Howard Jacobson: Finding Humor In Jewish Nerves

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Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson is the author of several novels, including Who's Sorry Now and The Making of Henry. His latest novel, The Finkler Question, recently won the Booker Prize. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Early in Howard Jacobson's novel, The Finkler Question, protagonist Julian Treslove is mugged late one night in London near Regent's Park. His assailant slams Treslove so hard against the window of a violin shop that the instruments inside begin to vibrate. But that's not what bothers Julian Treslove about the assault — certainly not the theft of his watch, or his wallet or fountain pen. "No," Jacobson writes:

What upset him beyond all these was the fact that the person who had robbed, assaulted and yes, terrified him — a person against whom he put up not a whisper of a struggle — was a woman.

That woman also makes a demand. "Your jewels," she says. And those two words lead Julian Treslove to believe that he is the victim of an anti-Semitic attack — he's convinced she has said "you Jew." The problem, of course, is that it's unlikely that this was her meaning. And also, that Treslove isn't Jewish.

Treslove's mugging and its aftermath gives you a sense of the wild ride you're in for in The Finkler Question. The satire is Howard Jacobson's 11th novel and was recently the recipient of this year's coveted Man Booker Prize for fiction — the highest literary prize awarded in the British Commonwealth. It is the first humorous work to win the honor in some time, proving that fiction doesn't have to be serious to be seriously good.

The Uncomfortable Notes Of A 'Jewish Jane Austen'

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Listen to Howard Jacobson Read From 'The Finkler Question'

Literary critics have compared Jacobson to the British Philip Roth, but the author prefers to think of himself as a Jewish Jane Austen. His books are renowned for their biting social commentary, and The Finkler Question is no exception. Take Treslove, a liberal non-Jew who tends to fetishize his Jewish friends.

"The whole point of Treslove was to make some comedy out of how Jewishness looks to somebody who isn't a Jew," Jacobson tells NPR's Guy Raz. "I mean, we often [write about] how Jewishness looks to someone who isn't a Jew and who hates Jews, and in a book where there is some of that, I wanted the opposite too. I wanted [to convey] how Jewishness looks to somebody who really adores Jews, and so exaggerates their more lovable qualities."

For their part, Treslove's Jewish friends are just as conflicted about Jewish identity as he is. The titular Sam Finkler — a well-known radio personality and pop-philosopher who shows people how "Schopenhauer could help people with their love lives" – is not merely critical of Israel. He hates everything about the Jewish state, and goes as far as to join a group of British Jews who, "ashamed" of the state's actions, call for a number of boycotts against it.

According to Jacobson, the Finkler character is something of an archetype. "There are a lot of Sam Finklers," he says, "which is why I invented him — I invented him out of what I saw."

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Finkler Question
By Howard Jacobson
Paperback, 320 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $15

Read An Excerpt

Plenty of Israel's Jewish critics exercise a tough love approach to the country, Jacobson adds — but Finkler isn't one of them.

"I think some would say, and I think it's a very very fair thing to say, that to be a friend of Israel is to be critical of Israel," he says. "But there's something else about Finkler that I go for in this book, and that accounts for some of the book's comic anger. And that's the whole business of being ashamed."

"What annoys me about that is not the politics [of people like Finkler], but the idea that what's happening somewhere else is about them," he explains. "It's the vanity of it; it's the egoism. It's the wearing their hearts on their sleeves. It's this carnival of conscience that I make fun of in the book — not the political position at all, which in some cases is perfectly reasonable. It's the fact that you know, [the mentality is] I feel this. I feel this in my heart. It's my story. [The Israeli conflict's] about me."

There's a reason that Israel is such a delicate subject in England, Jacobson says. He proposes that public debates about Israel are rooted in unacknowledged questions about the role of Jews in British culture.

"They would of course deny it," he says, "but there is a virulence at the moment about Israel in England. When I was writing this novel — and this was one of the impulses behind the writing of the novel, to investigate this — many Jews that I knew, rational, calm Jews were truly wondering whether England would go on being the safe haven for them that it's been for a long time."

"[England's] not the kind of safe haven America is for Jews," Jacobson adds. "A Jew in America feels he's absolutely of the American culture, and plays his part in the founding of and the molding of and the re-creation of American culture."

A Jew in England is "slightly more distant" from mainstream British culture, observes Jacobson. "Distant but safe, it seemed, until the last few years," he says. "It might not be that it's unsafe on the streets [for Jews], though it has been unsafe on the streets for some when things get particularly hot in the Middle East — during the blockade, the Gaza blockade and so on.

"It's just the temperature of the newspapers. It can be very wearing to Jewish nerves to have this bombardment all the time."

An Unexpected Jewish Writer

Jacobson was not raised in a particularly observant Jewish home. He barely stepped into a synagogue as a child, and as a writer his intention was to never write about the Anglo-Jewish experience. When he started writing about Jews, he says, it astonished his family and friends — and he certainly surprised himself.

"This book surprised me," he says. "I wrote a novel once called The Mighty Waltson, which is about playing table tennis actually; it's about being Jewish and playing table tennis. And then I wrote a novel called Kalooki Nights, which was intensely Jewish. It had the Jew on every line really. It was a novel about being obsessed with being a Jew. I mean every line was 'Jew Jew Jew, joke joke joke, why why why' — obsession was its subject. And I thought that was that."

"And then somehow," he says, laughing, "this novel came along, and [its Jewishness] took me by surprise too. But you're right to have said that I never began as thinking of myself as a Jewish writer at all."

