Howard Jacobson: Finding Humor In Jewish Nerves Literary critics have called him the British Philip Roth, but Howard Jacobson prefers to think of himself as a "Jewish Jane Austen." His books are renowned for their biting social commentary — and his Booker prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question, is no exception.

Howard Jacobson: Finding Humor In Jewish Nerves

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host: In his new novel, "The Finkler Question," British author Howard Jacobson introduces us to a character named Julian Treslove. He's a gentile who happens to have a strange obsession with Jews and Jewishness and a particular Jew named Sam Finkler.

Mr. HOWARD JACOBSON (Author, "The Finkler Question"): (reading) Before he met Finkler, Treslove had never met a Jew, not knowingly, at least. He supposed a Jew would be like the word Jew, small and dark and beetling, a secret person.

RAZ: But not Sam Finkler. To the contrary, he's big in body and in character. Treslove is entranced, jealous, really, of his friend's Jewishness. He imagines that Jews live more deeply, more passionately. Finkler, on the other hand, takes an opposite view. He's a vocal opponent of the state of Israel, a prism through which he can escape his Jewishness.

Howard Jacobson's comic novel, you might call it bitterly comic, won this year's Man Booker Prize. It's the highest literary award for fiction in Britain. And when I spoke with Howard Jacobson recently, he described his characters, Finkler and Treslove, and the differences between being Jewish in Britain and America.

Mr. JACOBSON: The whole point of having Treslove was to make some comedy out of how Jewishness looks to somebody who isn't a Jew. I mean, we often have 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 how does Jewishness looks to somebody who really adores Jews and so exaggerates, you know, their more lovable qualities.

RAZ: Sam Finkler is a pop philosopher. He's a well-known radio personality in Britain. He shows people how Schopenhauer could help people with their love lives or haggle with their holiday arrangements.

And as you say, he's not just critical of Israel. He happens to hate everything about the Jewish state. I mean, he goes, as you write, so far to join a group of British Jews who call themselves ashamed. They call for boycotts against the state and so on.

I mean, is he an archetype? Is Sam Finkler an anomaly in modern Britain?

Mr. JACOBSON: No. I mean, there are a lot of Sam Finklers, which is why I invented him. I invented him out of what I felt I saw. They would, of course, deny it. 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 was going to go on being the safe haven for them that it's been for a long time. And not the kind of safe haven America is for Jews, where 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, slightly more distant. Distant but safe, it seemed, until the last few years, when it might not be that it's unsafe on the streets, 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, but even when that's not the case.

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

RAZ: Is it possible that Sam Finkler, who of course is the Finkler in "The Finkler Question," and the real Jewish opponents of Israel in Britain, people like him, are simply sort of exercising a kind of tough-love approach or do you see something else happening?

Mr. JACOBSON: Well, some are. Some are, but Finkler isn't. I mean, I could have and there are some people who flit in and out of the book who are. And 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.

But there's something else about Finkler that I go for in this book and accounts for some of the book's comic anger at this stage, and that's the whole business of being ashamed.

What annoys me about that is not their politics but the idea that what's happening somewhere else is about them. It's the vanity of it. It's the egoism. It's the parading of their it's the wearing their hearts on their sleeve. 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, I feel this. I feel this in my heart. It's my story. It's about me.

RAZ: I'm speaking with British novelist Howard Jacobson. His latest book is called "The Finkler Question." It was recently awarded Britain's Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Howard Jacobson, I read that you were not raised in a particularly observant Jewish home. You barely stepped into a synagogue, if I have that correct.

Mr. JACOBSON: Yes, that's correct.

RAZ: And I gather, your intention was never to write about the Anglo-Jewish experience. It just sort of ended up that way in many of your novels. Do you think that you will sort of step away from that, from that theme?

Mr. JACOBSON: Well, I keep trying. I keep trying to. This book surprised me because I thought I wrote a novel once called "The Mighty Walzer," 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 word Jew on every line, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBSON: It was a novel about being obsessed with being 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 this novel came along, and it 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. It astonished my family and my friends when I wrote about Jews, and I never really knew very much about it.

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 I am a touch like that still.

RAZ: That's British novelist Howard Jacobson. His latest book, "The Finkler Question," was recently awarded Britain's Man Booker Prize for fiction. Howard Jacobson, thank you very much.

Mr. JACOBSON: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And you can hear Howard Jacobson read more from his novel at

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.