The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson

First Sentence:  He should have seen it coming.

Almost a year after it won the Booker Prize I finally succumbed and read the 2010 winner. I’ve been avoiding all things Booker related of late as I haven’t really enjoyed a Booker winner since The Gathering won in 2007, though it’s the one literary prize that’s almost impossible to ignore, and sometimes it does come up with some worthy winners ( see Midnight’s Children and Disgrace for two ). With all the talk of Philip Roth winning the International Booker last week I was reeled back in to Bookerland and gave this a go. Am I glad I did? No. The writing – wonderful, the characterisation – almost perfect (and yes it did even have some comic moments, though not as many as they would have you believe; more mild chuckles than uproarious belly laughs), but the plot – non-existent. After the initial drama, where Julian Treslove is mugged by a woman who mistakenly calls him a Jew (he thinks), nothing happens. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that. Literally nothing of interest happens, nothing that makes you want to get back reading after you take a break. Instead we are treated to endless diatribes on Jewishness, and what it means to be a Jew, and anti-Semitism, and Zionism, and circumcision, and Gaza, and Israel, and Palestine, and the holocaust, and on and on and on and on and Jesus won’t he change the record? Maybe I’m being overly harsh, as this is essentially what the book is about ( The ‘Finkler Question’ being Julian’s term for the ‘Jewish Question’, named after his Jewish friend Sam Finkler) but really, in a novel I look for more than expositions on religion and/or ethnicity. I want more than philosophical musings. I want a story. The plot goes nowhere, and for me, in a novel of this size, that is unforgivable. Well written it may be, but it lacks that one ingredient it needs to make it a truly great book. A pretty vital ingredient in my opinion and without it, this book is severely lacking.

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Last Sentence:    There are no limits to Finkler’s mourning.

Last Sentence explained:  So anyway, the three main characters are Julian Treslove – former BBC radio producer working as a lookalike and never married, Sam Finkler – a popular Jewish philosopher newly widowed, and Libor Sevcik – a former teacher of both Julian and Sam, also recently widowed. After an evening recounting their misfortunes in love at Libor’s place, Julian is attacked on the way home and begins to question his identity. All because he thinks his female assailant called him a Jew during the assault. And so the next few hundred pages are filled with talk of all things Jewish. And we learn that Julian had an affair with Sam’s wife. And we learn that he confides in Libor who is none too impressed. And we learn that Libor kills himself. And then, thankfully, it ends. In the end, as Sam Finkler mourns the death of his friend he is also thinking of everybody else in his life, both living and dead. There is just no end to the suffering…

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