Summary and book reviews of The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question

by Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question
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  • Paperback:
    Oct 2010, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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Book Summary

The Finkler Question is a scorching story of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and of the wisdom and humanity of maturity. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best.

"He should have seen it coming. His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one…"

Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular and disappointed BBC worker, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they've never quite lost touch with each other - or with their former teacher, Libor Sevick, a Czechoslovakian always more concerned with the wider world than with exam results.

Now, both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and with Treslove, his chequered and unsuccessful record with women rendering him an honorary third widower, they dine at Libor's grand, central London apartment.

It's a sweetly painful evening of reminiscence in which all three remove themselves to a time before they had loved and lost; a time before they had fathered children, before the devastation of separations, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. Better, perhaps, to go through life without knowing happiness at all because that way you had less to mourn? Treslove finds he has tears enough for the unbearable sadness of both his friends' losses.

And it's that very evening, at exactly 11:30pm, as Treslove hesitates a moment outside the window of the oldest violin dealer in the country as he walks home, that he is attacked. After this, his whole sense of who and what he is will slowly and ineluctably change.

The Finkler Question is a scorching story of exclusion and belonging, justice and love, aging, wisdom and humanity. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best.

He should have seen it coming.

His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one.

He was a man who saw things coming. Not shadowy premonitions before and after sleep, but real and present dangers in the daylit world. Lamp posts and trees reared up at him, splintering his shins. Speeding cars lost control and rode on to the footpath leaving him lying in a pile of torn tissue and mangled bones. Sharp objects dropped from scaffolding and pierced his skull.

Women worst of all. When a woman of the sort Julian Treslove found beautiful crossed his path it wasn"t his body that took the force but his mind. She shattered his calm.

True, he had no calm, but she shattered whatever calm there was to look forward to in the future. She was the future.

People who see what"s coming have faulty chronology, that is all. Treslove"s clocks were all wrong. He no ...

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  • award image

    Man Booker Prize
    2010

  • award image

    Man Booker Prize
    2010

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

There are three good reasons to read The Finkler Question:
1) To gain insight into the many views and disparate experiences of Jewish people in the 21st century.
2) To experience the almost perfect blend of humor and seriousness in the writing.
3) To enjoy a rich story about the human condition that includes friendship, love, religion, ambition, loss, aging and dying. ...   (Reviewed by Judy Krueger).

Full Review Members Only (519 words).

Media Reviews

Eric Herschthal, Jewish Week

Full of caustic moments … that are also, essentially, funny … No matter the book’s themes, the way Jacobson weds humor to seriousness makes it affecting for anyone.

Ron Charles, Washington Post

The Finkler Question is often awfully funny, even while it roars its witty rage at the relentless, ever-fracturing insanity of anti-Semitism, which threatens to drive its victims a little crazy, too. This is, after all, a comedy that begins and ends in grief.

Daily Beast

The Finkler Question, a clever, canny, textured, subtle, and humane novel exploring the friendship of three ageing male friends…is a work of greatness… Although The Finkler Question is by no means a straightforward comic novel, it once again demonstrates Jacobson’s mastery of the form… Jacobson’s capacity to explore the minutiae of the human condition while attending to the metaphysics of human existence is without contemporary peer.

Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Mr. Jacobson doesn't just summon [Philip] Roth; he summons Roth at Roth's best. This prizewinning book is a riotous morass of jokes and worries about Jewish identity, though it is by no means too myopic to be enjoyed by the wider world. It helps that Mr. Jacobson's comic sensibility suggests Woody Allen's, that his powers of cultural observation are so keen, and that influences as surprising as Lewis Carroll shape this book.

David Sax, NPR

The Finkler Question tackles an uncomfortable issue [Jewish identity] 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… Like all great Jewish art… it is Jacobson’s use of the Jewish experience to explain the greater human one that sets it apart…It’s a must read, no matter what your background.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Jacobson’s prose is effortless - witty when it needs to be, heartbreaking where it counts - and the Jewish question becomes a metaphor without ever being overdone.

Barnes & Noble Review

Rare is a work of fiction that takes on the most controversial issues facing Jews so directly—and with enough humor, intelligence, and insight—that it changes a reader’s mind or two. Be warned: The Finkler Question will probably distress you on its way to disarming you. Can we pay a novel any greater compliment?

Kirkus Review

Starred Review. At turns a romp and a disquisition worthy of Maimonides; elegantly written throughout, and with plenty of punchlines too.

