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Howard Jacobson, Man Booker Manc

Lucy Tomlinson, The Finkler Question, and a recent good evening at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Written by . Published on October 13th 2010.

Howard Jacobson, Man Booker Manc

I was at my local library the other day (the one the Daily Mail insists is becoming a internet café with a few books thrown in) when I decided to check if they had a copy of the latest Howard Jacobson novel, The Finkler Question, in stock. They not only did, but it had six reservations on it after being in stock for only a couple of days. Almost unheard of, according to library staff.

“There is a perception that funny has stopped selling. Now people go to writing to lose themselves in a semi-holy way. Reading groups have a suspicion of laughter, but it’s harder to get a joke than to be moved.”

Of course, there are other honours being conferred on The Finkler Question other than single-handedly beating computer creep. Not least winning the Man Booker Prize for 2010.

This was no surprise. It’s had almost uniformly great reviews (“It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness,” according to The Guardian).

Not so long ago I went along to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation to see the man himself reading from the novel. Jacobson’s reputation as a warm and wickedly funny raconteur precedes him, and as a Manchester boy is a natural choice for the IABF’s inaugural speaker.

Finkler’s Question is the story of a man, Julian Treslove, and his infatuation with Jewishness. Treslove is not himself Jewish, but craves the history and sense of inclusion he believes Jewishness will confer. He conceives of his friend Finkler as a representation of all that is Jewish and even uses the word ‘Finkler’ to stand in for the word ‘Jew’.

In a very clever device, Treslove works as a celebrity impersonator, not any particular celebrity, but can generically represent someone you think you possibly recognise, so lacking is his identity and sense of himself. A professional ‘what’s-his-name’, so to speak.

Finkler himself is a professional anti-Jew, taking deliberately provocative positions to guarantee instant media coverage. He even joins a group called Ashamed Jews, along with plenty of his celebrity friends, to protest against Israel. A pop philosopher and general talking-head luvvie, Finkler is, according to Jacobson, “wasting his life” by pursuing a course that is intellectually shallow.

On the flipside, Treslove’s other friend is also Jewish. Libor is an octogenarian Czech in mourning for his wife, with whom he was still besotted with after many years of marriage. It is this kind of love and deep reservoir of feeling that Treslove envies, rather than any particular religious doctrine.

For Jacobson is writing about Jewishness rather than any theological tangles of Judaism. Treslove worries about circumcision and Seder suppers, while Jacobson suggests that the real heart of Jewish spiritual life is “the Talmudic core tradition of questioning everything, criticism is the life blood. We should take Isaac Bashevis-Singer’s example and joke at sacred things.”

So when Jacobson asks his assembled audience, “So are you in the mood for funny and rude or upsetting?” there were no prizes for which got the vote. But the fact is it’s not really a choice; Jacobson’s writing is funny and rude and upsetting and clever and emotional, all in one package.

It’s a deserved winner of the Man Booker Prize and underlines how Jacobson has become one of greatest living literary figures.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson is published by Bloomsbury, £18.99.Here’s a few choice Howard Jacobson quotes

On writing about Jewishness
“It wasn’t difficult to imagine not being Jewish...the only advice I got on Jewishness was ‘don’t marry out’. It would be more difficult for me to imagine being an orthodox Jew. Far more.”

“[The inspiration for the character of Libor] came from a meeting with a 90-year-old Jewish man. I was told ‘He’d like to have a salt beef sandwich with you.’ Now that’s my kind of Jewishness. Food Jewishness.”

On Death
“My argument is that comedy is not the opposite of seriousness. My last novel [The Act of Love] was a novel of despair and I found that comedy was the best way to deal with that. You have to write about unfunny things, and death is the most unfunny thing of the lot. Death and jokes, that’s my business.”

On Humour
“There is a perception that funny has stopped selling. Now people go to writing to lose themselves in a semi-holy way. Reading groups have a suspicion of laughter, but it’s harder to get a joke than to be moved.”

On The Man Booker Prize
“One pretends one is above it all. But it means a lot, especially as one gets older. The Man Booker is funnier than usual so maybe there will be a change.” (Of course Jacobson duly won the thing).

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