Howard Jacobson – The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson – usually described as a funny Jewish author deeply preoccupied with his identity – is, alas, not unlike his characters, often interested in literature and, most likely, sexually obsessed. As critics put it: “you expect a book by Howard Jacobson to be very clever and very funny, and it is both those things. But it is also, in a very interesting way, a very sad, melancholic book. It is comic, it is laughter, but it is laughter in the dark”. He describes himself as unconventionally Jewish: “What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence. I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past”. Jacobson has been called “the English Philip Roth”, although he ironically refers to himself as the “Jewish Jane Austen” or as the love-child of the above-mentioned authors.

The Finkler Question is, in fact, The Jewish Question. Who and what is a Jew? What does it take to be a Jew? Metaphorically speaking, The Finkler Question is an ongoing interrogation dealing with issues such as exclusion and belonging, justice and love, wisdom and humanity: “There you go, answering a question with a question. That in itself makes you Jewish, doesn’t it?”. Be that as it may, this is a book about questions as much as it is about answers. Typically, the answers are composed of (or as) several other questions. In the author’s own words, the answer was a “solution that created more mysteries than it cleared up”.

Constructed on several dichotomies (such as masculinity/femininity, darkness/light, passive/active, love/hate, loss/gain, individual/society), this is, once again, a story about loss, grief, sorrow, and loneliness,”all that funny stuff”, as Jacobson himself puts it.  A novel that speaks about future events, as much as it dwells on its fictional past(s), The Finkler Question is, no different than his other books, an homage to friendship. Although Jacobson doesn’t usually fiddle with the discrepancies between reality and fiction, distinguishing between these two types of existence becomes necessary: “Children spoilt the story” while “in reality there had even been children”. As Jacobson is known for his habit of creating doppelgängers of himself in his fiction, so is Treslove a celebrity double, hence his obsessive personality fueled by the idea of telling and retelling.

There’s a certain type of jokes called My Wife Jokes and one of them goes like this:

  • Person 1: My wife’s gone to the West Indies.
  • Person 2: Jamaica? (short for: Did you make her?)
  • Person 1: No, she went of her own accord!

This exact type of linguistic ambiguity functions, in Jacobson’s novel, as a catalyst for Treslove’s ruminations: D’Jew know Jewno (along with him getting mugged by a woman). The language-related humor lurks in the ways in which Finklers handle language: “When they weren’t playing with it, they were ascribing holy properties to it”.

Highly suggestive of his personality, Treslove’s first name draws a vivid picture of  himself  as a person offering (or demanding) too much (or too little) love. His love was so tres that he “had tears enough for all of them”. Desperate in finding his (not true love) but any kind of love, “for he was a man who did not function well on his own”, Treslove forces Jacobson in riddling his text with tragic visual imagery: a road mender’s sign, for example, saying DANGER is Jacobsons’s way of letting you know that death is right around the corner and there’s nothing you can do about it.

If Treslove was essentially and spiritually like them, one may certainly ask: how is he different? Funny question, at least for Jacobson, because one cannot take into account loose notions such as physical, linguistic or psychological traits – jews are alike because they are so different and, perhaps, the only thing they agree upon is that arguing, debating or criticizing constitutes a common feature of all Jews. Brimmed with unexpected and electrifying  psychological accounts, Jacobson uses Jewishness as a way of getting beyond issues of identity. Loss, in his view, is the only subject, but this novel is, in fact, about possession. Of what, exactly? That is the Finkler Question.

 

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