Book Review: 2010 Winner: Harold Jacobson’s The Finkler Question

The_Finkler_QuestionRating: 3
The Finkler Question
A Novel by Harold Jacobson
2010 / 320 Pages

The Setup: He should have seen it coming. His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one.

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. (from the hardcover edition)

This review originally appeared on Opinionless on 01/17/2011

In 1848 Karl Marx published his anti-Semitic “On the Jewish Question,” a work in which he claims that the commercialized world is a victory of Judaism, which he sees as a pseudo-religion whose true god is the almighty dollar. Marx, of course, came from a Jewish background, though both his parents converted to Lutheranism.

You know what they say though. If your mother’s vagina is Jewish, you are Jewish. My mother and her vagina are not Jewish, nor was I raised Jewish, but my father’s side of the family is, so even though I don’t believe one can claim to be half of a religion, I feel like I’ve got enough exposure and insight into Jewish family life (even if some it most recently comes from watching Brooklyn Bridge and Less Than Kind) to be able to adequately hang with Harold Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question.”

And “hang” is exactly what I had to do. For a book that is billed as a comedy the journey it presented was EXHAUSTING. I don’t necessarily mean this as a bad thing, but the book does spend a lot of time on anti-Semites, Zionists, what it means to live as an ashamed Jew and of course Israel, and Palestine and the PLO. When it isn’t dealing with these hilariously light-hearted topics the novel actually gets funnier. Hard to believe, I know.

Julian Treslove is a 50ish year old man with handsome movie star looks who works as a celebrity impersonator. One night he’s Colin Firth, the next Brad Pitt. Whatever the situation and the client’s party calls for. When he was in his late teens/early twenties a fortune teller told him he’d meet a woman whose name began with a J, “I see a Juno,” she said, and that he’d encounter danger and passion.

Julian’s two best friends both happen to be widows and Julian himself longs to be a widow, though after a series of failed relationships with women whose names have all started with J, and the birth of two sons each having a different mother, he’s still never married. He listens to opera and dreams of suffering and mourning the loss of a non-existent spouse with whom he imagines he shared a wonderful life with until the tragedy of her death struck.

Then something happens. Julian is mugged by a woman, and he thinks she says something anti-Semitic to him during the attack. Julian isn’t Jewish, but his two best friends are, and this sets him down a path of equal parts paranoia and discovery. It’s a strange journey, but Julian’s piece of the book, which happens to be the largest, is certainly the funniest.

There are a lot of little laugh out loud moments sprinkled throughout, and plenty of memorable lines, but overall “The Finkler Question” felt like a lot of work for very little payoff. Not a whole heck of a lot happens in the book, and while there’s no question Jacobson is a talented writer, I would have hoped slightly more character development and slightly less philosophy.

If the question being asked of me is “Is the Finkler Question good?” then my answer is yes, but for it to be great you may have to be just a tad more Jewish then I am.


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