The Howard Jacobson Question
The British writer Howard Jacobson was so astonished when his latest novel The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize—the most prestigious award for fiction in the English language—that he asked the BBC interviewer who introduced her segment on the award if she could please repeat her opening phrase, “Howard Jacobson has won the Man Booker Prize.”
Jacobson is, in his public persona at least, one of Britain’s most likable literary and media figures. It is a testament to his popular success as a genial but demanding presenter of TV arts programs that the reaction to his literary triumph has been so overwhelmingly positive. For as amiable as he might be, Jacobson fearlessly broke with the politics of the literary and arts world by decrying the ascent of acceptable anti-Semitism in Britain and, even more bravely, made it clear that fashionable anti-Zionism is just a gussied-up version of the older hatred. Indeed, these themes are at the center of The Finkler Question, which is why his victory was so unexpected, not only to him but to everyone else as well. The fact that he was given the Booker the same month that Nobel judges in Sweden named Mario Vargas Llosa the literature laureate and Nobel judges in Norway gave the Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao the Peace Prize makes you wonder if Northern Europe has somehow slipped out of joint—and high above London, Stockholm, and Oslo, swallows are now dining on eagles.
After all, Jacobson was up against formidable competition—including the anti-monarchist Australian two-time winner Peter Carey, the conceptual artist Tom McCarthy, and especially the Anglo-Caribbean Andrea Levy. Her latest book, The Long Song, tells the story of a slave girl born on a 19th-century Jamaican sugar plantation—a subject that could hardly be bettered as Man Booker Prize bait.
Although it is not unheard of for the Booker to go to a genuinely deserving work, it often seems as if the primary concern of Booker jurors is to choose a book that will make them look good according to the prejudices of their peers. Hence the urge to give the prize to exotics from outposts of the former empire, authors of victim narratives, and/or persons of color. Every few years, however, the Booker goes to some older white guy from the British Isles, as if to prove that the process is not totalitarian in its political correctness. The last of these, John Banville, won it for The Sea in 2005 at the age of 60. At 68, Jacobson is the second oldest.
Jacobson claimed his prize as a victory for comic writing. Indeed the Guardian newspaper stated that The Finkler Question was “the first unashamedly comic novel” to win the prize—a somewhat bizarre claim given the previous victories of Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils, Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and several others, including Paul Scott’s Staying On.
In any case, Jacobson and the Guardian are both wrong in their characterization of The Finkler Question. Like Jacobson’s masterpiece Kalooki Nights, first published in 2006, the new novel is far too dark and serious in intent to be called an “unashamedly comic novel.”
The book tells the story of three London men who have been friends since two of them were schoolboys and the third was their history teacher. Samuel Finkler is a TV intellectual who writes philosophically inspired self-help books of the Alain de Botton sort, with titles like The Existentialist in the Kitchen. His Gentile school chum and rival, Julian Treslove, spent most of his career at the BBC, an institution he loathes, and now ekes out a living as a celebrity look-alike. Both were taught at school by Libor, a Jewish Czech émigré who has remained their friend for more than two decades.
Finkler is clever, driven, selfish, greedy, cynical, ruthless, and obsessed with worldly success—exactly the sort of person who thrives in TV and a rather dismaying model of a certain kind of secular Jew. The fact that Treslove calls Jews “Finklers”—and assumes that his friend’s personality quirks are “Finklerish”—is disturbing, though Treslove also sees Libor’s Mittel-European cultivated gracefulness and emotional intensity as typically “Finklerish.”
The incident that ignites the pilot is the peculiar mugging from behind of Treslove by a woman who says something in his ear that sounds like “You Jew.” Though he also wonders if his attacker could have been an ex-lover whispering “You, Jules” or have simply said “your jewels,” this fundamentally humiliating experience makes him suddenly aware of anti-Semitism and prompts him to delve deeper into the mysteries of Jewish identity and culture. Soon he is exploring salt beef sandwiches, klezmer music, Maimonidean musings on the effects of circumcision on sexual performance, and begins to date the founder of a new Jewish museum.
