“The Finkler Question” by Cian Morey Apr26


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“The Finkler Question” by Cian Morey

In my opinion, this should most certainly have won the Booker Prize. As it most certainly did. That’s not to say everyone should most certainly read it. Nota bene – in my opinion.

“The Finkler Question” is quite simply a book about what it means to be Jewish in modern London. It follows Julian Treslove – morbid, hopelessly idealistic and powerfully miserable pseudo-widower who spends his days mourning for the lost love he never achieved in the first place – as he sets out on a subconscious quest, in the aftermath of a strangely philosophical mugging, to find a side to himself that he never knew he might have had. Influenced along the way by his two friends Libor Sevcik and Samuel Finkler, and his own gilded notions of a mysterious culture, Treslove turns his world upside down to strive to become someone and something else – regardless of whether or not there was a good reason for having his world the right way up.

Alright, let’s get the bad bits over with. Firstly, this is a niche book. An extremely niche book. Howard Jacobson writes for a very specific audience. That is, Howard Jacobson writes almost exclusively for Jews; well, for those who are interested in Jews and Jewish culture. I, for example, am not a Jew. I’m barely a Christian. Nevertheless, I am fortunate in that I am one of the few non-Jewish people who would enjoy this book. But I can understand perfectly well why the vast majority of people would not. The book doesn’t make much of an effort to be accessible to all. Prior knowledge is needed going into this or else a hell of a lot of time; concentration and perhaps extra research is needed in the middle of it if one is not a Jew. It can be very easy for the reader to flounder and sink in what could be classed as an overload of references, terminology, complex socio-politics, more complex history and cultural in-jokes. Luckily I was curious about it all and I was glad to be educated but I know I’m in the
minority on this and that’s OK. The book is definitely not for everyone, and doesn’t try to be. Those who get it love it. Those who don’t (and I stress, the “not getting it” is completely understandable) most likely hate it. So don’t put yourself through this if you’re neither prepared nor at least naturally inquisitive. If the reader is not willing to sometimes put in work themselves, “The Finkler Question” will lose its appeal extremely rapidly.

But if the reader is willing to put in that work I can absolutely guarantee that it will pay off in the end. It raises, of course, the question of whether the necessity of the reader putting in their own work is a problem. Many would see it as such. It is the author’s job, they may say, to make the book enjoyable and readable. How much “implication” or “thought-provoking” stays on the right side of “tedious” and “incomprehensible”? I can’t answer that. Not for everyone. “In my opinion”, as I said at the start, must be kept in mind throughout the entirety of this review. So, in that vein, in my opinion… the amount of “implication” and “thought-provoking” before the boat of meaningfulness capsizes is approximately as much implication and thought-provoking stuff as Jacobson has managed to fit into this book. I accepted it, I was happy to read it and to give it the great attention it required, and now I don’t want to have to do that again for quite a while. Other people will reach the end of their tether on that matter even before the end of this novel. And that’s very reasonable. Opinions, opinions. Know what you’re getting into, for your own sake.

So. The cons are pretty much covered there, in my opinion. So now the pros. Jacobson’s manipulation of the language is masterful. His writing seems to flow with great ease and great pleasure to read. He is capable of spinning a sentence from the amusing to the tear-jerking before it reaches its end, all in a way that feels perfectly natural. The Booker Prize of course rewards good writing as well as other good aspects of a novel – perhaps good writing more than anything else – and I think Jacobson would have come close to victory for his linguistic prowess alone here. The characters are very engaging. They are not necessarily blatantly relatable to most people because they are so submerged in a different culture and some might find this problematic; nevertheless, their humanity always shows through which is something everyone can understand. Jacobson has produced some of the most realistic depictions of members of the human race in this novel. You feel their highs and lows, you laugh and cry with them. I even came out of this novel feeling as though I had lost a friend at one point.

Next, the tone. I didn’t think going into this book that I would end up writing an entire section of the review about the tone. Tone is rather an obscure aspect of writing, something which is vaguely referenced in discussion of other more important elements but usually left rather neglected because it’s impact is, admittedly, generally minimal; but that is different here. The tone swings like the pendulum in a clock. It can veer from the happy to the sad, from the incredibly funny to the incredibly heart-wrenching in a very short space of time. It is a testament, I think, to Jacobson’s skill with words, his deep understanding of the human condition and his knowledge and experience of how even the real world and the tone of one’s life can so often change in a moment. It keeps this novel interesting and even slightly suspenseful at all times. It adds unpredictability and moves you in a number of different ways that you might never have thought possible.

Finally, the plot. OK… this is a tricky one. I’ve counted this among the pros because, for me, it was interesting and enjoyable. A lot of people would count it among the cons because, for them, it was disjointed, slow-moving, and devoid perhaps of any clear sort of resolution. I can see and acknowledge their reasoning. There is a plot, firstly. Maybe it’s disturbing that I should need to answer or even acknowledge that question, but the presence of the plot might very well not be obvious at first. To say “there is a plot” in the context of this book is to say “there is an over-arcing plot,” sort of in the sense of a background story that spans the length of a full TV series while relatively unconnected incidents occur in the episodes between its beginning and conclusion. “The Finkler Question” operates in rather the same way. It is more a collection of disparate – meaningful, but disparate – scenes in some vague sequence as opposed to one meaningful story-line. Questions are asked and answers may or may not be given. The reader could leave this novel with a sense that either everything was beautifully concluded or nothing was concluded at all. The idea of this style of narrative could seem daunting, and, if I was to be very bluntly critical about it, it doesn’t work nearly as well as a more straightforward story. However, I did find myself consistently engaged thanks to the plot’s highly entertaining props of sharp wit, powerful emotion and thought-provoking ponderings which held the whole thing together – albeit shakily – from beginning to end.

Jacobson did enough to keep me reading. Then again, I was lenient on him, as I have been many times previously in this review. It’s just who I am. Not everyone is, or could be expected to be, so forgiving. Thus not everyone will find that it holds together so well. If at all.

So. Well. Right. OK. In conclusion, this book is a weird one. It is a “love it or hate it” book and rightly so. It will appeal to some, it will not appeal to more. I have given my opinion, but I do not claim that to be representative of all, or even most, viewpoints about this. In my eyes, the book boasts extremely compelling characters, marvellously skilful writing, a hilarious yet touching
tone, and a plot that just about works if you want it to, sprinkled throughout with fantastically thought-provoking analyses of modern life. It asks the reader to give it more concentration and effort than the reader may have expected from such a book, but always rewards them if such concentration and effort is given. It is a novel that moved me deeply. But it will not move everyone.

For those of you who are curious about other cultures, and are willing to delve into a very deep, very complex but ultimately very satisfying piece of literature – I highly recommend “The Finkler Question.” For those of you who want something light, who don’t want to do an awful lot of thinking and analysing themselves, and who prefer a story with a clear beginning, middle and end – I do not recommend “The Finkler Question” at all. Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned from this book, and the most valuable piece of advice I can give here, is to be damn sure of what sort of experience you want to have when you open your next book. Know what you’re getting into with this and know if you can take it. If you can’t, don’t worry; there are better things out there for you. And if you can, well – I wish you the best of luck.