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A quest for identity

If it had been possible to listen to Howard Jacobson’s brilliant Booker Prize-short- listed novel in one sitting I would happily have done so; but even on motorways congested to the point of strangulation, a return journey from Chipping Norton to Brighton has yet to take 13 hours.

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

The FInkler Question Howard Jacobson, narrated by Steven Crossley

Whole Story Audio Books - 11 CDs, 13 hours, £24.99

If it had been possible to listen to Howard Jacobson’s brilliant Booker Prize-short- listed novel in one sitting I would happily have done so; but even on motorways congested to the point of strangulation, a return journey from Chipping Norton to Brighton has yet to take 13 hours.

If it had been possible to listen to Howard Jacobson’s brilliant Booker Prize-short- listed novel in one sitting I would happily have done so; but even on motorways congested to the point of strangulation, a return journey from Chipping Norton to Brighton has yet to take 13 hours.

I have emerged from a state of tunnel-vision absorption; rarely have I come across a novel with such a range of themes and emotions to digest: anguish, infidelity, loyalty, circumcision, Zionism, Judaism, mugging, the BBC, even online poker — and one would have to listen all over again to absorb fully the stinging humour and myriad jokes.

This richness is simplified by the dazzling performance of the narrator, Steven Crossley. I have little desire to meet any of the characters, but thanks to Crossley’s skill, they appear to be lurking lifelike somewhere, and often not far enough away.


Julian Treslove, the central character, is a perpetually anxious 49-year-old Gentile: ‘He bored women into hating him — a stifler of their dreams.’ Not physically unattractive, Treslove makes his living as a celebrity lookalike (‘he looked like everyone and everybody, but in fact was a no-one and a nobody’). He has two odious sons, Alfredo and Rodolfo (Alf and Ralph), the results of hasty encounters with different women (the four meet in a cheerless restaurant to vilify the doleful Treslove). Alf plays the piano in sleazy seaside hotels where, more than once, he bumps into his father’s best friend (and occasional enemy), Samuel Finkler.

Notwithstanding Finkler’s penchant for online poker and seedy romantic entanglements, we are left in no doubt that Treslove is jealous of Finkler’s success as a TV personality, as a Jewish philosopher — author of The Existentialist in the Kitchen — and as a recent Desert Island Discs castaway, who announces his support for the Palestinian cause and joins the group ‘Ashamed Jews’.

Treslove and Finkler’s former teacher, the nonagenarian Libor Sevcik, is a Zionist through and through. Crossley’s range of voices is tested to the full by the passionate conversations between the three principal characters — liberally punctuated by Jacobson’s razor-sharp humour.

It is impossible to pinpoint the most striking scenes — there are so many, and Jacobson has a great deal (lasting most of the 13 hours) to say about Jewish identity. These episodes are powerfully portrayed by Treslove, who would like more than anything to be Jewish. At one point, whilst walking home after visiting Sevcik, he is accosted and robbed by a woman outside a musical instruments shop, and cannot understand whether she is shouting, ‘Your jewels’, ‘You’re Jules?’ or ‘You Jew!’

As a result of this experience, he decides to explore all things Jewish, including agonising research into circumcision. Jews are now referred to as ‘Finklers’ — the title’s Finkler Question being, what does it mean to be Jewish in the 21st century?

At the time of writing, the Booker Prize has yet to be awarded; but going on past as well as present form (he has been long-listed twice previously), Howard Jacobson would seem to be more than a worthy winner.


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