Tuesday 21 January 2020

Review: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

is it bloom time for jacobson at last?
(Bloomsbury, £18.99)

'A great, great writer," says Jonathan Safran Zoer, author of the best-seller Everything is Illuminated. "Our funniest living writer," says Allison Pearson in the Daily Telegraph. All this may be true, but somehow none of Howard Jacobson's 10 novels has made a big splash in Ireland. Why is this? And will The Finkler Question and his inclusion on this year's Booker long list bring him the popularity he deserves?

First, the plot. Julian Treslove, aged 49, is walking near the BBC late one night when he is mugged. The mugger is strange in that she is a woman. What's more, she says something strange: she accuses him of being a Jew. Actually, Julian is a goy, but he has two Jewish friends: Samuel Finkler, a pro-Palestinian philosopher sufficiently well-known to appear on Desert Island Discs, and Libor Sevcik, a veteran journalist.

As Gaza and Israel loom large in this book, so does the BBC. Julian was once what the waspish critic AA Gill calls "a Tristan", the sort of broadcaster constantly trying to identify the spirit of the age. But Julian is a failure: as other Tristans shot up the ladder, he stayed where he was, producing late-night arts programmes for Radio 3, "because no one knew he was there". The result is that he hates the BBC as "a shitheap".

If Julian sounds a bit of a bad-tempered boy, that's because his desires are infantile and he has poorly developed notions of loyalty to family and friends. He has never been married but he has managed to father two sons with different women and to absent himself from their upbringing. And though he loves Sam Finkler, that hasn't stopped him from having it off with Sam's now-deceased wife. Libor Sevcik has also lost his wife recently -- here are three men who are in varying ways miserably womanless. This is rich soil for comedy, and Jacobson tills it for every regretful laugh he can muster.

Why Jacobson's brand of humour hasn't yet crossed the Irish Sea may have something to do with its Jewishness. Although we have here, particularly on the left and in the government, a strong dislike of Israeli policy in Gaza, we don't have (yet) many of the sort of maniacs who combine anti-Nazism with hatred of the Jews. As that kind of progressive anti-Semitism seeps into Ireland, Jacobson has the usual last laugh at it. Perhaps his Leopold Bloom time has come at last.

Buy 'The Finkler Question' from Eason

Irish Independent

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