The Reading Room: Jacobson’s Jewish Question
By Miranda Marracini '12, Staff Writer
I have to admit that a major factor in my decision to read “The Finkler Question,” winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, was the fact that its author likened himself to Jane Austen. It is not as arrogant as it sounds. Howard Jacobson told the New York Times that he aspires to be “the Jewish Jane Austen,” to “write like [her], with a little bit of Yiddish.” And I do love Jane Austen.

Disappointingly, there isn’t enough Austen in this smart but reeling novel. That is, there isn’t much of her style. Austen does get a few mentions: in one scene, our protagonist, Julian Treslove, explains that his favorite Austen heroine is Anne Elliot. “It’s the idea of her faded beauty I love,” he muses, “fading as you read… in life it would have been a tragedy.” In fact, Julian has a thing for tragic women. He imagines successive girlfriends dying in his arms as he weeps over them in the manner of an Italian opera tenor.

He is encouraged in these morbid fantasies by his two widower friends, two Jews, an old Czech named Libor Sevcik and school chum-turned-successful-TV-personality Sam Finkler. Why “Jews”? Well, it turns out that in addition to preferring tragic women, Treslove also obsesses over and romanticizes the Chosen People, with all their sufferings, struggles and (to his eyes) impenetrable customs. For Treslove, his friend Finkler is representative of everything about Jewishness that frustrates, puzzles and entices him. So Treslove uses his friend’s name as a word for all things Jewish. The Jewish Question becomes “The Finkler Question.”

As to why Treslove is drawn to Judaism, it’s complicated. Nearly all of Jacobson’s other characters speculate about it, some concluding that he feels left out, others that he doesn’t have enough grand tragedy in his life and thus must adopt the misery of others as his own. In any case, the question of Treslove’s Jewish interest preoccupies much of the plot. It becomes more pressing after he gets mugged in what he interprets as an anti-Semitic incident, and then meets a woman at a Seder who offers him a way into the Jewish enigma.

Jacobson’s plot is at once complex and — in terms of actual events— slight. Everything that happens in the book could have been told in a short story, but Jacobson’s (and Treslove’s) endless questioning and rehashing gives the story an impressive dimensionality. At the end of 300 pages, not excessive for a novel, I felt I had experienced the story from all angles and come away with complete comprehension of its many oblique surfaces and hidden vertices, its rooms upon rooms. Everything is more complicated than it first appears — estranged girlfriends, distant children, concealed infidelities — yet everything is perfectly explained.

One problem with this exhaustive sort of narrative is that it can be, well, exhausting. Jacobson’s characters, the Jews and Treslove, can’t, and in some cases won’t, stop talking about the Middle East. Jacobson does an excellent job of conveying the diversity of opinions even among Jews, from those who found museums of Anglo-Jewish culture and defend them against spray-paint swastikas, to those so ashamed of what they see as Israel’s brutality that they reject Jewish identity altogether. But I found it a bit too much for a novel. It was as if every time the plot got going, a public television program began playing, one in which the debate was always Israel, Gaza, Hezbollah, settlers and settlements.

To be sure, it’s a lively debate. Jacobson’s dialogue is bright, in the darkest possible sense, and sometimes spewingly funny. His characters don’t say what they mean, until suddenly they do, and it surprises even them. I particularly enjoyed the disjointed chronicle of Treslove’s failed relationships, rife with eccentrically true details. Treslove gives the most significant events titles: “the face painting incident,” “the fly incident.” It’s here that Jacobson comes closest to Jane Austen, using small incidents of everyday manners and actions to tell a subtle story.

Overall, however, the story is too global for Austen, and too narrow for someone like David Mitchell, whose novel “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet,” which I reviewed in September, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. The novel occupies some vague territory between detail and grandiosity, in which it rests interestingly, but uneasily.

Issue 09, Submitted 2010-11-17 01:19:20