The Finkler Question
Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular and disappointed BBC worker, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they've never quite lost touch with each other - or with their former teacher, Libor Sevick, a Czechoslovakian always more concerned with the wider world than with exam results.
Now, both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and with Treslove, his chequered and unsuccessful record with women rendering him an honorary third widower, they dine at Libor's grand, central London apartment.
It's a sweetly painful evening of reminiscence in which all three remove themselves to a time before they had loved and lost; a time before they had fathered children, before the devastation of separations, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. Better, perhaps, to go through life without knowing happiness at all because that way you had less to mourn? Treslove finds he has tears enough for the unbearable sadness of both his friends' losses.
And it's that very evening, at exactly 11:30pm, as Treslove hesitates a moment outside the window of the oldest violin dealer in the country as he walks home, that he is attacked. After this, his whole sense of who and what he is will slowly and ineluctably change.
The Finkler Question is a scorching story of exclusion and belonging, justice and love, aging, wisdom and humanity. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best.
Praise For The Finkler Question…
Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize “Like all of [Jacobson’s] work, The Finkler Question has a kind of energy that you have to look at through your fingers, like an eclipse. As the brightness of his brilliance is hard to look at, so is the darkness of his humor. I don't know a funnier writer alive.”—Jonathan Safran Foer "Like Phillip Roth, to whom he is fairly compared, Howard Jacobson is a magnificent prose stylist who is often at his most serious when he is being uproariously funny. This novel, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, is both a send-up of some very silly people, and an examination of Jewish identity in relation to rising tides of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. I don't think you have to be Jewish to find it funny, touching, and troubling.”—Jacob Weisberg, Slate, "Best Books of 2010" “Mr. Jacobson doesn’t just summon [Philip] Roth; he summons Roth at Roth’s best. This prizewinning book is a riotous morass of jokes and worries about Jewish identity, though it is by no means too myopic to be enjoyed by the wider world. It helps that Mr. Jacobson’s comic sensibility suggests Woody Allen’s, that his powers of cultural observation are so keen, and that influences as surprising as Lewis Carroll shape this book… Even in its darkest moments The Finkler Question offers many examples of… the most pernicious and authentic strain of Jewish humor: the kind that’s so real it isn’t funny at all.”—New York Times “A striking novel and a subtle one… The Finkler Question has all the qualities we expect from Mr. Jacobson—especially a mordant wit, sometimes as acrid as it is exuberant. He has been called the English Philip Roth, and it is true that the two authors have in common a white-hot indignation, at anti-Semitism and much else... With The Finkler Question, Mr. Jacobson has managed to channel his themes and his characters' emotions... with nuance, insight and, yes, laughter.”—Wall Street Journal, Best Books of 2010
“The Finkler Question tackles an uncomfortable issue [Jewish identity] with satire that is so biting, so pointed, that it pulls you along for 300 pages and leaves a battlefield of sacred cows in its wake… Like all great Jewish art… it is Jacobson’s use of the Jewish experience to explain the greater human one that sets it apart…It’s a must read, no matter what your background.”—National Public Radio
“Rare is a work of fiction that takes on the most controversial issues facing Jews so directly—and with enough humor, intelligence, and insight—that it changes a reader’s mind or two. Be warned: The Finkler Question will probably distress you on its way to disarming you. Can we pay a novel any greater compliment?”—Barnes & Noble Review
“Let’s hope that this recognition for The Finkler Question... gets Jacobson the recognition he deserves—not as a comic novelist, or a Jewish novelist, or a British Philip Roth—but on his own terms.”—New Yorker "Book Bench"
“The Finkler Question, a clever, canny, textured, subtle, and humane novel exploring the friendship of three ageing male friends…is a work of greatness… Although The Finkler Question is by no means a straightforward comic novel, it once again demonstrates Jacobson’s mastery of the form… Jacobson’s capacity to explore the minutiae of the human condition while attending to the metaphysics of human existence is without contemporary peer.”—Daily Beast"The acrobatic wit and biting humor Jacobson displayed in Kalooki Nights and The Mighty Walzer is honed sharp in The Finkler Question. Masterfully, Jacobson will bury a joke only to knock you out with a punch line 10 pages later. Though undeniably a comic novel, The Finkler Question. is a tragicomedy, centered on a wayward man whose quest for a self serves as a platform for Jacobson to explore the complexities of British Jewish identity…this is a book of big, rich ideas and, if those ideas sometimes take precedent over plot, it's still a joy being on Treslove's journey and inside Jacobson's head." —San Francisco Chronicle “The Finkler Question is often awfully funny, even while it roars its witty rage at the relentless, ever-fracturing insanity of anti-Semitism, which threatens to drive its victims a little crazy, too. This is, after all, a comedy that begins and ends in grief.” —Washington Post
