Last night I had the grand opportunity of attending a BBC World Book Club taping of an interview with Howard Jacobson. It was in the intimate Soho Theatre, downtown London. I was right in the front row, and I even got to ask him a question!
BBC World Book Club
The Finkler Question is a novel of ideas. It is the first comic novel to be chosen for the Man Booker Prize, but Jacobson himself says that it is more of a tragedy than a comedy. ‘Finkler’ substitutes for ‘Jewish’ and so ‘The Jewish Question’ becomes the title for a novel which plays with ideas about being Jewish. Comedy is serious business to Jacobson, a tool in pursuit of the serious. He himself calls ‘Finkler Question’ a “deeply serious novel that happens to make you laugh.” Reviewers are quite polarized on this book. They either love it or find it boring. When Jacobson was asked about this, he said it made perfect sense. “That’s how comedy is,” he said, ” a joke is either funny to you or it isn’t.”
There are three main characters in the novel. Sam Finkler is Jewish but places no value on that. He is unobservant and flippant. Julian Treslove is not Jewish but wants to be, and strives to embrace all things Jewish. The two are friends (and rivals). They often meet with an elderly former teacher called Libor who was my favourite character in the book. Warm and sympathetic, Libor grieves for the loss of his dear wife. He is the perfect antidote to the rival friends. Julian is mugged one night while walking home from dinner with Sam & Libor. It is a pivotal moment for Julian.
If I’m honest, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy reading this book very much. But when I heard Howard Jacobson speak, it enriched the novel for me and made me appreciate its literary value. Jacobson said when he writes a book, he writes till page 28 and if he likes it so far, then he’s got his book and keeps writing. My advice is, don’t buy this book. Borrow it or pick it up at Chapters (and find a comfy chair). Read till page 28, and if you like it by then, keep going. I’m not giving you my copy because it’s signed. 🙂