Man Booker Prize

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By Mandy Webster

The Finkler Question. Howard Jacobson. Bloomsbury USA, New York. 2010.

The Finkler Question, by British author Howard Jacobson, is a long, dull, back-tracking read I wouldn’t recommend to anyone (Finkler or non-Finkler.) I don’t know if I would even waste my time reading this review if I were you. That is, unless you are a critic. The critics apparently love this Man Booker Prize winning pain in the arse. Anyway, this was my original reaction to The Finkler Question.

I had to read this book for a class I’m taking on Literature and Humor, and I struggled to get through that first section. We were to have read the entire novel by the time we met for class this past Saturday, but I only managed to get through Part I. By the time I arrived on campus, I had given up on The Finkler Question and decided to just wing it through class. But after discussing the book with my fellow graduate students, I decided maybe I should give Finkler a second chance.

So yes, I have finally finished, and I mean truly finished, The Finkler Question. The entire book. And here’s what I have learned: If you can manage to get through Part I without throwing the book in the nearest dust bin, the rest of The Finkler Question is a surprisingly good read, albeit a tough one. As it turns out, much like ogres and onions, this book has layers. Many, many layers.

The Finkler Question is a question of identity. Who’s a Jew, who’s not a Jew, who wishes they were Jews and who is more Jewish than the rest of the Jews. Julian Treslove, our main character and token Gentile, obviously struggles with his own identity. But many of Jacobson’s other characters struggle with identity as well. Both Libor and Finkler have foundered without their wives, but for very different reasons.

Libor can’t face life without his beloved Malkie, while Finkler hardly noticed his own wife, Tyler, existed until after she had passed.

Treslove envies Libor and Finkler their widowhood. He has spent his entire life imagining his own widowhood but has never managed to keep a woman long enough to survive her. Treslove himself is a nobody, a man who has spent his own life waiting for someone to tell him who to be. So, when he imagines that the female who is mugging him has called him a Jew, he decides to try that identity on for size, even finding himself a “Jewess,” Libor’s niece.

But back to those layers… I understand now why the critics have heaped so much praise on this particular novel. There is so much complexity between the covers of The Finkler Question, it is impossible to take it all in on the first reading.

I wonder now, if I were to reread Part I, would it be any more bearable knowing what I know now about the rest of the book? Or would it simply irritate me more that the author wasted so much of his time (and mine) in attempting to weave what amounts to a few necessary chapters of background information into the “seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes” for which the Independent on Sunday (UK) praises Jacobson?

Could the author have pared down that first portion of the book into a more manageable introduction for the sake of the reader, if not for himself? Or would the painfully slow rise of tension that carries the reader through the rest of the novel have been lost? I fear these are questions I personally will not be able to answer until after a second, third, maybe even a fourth reading.

The Finkler Question is a thought provoking novel, one which leads the reader to examine his or her own identity as well as churning up questions of how and why we identify with whatever it is we each choose to identify.

*Note: This book is not recommended for those who wish to avoid thinking while reading.

Get your own copy of The Finkler Question at the Brew City Book Lovers store.


Amanda L. Webster