“[A] wry, devastating novel… Jacobson’s prose is effortless—witty when it needs to be, heartbreaking where it counts—and the Jewish question becomes a metaphor without ever being overdone.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review“Jacobson uses Julian’s transformation as a way of examining, often with a mordant wit reminiscent of comedian Larry David’s, what it means to be Jewish. Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, this novel also offers poignant insights into the indignities of aging, the competitiveness of male friendship, and the yearning to belong.” —Booklist
“It is tempting—after reading something as fine as The Finkler Question—not to bother reviewing it in any meaningful sense but simply to urge you to put down this paper and go and buy as many copies as you can carry … Full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written … Indeed, there’s so much that is first rate in the manner of Jacobson’s delivery that I could write all day on his deployment of language without once mentioning what the book is about.”—Observer (UK)
“Another masterpiece … The Finkler Question is further proof, if any was needed, of Jacobson’s mastery of humor. But above all it is a testament to his ability to describe—perhaps it would be better to say inhabit—the personal and moral worlds of his disparate characters.”—Times (UK)“Howard Jacobson’s latest holler from the halls of comic genius … The opening chapters of this novel boast some of the wittiest, most poignant and sharply intelligent comic prose in the English language … Jacobson’s brilliance thrives on the risk of riding death to a photo-finish, of writing for broke. Exhilaration all the way.”—Scotsman
“Howard Jacobson [is] a writer able to recognize the humor in almost any situation and a man as expansive as most on the nature of Jewishness.”—Telegraph (UK)
“This charming novel follows many paths of enquiry, not least the present state of Jewish identity in Britain and how it integrates with the Gentile population. Equally important is its exploration of how men share friendship. All of which is played out with Jacobson’s exceptionally funny riffs and happy-sad refrains … Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.”—Independent on Sunday (UK)
“Both an entertaining novel and a humane one.”—Financial Times
“There are some great riffs and skits in The Finkler Question … But at the heart of the book is Julian the wannabe Jew, a wonderful comic creation precisely because he is so tragically touching in his haplessness. The most moving (and funniest) scenes are those in which he and Libor, the widower with nothing more to live for, ruminate on love and Jewishness.”—Sunday Times (UK)
“[A] bleakly funny meditation on loss, belonging and personal identity.”—Daily Mail (UK)
“For some writers a thorough investigation of the situation of British Jews today might do as the subject for a single book. In The Finkler Question it’s combined with his characteristically unsparing—but not unkindly—ruminations on love, aging, death and grief. He also manages his customary—but not easy—trick of fusing all of the above with genuine comedy … No wonder that, as with most of Jacobson’s novels, you finish The Finkler Question feeling both faintly exhausted and richly entertained.”—Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“A terrifying and ambitious novel, full of dangerous shallows and dark, deep water. It takes in the mysteries of male friendship, the relentlessness of grief and the lure of emotional parasitism.”—Guardian (UK)
“The Finkler Question balances precariously a bleak moralizing with life-affirming humor.”—Independent (UK)
“Jacobson writes perceptively about how durable friendships are compounded, in large part, of envy, schadenfreude and betrayal.”—Literary Review (UK)
“The Finkler Question is very funny, utterly original, and addresses a topic of contemporary fascination … The writing is wonderfully mobile, and inventive, and Jacobson’s signature is to be found in every sentence … The Finkler Question is a remarkable work.”—Anthony Julius, Jewish Chronicle
“Jacobson is at the height of his powers … As the men tussle with women and their absence, and their own identities, Jacobson’s wit launches a fusillade of hard-punching aperçus on human nature and its absurdities that only he could have written.”—Metro (UK)
“The Finkler Question, which is as provocative as it is funny, as angry as it is compassionate, offers a moving testimony to a dilemma as ancient as the Old Testament. It also marks another memorable achievement for Jacobson, a writer who never fires blanks and whose dialogue, which reads like an exchange between Sigmund Freud and Woody Allen, races along like a runaway train.”—Herald Scotland
“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 … Perhaps [Jacobson’s] Leopold Bloom time has come at last.”—Irish Independent
“The Finkler Question is characterized by [Jacobson’s] structuring skill and unsimplifying intelligence—this time picking through the connections and differences, hardly unremarked but given fresh treatment here, between vicariousness and parasitism, and between Jewishness, Judaism and Zionism.”—New Statesman
“Full of caustic moments … that are also, essentially, funny … No matter the book’s themes, the way Jacobson weds humor to seriousness makes it affecting for anyone.”—Jewish Week
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 9781608196111, 307pp.
