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The Finkler Question
by Howard Jacobson

Published: 2010-10-12
Paperback : 320 pages
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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 lost touch with each other, or with ...

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Introduction

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 lost touch with each other, or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik.

Dining together one night at Sevcik's apartment—the two Jewish widowers and the unmarried Gentile, Treslove—the men share a sweetly painful evening, reminiscing on a time before they had loved and lost, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. But as Treslove makes his way home, he is attacked and mugged outside a violin dealer's window. Treslove is convinced the crime was a misdirected act of anti-Semitism, and in its aftermath, his whole sense of self will ineluctably change.

The Finkler Question is a funny, furious, unflinching novel of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and the wisdom and humanity of maturity.

Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

Editorial Review

Product Description

Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize

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 lost touch with each other, or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik.

Dining together one night at Sevcik's apartment—the two Jewish widowers and the unmarried Gentile, Treslove—the men share a sweetly painful evening, reminiscing on a time before they had loved and lost, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. But as Treslove makes his way home, he is attacked and mugged outside a violin dealer's window. Treslove is convinced the crime was a misdirected act of anti-Semitism, and in its aftermath, his whole sense of self will ineluctably change.

The Finkler Question is a funny, furious, unflinching novel of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and the wisdom and humanity of maturity.




Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Howard Jacobson

Q: Has your life changed (in ways good and bad) since you were awarded the Man Booker last Tuesday?

A: Yes. Apart from having had no sleep and having lost my voice giving interviews around the world, I can think of no bad way it has changed. The good is almost incalculable. In practical terms, The Finkler Question has been riding high in the bestselling charts around the English speaking world and will be translated in countries that have never before shown much interest in my work. But the greater good cannot be measured in lists or numbers. The Man Booker prize feels like a vindication of what I do and have done for a quarter of a century, casting a backward light on my earlier novels, introducing and part explaining them to readers who have not read me before.

I can best describe what I feel as a profound sensation of relief. From what? The usual: disappointment, frustration, bafflement, and the fear of being forever labelled 'an undervalued writer.' Whatever else, they cannot call me undervalued now.

Q: Your talents are largely comic and you've admitted to being ruffled by the lack of respect for comedy among the literary establishment. Do you think most novels lose their footing without a comedic hum? Which novelists do you most admire for their comedy?

A: Comic is the cruelest word. Yes, I aspire to be funny. Jonathan Safran Foer has just said of me to the L.A. Times that "I don't know a funnier writer alive," and I take that to be a huge compliment. But I don't think of myself as a writer of comic novels, for the reason that comic novel suggests lightness or frolicsomeness, a holiday from the serious, and that's not how I see what I do. That one can be funny and deadly serious doesn't need to be argued, but there are those who think they demean the solemn act of reading when they laugh - Rabelais called them the agelasts - whereas, of course, laughter can be as profound an act of the intelligence as any other response.

Ian McEwan once said he hated comic novels: it is like being wrestled to the ground and tickled. I know exactly what he means. But that's not what you get with me. With me it's like being wrestled to the ground and stabbed in the heart.

The other reason I'm not comfortable with the term comic novel is that it's redundant. The novel began in comedy (Rabelais, Cervantes) and continues to owe an obligation to it. A novel that doesn't make you laugh at some level, or that doesn't invigorate in a way we associate with comedy, or whose language isn't alive to play and paradox and contradiction, isn't doing its job.

For me, some of the novelists who do remember their obligations to comedy are Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad (think The Secret Agent), Henry James (funnier than he's often given credit for), Joseph Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera (sometimes), Steve Tesich (I know of no more bitterly funny novel than Karoo), and, if I may return the compliment, Jonathan Safran Foer (Alexander Perchov, the sometime narrator of Everything Is Illuminated, is an inspired comic creation). This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Q: Where do you write? What does the space look and feel like?

A: I write on a tiny open mezzanine floor in the loft apartment I share with my wife in Soho, London. Steel bookshelves rise from the lower floor and in order to access the top shelves I have to risk my life climbing ladders. Light floods in through large windows and when I look out I see the city of London, St Paul's Cathedral, the Gherkin, and many of the great financial institutions. So the space I occupy is airy, and the world I look out upon is vast. This is the best space I have ever worked in, partly because of the natural light, but also because I don't feel locked away. I have only to raise my eyes to see the busy breathing world. Certainly I have never been so prolific, nor looked forward more to going to my desk.




Excerpt

ONE

He should have seen it coming.
His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one.
He was a man who saw things coming. Not shadowy premonitions before and after sleep, but real and present dangers in the daylit world. Lamp posts and trees reared up at him, splintering his shins. Speeding cars lost control and rode on to the footpath leaving him lying in a pile of torn tissue and mangled bones. Sharp objects dropped from scaffolding and pierced his skull. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. Treslove’s romantic history begins with a fortune-teller’s reading in Barcelona. She says of his future, “I see a Juno—do you know a Juno?” (4) What impact does this prediction have on Treslove’s life? Where does he find “Juno,” and where is he led astray in his search for love?

