Howard Jacobson: A font of Anglo-Jewish wit
Do you sincerely want to be Jewish? Or are you Jewish anyway but just don't know it? And if that's the case, do you really want to go there? Those are some of the questions that Howard Jacobson poses in his new novel, in which he tackles what it means to be Jewish in a Britain where an insidious anti-Semitism is seen as being on the rise once more.
The central character through whom Jacobson explores these themes is Julian Treslove, a man who has succeeded only in making failure an art form. He has failed even to make a go of a job in the remotest corner of Radio 3, he has failed at all his relationships, and he has ended up working as a professional double, presumably because he has so little character of his own.
Some of his best friends — indeed his only two friends — are Jewish: his old school chum Samuel Finkler, by contrast to Treslove a successful writer and television personality, and their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a recently widowed Czech refugee who became a well-known showbusiness journalist and was reputedly Marilyn Monroe's lover — or was it Marlene Dietrich's? Finkler, a proud Jew and Zionist as a young man, has turned into the opposite: so appalled is he at what Israel has become that he founds ASHamed, a virulently anti-Israel organisation for like-minded Jews that bears a strong resemblance to the pro-Palestinian group Jews for Justice and to which Jacobson applies a welcome boot at every opportunity.
But so Jewish does he remain that Treslove thinks of Jews as Finklers, hence the title of the book.
The intriguing possibility that he too might be Jewish injects a welcome excitement into Treslove's hitherto dreary existence. It is prompted by a rather implausible event: he is mugged — by a woman, who, he comes to think, hisses "You Jew" as she relieves him of wallet and phone. With Treslove's quest for his supposed Jewish roots, the novel, which takes some time to get going, explodes into life. Indeed, the Man Booker judges, who have shortlisted the book, are to be congratulated in persevering through the first few chapters, which are reminiscent of late-vintage Woody Allen in their repetitive self-absorption.
Treslove takes to his task with relish, even falling in love and moving in with a Jewish woman, Sevcik's great-niece Hephzibah, who unlike Finkler is not at all ashamed of her roots, to the extent of opening an Anglo-Jewish museum in St John's Wood. He wants to find everything he can about Judaism, starting with Maimonides's classic Guide To The Perplexed, which succeeds only in perplexing him even further.