Early in Howard Jacobson's novel, The Finkler Question, protagonist Julian Treslove is mugged late one night in London near Regent's Park. His assailant slams Treslove so hard against the window of a violin shop that the instruments inside begin to vibrate. But that's not what bothers Julian Treslove about the assault — certainly not the theft of his watch, or his wallet or fountain pen. "No," Jacobson writes:
What upset him beyond all these was the fact that the person who had robbed, assaulted and yes, terrified him — a person against whom he put up not a whisper of a struggle — was a woman.
That woman also makes a demand. "Your jewels," she says. And those two words lead Julian Treslove to believe that he is the victim of an anti-Semitic attack — he's convinced she has said "you Jew." The problem, of course, is that it's unlikely that this was her meaning. And also, that Treslove isn't Jewish.
Treslove's mugging and its aftermath gives you a sense of the wild ride you're in for in The Finkler Question. The satire is Howard Jacobson's 11th novel and was recently the recipient of this year's coveted Man Booker Prize for fiction — the highest literary prize awarded in the British Commonwealth. It is the first humorous work to win the honor in some time, proving that fiction doesn't have to be serious to be seriously good.
The Uncomfortable Notes Of A 'Jewish Jane Austen'
Literary critics have compared Jacobson to the British Philip Roth, but the author prefers to think of himself as a Jewish Jane Austen. His books are renowned for their biting social commentary, and The Finkler Question is no exception. Take Treslove, a liberal non-Jew who tends to fetishize his Jewish friends.
"The whole point of Treslove was to make some comedy out of how Jewishness looks to somebody who isn't a Jew," Jacobson tells NPR's Guy Raz. "I mean, we often [write about] how Jewishness looks to someone who isn't a Jew and who hates Jews, and in a book where there is some of that, I wanted the opposite too. I wanted [to convey] how Jewishness looks to somebody who really adores Jews, and so exaggerates their more lovable qualities."
For their part, Treslove's Jewish friends are just as conflicted about Jewish identity as he is. The titular Sam Finkler — a well-known radio personality and pop-philosopher who shows people how "Schopenhauer could help people with their love lives" - is not merely critical of Israel. He hates everything about the Jewish state, and goes as far as to join a group of British Jews who, "ashamed" of the state's actions, call for a number of boycotts against it.
According to Jacobson, the Finkler character is something of an archetype. "There are a lot of Sam Finklers," he says, "which is why I invented him — I invented him out of what I saw."
Plenty of Israel's Jewish critics exercise a tough love approach to the country, Jacobson adds — but Finkler isn't one of them.
"I think some would say, and I think it's a very very fair thing to say, that to be a friend of Israel is to be critical of Israel," he says. "But there's something else about Finkler that I go for in this book, and that accounts for some of the book's comic anger. And that's the whole business of being ashamed."
"What annoys me about that is not the politics [of people like Finkler], but the idea that what's happening somewhere else is about them," he explains. "It's the vanity of it; it's the egoism. It's the wearing their hearts on their sleeves. It's this carnival of conscience that I make fun of in the book — not the political position at all, which in some cases is perfectly reasonable. It's the fact that you know, [the mentality is] I feel this. I feel this in my heart. It's my story. [The Israeli conflict's] about me."
There's a reason that Israel is such a delicate subject in England, Jacobson says. He proposes that public debates about Israel are rooted in unacknowledged questions about the role of Jews in British culture.
"They would of course deny it," he says, "but there is a virulence at the moment about Israel in England. When I was writing this novel — and this was one of the impulses behind the writing of the novel, to investigate this — many Jews that I knew, rational, calm Jews were truly wondering whether England would go on being the safe haven for them that it's been for a long time."
"[England's] not the kind of safe haven America is for Jews," Jacobson adds. "A Jew in America feels he's absolutely of the American culture, and plays his part in the founding of and the molding of and the re-creation of American culture."
A Jew in England is "slightly more distant" from mainstream British culture, observes Jacobson. "Distant but safe, it seemed, until the last few years," he says. "It might not be that it's unsafe on the streets [for Jews], though it has been unsafe on the streets for some when things get particularly hot in the Middle East — during the blockade, the Gaza blockade and so on.
"It's just the temperature of the newspapers. It can be very wearing to Jewish nerves to have this bombardment all the time."
An Unexpected Jewish Writer
Jacobson was not raised in a particularly observant Jewish home. He barely stepped into a synagogue as a child, and as a writer his intention was to never write about the Anglo-Jewish experience. When he started writing about Jews, he says, it astonished his family and friends — and he certainly surprised himself.
"This book surprised me," he says. "I wrote a novel once called The Mighty Waltson, which is about playing table tennis actually; it's about being Jewish and playing table tennis. And then I wrote a novel called Kalooki Nights, which was intensely Jewish. It had the Jew on every line really. It was a novel about being obsessed with being a Jew. I mean every line was 'Jew Jew Jew, joke joke joke, why why why' — obsession was its subject. And I thought that was that."
"And then somehow," he says, laughing, "this novel came along, and [its Jewishness] took me by surprise too. But you're right to have said that I never began as thinking of myself as a Jewish writer at all."
