The Fin­kler Question

  • Review
By – August 31, 2011

Despite what you may have heard, The Fin­kler Ques­tion is not a polit­i­cal nov­el about oppo­nents of Zion­ism. The win­ner of the Man Book­er Prize in 2010 is above all a bril­liant social com­e­dy that crack­les with quotable dia­logue on prac­ti­cal­ly every page. More­over, for all his wit and acu­ity, Howard Jacob­son has achieved some­thing even more endur­ing: a deeply moral reflec­tion on the impli­ca­tions of iden­ti­ty and the con­se­quences of lov­ing ideas, fame, and oth­er people.

 Pro­tag­o­nist Julian Treslove uses the name Fin­kler” as his per­son­al euphemism for Jew”; the Fin­kler ques­tion” is the Jew­ish ques­tion. Apart from his ser­i­al inep­ti­tude with women, Julian has so few dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures of his own that he earns his liv­ing as a stand-in for movie stars he resem­bles. His idea of roman­tic love comes from operas like La Bohème and La Travi­a­ta where the hero­ine dies in the hero’s arms. He comes to envy the speci­fici­ty of Jew­ish­ness, the ref­er­ences that Jews seem to share among one anoth­er, the con­fi­dence, the sure­ty of right.”

Sam Fin­kler, Julian’s friend from school­boy days, lives in an impos­ing house on Hamp­stead Heath and employs a dri­ver for his big black Mer­cedes. He has become wealthy and famous as a pop­u­lar­iz­er of phi­los­o­phy through books like The Exis­ten­tial­ist in the Kitchen and The Lit­tle Book of House­hold Sto­icism. His mar­i­tal infi­deli­ties and self­im­por­tant careerism rep­re­sent oth­er kinds of shal­low­ness. Finkler’s Jew­ish­ness also seems super­fi­cial at first, com­bin­ing con­ven­tion­al polit­i­cal opin­ions with an off­hand sense of specialness.

 In a romance pre­dict­ed by a for­tune-teller, Julian becomes involved with a Jew­ish woman — the founder of a Muse­um of Anglo- Jew­ish Cul­ture, no less. He teach­es him­self Yid­dish endear­ments and learns about Jew­ish food. When he begins to get into the details of Anglo-Jew­ish Cul­ture — Who Was and Who Was Not, Who Had Changed His Name, Who Had Mar­ried In or Out — Julian’s lover real­izes it may be beyond him: you would have to be born and brought up a Jew to see the hand of Jews in every­thing. That or be born and brought up a Nazi.” He nonethe­less becomes ever more pas­sion­ate­ly, if inef­fec­tu­al­ly, phi­lo-Semit­ic in his impulses.

So, even­tu­al­ly, does Fin­kler. The chance for a new kind of celebri­ty, cou­pled with his casu­al British anti-Zion­ism, leads him to head a group called ASHamed Jews” who take every oppor­tu­ni­ty to protest Israel’s actions toward Pales­tini­ans. His involve­ment, though, is only half-heart­ed. As much as he enjoys being its leader, he has no enthu­si­asm for protest­ing Israel’s actions in Gaza or sup­port­ing a boy­cott against Israel, and (spoil­er alert) in the end redis­cov­ers a trib­al loy­al­ty that impels him to take the side of the Jews against those who attack them.

A short review can­not do jus­tice to Jacobson’s insights into life, love and loss, Jews and anti-Semi­tism; nor to his ful­ly imag­ined ensem­ble of char­ac­ters and his pro­found sym­pa­thy for them; nor his wicked­ly fun­ny sense of humor. The Fin­kler Ques­tion is a land­mark work of lit­er­ary genius.

Discussion Questions