Wednesday 18 April 2012

The Finkler Question

I have taken my time reading 'The Finkler Question' by Howard Jacobson, probably three or four weeks, and it's only 300 pages. I have also put off writing about it and am glad I did because Dunk pointed out a programme on Sky Arts 1 the other evening where he was being interviewed, and his comments about his writing in general, and about the Finkler Question in particular, were most amusing, interesting and enlightening, and have made me see and understand the book in a whole new way. The book is about Jewishness, and about Treslove, who wants to be Jewish, and who struggles to find some sense of identity. Having said that I don't think that I finished the book with any more of a sense of what it is to be Jewish than I had at the beginning.

My own understanding of Jewishness comes entirely from some very longstanding friends of my family, Harriet and Al Saperstein, who first spent Christmas with us when I was about ten and Al was on sabbatical at the Open University (am sure some family member has better recollection), and we made paper dolls to put on the tree with their daughters Rina and Shira. Like Treslove I developed this yearning to be Jewish after learning about Kibbutz and assumed that you had to be Jewish to live on one (see, I have always been a naive idealist:-) To me Jewishness is less about religion and more about cultural identity. Certainly for Jacobson it seems this way, god doesn't get much of a mention, it is about being part of something bigger than yourself, and Jewishness has the advantage of having this long, long history, a well recorded history, of which you get to feel a part.

What was interesting in the TV programme was Jacobson saying how he doesn't like the idea of 'plot'. His writing is based around characters, what they do and say and what happens to them, but the idea of 'plot' is too contrived and artificial, and really very little happens in this book. It is also very much about male relationships, which is rather unusual. Most (in the grand scale of novel writing) books about about male characters, but mostly these men have to do stuff and very little is written about the relationships between men. Finkler and Libor are both recently widowed and as such fall back on their important friendships for succour. The story becomes a discussion about the differing attitudes to the nature of being Jewish (Finkler and Libor are both Jewish and Treslove is the aspiring Jew) but also is an interesting examination of the nature of love, contrasting the three men's marriages and their feelings about their wives. This is a writer who knows his strengths and writes to them, here are his three main characters:

"Some days he'd ask one of the boys to give his lesson for him since they all knew it so well. When no questions about the First, the Second or indeed Any Subsequent Defenestrations of Prague appeared on their examination papers, the class complained to Libor. 'Don't look to me to prepare your for examinations,' he told them, curling his already curly lip. 'There are plenty of teachers who can help you get good marks. The point of me is to give you a taste of the wider world.' " (p.19)

"But without a doubt he felt more purposeful this minute than he had in years. How could this be, he didn't know. He would have expected himself to want to stay in bed and never rise again. Mugged by a woman! For a man whose life had been one absurd disgrace after another, this was surely the crowning ignominy. And yet it wasn't." (p.48-9)

And Finkler,
"Finkler opened wide his arms Finklerishly. Infinite patience beginning to run out, the gesture denoted. Finkler reminded Treslove of God when he did that. God despairing of his people from a mountain top. Treslove was envious. It was what God gave to the Finklers, as a mark of his covenant with them - the ability to shrug like Him. Something on which, as a non-Finkler, Treslove had missed out." (p.65)

So in spite of them being a million miles from me I found myself sympathising and rooting for them all, fascinated by the intimate inside picture of their friendship, their hopes and dreams.

Little quote now, just a phrase that I liked, always a sign of lovely writing to find such things dropped in unselfconsciously (Libor and his bereavement counsellor):
"He would have preferred it if she had worked out of a clinic or a hospital, but she saw him in the front room of her house.
She was, she explained, retired. But still counselled ....
Libor thought she was going to say for a hobby or to keep her hand in, but she left the sentence to dangle like a person on the end of a rope ..." (p.171)

Although he claimed in the programme to hate using the word anti-semitism, the book is to some extent about the idea of anti-semitism, held in contrast to Treslove's fascination with the notion of Jewishness. Long quote that kind of sums up the argument; Hephzibah's museum has suffered attack by vandals and this is her reaction. My mum (who lent me the book) had also noted this and written one sentence on a post-it note stuck to the page:

"Then Hephzibah began to laugh. She saw the rashers of bacon wrapped painstakingly around the ram-horn handles. And the plugs of meat and fat, which she hadn't got round to telling him about, stuffed into the keyholes of the doors. She imagined the vandals going into Marks & Spencer and buying what they needed, paying at the till, perhaps using a reward card, and then, like vigilantes, vigilantes armed with bacon, the greatest defilement they could conceive, descending on the Museum of Ango-Jewish Culture, which didn't have signs up yet, and so which strictly couldn't even be said to exist.
'It isn't just their overestimation of our horror of the pig,' she said, wiping her eyes. 'I'm sure, for example, they don't know how much I love a bacon sandwich, but it isn't only that, it's their exaggeration of our presence. They find us before we find ourselves. Nowhere is safe from them because they think nowhere is safe from us.'
Treslove couldn't keep up with the fluctuation of her feelings. She wasn't, he realised, going from fear to amusement and back again, she was experiencing both emotions simultaneously. It wasn't even a matter of reconciling opposites, because they were not opposites for her. Each partook of the other." (p.208)

There is ridicule, but it does not lessen the impact. There is the sense almost of resignation, but again, not quite, just about the inevitability, as if these experiences (from vandalism through to the Holocaust) are a part of everything that makes up being Jewish. And Treslove, in trying to understand her reaction, concludes, "Not for the first time in recent days, Treslove felt he had failed a test." A fascinating, engaging book. No plot, but plenty of story.

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