Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Finkler Question

Furious. Acerbic. Unflinching.

Even the briefest glance at Howard Jacobson's face would seem to explain why these are the words often used to describe his work (the other one is "funny"). Surely those craggy, prophet-like features must never be more than a twitch away from a thunderous scowl? Journalist Allison Pearson once described him as looking like "God after a bad day at the bookmakers", and there's definitely something there that suggests grumpiness on an epic scale.

Luckily, Jacobson turns out to be an interviewer's delight - easy-going, open and brimful of bonhomie. This sunniness is at least partly a consequence of his latest novel, The Finkler Question, reaching the shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

Literary gongs have been a bit of a sore point with him until now, even though his books get glowing reviews (Jonathan Safran Foer called him "a great, great writer") and he is often compared to Philip Roth. Yet come the awards ceremonies...nada.

"I've had this reputation as a good writer who is constantly overlooked, and I've been quite fed up with it," he tells me. "If you're identified with a certain kind of non-achievement, it counts against you in the end. So now I feel that particular spell has been broken, and I'm pleased about that."

Of course, there is no accounting for judges' tastes. But there is always the possibility that his novels trade in subjects still off-limits to some, like humour and the Holocaust - the main conceit behind Kalooki Nights (2006). Or perhaps it's because they deal with other issues that cut uncomfortably close to the bone, like British anti-Semitism.

"My father always said: 'Keep your head down, stay schtum.' In the UK, you must demonstrate your remove from Jewishness if you want to feel more English. That's not the case in America, where you often get the feeling that Jewish life is almost synonymous with general cultural life. But over here, while we're not disrespected or disregarded, the Jewish way of thinking and speaking has simply not shaped the culture in the same way and probably never will."

That aside, there is no doubt The Finkler Question is a triumph - funny, clever, and dark. Its protagonist, Julian Treslove, is a typical Jacobson creation: a middle-aged man much given to angst, falling heavily in love and regarding his male friends as rivals. He's also been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. Or so he thinks. The problem is, he's not actually Jewish, though his two best friends are - Sam Finkler, philosopher and author, and Libor Secvik, his former teacher.

Sam and Libor are both newly widowed, and Julian's feeling left out - while the other two debate Zionism and mourn their wives, all he's got is an uninspiring job as a celebrity lookalike and a brace of sons he doesn't care to remember. So he decides to learn Hebrew, studies Jewish history, meets a Jewish woman and gets a job in a Jewish museum. But can all this satisfy the need to belong?

This is Jacobson's eleventh novel and, like all its predecessors, it uses humour to drive home his discursive, digressive but always thoughtful interrogations of what it means to be a Jew in England.

"I have always argued for the primacy of comedy in fiction. I don't mean jokes - I mean the illumination of another way of seeing, the sudden turning of an action on its head; not to make light of it but to enrich it."

Such as his depiction of one particularly woebegone character who keeps a blog recording his attempts to regrow a foreskin. Or the bitingly satirical scenes where Finkler spearheads a group called "Ashamed Jews", whose raison d'etre is their grievance towards Israel.

Jacobson's speaking to me from his converted loft in London's Soho, which he shares with his third wife, television producer Jenny de Yong. It's a seemingly natural habitat for a sophisticated, successful author - yet his roots are in working-class, Jewish Manchester. His late father was a "market trading, taxi-driving magician", his mother raised their children at home.

"We were Jewish in a very secular way. We were expected to have bar mitzvas, but we didn't know what it was, really. Our parents got a bit upset when we went out with non-Jewish girls - there was a feeling that you weren't meant to 'marry out'. There was no sense of the kind of Orthodoxy that is in the air at the moment."

Both his parents had an abiding love for culture: his father for opera, his mother for books, and that led Jacobson to pursue a degree at Cambridge. He later taught literature at various universities, but says that his academic career ran aground in the late Seventies. "I neglected it because I wanted to be a writer. I didn't do all the things you were supposed to do."

Yet his literary career took a while to get going. His first novel, Coming From Behind - often described as a Jewish Lucky Jim - was not published until 1983, when he was in his 40s. Once he'd got over the fact that he was no Tolstoy, he finally found his voice.

After that, all he wanted was success as a writer and it still matters to him more than anything, even though he's busier than ever. He's about to publish a collection of the columns he writes for The Independent, he's just made a film about British art for Channel Four, and he's also well into his next novel.

And, of course, there's the upcoming Man Booker. How does he stand the anticipation?

"My mother, who is in her late 80s and pessimistic - Jewishly pessimistic - gave me a piece of her mind on that. 'Don't hope for much. Enjoy it now! Let this be enough.' It's good advice, actually, because right now I do feel blessed."

Melissa de Villiers

1 comment:

  1. There were some funny passages, but generally this is the flimsiest of Booker prize winners. No plot to speak of, rather stereotyped characters, predictable jokes. This sort of thing is done better by people like Woody Allen or Saul Bellow. And one thing made me rather uncomfortable: the relentless lampooning of anyone who has anything critical to say about Gaza.