A very Jewish book's appeal

After years of being ignored, Howard Jacobson has cracked the Booker with a novel that ought to mystify non-Jews

By Jonathan Freedland, September 16, 2010

At least one Jew among us has begun the new year sweetly. Twenty-four hours before Rosh Hashanah, Howard Jacobson was named on the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize. "About bloody time" was my reaction. Incredibly, Jacobson - long placed by the critics in the first rank of British writers - had never made the shortlist before. (Almost as surprisingly, Jacobson thereby became the first Jewish man to have achieved the feat: Jewish women, including past winners Anita Brookner and Bernice Rubens, have tended to do better.)

All of us should cheer this news. The long exclusion of Anglo-Jewry's greatest living novelist was not just a slight on him but, indirectly, on our whole community. As Jacobson himself has pointed out, publish a story dominated by black or Asian characters - think White Teeth or Brick Lane - and your work will be hailed as a contemporary British novel. Set it among Jews, and it's a Jewish novel. By honouring The Finkler Question, the Booker judges are recognising Jews as a valid thread in the tapestry of British life.

So what was it about this book that delighted the judges when others had left their predecessors unmoved? I ask because, if Jacobson's many fans had to nominate just one book from his oeuvre as worthy of literature's highest prize, I'm not sure they'd picked this one. For one thing, the canvas appears so much smaller than some of his previous works. While Kalooki Nights - to my mind, the Jacobson masterpiece - grappled with the enduring, warping legacy of the Holocaust, central to The Finkler Question is an examination of British Jewish anti-Zionism, a phenomenon that accounts for a few hundred people at most.

To be sure, this intense localism gives the book some of its gossipy pleasures. Sharp-eyed readers may feel they have spotted cameo appearances by fictionalised versions of, among others, Stephen Fry, Jacqueline Rose and Michael Rosen as they meet at the Groucho Club (as well as Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children) though I'm sure Jacobson's lawyers would insist that all such resemblances are purely coincidental. But, as the Times columnist Giles Coren confessed at the weekend, he spent half the time reading The Finkler Question thinking "this is fascinating", the other half wondering if any non-Jew would be the slightest bit interested in any of it.

And yet the Booker panel clearly loved it. An explanation lies partly in the central protagonist, the failed ex-BBC arts producer Julian Treslove. Unusually for Jacobson, Treslove is not Jewish (though, admittedly, he wants to be). That allows the lead character to function as a gateway through which a non-Jewish reader can enter the hot, noisy and often baffling world of the Jews. Where previous Jacobson novels left the gentile outsider to fend for himself, like a tourist struggling to figure out the tube system, The Finkler Question guides him through the din.

At last, Jews are recognised as a thread in the tapestry of British life

Alternatively, the judges may simply have woken up at last to the familiar Jacobson strengths: the crystalline precision of the sentences, the deadly turn of phrase, the laugh out-loud comedy drenched in bitterness. How could they resist anti-Zionist Sam Finkler rejecting his wife's pleas that he leave the "Ashamed Jews" thus: "That far he couldn't go. The movement needed him. The Palestinians needed him. The Groucho needed him."

That riff points to the novel's great satiric achievement. It doesn't just poke fun at a certain type of media-savvy Jewish Israel-basher, it exposes a truth about them: that, as one character puts it, "this is not about Israel… Not even what most of its critics say about Israel is about Israel." It is about the critics themselves, the tenderness of their souls, their desperate desire to appear clean in the eyes of fashionable opinion.

Through this novel, Jacobson has shone a bright light on what passes for debate on the Middle East in this country, revealing that it often has much more to do with the people here than the people there. For that reason, and for all that he has written, I really hope he wins.

Last updated: 1:14pm, October 12 2010