Review: The Finkler Question

In his latest novel, Howard Jacobson turns his powers of humorous demolition upon Jews uneasy with their identity

By Anthony Julius, July 28, 2010
Howard Jacobson: funny, mocking and utterly original

Howard Jacobson: funny, mocking and utterly original

By Howard Jacobson
Bloomsbury, £18.99

The Finkler Question is very funny, utterly original, and addresses a topic of contemporary fascination. That is to say, it is about the anguish of middle-aged men, it consists of a series of loosely arranged episodes rich in argument and incident, and it examines how Jews now interrogate their relations with Israel.

It puts in play a gentile fascinated by Jews, and his two Jewish friends, one a Zionist comfortable in London, and the other an anti-Zionist comfortable in his outrage. They engage with each other in sometimes moving, sometimes bathetic ways, making their own journeys of self-understanding while they exasperatedly strive to educate each other.

The anti-Zionist Jew is called Finkler, hence the title of the novel. The "question" of "Finkler" is today's version of the "Jewish question". At the end of the 19th century, Jews asked of themselves, and were asked, "What is the future of the Jewish people?" At the end of the 20th century, this question had been reformulated as "What is the future of the Jewish state?" In Jacobson's book, Finkler dwells among those miscellaneous Jews who answer the question in versions of condemnation of Israel, Zionism, and Judaism.

The novel mocks them; there is of course much to mock. Among their number, for example, is a risible academic who insists that the Jews, "sent mad in the Holocaust, not least by their own impotence and passivity, [are now] spilling what was left of their brains over the Palestinians and calling it self-defence."

Finkler is an anti-Zionist Jew who is comfortable in his outrage

Finkler joins "Ashamed Jews," a group of Jews proud to be ashamed of their Israeli or Israel-supporting fellow Jews. His first act is to modify the typography of the name, to bring out the group's affinity with the dead, good Jews of the Holocaust, and to intimate the affinity of bad, living Israelis with Nazis: "ASHamed Jews." He insists on calling Israel "Palestine"; he "did not allow himself to use the word Israel at all." Talk of antisemitic incidents irritates him: "Ring me when a Jew gets murdered for being a Jew on Oxford Street." He believes that the world waits on the findings of his conscience.

But he is dismayed by boycott calls: "Whoever boycotted his own family?" He also finds himself in contention with another ASH member, when the latter explains, in almost involuntary self-disclosure, "I am a Jew by virtue of the fact that I am not a Zionist." Finkler rises up to protest, "I bow to no one in my Jewish shame, but…"

Later still, Finkler's son gives practical effect to his father's anti-Zionism by assaulting a Jew at a demonstration (and then protests, "How can I be an antisemite? I'm a Jew"). And then, during a debate with Board of Deputies types - "community Jews," whose debating skills are such that "had they been the only speakers they'd still have contrived to lose the debate" - he is moved to slap down a non-Jewish speaker, caught out by him posturing on Zionism's betrayal of Jewish ethics. And so he leaves the group.

This is a novel of immense fluency. The writing is wonderfully mobile, and inventive, and Jacobson's signature is to be found in every sentence. Much of the comedy is in small moments of pause, arresting a narrative compelling in its interest. For example: "Treslove was considered good-looking in a way that was hard to describe; he resembled good-looking people." Or: "Hephzibah didn't so much cook as lash out at her ingredients, goading and infuriating them into taste." The Finkler Question is a remarkable work.

Anthony Julius's book, 'Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in England' is published by OUP

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011