Friday, 11 February 2011

Finkler Revisited

I reviewed Jacobson's 2010 Booker Prize winning novel shortly after it won; although not at any length. It deserves a second, more considered review. So:
'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 former BBC radio producer, 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 Sevcik, a Czech 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 have 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 11:30 pm, as Treslove, walking home, hesitates a moment outside the window of the oldest violin dealer in the country, that he is attacked. And after this, his whole sense of who and what he is will slowly and ineluctably change.
Well. It's a novel that rehearses questions of Jewishness and identity, sometimes to interesting effect. And only a man with a heart as hard as Pharoah would deny that the ending is movingly handled. But there’s the whiff of cheat about this, too: it’s a Little Nell strategy. Introduce a warm, wise, elderly character, who has lived all his life devoted to his wife. Have the wife die, so that he is heartbroken. Have him carry on, with dignity in his grief, for a while, until various other circumstances overwhelm him and he commits suicide. Who but a monster could hold back tears?

On the other hand -- well, there’s bound to be a Wildean reaction after the death of little Nell. It’s not nice to feel manipulated. And, in retrospect, I wasn’t sure I quite believed Libor. In part this has to do with the whole milieu of the novel: nobody has a real job, everybody has lots of money. Libor comes to the country so poor he has to work as a schoolteacher; later he works as a jobbing journalist—yet he still ends up in a large apartment right in the middle of London, hard by Regent’s Park. The novel makes great play with the fact that Treslove claims to live in Hampstead although he doesn’t quite live in Hampstead. But wherever he lives, Hampstead or hard by, it’s an insanely expensive neck of the woods—rock stars and bankers live in Hampstead, and slightly less successful rock stars and accountants live hard by. Not people who work as celebrity lookalikes. People who work as celebrity lookalikes live in Stoke Newington, or Tooting. Not in Hampstead. And people who work as celebrity lookalikes whilst paying maintenance to not-one-but-two divorced wives and attendant offspring would be lucky to have enough money left over to live on the cheap side of Hull.

Finkler himself works in ‘the media’, and so we can swallow the thought that he earns silly money. But Finkler’s characterisation is not complex. He is a shallow, egotistical, energetic man, the sort of man who booms with hollow mirthless laughter in restaurants when he thinks he ought to, and who reads everything in terms of me-me-me. That’s fine; there are such people (of course) in the world. But it’s not hard to do, technically, for a writer. There’s a little more, if only a very little, to Treslove: but here you see Jacobson’s workings, as it were. Treslove fixates on Jewishness, and Jacobson backstories his fascination by portraying him as erotically invested in a sort of romanticised victim status. His egotistical pity means that his love life has been falling in love with various individual women who strike him as victims. In the novel he takes 'Jewishness' as a kind of victim phylum. As an explanation for Gentile philosemitism—again, another very real phenomenon, as I have good personal cause to know—this struck me as one-dimensional.

SF types sometimes denigrate (and caricature) ‘the mainstream novel’ as being about nothing more than middle class people committing adultery in Hampstead. It’s not a very accurate caricature, actually; for although mainstream novels may or may not be pitifully limited creatures, when compared to the infinite possibilities of time and space available to genre, few writers today would write anything so old-fashioned as that. Except that—no, The Finkler Question is literally about middle class people committing adultery in Hampstead. It is one of the most creakingly old-fashioned novel-length pieces of work I have read since ... since the time when old-fashioned was actually new.

But that’s not my main problem here. The main problem, then, with this novel is that it is an unfunny comic novel. That’s a pretty major problem, as it goes: in the house of the comic novel, funny is a load-bearing wall. Funny, of course, is also subjective; but only up to a point.

How is it unfunny? Well, it’s unfunny in several ways. Its central conceit is unfunny; its characters, situations and set-pieces are unfunny; its style is unfunny; its gags are unfunny. Most of all, its timing is off:
Libor, more than three times their age when they met him, had turned up out of the blue—he really did look, in his maroon velvet suit and matching bow tie, as though he’d pushed open the wrong door, like Treslove in his dreams—to teach them European history, though mainly what he wanted to talk to them about was communist oppression ... and the part played by windows in Czech history. Julian Tresolve thought he has said ‘widows’ and became agitated.

‘Widows in Czech history, sir?’

