintessential Jewishness he admires, in his uncomfortably rational secularism somewhere in the middle between orthodox Jews and anti-Semites. The three friends each have a voice, but the dominant one is Julian’s; he is always worrying about something, and creates his own fears, the central one being the loss of the woman he adores, Hephzibah. Sexuality (male) is another central theme. Each man, in different ways, is compromised on this level; no-one is in a happy relationship, except Julian, who destroys his by his jealousy and insecurity.
I could ramble on, but I confess I’d have to spend a lot more time on this book than I want to write an intelligent review. I just couldn’t relate to it. Nothing much happens; much of it is conversation and internal dialogue that goes nowhere, except round in circles. The author sums it up himself, in this snatch of internal dialogue, when Treslove tries to escape his fears by walking in the park, only to find there is no escape:
The park was the biggest outdoor space for thinking in London, bigger even than Hampstead where too many thinkers jostled you for thought room. Some mornings Treslove believed he was the only person in the entire park thinking… The same thoughts which he’d brought into the park waiting for him as he left it.
It was not purposeful thinking, it was just thinking. Reliving himself. …
And what then did these mornings of free, unimpeded thinking amount to?
And more. Treslove spends his life in mourning, as he acknowledges, as does Finkler, as does the third friend, who ends his in despair; but one is never sure what all the mourning is about. The Finkler question — who is Finkler, and how does one be him? — if that is the question (I’m never sure) is not answered.
I’ll be glad to read something which has some structure and a theme that doesn’t tie itself in knots.
Not that this book is without charm. Passages are mildly amusing or interesting, but out of it all, I have a prevailing sense of the futility of living, whether you are Jewish or not. All the charm and humour and elegant prose in the world can’t make this an interesting theme, treated on this level, where nothing much happens, or if it does it is diffused with cerebral angst and futile analysis.