Sunday, 17 October 2010

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010)

There are some interesting things going on in this novel, although not that many, and it struggles with one catastrophic problem.

I once heard Armando Iannucci interviewed on the radio, talking about stand-up comedy and related matters. He said that the most devastating heckle he ever heard wasn't in a comedy club, but at the birthday party of one of his kids. The adult Iannuccis had booked a childrens' entertainer, and as this person struggled to make the audience of severe-faced kids laugh, one of the 8-year olds stood at the back yelling 'you're not funny! you're not funny!' over and over. Iannucci said he'd never seen such a ruthlessly effective piece of rhetorical deflation. But (and this is my point): it was the voice of that kid that echoed round the chamber of my skull as I read Jacobson's novel.

Hard to see that this is the novel that merited the Booker. But there you go.


Oana said...

And that made me really curious about reading it.

As I understood from various reviews, it's not funny-funny, it's more of a sad-amusing type of story. Maybe not even sad-sad, more like bothered. A bothered-amusing novel.

Adam Roberts said...

It's very Jewish, is what it is. Which is fine; and there are many stripes of Jewish humour that make me do everything from smile wistfully to howl with hilarity. Not this, though.

Conceivably, this is an uncanny valley sort of problem. I'm not Jewish; my wife is, though. She takes the kids to Synagogue on Saturdays, we have a Shabbat meal every Friday and so on. So my position, in reading it, was neither in (since I'm not Jewish), nor exactly out (since I'm not non-Jewish enough for a novel like this to be an interesting consciousness raising exercise. A main character is a gentile who wants to be a Jew, and he failed to click for me.

I'm grumbling. It's by no means a terrible novel. It's just not that good though.

Oana said...

"It's very Jewish" as Pamuk's My Name is Red is very Turkish? Or like, it's very Jewish but nothing else? (I found Red to be very Turkish but also lots and lots of everything else).

I'm probably going to read it anyway, but I don't know if I'd better wait for the translation in my language, or get the English edition and dictionaries...

Adam Roberts said...

It's all about being a Jew, of a particular kind (an affluent English Jew, not an Israeli Jew). There's other stuff in there too: quite a bit about sex, and indignity and so on. But it all gets filtered through Jacobson's titular question. One line struck me: 'You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews. The bad times were simply those in which the former outnumbered the latter.'