‘Windows, chlapec, windows!’ [19]
I’ve been trying to think of a less funny gag than the widows/windows misunderstanding; but time is getting on and I have a blogpost to write. It’s not just that Jacobson fluffs his punchlines; it’s that his whole feel is off. The ‘maroon velvet suit and matching bow tie’ reads like Jacobson’s version of the least funny bit in Shakespeare’s comedies (which is, of course, saying something): Malvolio’s cross-gartered yellow stockings. Libor is a humane and wise fellow, and no Malvolio, of course, but as a way in showing that a writer lacks funny bones, this could hardly be bettered.

Quite often Jacobson’s lines have the shape of jokes, without any actual comic content. Finkler is accosted by the (drunk) son of his friend: ‘“Uncle Sam, tell me ... what’s all this Jew shit?” Slurred Jew shit came out sounding more like Jesuit, a word which Alfredo would not have known even when sober.’ [219] Oh, my aching sides.

The set-pieces are similarly lame, comedically speaking, and have the added disadvantage of having a clapped-out belatedness that borders on plagiary. A running joke is that gentile Treslove falls for women with ‘Jew’ secretly buried in their names (Judith, Julie, Juno and so on). So obsessed is he, subconsciously, that when he is mugged (by a women) he hears ‘you Ju—’ He tells his friend Finkler, who makes a joke of it. Or, to be precise, he makes a ‘joke’ of it.
‘Do you know anyone called Juno?’ Treslove asked.

‘J’you know Juno?’ Finkler replied, making inexplicable J noises between his teeth.

Tresolve didn’t get it. [16]
This is lifted from Woody Allen, of course (Alvie Singer in Annie Hall). It was funny when Allen did it. It’s less funny here, and Jacobson moves efficiently towards making it even less funny by flogging it to death.
‘J’you know Juno? Is that what you’re asking me?’

Treslove still didn’t get it. So Finkler wrote it down. D’Jew know Jewno?

Treslove shrugged. ‘Is that supposed to be funny?’

‘It is to me,’ said Finkler. ‘But please yourself.’ [16-17]
Jacobson’s timing, as here, is much more often off than on. In a scene in the middle of the novel, Finkler is invited onto Desert Island Discs. He gets his friends to help him put together a list of discs (he himself hates music) that will present him to the world in a good light. This, of course, is lifted from Stoppard’s The Real Thing, where it is handled much more deftly and amusingly. I read on almost expecting Jacobson at any minute to start saying, saying, saying that his dog has no fucking nose.
He remembered his friend running off a list of all the fraught women he had fallen for. They sounded like the string section of a women’s orchestra. [230]
This, again, has the shape of a joke without any comic content; but there’s more, for Jacobson can’t let a punchline alone—that second sentence there is actually ‘they sounded like the string section of a women’s orchestra, or rather an orchestra that had nothing but a string section in it.’ He repeatedly dilutes the effectiveness of his punchlines like that; and, indeed, the novel is full of evidence of somebody unable finally to let go of what he is writing—unable to snap the lid briskly down on narrative, characterisation, pro-and-contra argumentation. It all goes on a beat too long.

There are also odd touches of evasiveness in the way the novel relates to real life. Alexei Sayle pops up in the novel as ‘Ivo Cohen’ (‘a short round man ... his stage act belonged to the genre known as Marxist slapstick’, 140), and Jacqueline Rose has a cameo as ‘Leonie Leapmann’ (‘a literary theorist’ -- there’s a touch of Lisa Jardine about her too... her cropped flaming red hair, 167). In both cases, I suppose, we accept this is a venerable literary convention: not that The Finkler Question is a roman-a-clef, exactly, but that its relationship to reality is central to its effectiveness. The novel cannot escape engaging with actual reality in the larger sense—the Israel-Palestine problem, most directly. Late in the novel when Libor has lunch with an old-flame called Emmy. Libor claims ‘I have discovered in myself a profound necessity to think ill of my fellow Jews.’
‘I can’t go on making these allowances. I can’t go on telling myself that that American swindler who has just been put in jail to serve a hundred life sentences is only coincidentally Jewish, or that bad-faced business Jew we see on television who brags about his money and the ruthlessness of his pursuit of it—I can’t convince me, let alone others, that it is only by chance that such men resemble every archetype of Jewish evil that Christian or Muslim history has thrown up.’ [214]
Bringing Bernie Madoff and Alan Sugar specifically into the discussion but refusing actually to name them seems oddly mealymouthed; indeed since part the point of this exchange is to have a character articulate a ‘let’s not pussyfoot around this any more’ attitude, it seems more than that: a failure of nerve. If you’re going to call Alan Sugar ‘that bad-faced business Jew’ in a book, we might think you should at least do it (as it were) to his face. But even as she essays a refutation, Emmy evades the name:
‘The bad-faced business Jew you refer to, assuming I know who you mean—and it doesn’t matter because, yes, of course, I know the type—is not the hate figure to Gentiles that he is to you. Some like him, some admire him, some don’t bother their heads about him one way or another. You might be surprised to learn how few people see the archetypal Jew every time they see him. Or even know that he’s a Jew. Or care.’ [214-15]
The football hooligans who sprayed anti-Semitic graffiti at White Hart Lane when Sugar took over Spurs certainly knew he was Jewish (though several of them spelled his surname ‘Suger’). But my point is that evasiveness is precisely the currency of one mode of public British anti-Semitism, and it ill serves the novel here to collude in that. To pick two examples from UK politics: Anne Widdecombe opined that ‘there is something of the night’ about Michael Howard, during his tenure as Leader of the Conservative Party, and Peter Mandelson acquired the nickname amongst gentiles ‘the Prince of Darkness.’ I'd say that neither sentiment was explicitly anti-Semitic, yet both statements exist within a lengthy context of anti-Semitic insinuation.

