Another book that won the Booker prize, this time in 2010, beating out Room by Emma Donoghue, Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, C by Tom McCarthy, and books by Damon Galgut and Andrea Levy. I can’t help but wonder if this might be the least good book of the bunch, and arguably the worst book to have won the Booker Prize. It’s in the running for certain with Vernon God Little, How Late it Was How Late, The Old Devils, and let’s say, Last Orders to round things off.
Anyway, it’s the story of three friends Finkler, Libor, and Julian Treslove — two Jewish widowers, and a rake who discuss things like women, life, love, and primarily Jewishness. The title of the novel is a reference to Treslove’s (not Jewish) coded term for talking about Jews by calling them Finklers, who he sees as a kind of archetypal British Jew (compared to Libor, a transplanted Eastern European Jew). Also “The Finkler Question” works as a kind of ironic inversion of the Nazi’s “The Jewish Question” for Jacobsen (and somewhat accidentally for Treslove).
One night Treslove is attacked by a woman (something that deeply unsettles and upsets him) and when she attacks him he can’t tell if she called out “I’ll have your jewels” as her first thought or perhaps calling out “I’ll have you, Jules” (his name), or perhaps “I’ll have you, Jew” (a mistake that leads him to wonder if she has mistaken him for Finkler) or even a reference to her own name “Judith”, the Jewish folk hero who beheaded Holophernes.
If any of this sounds fascinating, I am not sure the actual novel backs that feeling up. I found it to be oddly tedious and annoying given its winning the prize. There’s something important it seems to think it’s doing, and British literature has always had an offensive (Oliver Twist) to obsessive (Iris Murdoch) to curious (Zadie Smith) fascination with trying to make sense of British Jewishness, and a very obvious dearth of Jewish writers allowed to really work it out in public.
Maybe it’s the American in me with our Cynthia Ozicks, Philip Roths, Bernard Malamuds, Saul Bellows, and even our Isaac Bashevious Singers to ponder and work on this question for more than a century to feel a little jaded about this book in 2010.