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Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Finkler Question (continued)

After 7 / 7 when a small group of angry young men blew themselves up in London in order to kill bus and tube travellers on a politically correct basis - regardless of sex, race or religion - Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, made a short statement in which (this is how I recollect it) he said, "London is the whole world in one city. Let no one divide us". I was moved by that. I was sure that Londoners would have felt he said the right thing.

Jacobson's slice of London life is very thin and so thin that it feels divisive. There are no proletarians, Jewish or otherwise, though there is a small side-show of prostitutes (at this point I was reminded of Frank Mort's Capital Affairs, a book about the side by side existence in London of high culture and low sex).

There are no movers and shakers. Finkler is a popularising philosopher who appears on TV; Treslove a drifting figure in the arts world; Libor in earlier life a celebrity news journalist and later teacher. Hephzibah (with whom Tresolve moves in)is going to open an Anglo-Jewish museum. They live in North London and are very conscious of Location, Location. They circulate in bars, restaurants and dinner parties. At times, I didn't feel I was entering a world populated by Jews and Jewishness but merely the world of a sub-group of London's chattering classes, a sub-group which happens to talk more about Israel than about the literary prizes which another sub-group awards.
These people are supposed to be metropolitan and cosmopolitan, but much of the time reading Jacobson I found myself thinking: this feels provincial.

That would not matter if there was imaginative vision. When Jacobson forgets his Agenda, there is, and it is then that the writing improves - dramatically in one case: there are two lovely pages (267 - 269) which evoke the dying of Libor's wife, Malkie. Here we do have imaginative sympathy.

But when the Agenda is dominant, the writing becomes peevish - the sort of peevishness you saw in George Bush, failing to rise to the challenge of 9 / 11 or even a presidential candidates' debate. And using the word "peevish" I am reminded of someone else.

The dust jacket tells us that Jacobson "read English at Cambridge under F.R.Leavis".
I will digress to get to the point.

Back in 1967 or 1968, frustrated with dull lectures at university where only a couple of professors - A.J.Ayer and Isaiah Berlin - dazzled us, I suggested to the committee of the Oxford Union, of which I was a member, that the Union should put on some academic lectures. As I recall, the President, Robert Jackson (later Tory MP for Wantage) took up the idea and the invited lecturers included F.R.Leavis. As a committee member, I was invited to the tea put on for him, though I knew next to nothing of literature or Leavis. Other people asked him questions about assorted literary figures and it amused me that he had a stock response, "He used to do good things ... I haven't looked at his work for years ... I guess he's gone bad now". I don't have the exact words, so I have to tell you that they sounded peevish.

When I came to read Leavis's The Great Tradition, I probably had that image at the back of my mind, making me sceptical of his claim that there can be no great literary art without serious moral purpose - you can go to my essay "Morality and Art" on my website if you want to see the scepticism developed.

That sets the stage to ask of Jacobson: Does he have serious moral purpose? I will try to answer this question by looking at one passage on page 236, which I shall call Finkler's Epiphany and discuss in my next Blog.

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