Publication Date: October 12, 2010
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
Treslove’s romantic history begins with a fortune-teller’s reading in Barcelona. She says of his future, “I see a Juno—do you know a Juno?” (4) What impact does this prediction have on Treslove’s life? Where does he find “Juno,” and where is he led astray in his search for love?
After the mugging, “Treslove was not willing to accept that he had encountered a person with a screw loose, or that he had just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” (109) Why can’t Treslove believe that the mugging was random? Why is he so convinced that the incident has meaning? How does it leave him “like a man on the edge of a discovery”? (57)
Consider the rivalry between Treslove and Finkler, from school days to adulthood. How did their unspoken competition begin? What “yardsticks of success” (44) do they use to measure each other’s lives? Who seems to be leading in their rivalry at the beginning of the novel? What about at the end?
Treslove realizes that after the mugging, he is becoming “an unreliable witness to his own life.” (82) How reliable is Treslove’s point of view in The Finkler Question? Can the reader trust his perceptions? Why or why not?
What kind of “Finkler” is Sam Finkler? Is he representative of the Jewish people, as Treslove assumed when he was a boy? Why or why not?
Treslove, Finkler, and Libor have all had winding career paths. Trace each man’s job history from his youth to adulthood. Why do you think all three friends have lived such varied lives?
Consider the meaning of parenthood in the novel. How did Treslove and Finkler feel about their fathers? How do they treat their own children? What alternatives to family do childless characters like Libor and Hephzibah seek out?
Describe Finkler’s rise and fall as the leader of the ASHamed Jews. Why does Finkler insist on publicizing his distaste for Israeli politics? Why does he eventually leave the group?
Consider the seder that Treslove attends at Libor’s house. How is this seder unique? How does this scene serve as a turning point in the novel, linking part one and part two? What changes for Treslove during his first Jewish holiday?
According to Hephzibah, “You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews.” (224) Where do Treslove, Finkler, and Libor fit within Hephzibah’s categories? Is it possible to belong to neither or both categories? In contrast, Libor tells Treslove, “We’re all anti-Semites. We have no choice. You. Me. Everyone.” (249) Which assessment of Jews and anti-Semites is more accurate: Hephzibah’s, Libor’s, or neither?
Discuss the role of women in The Finkler Question. What insights do the women in the novel have about their husbands, boyfriends, and ex-boyfriends? What do Treslove, Finkler, and Libor learn from women, and what relationship lessons do they never learn?
Why does Treslove tell Libor about his affair with Tyler Finkler? Libor says that it was “more wrong of you to tell me than to do it.” (247) Which is more unforgivable: the affair or the confession? What are the repercussions of each of these indiscretions?
Consider Libor’s mental state throughout The Finkler Question. How does he express his grief over losing Malkie? Why does he attempt to date women while in mourning? What, in the end, drives Libor to suicide? Is his suicide an act of love, of defeat, or something else?
Near the end of the novel, Treslove encounters two people from his past: “the schoolgirl in his once recurring dream” who calls him a “freak” (299), and the “grizzled warrior Jew in the PLO scarf” holding a silent vigil outside the museum. (303) What impact does each of these characters have upon Treslove’s state of mind? Why is it significant that Treslove confronts two recurring characters in these final scenes?
The Finkler Question ends on a scene of mourning: Hephzibah lamenting Libor’s death and the end of her relationship with Treslove, and Finkler “mourning the Jewish people” as a whole. (307) Why does this humorous novel end on a note of mourning? What is the tone at the end of the novel? What issues are resolved, and what remains unresolved?
Discuss the use of humor in The Finkler Question. Is the novel’s humor specifically “Jewish humor,” or does it have broader appeal? Which scenes best represent the novel’s dark sense of humor?