I finished Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker longlisted ‘The Finkler Question’. I hardly read fiction (something I regret) and my other half was surprised that I couldn’t put it down. Truth is I was scouring it for insight about the state of my life, no part of which is untouched by the Middle East conflict. Most recently, I was volunteering in the local woods and somebody involved with the Israel Coalition Against Home Demolitions gave an impromptu lecture – “as a Jew”, you understand – during a tea break. Even in an Essex wood, having just encountered two incidents of arson, we’re to be lectured about Israel? Something is wrong. And that isn’t the half of it.
The Finkler Question is peopled by this type of activist and other characters who react to them. Does the Mann Booker longlisting mean that these activists are noteworthy when in a world of just priorities this novel would only be of niche interest? Or perhaps it speaks differently to different people – like The Independent, Bloomsbury avoids the subject entirely:
“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.”
Now for me, that review summarises only part of the book I read. I read a very interesting and sparklingly funny novel mainly about British Jews living with an imagined Israel, and about how some purported friends of Jews are not after all good friends to Jews.
Julian Treslove is an unchallenging and patchily reflective secular philosemite. This philosemitism has its origins in a fixation with his Jewish school friend Sam Finkler, a figure of intellectual superiority and insouciant mystique which Treslove imprints as essential Jewishness. Because this philosemitism is so bound up in the part of Finkler’s character which outwits and confounds Treslove, neither Israel, Jewish culture nor Jewish religion contribute to it; it is unaffected by Finkler’s earlier transformation (in reaction to his father) from ardent Zionist to equally ardent anti-Zionist. It is an essentialising infatuation. Through the lens of Treslove’s fascination, innocent queries and – later in life – the jealous self-consolation of a rival, Finkler emerges as a frequently ridiculous figure, but Treslove’s philosemitism endures. The third major character in the book is their former teacher, over three times their age when they met, Czech Jewish emigree Libor Sevcik. Libor and Finkler have been recently widowed, Treslove would like to have been, and the three commune.
Treslove’s strange inner life seems, among the characters of the book, to escape general notice. He isn’t after all the archetypal everyman character his work as professional look-alike suggests. He has a gloomy penchant for women who look terminally ill whom he invariably bores into hating him. He shows no interest in the two sons he accidentally fathered, keeps creating figments of Jewishness where Jewishness doesn’t exist, and from the beginning we learn that he is also extremely fearful of personal accident.
In the briefest unguarded moment Treslove is mugged. For the next few days he has nosebleeds and undergoes a deep change. His attacker had uttered a phrase he resolves (after days of skewed meditation) was “You Jew”. Formerly his admiration of Jews was vicarious and empty of personal aspiration. Now, as victim of an antisemitic attack, he experiences not the appropriate response of empathy but a dramatic and welcome change of identity, a sort of reverse trauma: he begins to think of himself as a Jew. The Jewish identity which steals upon Treslove consists of jollity, good sex and burgeoning energy. As Finkler’s and Libor’s fortunes and spirits decline, Treslove’s seem buoyant. He begins a relationship with Hephzibah, a Jewish woman who doesn’t look terminally ill, on whom he dotes in the same vein as his former girlfriends but is well-received.
Hephzibah is somebody who “dissolves Jewish differences”. Her Jewish sensibilities are British and early 21st century (not anti-Zionist, not centrally pro-Israel). She smells of the orient and cooks with intensity. All this, when they become acquainted, warms Finkler. Imagining that Hephzibah and Finkler have an exclusive Jewish affinity, Treslove’s besottment with Jewishness, devoid of spiritual, religious, or cultural content, consisting entirely of affected yiddish phrases, and notwithstanding his keen awareness of antisemitism, arrives at its inevitable destination of jealousy and suspicion.
Meanwhile he and all of the other characters are becoming aware of the encroachment of anti-Zionism, in the name of Palestinian rights, from the background into the foreground. Finkler is principle personality in an anti-Zionist group he has named ASHamed Jews, “which might or might not, depending on how others felt, be shortened now or in the future to ASH, the peculiar felicity of which, in the circumstances, he was sure it wasn’t necessary for him to point out.” Jacobson’s satirical account of the characters and exploits of ASHamed Jews is closest to life, and recalls the narcissistic silliness of the activists in Tariq Ali’s Redemption.
“The logic that made it impossible for those who had never been Zionists to call themselves ASHamed Zionists did not extend to Jews who had never been Jews. To be an ASHamed Jew did not require that you had been knowingly Jewish all your life. Indeed, one among them only found out he was Jewish at all in the course of making a television programme in which he was confronted on camera with who he really was. In the final frame of the film he was disclosed weeping before a memorial in Auschwitz to dead ancestors who until that moment he had never known he’d had. ‘It could explain where I get my comic genius from,’ he told an interviewer for a newspaper, though by then he had renegotiated his new allegiance. Born a Jew on Monday, he had signed up to be an ASHamed Jew by Wednesday and was seen chanting ‘We are all Hezbollah’ outside the Israeli Embassy on the following Saturday.”
ASHamed Jews marginalises itself with its inbuilt silliness and internecine fighting. Its threat to British Jewish life is a small part of a constellation of other antisemitic events, related and unrelated to Israel, which eat away at the morale of British Jews, most of which are counterparts of actual instances in British current affairs.
Finkler’s son enacts the ideological foundations of ASHamed anti-Zionism with antisemitic effect. Treslove’s son Alfredo is exposed to Holocaust denial in the company of British men in keffiyot. The great grandson of Libor’s friend is blinded in London by an Algerian shouting “Death to all Jews”. An orthodox Jewish child is surrounded by a mob of jeering, jabbing children, only saved by Treslove and a dog walker. There is the inept and category-defying act of wrapping the doors of Hephzibah’s not-yet-open Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture in bacon. Video blogger Alvin Poliakov attempts to restore his foreskin with “a system of weights he has devised using cpper jewellery, keys from a children’s xylophone, and a pair of small brass candlesticks”. Hephzibah begins to dread the opening of the museum, assessing that the mood is wrong for learning about the positive contribution its Jews have made to British life.
Libor, stricken by the death of his wife, articulates the historical awareness of the Holocaust generation, as well as escapism and a paralysing, impotent fatalism. Finkler’s wife, Tyler, a convert to Judaism, has the most trenchantly contemptuous insights about the Jewish content of her husband’s anti-Zionism, and contrasts with Treslove’s gropings. On Finkler’s domination of ASHamed Jews in the media, “‘They’ll soon realise their mistake,’ Tyler had prophesied. ‘With a greedy bastard like you around, they’ll soon discover how hard it is to get their own share of shame.'” Tyler is at first Jacobson’s main vehicle of argument against anti-Zionism but is dead by the time the book begins.
In the later parts of the novel, Finkler becomes unbearably uncomfortable. He is puffed up, but as a professional thinker, even at “the show-business end of philosophy” he has a public stake in his powers of reason. He also has integrity, and Jacobson perhaps allows himself some wish-fulfilment with the development of Finkler’s thinking about Israel and his willingness to contest some forms of anti-Zionism. That thinking doesn’t lead, here, to Zionism or a pro-Israel position, but to his reasoned dissociation from ASHamed Jews and – a less reasoned response to kinship – a reconciliation with his own Jewishness.