Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bag O' Books: 'The Finkler Question'

Three thoughts about Howard Jacobson's "The Finkler Question":

* This novel has very much the feel of a 1960s' Philip Roth comic novel -- in its obsessions with questions of sex and Jewishness -- only told from the point of view of a British Goy, Julian Treslove. I myself have made jokes about wanting to "convert to secular Judaism," for many of the same reasons that Treslove embarks on a (doomed) quest to adopt a Jewish identity for himself. His quest is usually hilarious, but his ardor for the Jews at times feels like it actually contains traces of anti-Semitism. 

* Roth's novels seem meant for a wider, non-Jewish audience. But one gets the sense in Jacobson's novel (if one is Gentile) of peeking into a private conversation about the nature of Jewish identity, how much of it is bound up in the nation of Israel, and how much non-Israeli Jews should burden themselves -- and be burdened by others -- with Israel's role in the Middle East. Julian is meant, I suppose, to be the character the rest of us identify with in viewing those conversations, but he's so oblivious to his own ridiculousness that we're kept at arm's length. On reflection, that's probably intentional. 

* That said, it all really comes down to penises. And a passage in the novel in which Julian waxes rhapsodic about the erotic power of his (very Gentile, very uncircumsized) penis is a masterpiece in the long and storied annals of literary dick jokes. It's probably no accident that the most true-seeming character in the novel is Hephzibah, Julian's girlfriend and accidental guide into Judaism -- and the only woman character whose thoughts we're permitted to hear directly. Unlike Julian or his friends, Finkler and Libor, she doesn't seem to embody a point-of-view on the questions mentioned above; instead she lives her Jewishness, and encompasses (literally, it seems) all of the contradictions that the three men have with each other. She's messy. So is life. And so, often, is identity.

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