So just how good is it? Because of course those splendid people, the Man Booker judges, have rather prejudiced this review by going and giving their prize to Jacobson’s latest. If only they’d had the patience to wait for the launch of this blog. Because although not on the panel this year (September is such a busy time), I am always more than happy to drop the odd word of wisdom, share my insights, and generally do my bit to see that contemporary novelists are held to account for their various crimes against culture. And all in all, perhaps this year’s prize hasn’t been too badly awarded, because Jacobson has less to answer for than most. That is praise, by the way.
Firstly, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that The Finkler Question is a comic novel. As with Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (another supposedly comic novel written on the eve of the First World War which concludes with a generation of Oxford undergraduates dying in circumstances of mixed absurdity and pathos), I could probably grudgingly accept the classification in deference to authority (such as a Waterstones poster, I suppose), but my heart would still say otherwise. I laughed at (some), of the jokes, but this is a very sad book. Because The Finkler Question is about personal, social, and cultural disintegration. It’s a vision of entropy in which Jacobson’s protagonists struggle with the forces of disorder which re-emerge with depressing regularity and increasing strength from their own pasts and the history of Europe. By the end, you feel those forces are winning.
The story is one of three men (two friends from school and their charismatic former teacher), in the aftermath of the death of two of their wives (the third, Julian Treslove, is unmarried but has two children from two brief relationships). Those who have been bereaved struggle quietly with their grief. Treslove struggles with his solitude and fantasises about doomed and operatic love affairs which would give him the solidness of real loss. And then when he is mugged one night (possibly by a woman), he convinces himself that, although not Jewish, he has been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. This gives him an excuse to join at last his friends in their other exclusive experience, their shared Jewishness (as ambivalent and argued about as that might be).
Old secrets and old rivalries increasingly darken the personal relationships in The Finkler Question. Old sadnesses and half-forgotten crimes haunt and shape events. The echoes of an affair Julian had with one of his friend’s wives (dull and inconsequential in itself), continue to reverberate with disastrous results. Like familiar serpents popping up in new Edens, Julian’s old insecurities reappear to threaten the domestic happiness he somehow stumbles across. As for his children, they are merely unexpected incidents from his past which intermittently materialise in order to bother him.
The slowly collapsing (and increasingly disenchanted), friendships at the centre of The Finkler Question unwind to an unsettling background of increasingly prominent anti-Semitism (first probably imagined, later definitely real and even violent). As with Julian’s neurosis, this is an irrational force with depressingly familiar precedents which can be for a while suppressed, but will inevitably reappear. Alone, incidents appear trivial and even laughable (just like Julian’s destructive phobia of face-painting); Julian’s mugging (if it even happened) – bacon painstakingly wrapped around the door handles of a Jewish museum – the demagoguery of self-satisfied anti-Israeli agit-prop. But they occur with an ominously increasing regularity through the novel. Militant Islam lurks in the background as a twice- or thrice-mentioned shadow to give half-thought anxieties the shape of real fear. This is a neurosis hardwired into history. Peel back the skin of social niceties, and there grins an SS skull.
It is this aspect of The Finkler Question that is most disturbing. As a story of three men living with love and loss I could, to be honest, take it or leave it. But coupled with its depictions of anti-Semitism it becomes far more unsettling. “Let me know when it’s Kristallnacht”, says one of the characters, and that’s an easy response to make. This is not the Third Reich. Regrettable as such incidents are, Britain is a safe place for Jews. But through its coupling of anti-Semitism with a story of the stupid things people do to friends, families, and lovers, The Finkler Question reminds us that it’s the very irrationality of anti-Semitism that allows it to emerge with shocking suddenness in the most unexpected of places.
The Finkler Question isn’t a Panorama special, so don’t turn to it for an objective analysis of the place of anti-Semitism in the UK. But do turn to it if you want to be reminded that even the most civilised lives are lived by emotional people who do irrational things. In that sense, society, and the relationships that make it, are always perched precariously on the shores on anarchy. The Finkler Question offers a snapshot of what happens when the tide is rising.