Perplexed of St. John’s Wood

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Books Literature
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.

Hephzibah has her doubts about the whole enterprise:

You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews. The bad times were simply those in which the former outnumbered the latter.

The harder Treslove tries, the further away the finishing line appears, until disillusionment starts to set in. 

Meanwhile, the opposite (again) is happening to Finkler: he is becoming disillusioned with disillusionment. It starts with a gradual feeling of disgust at his fellow members of ASHamed, who  continue to blame Israel for everything that’s going wrong in the Middle East while overlooking or even applauding its enemies’ every deed. Signs of anti-Semitism abound: Hephzibah finds strips of bacon on her museum’s door handles and anti-Jewish slogans on the walls. This, by the way, is not the novelist exaggerating for effect: many Jews have been stunned by, for example, openly anti-Semitic remarks at smart London dinner parties which would have been impossible to imagine ten, or even five, years ago. Lebanon and Gaza have changed all that. It’s hard not to believe that Finkler’s journey mirrors Jacobson’s own, judging by the novelist’s frank and outspoken defences of Israel in recent years.  

His three principal male characters embody three different attitudes towards, well, the Finkler question.  Tired, melancholy and ultimately despairing, Sevcik represents the defeatist pre-war Jews who thought nothing could be done in the face of extinction. Treslove is the non-Jew who sympathises but in the end does nothing. Finkler turns out to be the central figure, the Jew who learns the hard way that no one will save the Jews but themselves.

This is a deeply political novel, spiced with Jacobson’s matchless wit and style, and a serious and thought-provoking contribution to one of the gravest issues of our time. The fact that it was for some time on the best-seller list of that nest of anti-Israel bigotry, the Guardian website, is a welcome if unexpected development.