The last book I read in 100 words: The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobsen

by Stephen Tall on December 31, 2010

The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobsen

Like most other readers, I suspect, I read this because it won the Man Booker Prize. It’s ostensibly a comic novel in which the protagonist, Julian Treslove, cuts an absurd figure: a failed arts producer who is now reduced to earning a living as a lookalike, he envies his lifelong friends, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik, their widower status, begrudges their tragic losses.

Treslove’s character is a sipher for rootless lack of (goyish) identity. Mugged by a woman, this humiliation triggers a mid-life crisis in which he adopts a cultural Jewish lifestyle in the hope this will offer him greater meaning and purpose.

In parallel, Finkler and Libor try to cope with their different griefs: Finkler who took his wife for granted, Libor whose wife was the centre of his universe. With ironic paradox, it is Finkler — a vehement anti-Zionist — who begins to find truth and comfort through his ethnicity, while Libor commits suicide, and Treslove finishes the novel as lost as he was when he started.

If all this makes the novel sound heavy-going… well, to be honest it is. But it is also dripping with smart, dry, well-observed one-liners, and poses some grown-up questions about our individual and collective responses to grief, identity, and nationhood.