This agit prop aspect of the novel reaches a kind of mini-climax at the performance of a play called Children of Abraham—a considerably distorted parodic version of Caryl Churchill’s celebrated, or notorious, play Seven Jewish Children (2009), about the Israeli occupation of Gaza:
The final scene was a well-staged tableau of destruction, all smoke and rattling metal sheets, and Wagnerian music, to which the Chosen People danced like slow-motion devils, baying and halooing, bathing their hands and feet in the blood that oozed like ketchup from the corpses of their victims, a fair number of whom were children. [250]
Jacobson was one of Seven Jewish Children's most outspoken critics. Here, for instance, is an article he wrote for the Independent [18 Feb 2009] denouncing it. And here is Jacqueline Rose's angry response to Jacobson in the Guardian. Jacobson wasn't pleased by Rose's column. Nor was Rose pleased by his reply. To read through that exchange is to see the extent to which Jacobson is using his novel to recreate a version of Seven Jewish Children to which his angry criticisms apply much more straightforwardly than is the case with Churchill's actual, much more nuanced and subtle drama. This, we might think, borders on the special-pleading, not to say the dishonest. But it is characteristic of the novel's awkward relationship to reality.

Also, the ‘Jewish Museum’ Hepshibah is setting up, and in which Treslove gets involved. It is to open, we assume in 2010; and already it is in trouble—antisemitic graffiti, bacon wrapped around the doorhandles and so on. But here’s the thing: the actual Jewish Museum in London (formerly in Woburn Place, later moved to larger premises in Camden) was founded in 1932, a time in which general European hostility to Jewry, on the Continent but also over here, was, shall we say, more acute and focussed than is the case today.


Andy said...

The widow/window confusion was entertaining when Marcel Duchamp did it.

Then again, he always had a way with a pun.

But I agree, for a renowned comic novelist Jacobson really isn't particularly funny.

Jonathan Barnes said...

The widow/window thing sounds so unfunny it's almost... erm... funny. But the big question (and I've still not read TFQ) is whether it's more or less amusing than McEwan's "Solar", another book which critics seemed to find inexplicably uproarious. Verdict?

Adam Roberts said...

That is, actually, an interesting question Jonathan. You can see here, my opinion on McEwan's novel: in sum, also very much not funny. So it's a toss up between a mediocre, rambling, rehashed-Indie-op-ed-pieces-about-Jewishness-and-Gaza novel that isn't in the least bit funny, and a quite good, rather ponderous Global Warming near future novel that isn't in the least bit funny. Tough call.

Adam Roberts said...

Andy: it hadn't occurred to me before, but you're right; Jacobson may be riffing specifically off that as a self-conscious Duchamp allusion.

Sarah said...

Hi Adam - interesting review, and I was also disappointed FQ wasn't funnier. I am linking to a piece about it - readers may find the discussion interesting.

By chance I've just been reading 'Arslan' (which I'd never heard of until I spotted it in the Gollancz Masterworks series) and enjoyed your introduction.

Sarah said...

I forgot that signing in using my google a/c wouldn't link through to my blog.

So I'll deanonymise myself!

Tim Wilkinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Roberts said...

Thanks for the link, Sarah. That's very interesting.