Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Finkler Question. How do bad books win prizes?

It's Jonathan Safran Foer's fault. I read his cover endorsement of Howard Jacobson, "A real giant, a great, great writer" so I bought the book. I thought Foer's Everything is Illuminated wonderful and the film of the book likewise. So Foer's was a strong recommendation.

But The Finkler Question is a badly written and imaginatively limited book. I will give two examples to support the claim that it is badly written and then go on to the more difficult questions.

In Part One, Jacobson introduces and establishes a trio of three male characters: schoolboy friends Sam Finkler (a Jew) and Julian Treslove (a non - Jew) and their much older former teacher Libor (a Czech emigré and Jew). The setting is North London which, as it turns out, does not bode well: as we all know, it's grim up North London. Why, the BBC is almost on your doorstep. But let that pass.

Finkler and Libor have recently been widowed and in the course of Part One Tresolve is mugged. This introduces a Whodunnit element.

Part One at 134 pages held my attention and I laughed at some of the gags but I felt, not as loudly as I was supposed to. In Part Two everything falls apart, including the prose. Jacobson has got an Agenda, and having discharged his novelistic duties in Part One, is going to pursue it. He starts with a vengeance:

Chapter Six (pages 137 - 57) presents a straw man organisation, "ASHamed Jews" - an anti-Zionist grouping of effete intellectuals, the brainchild of Finkler - and ploddingly ridicules it. They meet in The Groucho Club, where after irritating other guests, they are moved to an upstairs room, "Not even a drinks waiter would disturb them, if that was how they wanted it. This gave a clandestine and even dangerous savour to their deliberations" (page 142).

This is laying it on with a trowel. The ridicule is done with the gag about the drinks waiter. When you pile ridicule on ridicule, the effect (and there is twenty pages of this stuff) backfires. I found it hard to finish the chapter.

We then move to Libor in the University Women's Club in Mayfair, but it's not long before there is more come-uppance for Finkler. He gets it in Chapter Eight (pp 183 - 88). This time he is going to have to face up to the fact that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are the same thing and it's his own children who are going to rub his face in it.

The trouble is, that until page 183 we do not know that the widowed Finkler has three children, towards whom he discharges his paternal duties. Blaise, Immanuel and Jerome appear from nowhere. They have been set up so that Finkler can be set up. The effect in this reader was the feeling that I had been set up. Blaise, Immanuel and Jerome do not re-appear; they are given their bit parts so that Jacobson can continue in the vein of Hectoring Bore. "See? See? See what it leads to?". Yes, it leads to bad writing.

As this is a Blog and not a lit crit journal, I will continue sometime in the next few days.

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