This Booker Prize-winning novel doesn’t cover a lot of thematic ground; like Jane Austen, Howard Jacobson likes to explore a narrow field of study. In his case, it is the UK’s Jewish population especially as focussed around north London. But also like Austen, Jacobson’s miniaturist observations can illuminate and touch on universal questions, and has room for multi-layered comedy.
Julian Treslove is an unspectacular television producer of arts programs and a celebrity impersonator, with two failed marriages behind him and two distant, resentful sons. A gentile convinced that a Jewish identity would offer asylum from his identity crisis, Treslove is acutely envious of his old school friend Sam Finkler, now a highly successful author of glib pop-philosophy best sellers with titles like “The Existentialist in the Kitchen”. For Treslove, Finkler comes to represent Jewish identity: The ‘Jewish question’ (in all its loaded historical ambivalence) becomes the Finkler question, at once sanitized and personalized. Both men regularly meet with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a colorful Mittel-European transplant who serves as the book’s heart (as well as narrator Steven Crossley’s finest achievement). He is crotchety, funny, and touching in his devotion to his dead wife, even while on hilariously awkward dates.
Jacobson has great fun in pitting his character’s different approaches to Jewishness against each other, particularly Treslove’s gauche appropriation (“He looked like Topol; that’s how Treslove knew he was a Jew.”). There is a sense that the three male leads are facets of one personality with a schismatic approach to Jewishness: Crossley, however, is able to give each one their own unique voice. In fact, with The Finkler Question, Crossley gives a masterclass in narration. His characterizations are colorful without lapsing into caricature, and he unfailingly gets the intent behind each line, each rhetorical question, each instance of passive-aggressive indignation (and there’s a lot of that). Especially with this book, the narrator has an important task: the physical attack that kicks off Treslove’s identity crisis hinges on a linguistic confusion, and Crossley’s obsessive delivery of each permutation of the attacker’s garbled words is just one very funny moment in an excellent performance. Dafydd Phillips