When he talks to Finkler about all this, he is patronized. Treslove recounts a long list of (real) violent anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and elsewhere, and Finkler responds, “I’m not saying it makes pleasant listening, but it’s not exactly Kristallnacht is it?”
Finkler has long been hostile to Israel; he has declared on the radio that he is ashamed of his co-religionists there and joined a group of prominent creative folk called ASHamed Jews that supports the creative and fiscal boycott of the Jewish state. This action repels Finkler’s dying wife: “I’m ashamed of your public display of shame and I’m not even Jewish.” She knows that his motivation is self-serving: not only does Finkler enjoy “the warm glow of self righteousness” that comes from saying the word “justice”; he thinks that joining the group is good for his career.
Only when, during the 2009 Gaza campaign, the press starts talking hyperbolically about “massacre” and “slaughter” does the philosopher in Finkler begin to have doubts about the group and its cause. Even as he does so, his comrades—several of whom seem based on real-life Jewish figures in the London media and academic scene—become even more hysterical in their denunciations of Israel.
Throughout the book there are discussions, arguments, and jokes—some of them daring to the point of offensiveness, others very bleak indeed—about Jewishness and Jewish identity. Finkler’s wife asks the increasingly obsessive Treslove if he doesn’t wish that Jews would just “shut up about themselves….Endlessly falling out in public about how Jewish to be, whether they are or they aren’t, whether they’re practicing or they’re not, whether to wear fringes or eat bacon, whether they feel safe here or precarious, whether the world hates them or it doesn’t, the fucking Holocaust, fucking Palestine?”
Treslove answers no. But then he fits in all too well with one of Finkler’s definitions of Jewishness—he is someone who is always “talking feverishly about being Jewish.”
Though Jacobson cracks wise throughout the book, “comic” really isn’t the correct descriptive for The Finkler Question, especially given its sense of approaching darkness. This makes all the more strange how readily he and others think it is. But then the response to Jacobson’s fiction has always been strange. Jacobson started publishing fiction at the relatively late age of 40. Born in a working-class Jewish area of Manchester in 1942, he was educated at Cambridge at the feet of the critic F.R. Leavis and then embarked on a career as a literature professor with positions at Cambridge and Sydney University in Australia before settling at the equivalent of a community college in the grim midlands town of Wolverhampton. It was the latter experience that inspired his first novel, Coming from Behind (1983), after which he began writing full time. He turned two widely praised works of nonfiction—Roots Shmoots: Journeys Among Jews and Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime—into successful television series.
Jacobson’s novels come in two types: erudite autobiographical works that draw on his childhood in a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood of Manchester and erudite autobiographical works about middle-aged sex and adultery among the academic and literary upper middle class.
The first set depict a pinched, insular community psychologically deformed by the shtetl life from which its residents emerged and then re-created in English cities. Living in perpetual, irrational fear that the “yocks”—a British-Jewish slang term for Gentile far nastier than “goy”—might one day form a drunken mob and attack the neighborhood, its inhabitants tend to turn to Orthodoxy or quasi-religious leftist politics. The hothouse intensity of their family life breeds misery. Theirs is such a depressingly graceless, incurious, and cramped existence that any reader could be forgiven for feeling the stirrings of an aesthetic anti-Semitism within his breast.
The books set in modern upper-middle-class London tend to be more lightweight. They include Act of Love (about an antiquarian bookseller who becomes obsessed with the idea of watching his wife betray him) and No More Mr. Nice Guy (about a TV writer who is kicked out by his porn-author wife and then masochistically revisits the sexual milestones of his life). All Jacobson novels share an obsession with sex—which helps explain the common likening of his work to that of Philip Roth, with whom he does share a certain puerility on such matters.
