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Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
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A-The Finkler QuestionBritish author Howard Jacobson, who won the 2010 Booker Prize for the comic novel The Finkler Question (2010), is no stranger to the award: Kalooki Nights (2006) was long-listed for the prize. Jacobson is also the author of The Mighty Walzer (1999) and The Act of Love (2008).

The Story: Julian Treslove, a middle-aged former BBC radio producer now working as a celebrity double, and Sam Finkler, a recently widowed pop philosopher at odds with his Jewish identity, have been friends for years. Both keep in touch with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a successful journalist who escaped the Holocaust. While at a dinner party at Sevcik's London apartment, the three men reminisce on times past. Treslove, a gentile who has always been jealous of Finkler--he views Finkler as the quintessential Jew--leaves the party and is mugged. Treslove believes the crime to be a misdirected act of anti-Semitism, and this incident sets off a desire to convert to Judaism and ruminations about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century--as real anti-Semitic attacks occur all around him.
Bloomsbury. 307 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781608196111

Barnes and Noble 4.5 of 5 Stars
"As you keep reading, however, the brilliance of the book comes clear: Jacobson is using the novel form precisely in order to help us limn these polarizing issues through the consciousness of a flawed character as an excuse, freeing himself--and us--from the conventions of argumentation. ... 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." Anne Trubek

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It's not that there aren't parallels between the way Mr. Jacobson writes the novel of manners (atrocious manners) and the way Austen did (much better manners). It's just that his inner Roth did more than his inner Austen to win him this year's Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. Mr. Jacobson doesn't just summon Roth; he summons Roth at Roth's best." Janet Maslin

Globe and Mail (Canada) 4 of 5 Stars
"Julian is a fascinating character, at once strikingly empty and richly sui generis. ... Hilarious and romantic at the start, it becomes more and more discomfiting as it progresses, especially in its chilling depiction of modern anti-Semitism." Cynthia Macdonald

Spectator (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"I have emerged from a state of tunnel-vision absorption; rarely have I come across a novel with such a range of themes and emotions to digest: anguish, infidelity, loyalty, circumcision, Zionism, Judaism, mugging, the BBC, even online poker--and one would have to listen all over again to absorb fully the stinging humour and myriad jokes. ... It is impossible to pinpoint the most striking scenes--there are so many." Robert Cooper

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The Finkler Question ... is indeed a striking novel and a subtle one, a group portrait of three men in later life, each with comic foibles but each, also, feeling the weight of his past, conveyed in the narrative through flashbacks. ... [It] has all the qualities we expect from Mr. Jacobson--especially a mordant wit, sometimes as acrid as it is exuberant." Martin Rubin

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"No other book has given me such a clear sense of the benevolent disguises that anti-Jewish sentiments can wear. ... There are certainly reasons to find this novel annoying. Chief among them, of course, is the tiresomeness of Julian's obsessive, if benevolent, racism." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Critics describe Howard Jacobson as the English Philip Roth, for good reason: like Roth, Jacobson fearlessly delves into male-female relations, the dark spaces of the male psyche, and the dilemmas of Judaism. Jacobson, however, likens himself more to a "Jewish Jane Austen," whose comedy of manners mines religious mores. Both monikers are apt. The Finkler Question, a portrait of three men wrestling with identity, showcases Jacobson as "a frighteningly smart and insightful thinker and stylist" (Spectator). With a biting wit, he examines many sides of polarizing issues, from modern-day anti-Semitism to Zionism to self-loathing Jews, issues that enlightened most critics but left many feeling uncomfortable. But this is an important book, one that raises timely, universal questions. The Finkler Question "will probably distress you on its way to disarming you," writes the Barnes and Noble critic. "Can we pay a novel any greater compliment?"