The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

So, I’m finally done with my second Booker winner this year, the first being The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, 2011 Man Booker Prize Winner and a much easier read! This one is many things, but easy is not one of them! I haven’t rated this book and I don’t think I will, because frankly I can’t make up my mind whether I like it or not! Doesn’t happen too often, although these days it’s been happening more often than before. Perhaps that reflects a better choice in literature? Or perhaps a deeper insight while reading? Or just a keener sense of self? Who knows? Who cares? I think I’m beginning to channel Jacobson 😛 Think like him or worse feel like Treslove! Why use one word when you can use several dictionaries? Why stop at one question when there’s a whole smorgasbord waiting to be sampled? So back to the rating question, there were times when I liked it, for the humor, for the originality of thought for the language, and times when I just wanted to stop reading from frustration at the repetition of thought and ideas and the wordiness, oh the wordiness! But I’ve promised myself that this is my Booker year…am attempting to tackle that side of literature that I generally avoid because I think I’m not going to get it, it’ll be too difficult, too elite, too everything! So I persevered. This book is one of those for me – it requires perseverance and patience – neither my forte when it comes to books nor life for that matter 😛

Anyway, moving on to the book itself, a story of three friends, two ‘real’ Jews and one ‘aspiring’, two widowers and one ‘aspiring’, two ‘sane’ and one ‘aspiring’. Let me explain. Libor and Finkler are ‘widowers’, united in their loss of wives. Treslove excluded from this macabre club that he longs to belong to, and indeed seems the most logical member given his approach to life and women…”He no sooner saw the woman than he saw the aftermath of her…”. Never married and always left behind, seeing a tragedy at the beginning of every love-story, living the title of the ‘eternal widower’! Again, of Libor, Finkler and Treslove, it’s fairly obvious as to who are the two ‘real’ Jews, at least by birth and sentiment if not choice. Libor and Finkler appear secure in their ‘Jewishness’ (whatever that means, and at the best of times it means many things, like it does with every race. Jews aren’t unique in their idiosyncrasies, although their idiosyncrasies are unique to them!), although appearances are as always deceptive. Treslove on the other hand is like an echo of a Jew, distant and hollow, trying to learn how to be one by incessant questioning and observations from which he invariably reaches the wrong conclusion every time. He was rather endearing initially albeit maudlin, because his questions were mine, his thoughts were mine, but then, began to grate on my nerves as I learned my lessons and he seemed to ignore his! Perhaps he never really wanted to, which is what I suspected from the beginning. This book has me confused as you can see (is that the sign of a good book?), and confusion makes me ‘wordy’, so please forgive me, I know not what I do…like Treslove, I haven’t a clue! Well rating or no rating, its obvious this book has got under my skin in a big way.

I’m not a Jew, and I don’t personally know anyone that is, living as I do in the largely Jewless (to my knowledge) state of Goa, India. But the questions in the book intrigued me in that they are applicable to every faith, and consequently every human. What does it mean to be a ________? (Pick a Faith, a gender, a class, a nationality, a profession!). That’s the central question in the book, from which all others originate, unto which all others congregate. A question that in my opinion has many answers, none of which are wrong and all of which are the sum of several differing lines of thought. Treslove however is not satisfied with any of them. He remains until the end, unable to make sense of the different answers presented to him by Libor, by Finkler, by the Hunoesque Hephzibah – and that to me was disappointing. He insisted on staying juvenile while I willed him to grow up and that irritated me! Still I do recognize his type, and I don’t have much patience with them in life either. Perhaps it’s my failing rather than theirs. They seem happy enough in their own context. See, didn’t I say – confused!

I’ve known people like Treslove, who seem content in their sadness, indeed who seem more at home in it, who seem to choose it and embrace it, like I would never do (Mom is one of them). I don’t get it – it angers and disappoints me. I’m essentially a ‘happy’ person and yes probably more judgmental than I thought! Perhaps that was another reason I wanted to get a hold of Treslove and shake him, much like his mugger did, make him see that happiness is available too, it’s a choice too, like he discovered ever so briefly with Hephzibah before getting into the self-sabotage act. Why didn’t he get it? Is it so difficult? Why is self-doubt so much easier than self-belief? See…more questions! I’ve been wondering as I type, whether I have a favourite character at all. Hephzibah is a front runner for the title. She’s spunky and identifiable with, the most ‘normal’ of the lot, in my opinion. Also she’s the only woman that matters, that’s alive in the book, which adds to her appeal 😛 I thought I liked Libor best but Finkler has grown on me. Let me put it this way – he’s my kind of crazy! I wish there had been more Tyler-Sam scenes, they’re brilliant! Tyler’s brilliant – sharp enough to cut men – physically, mentally and spiritually – and unafraid to use those edges! What a woman! Libor-Malkie in contrast were less appealing, perhaps because I thought them more conventional. I wasn’t too surprised with what happened to Libor, I’d seen it coming. It’s not that kind of book – if anything it’s predictable and characters stay true to their type, although I have hopes for Finkler’s evolution 😉

The language – I loved at times and at times the long hyphenated sentences had me tearing my hair out. And yet, who would think to compare the coming of dawn to a military coup? Bloody brilliant that! The book is full of clever one-liners that I’m not going to list here. There are too many and they are best read in context. So I guess you’ll just have to brave the book 😉 The ending, inasmuch as it can be called that, coz do such books (or should I say books that deal with such subjects), have an ending, is not entirely unexpected. But the last line of the book stays with me, and I quote,”There are no limits to Finkler’s mourning.” That I think is a brilliant beginning…for a whole other book! Clever that! And as I type, more questions come to mind – does the last line mean that Finkler is turning into his own kind of Treslove? If it does, what does that mean exactly? Did I really like this book or has it just irritated me into admiration with its cleverness, and wit and endless questions and existential angst? All that soul-searching and I still can’t say one way or another! But it has affected me and it will stay with me and I will recommend it to people who are unafraid of challenging reads and have bucket-loads of perseverance and patience, coz didn’t I say earlier? It’s that kind of book!

3 thoughts on “The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

  1. This is a great review H! It resonates with me on so many levels! I could never have written a review for this book, and if anyone could tackle such a job, it’s you.
    TFQ is definitely a book that gets under your skin, and I love the way you got to the bottom of Treslove and his shortcomings 🙂
    It took me much longer to read though, my life is spent in a haze of A.D.D 😛 But despite everything, I’m glad I finished it. There was no question of not finishing it, of course, just saying. And yes, I appreciated the humour, even when it got a bit dark, the one-liners…the insights. They really made you stop …and think.

    1. Aaaaw! Thanks M!

      I didn’t think I could write one either but I had to, coz I’ve decided that book reviews are going to be an important part of my blogging this year. That way I won’t run out of things to say, and also it’ll help me remember what the book was about when I’ve forgotten all about it in a couple of months 😛 So, I just decided to write about how it made me feel rather than go into details about what it’s all about, coz it’s about too many things!

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