Gerald Jacobs, Telegraph (UK)

Howard Jacobson [is] a writer able to recognize the humor in almost any situation and a man as expansive as most on the nature of Jewishness.

enry Hitchings, Financial Times

Both an entertaining novel and a humane one.

Ross Gilfillan, Daily Mail (UK)

[A] bleakly funny meditation on loss, belonging and personal identity.

Jonathan Beckman, Literary Review (UK)

Jacobson writes perceptively about how durable friendships are compounded, in large part, of envy, schadenfreude and betrayal.

Edward Docx, Observer (UK)

It is tempting - after reading something as fine as The Finkler Question - not to bother reviewing it in any meaningful sense but simply to urge you to put down this paper and go and buy as many copies as you can carry … Full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written … Indeed, there’s so much that is first rate in the manner of Jacobson’s delivery that I could write all day on his deployment of language without once mentioning what the book is about.

Christian House, Independent on Sunday (UK)

This charming novel follows many paths of enquiry, not least the present state of Jewish identity in Britain and how it integrates with the Gentile population. Equally important is its exploration of how men share friendship. All of which is played out with Jacobson’s exceptionally funny riffs and happy-sad refrains … Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.

Adam Lively, Sunday Times (UK)

There are some great riffs and skits in The Finkler Question … But at the heart of the book is Julian the wannabe Jew, a wonderful comic creation precisely because he is so tragically touching in his haplessness. The most moving (and funniest) scenes are those in which he and Libor, the widower with nothing more to live for, ruminate on love and Jewishness.

James Walton, Sunday Telegraph (UK)

For some writers a thorough investigation of the situation of British Jews today might do as the subject for a single book. In The Finkler Question it’s combined with his characteristically unsparing - but not unkindly - ruminations on love, aging, death and grief. He also manages his customary - but not easy - trick of fusing all of the above with genuine comedy … No wonder that, as with most of Jacobson’s novels, you finish The Finkler Question feeling both faintly exhausted and richly entertained.

Alex Clark, Guardian (UK)

A terrifying and ambitious novel, full of dangerous shallows and dark, deep water. It takes in the mysteries of male friendship, the relentlessness of grief and the lure of emotional parasitism.

Bryan Cheyette, Independent (UK)

The Finkler Question balances precariously a bleak moralizing with life-affirming humor.

Matthew Syed, Times (UK)

Another masterpiece … The Finkler Question is further proof, if any was needed, of Jacobson’s mastery of humor. But above all it is a testament to his ability to describe - perhaps it would be better to say inhabit - the personal and moral worlds of his disparate characters.

Tom Adair, Scotsman

Howard Jacobson’s latest holler from the halls of comic genius … The opening chapters of this novel boast some of the wittiest, most poignant and sharply intelligent comic prose in the English language … Jacobson’s brilliance thrives on the risk of riding death to a photo-finish, of writing for broke. Exhilaration all the way.

Leo Robson, New Statesman

The Finkler Question is characterized by [Jacobson’s] structuring skill and unsimplifying intelligence - this time picking through the connections and differences, hardly unremarked but given fresh treatment here, between vicariousness and parasitism, and between Jewishness, Judaism and Zionism.

Reader Reviews

Cloggie Downunder

fails to impress
The Finkler Question is the fourteenth book by Howard Jacobson, and winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize. There are three main characters: Julian Treslove, who wants to be a Jew; Sam Finkler, a Jew who is ashamed of Jews; and Libor Sevcik, a Czech Jew...   Read More

Phyll

"Un-writer" wins Booker
Contrary to Howard Jacobson's contention that Australian readers prefer their fiction to be "unwritten" and "unfictional", I prefer a novel to be without haphazardness of structure and about people who stretch my boundaries of ...   Read More

Betty T

Too Much Worrying
I know it seems nearly everyone loved this book but I just could not get into it. It did reflect true life in that it reminded me of people I know who worry all the time about every little thing -- people who make everyone around them miserable with...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

A Brief Reading List for Background on The Jewish Question

Nonfiction
A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Howard M Sacher, Updated Edition 2007, 1270 pages: Considered the definitive work on modern Israel.

It's Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street, Emma Williams: 2010 memoir - an invaluable book for anyone wishing to understand the tensions in the region; particularly notable for the author's ability to boil down the situation's complexities into easily understandable and relatable prose.

A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz: A stunning 2004 memoir about the author's childhood in Israel with the back story of his parents and how they came from Europe as part of the Zionist ...

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