November 26, 2010
Novel isn’t too Jewish, after all
British author Howard Jacobson celebrates award win with his extended mishpachah.
On Nov. 15, Howard Jacobson, winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, stood at the bimah in Maidenhead Synagogue, some 40 minutes west of London, and surveyed the 100-strong crowd. “The week of the shortlist,” he said, “I can tell you this, because I feel it’s family – we all know that this was a prize for the Jews – my mother rang me and she said, ‘Darling, I don’t want you to be disappointed, you’re not going to win this prize.’ ‘Well, I don’t think that, either’ – I had thought it and then, suddenly, I thought I wasn’t, but I said, ‘What’s your reason?’ She said, ‘It’s too Jewish.’”
Despite such an assertion from Jacobson’s mother, his 11th novel, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury), did indeed win the prize on Oct. 12. Established in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is widely viewed as the most important literary award in the English language. It comes with a cash prize equivalent to $80,000 and is guaranteed to send book sales into the stratosphere. Jacobson had been long-listed twice before. Only two previous winners have been Jewish: Bernice Rubens, who won with The Elected Member in 1971, and Nadine Gordimer, for The Conservationist in 1974.
“I was talking to a Jewish audience [after the awards ceremony],” said the Manchester-born author, “and they said, ‘Oh, it’s so good that the English have given you this prize.’”
And yet, Jacobson doesn’t call himself a Jewish writer: “I am an English writer that deploys Jewish strategies: a Jewish voice. The disputatiousness of the Jew ... definitely informs my prose; the argumentativeness of my prose. My comedy is entirely Jewish, the masochistic comedy of the Jewish joke.... But you know, they gave me the prize, so they must not be upset by it.”
The Finkler Question, he said, crosses the divide between Jewish and non-Jewish audiences: it is about grief and growing old, as much as it is about Judaism. He concedes that, faced with a book shot through with Yiddish, some readers “might not know exactly what the words mean. They’ll just know that the joke’s there and half-get the joke. Or, the really conscientious readers will go out and buy a Yiddish dictionary.”
Raised as a secular Jew in a working-class community, Jacobson himself has always felt a little like an outsider. “I know more what it’s like to be outside Jewishness than I know what it’s like to be inside Jewishness,” he said. “Jewishness has really been a mystery to me all my life. I was brought up in a Jewish family, in a Jewish neighborhood, but, in the ’50s, Jewishness was worn very, very lightly. We were very secular, and my parents didn’t have a clue about Jewishness. ‘Just don’t marry out,’ was the phrase. ‘Why not marry out?’ ‘Because if you marry out, you’ll lose your Jewishness.’ So I said, ‘Well, what is it, this Jewishness?’ ‘It’s marrying in.’
“And that was the sum total of it, and I’d go to shul and I’d be terrified. I still remember going to shul as a five-year-old, as an eight-year-old, as a 12-year-old, pushing the doors open, and 60 bald-headed men would all turn around and go, ‘Shhh, shhh!’ Now, when I go into shul, 60 bald-headed men will still turn around and go, ‘Shhh,’ but the strange thing is, I’m older than they are – and I’m still frightened. The autobiography of me in this book is the gentile.”
One of the main characters in The Finkler Question desperately wants to become Jewish, after an incident in which he is convinced that a mugger refers to him as, “You Jew.” Julian Treslove – the only non-Jew in a trio of close male friends – begins learning Yiddish and attending Jewish dinners. At one of these, he meets “a nice Jewish woman,” said Jacobson, “who, in order that there should be no mistake about it, I’ve given the name Hephzibah Weizenbaum.”
To Treslove – a celebrity look-alike who looks like every celebrity at once, and whose failed past relationships with inordinately thin women have only ever made him miserable – the buxom Hephzibah represents his opportunity to lead a full Jewish life. He revels in the amount of space she takes up in bed; in the fact that she needs an entire cupboard full of pots just to make a simple omelette; in her sarcastic turns of phrase: “a Jewess,” he reflects, “was a woman who made punctuation funny.”
“I thought it would be quite interesting to talk about a gentile wanting to be Jewish,” said Jacobson. “I thought there would be comedy in it, there would also be emotion in it, and I also thought it would be quite a good corrective for some of the fears that we have sometimes, which is that we’re out there on our own and everybody hates us, and the truth is that not everybody hates us at all. In fact, there is actually an immense amount of goodwill towards Jews – and the opposite, of course – but there is an immense amount of goodwill, and particularly in this country. And I thought, to have a non-Jew wanting to be Jewish, and admiring the intensity of the Jewish man’s emotional life, would be an interesting thing to do, particularly at a time when so many Jews are not wanting to be Jewish.”
That “not wanting to be Jewish” is a parallel strand in The Finkler Question. The title comes from the character Samuel Finkler, Treslove’s childhood friend, and the first Jew he had ever met. Henceforth, Treslove refers to all Jews as “Finklers.” Sam Finkler is a vehement anti-Zionist – which Jacobson pokes fun at by making Finkler the head of a gang of pro-Palestinian activists known as ASHamed Jews, who meet once a week in the Groucho Club (a famous London private club whose membership largely consists of prominent comedians and television presenters).
“Myself, I think the politics of it are infinitely complex,” Jacobson told his audience at the synagogue, “and whenever I hear somebody taking a simple position one way or another, I get very angry, and one of the positions I decided I wanted to deride in this book is the simple-minded position taken up by some Jews: ‘I am ashamed of Israel.’”
The triumvirate in the book is completed by 90-year-old Libor Sevcik, a character based on a friend of Jacobson’s who really was an entertainment journalist Marilyn Monroe called in the middle of the night, and who really did mourn his pianist wife as terribly as Libor does in the book. (“He hired a music teacher to teach him her three favorite pieces of music, and he filled the house with her music,” said Jacobson.) It is through the prism of grief experienced by Libor and by Finkler, whose wife has also died, that Jacobson builds a convincing portrait of the relationships between men; the jousting and one-upmanship and, most pertinently, the sense of companionship. Ultimately, this is the core of the book, whereas Jewishness is more its framework.
Jacobson rejects claims that The Finkler Question is a comic novel. He does like to make people laugh, he said, “but that doesn’t make me a comic writer. My ambition more and more as a writer [is] to see how close you can bring the comedy that really does make you laugh right up hard against grief. For me as a writer, that moment where the laugh just turns into something else – a cry, a wail, a sob or a gasp – that’s the sentence I really love. And it might be that that’s what people like about this book – that I’ve probably brought those two closer together.”
Katharine Hamer, former editor of the Jewish Independent, is now based in London, England, where she works as a freelance journalist and copy editor. Her website is literaryparamedic.com.