In the books that draw on his childhood, the sexual material can verge on the creepy. It is not just a matter of the usual Oedipal impulses. The protagonist in The Mighty Walzer—arguably his least entertaining book, about a teenage ping-pong champion—spends hours in the bathroom masturbating to sepia pictures of his long dead great aunts and cousins. But the ping-pong player’s obsessions are relatively bland compared with those of Maxie Glickman, the protagonist of Jacobson’s dark masterpiece Kalooki Nights. As a teenager, Maxie pleasures himself to a book called The Scourge of the Swastika—specifically, to photographs of naked Jewish women being inspected in a concentration camp. He is also erotically obsessed with Ilse Koch, the notorious SS wife who came to be known as “the bitch of Buchenwald.” Portnoy seems a paragon of psychosexual health by comparison.
Jacobson’s first novel, Coming from Behind, is about a small, sweaty, hairy, neurotically lustful English literature professor called Sefton Goldberg whose overheated erotic yearnings at a miserable provincial college get him into comic scrapes. Like so many small, sweaty, hairy, neurotically lustful Jacobson alter egos, Goldberg is unathletic, unmoved by nature, argumentative, masochistic, and self-obsessed. Again and again in the book, Jacobson explains these and other quirks with the phrase “because he was Jewish,” as if he assumes that none of his readers will have seen a Woody Allen movie and as if he himself believes that Jewish stereotypes of Jews are inherently cute and funny.
In Britain, Jacobson’s fiction is always said to be “underrated” and “hilarious.” Paperback editions of works like The Mighty Walzer are garnished with blurbs by famous writers proclaiming the sidesplitting nature of the contents within. But there are more laughs in any single book by, say, Tom Sharpe—a popular comic novelist without literary pretensions—than in all of Jacobson’s oeuvre put together. And it is hard to see how Jacobson is underrated. If anything, his early books are radically overrated.
Indeed, one sometimes feels that the critics who make such a point of laughing at Jacobson’s capering, neurotic, lust-tormented, uncomfortable Jewish characters are doing so because they are enjoying how ungenerous he is with his creations. Jacobson’s stand-in protagonists are hyper-aware of stereotyping and hypersensitive to it; they agonize about the meaning of Jewishness and the competing contradictory currents of secular Jewish identity. But these clever, libidinous, disputatious men are not always as sympathetic as they are intended to be, and their dexterous anatomization of lower-middle-class Jewish life as it was might make it seem uglier and more graceless than it could possibly have been.
Jacobson’s observations about his Jews don’t always ring true to American ears, as when the narrator of Kalooki Nights announces that “most ethnic troubles in most schools originate in geography or PE. They do for Jews, anyway, who can neither draw a map nor hang upside down from a wall bar. The two deficiencies are not entirely unrelated. Jews cannot draw a map nor negotiate a wall bar because they have seldom had any use for either.” The gym joke is old and the map joke is off; given how often and how far the Jews have traveled after various expulsions, it’s hard to believe they traditionally have little geographical sense. For Jacobson, “Jews” really means the shtetl Jews of Russia and Poland and their immediate descendants in England, and not much else. This fact, and the clichés that emanate from it, may explain why until now his books have failed to make a good impression across the Atlantic.
Another reason is that America is perhaps too philo-Semitic to be intrigued or amused by the kind of parochial British Jewishness that Jacobson celebrates and laments. As he himself notes, America is much more Jewish than Britain is. African-Americans, Hispanics, and WASPs alike unselfconsciously use “tush” and “shmuck” in conversation. Moreover, American Jewry has arguably become much more variegated than its much smaller British equivalent (the community is only 260,000 strong). America has Hells Angels Jews, tall Jews, surfing Jews, right-wing Jews, preppy Jews, baseball-playing Jews, country and western Jews, Green Beret Medal of Honor Jews, as well as more familiar shnooky, nerdy, Jappy, fearful, materialistic, klutzy, brainy, urban, funny, lawyerly types of Jew.