"I never really knew very much about it," he adds. "I'm still a bit of a Treslove, actually. This may be where Treslove comes from. I'm still a bit of a gentile, looking with my nose pressed in against the window of Jewishness, thinking, 'How fantastic! What great jokes they make! Look how wild they are, look how warm they are, look how deeply they love, and so on!'
"I am a touch like that still."
The Finkler Question
By Howard Jacobson
Paperback, 320 pages
List Price: $15
Read An Excerpt
The Finkler Question
by Howard Jacobson
What does it mean to be Jewish? Howard Jacobson tackles that essential uncertainty head-on in The Finkler Question, which was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction on Tuesday. One of the most fearless writers to delve into the question of Jewish identity, Jacobson has established himself as the literary voice of the Jewish community in Britain — a country where Jews are a much smaller and less assimilated minority compared with America. His tale of a lackluster London liberal who yearns to pass as a Jew is rife with satire that's so biting it pulls you along for 300 pages and leaves a battlefield of sacred cows in its wake.
320 pages, $15, Bloomsbury USA
A Life Beyond Limits
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Dorothea Lange's photographs of the Great Depression are one reason many of us have an image of what that era looked like. Born in 1895, Lange's own life was difficult. At age 7, she had polio, which left her with a withered lower right leg and a twisted, crabbed foot. Yet she was physically and emotionally strong and ambitious at a time when women weren't supposed to be. "One of the reasons that she was such a good portrait photographer is that she had an extraordinary power to connect with all sorts of people, to draw them out," author Linda Gordon tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
560 pages, $19.95, W.W. Norton & Co.
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304 pages, $14.99, Grand Central Publishing
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288 pages, $15.95, Public Affairs
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352 pages, $15.95, Vintage
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also writes the Follow the Reader blog about digital publishing issues.
The Finkler Question
By Howard Jacobson
Paperback, 320 pages
List Price: $15
Read An Excerpt
In 2002, during my final semester of university, I went to the Caribbean on spring break. Settling into my seat on the airplane, the girl next to me introduced herself. Her name was Nalah, she proudly proclaimed, and she was Palestinian. "What's your background, David?"
There it was. The question. Who, or what, was I really? She knew I was Jewish. I knew she knew I was Jewish, but I was going to do everything in my power to avoid that answer. This was during the peak of the second Palestinian intifada, a time of suicide bombings and army airstrikes, and I'd seen enough shouting matches on campus that year to know I didn't want to be accused of war crimes in the cramped seat of a 737. "My family's from Eastern Europe," I told her, and when she prodded for more, I countered with "Romania, Lithuania, who knows, it was a long time ago." After a few minutes of ducking and weaving she saw I wasn't going to play the game, and we both turned to the in-flight movie. Thankfully it wasn't Munich.
What does it mean to be Jewish? To some it means sitting down at Katz's delicatessen with a pastrami sandwich. To others, it's setting up a hilltop outpost in the West Bank and waiting for the messiah. That essential uncertainty, pondered by everyone from rabbis and philosophers to Shakespeare and Sammy Davis Jr., is what Howard Jacobson tackles head on in The Finkler Question.
This unabashedly Jewish novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The winner will be announced Tuesday and, for me, The Finkler Question should win the award. [Editor's Note: The Finkler Question did, in fact, win the Booker prize on October 12.]
The story revolves around Julian Treslove, a melancholy, lackluster London liberal. After Treslove is mugged one night, he believes, with increasing certainty, that his attacker called him a Jew. Though his best friends are Jewish, Treslove is not. Or at least he's fairly certain he isn't. But as a result of the incident, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the question of Jewishness.
Treslove doesn't approach his journey into Judaism from a religious standpoint. He takes no steps to learn Hebrew or convert. Instead, his obsession is cultural. He wishes to understand the mannerisms of Jewish life; the hidden code of Jewish sarcasm and the subtleties of Jewish body language.
As Treslove yearns to pass as a Jew, many of his Jewish contemporaries in the book do their best to pass as gentiles, including one pitiful character who spends his waking hours trying to reverse his circumcision, chronicling his efforts on a blog, photos and all.
Jacobson isn't the first writer to delve into the question of Jewish identity, and he surely won't be the last. But he is definitely one of the most fearless. Over much of the past three decades, he has established himself as the literary voice of the Jewish community in Britain; a country where Jews are a much smaller and less assimilated minority compared with America, and where the specter of anti-Semitism makes many British Jews wary of drawing attention to themselves. But Jacobson is unabashedly proud of being labeled a Jewish writer, and The Finkler Question tackles an uncomfortable issue with satire that is so biting, so pointed, that it pulls you along for 300 pages and leaves a battlefield of sacred cows in its wake.
The book's appeal to Jewish readers is obvious, but like all great Jewish art — the paintings of Marc Chagall, the books of Saul Bellow, the films of Woody Allen — it is Jacobson's use of the Jewish experience to explain the greater human one that sets it apart. Who among us is so certain of our identity? Who hasn't been asked, "What's your background" and hesitated, even for a split second, to answer their inquisitor? Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question forces us to ask that of ourselves, and that's why it's a must read, no matter what your background.
David Sax is the author of the book Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.