"I never really knew very much about it," he adds. "I'm still a bit of a Treslove, actually. This may be where Treslove comes from. I'm still a bit of a gentile, looking with my nose pressed in against the window of Jewishness, thinking, 'How fantastic! What great jokes they make! Look how wild they are, look how warm they are, look how deeply they love, and so on!'

"I am a touch like that still."

Excerpt: 'The Finkler Question'

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Finkler Question
By Howard Jacobson
Paperback, 320 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $15

He should have seen it coming.

His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one.

He was a man who saw things coming. Not shadowy premonitions before and after sleep, but real and present dangers in the daylit world. Lamp posts and trees reared up at him, splintering his shins. Speeding cars lost control and rode on to the footpath leaving him lying in a pile of torn tissue and mangled bones. Sharp objects dropped from scaffolding and pierced his skull.

Women worst of all. When a woman of the sort Julian Treslove found beautiful crossed his path it wasn’t his body that took the force but his mind. She shattered his calm.

True, he had no calm, but she shattered whatever calm there was to look forward to in the future. She was the future.

People who see what’s coming have faulty chronology, that is all. Treslove’s clocks were all wrong. He no sooner saw the woman than he saw the aftermath of her – his marriage proposal and her accept­ance, the home they would set up together, the drawn rich silk curtains leaking purple light, the bed sheets billowing like clouds, the wisp of aromatic smoke winding from the chimney – only for every wrack of it – its lattice of crimson roof tiles, its gables and dormer windows, his happiness, his future – to come crashing down on him in the moment of her walking past.

She didn’t leave him for another man, or tell him she was sick of him and of their life together, she passed away in a perfected dream of tragic love – consumptive, wet-eyelashed, and as often as not singing her goodbyes to him in phrases borrowed from popular Italian opera.

There was no child. Children spoilt the story.

Between the rearing lamp posts and the falling masonry he would sometimes catch himself rehearsing his last words to her – also as often as not borrowed from the popular Italian operas – as though time had concertinaed, his heart had smashed, and she was dying even before he had met her.

There was something exquisite to Treslove in the presentiment of a woman he loved expiring in his arms. On occasions he died in hers, but her dying in his was better. It was how he knew he was in love: no presentiment of her expiry, no proposal.

That was the poetry of his life. In reality it had all been women accusing him of stifling their creativity and walking out on him.

In reality there had even been children.

But beyond the reality something beckoned.

On a school holiday in Barcelona he paid a gypsy fortune-teller to read his hand.

‘I see a woman,’ she told him.

Treslove was excited. ‘Is she beautiful?’

‘To me, no,’ the gypsy told him. ‘But to you. . . maybe. I also see danger.’

Treslove was more excited still. ‘How will I know when I have met her?’

‘You will know.’

‘Does she have a name?’

‘As a rule, names are extra,’ the gypsy said, bending back his thumb. ‘But I will make an exception for you because you are young. I see a Juno – do you know a Juno?’

She pronounced it ‘Huno’. But only when she remembered.

Treslove closed one eye. Juno? Did he know a Juno? Did anyone know a Juno? No, sorry, no, he didn’t. But he knew a June.

‘No, no, bigger than June.’ She seemed annoyed with him for not being able to do bigger than June. ‘Judy. . . Julie. . . Judith. Do you know a Judith?’

Hudith.

Treslove shook his head. But he liked the sound of it – Julian and Judith. Hulian and Hudith Treslove.

‘Well, she’s waiting for you, this Julie or Judith or Juno . . . I do still see a Juno.’ Treslove closed his other eye. Juno, Juno.

‘How long will she wait?’ he asked.

‘As long as it takes you to find her.’

Treslove imagined himself looking, searching the seven seas. ‘You said you see danger. How is she dangerous?’

He saw her rearing up at him, with a knife to his throat – Addio, mio bello, addio.

‘I did not say it was she who was dangerous. Only that I saw danger. It might be you who is dangerous to her. Or some other person who is dangerous to both of you.’

‘So should I avoid her?’ Treslove asked.

She shuddered a fortune-teller’s shudder. ‘You cannot avoid her.’

She was beautiful herself. At least in Treslove’s eyes. Emaciated and tragic with gold hooped earrings and a trace, he thought, of a West Midlands accent. But for the accent he would have been in love with her.

She didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know. Someone, some­thing, was in store for him.

Something of more moment than a mishap.

He was framed for calamity and sadness but was always somewhere else when either struck. Once, a tree fell and crushed a person walk­ing just a half a yard behind him. Treslove heard the cry and wondered whether it was his own. He missed a berserk gunman on the London Underground by the length of a single carriage. He wasn’t even inter­viewed by the police. And a girl he had loved with a schoolboy’s hopeless longing – the daughter of one of his father’s friends, an angel with skin as fine as late-summer rose petals and eyes that seemed forever wet – died of leukaemia in her fourteenth year while Treslove was in Barcelona having his fortune told. His family did not call him back for her final hours or even for the funeral. They did not want to spoil his holiday, they told him, but the truth was they did not trust his fortitude. People who knew Treslove thought twice about inviting him to a deathbed or a burial.

So life was still all his to lose. He was, at forty-nine, in good physical shape, had not suffered a bruise since falling against his mother’s knee in infancy, and was yet to be made a widower. To his knowledge, not a woman he had loved or known sexually had died, few having stayed long enough with him anyway for their dying to make a moving finale to anything that could be called a grand affair. It gave him a preternaturally youthful look – this unconsummated expectation of tragic event. The look which people born again into their faith some­times acquire.

Excerpted from The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson Copyright 2010 by Howard Jacobson. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

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