Jacobson’s books are aimed at and grow out of a society that never produced or embraced a Mel Brooks or a Lenny Bruce. As Jacobson’s alter ego Max says in Kalooki Nights, “somehow English Jews have had all the rudery squeezed out of them.” It is one of the paradoxes of the comparative history of Jews in Britain and the United States that British Jewry tends to be less assertive. There is nothing like an AIPAC or an Anti-Defamation League in the UK; their pallid equivalents are small, underfunded, and have little influence.
For these reasons, it might be difficult for American readers to appreciate just how courageous Jacobson has been as an opponent of the vicious anti-Israel discourse now so common in the United Kingdom. He has done so not only in The Finkler Question but in his role as a weekly columnist for the Independent, the most ferociously anti-Israel (and anti-American) of all Britain’s mainstream papers. It frequently devotes its front page to the bigoted rantings of the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk. One of its star columnists is an exceptionally nasty and dishonest youth called Johann Hari who, commenting on Israel’s 60th anniversary in 2008, wrote that whenever he tried to write positive or reassuring words about that country, “a remembered smell fills my nostrils, the smell of shit.” Hari’s article went on to accuse Israel of deliberately poisoning Palestinian land and drinking water with untreated sewage. That same year Hari, who specializes in smearing his targets as “racists” and who claims that his own critics are part of a McCarthyite conspiracy “sent” to “intimidate and silence” anti-zionists like himself, won a prestigious prize for political journalism named after George Orwell, a travesty that is almost comic in a dark Howard Jacobsonesque way.
Jacobson took his most widely noted and controversial stand during the Gaza campaign of 2009, when, in the course of a brilliant Independent piece on the vicious dishonesty of likening the Gaza assault to the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, he also denounced the anti-Semitism of a play by the long-fashionable playwright Caryl Churchill.
Churchill’s short play Seven Jewish Children—not Seven Israeli Children, as Jacobson noted—culminates in an Israeli character’s racist monologue rejoicing in the slaughter of Palestinian children: “they’re animals…I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out…we’re chosen people.” An appalled Jacobson wrote: “Once you repeat in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children, you have crossed over. This is the old stuff. Jew-hating pure and simple.”
He further noted that the Guardian’s theater critic Michael Billington had praised the play for showing “how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians.” The use of the eugenic word “bred” led Jacobson to observe “how easily language can sleepwalk us into bigotry.”
In this column and in countless others, Jacobson has proved a uniquely calm and effective voice when it comes to exposing the assumptions, prejudices, and lies embedded in the rhetoric of people like Churchill and her supporters. He understands the culture of the liberal metropolitan media elite because he is a part of it. Not for him the tired old defenses of Israel that take no note of the unyielding moral universe of its Western foes. The battle and others like it are brilliantly evoked by The Finkler Question, which dissects the motivations of the London Jews who have joined or taken leading roles in the British movement to delegitimize Israel. Jacobson’s ASHamed Jews are not consumed by self-hatred but self-congratulation. Some have found a new form of religion and identity in their association with the BBC or other institutions of Britain’s media elite. Others are proving their assimilation. Still others are trying to destroy “the thing they loved for fear of its falling into the enemy’s hands” or merely engaging in traditional Jewish inter-tribal warfare.
The force of Jacobson’s column mirrors the growth of his work as a novelist. It is only in the past five years that Jacobson has produced fiction truly commensurate with his talent and ambition. The Finkler Question and Kalooki Nights are so superior to anything Jacobson has written before—richer, deeper, more important—that it is almost as if he has been awakened creatively by the threat posed to both Israel and the Jews by the efforts to delegitimize both. His arrival as a genuinely great British novelist is perhaps the only good thing to have come from the eruption of anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom. Surely one of Jacobson’s own rueful and neurotic narrators would have to acknowledge that it would have been better for Britain and the world if circumstances had allowed Howard Jacobson to remain just a relatively minor literary navel-gazer rather than a fearless speaker of truth on behalf of a people under a systematic cultural assault.