2. After the mugging, “Treslove was not willing to accept that he had encountered a person with a screw loose, or that he had just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” (109) Why can’t Treslove believe that the mugging was random? Why is he so convinced that the incident has meaning? How does it leave him “like a man on the edge of a discovery”? (57)

3. Consider the rivalry between Treslove and Finkler, from school days to adulthood. How did their unspoken competition begin? What “yardsticks of success” (44) do they use to measure each other’s lives? Who seems to be leading in their rivalry at the beginning of the novel? What about at the end?

4. Treslove realizes that after the mugging, he is becoming “an unreliable witness to his own life.” (82) How reliable is Treslove’s point of view in The Finkler Question? Can the reader trust his perceptions? Why or why not?

5. What kind of “Finkler” is Sam Finkler? Is he representative of the Jewish people, as Treslove assumed when he was a boy? Why or why not?

6. Treslove, Finkler, and Libor have all had winding career paths. Trace each man’s job history from his youth to adulthood. Why do you think all three friends have lived such varied lives?

7. Consider the meaning of parenthood in the novel. How did Treslove and Finkler feel about their fathers? How do they treat their own children? What alternatives to family do childless characters like Libor and Hephzibah seek out?

8. Describe Finkler’s rise and fall as the leader of the ASHamed Jews. Why does Finkler insist on publicizing his distaste for Israeli politics? Why does he eventually leave the group?

9. Consider the seder that Treslove attends at Libor’s house. How is this seder unique? How does this scene serve as a turning point in the novel, linking part one and part two? What changes for Treslove during his first Jewish holiday?

10. According to Hephzibah, “You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews.” (224) Where do Treslove, Finkler, and Libor fit within Hephzibah’s categories? Is it possible to belong to neither or both categories? In contrast, Libor tells Treslove, “We’re all anti-Semites. We have no choice. You. Me. Everyone.” (249) Which assessment of Jews and anti-Semites is more accurate: Hephzibah’s, Libor’s, or neither?

11. Discuss the role of women in The Finkler Question. What insights do the women in the novel have about their husbands, boyfriends, and ex-boyfriends? What do Treslove, Finkler, and Libor learn from women, and what relationship lessons do they never learn?

12. Why does Treslove tell Libor about his affair with Tyler Finkler? Libor says that it was “more wrong of you to tell me than to do it.” (247) Which is more unforgivable: the affair or the confession? What are the repercussions of each of these indiscretions?

13. Consider Libor’s mental state throughout The Finkler Question. How does he express his grief over losing Malkie? Why does he attempt to date women while in mourning? What, in the end, drives Libor to suicide? Is his suicide an act of love, of defeat, or something else?

14. Near the end of the novel, Treslove encounters two people from his past: “the schoolgirl in his once recurring dream” who calls him a “freak” (299), and the “grizzled warrior Jew in the PLO scarf” holding a silent vigil outside the museum. (303) What impact does each of these characters have upon Treslove’s state of mind? Why is it significant that Treslove confronts two recurring characters in these final scenes?

15. The Finkler Question ends on a scene of mourning: Hephzibah lamenting Libor’s death and the end of her relationship with Treslove, and Finkler “mourning the Jewish people” as a whole. (307) Why does this humorous novel end on a note of mourning? What is the tone at the end of the novel? What issues are resolved, and what remains unresolved?

16. Discuss the use of humor in The Finkler Question. Is the novel’s humor specifically “Jewish humor,” or does it have broader appeal? Which scenes best represent the novel’s dark sense of humor?

Suggested reading

Howard Jacobson, The Act of Love; Philip Roth, Nemesis; Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated; David Grossman, To the End of the Land; Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story; Nicole Krauss, Great House; Jonathan Franzen, Freedom; Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies; Tom McCarthy, C; Emma Donoghue, Room; Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room; Andrea Levy, The Long Song; Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector; Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap; Joshua Cohen, Witz; Adam Levin, The Instructions.

Howard Jacobson was born in Manchester, England. He is an award-winning writer and broadcaster whose novels include The Mighty Walzer (winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize), Kalooki Nights (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), and, most recently, the highly acclaimed The Act of Love. He lives in London.

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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Member Reviews

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  "I didn't get it."by Maureen L. (see profile) 02/04/11

I know this book has been well-reviewed and has won awards but I had a hard time with it. The writing was good but I just did not "get" the point or the story. I really disliked the book (as did all... (read more)

 
  "Good writing but....."by Traci K. (see profile) 12/02/10

This was difficult to rate, because although the book was difficult to get through and boring at parts, it was well written, which is why I liked it. Every other book in our club I'd be happy to read... (read more)

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