The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel and the winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, is an exploration of love, death, grief, friendship, and what it means to be Jewish in contemporary London. At the novel’s beginning, Julian Treslove is mugged after leaving a dinner party with his two best friends, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevick. Based on something his attacker may or may not have said, Julian comes to believe the attack was motivated by anti-Semitism. The problem with this theory is that Julian is not Jewish. The incident sends Julian into an identity crisis, causing him to wonder if he might actually be Jewish without knowing it and leading him into a romance with a Jewish woman. In the meantime, Sam and Libor, who are Jewish, are grieving for their recently deceased wives and spend a great deal of time arguing about the moral status of Israel.
Although Sam and Libor play large roles, Julian is the primary protagonist of The Finkler Question, and he holds the bleak view that “[j]ust to be a human animal [i]s to be a disgrace. Life [i]s a disgrace, an absurd disgrace, to be exceeded in disgracefulness only by death.” This pessimistic outlook, coupled with Julian’s relentless expectation that he is always about to fall victim to a tragic event, results in a great deal of hand-wringing that becomes quite tedious over the course of 300+ pages. Sam and Libor’s ongoing debate about Zionism also runs long for those readers without a serious interest in the subject. Fortunately, Jacobson lightens the mood with plenty of humor, albeit of the dark variety, and his well-paced prose keeps the novel from becoming overly sluggish. Further, Jacobson weaves together the three men’s stories seamlessly and elegantly. The Finkler Question presents its themes intelligently, sensitively, and humorously, but those themes will not appeal to every reader.
The Finkler Question is published in the United States by Bloomsbury.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear here and there regularly.