Friday, January 28, 2011

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

In Howard Jacobson's Man Booker Prize winning novel sad-sack goy Julian Treslove is mistaken for a Jew when he is mugged in the street, or so he thinks. Making matters worse his assailant is a woman. In one fell swoop his sexual and ethnic identity (which is to say his entire identity) have been stolen from him. A personal crisis ensues and Treslove spends most of the rest of the novel ruminating and anguishing about, well, sex and identity. Treslove desperately wants to be Jewish. Why? I'm not quite sure. It may have something to do with the fact that his two closest friends are Jewish, his former teacher Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler, an old school chum and now a renowned philosopher and media personality. But it's not just their Jewishness Treslove envies, it's their losses. Sevcik and Finkler have both recently become widowers. The combination of love, loss and Judaism are irresistible to Treslove who, aside from being a bore, is an incurable romantic. One more thing Treslove instinctively can't resist about Jews is their penchant for self-hatred. Finkler founds an organization called ASHamed Jews to take a public stand against Israel's actions in Gaza (among a host of other amorphous things Jews have to be ashamed of). Then Treslove becomes fascinated and follows the internet blog of a Jew trying to grow (or more accurately 'stretch') his foreskin back. Self-hatred is something Treslove comes by honestly, and justifiably, having failed repeatedly as a lover and as a father to two sons by different women. He falls in love with the unlikely-named Hephzibah, Libor's great-great niece, a large woman who appears to embody in every way the Jewishness that Treslove craves. He reads a Yiddish dictionary to acquire Jewish idiom in his vocabulary, and aides Hephizbah with the creation of a new museum of Anglo-Jewish life (not a Holocaust museum.) Still (self) acceptance eludes him. This is all intended as ironic, of course, the non-Jew feeling marginalized from history's most marginalized people. I've been a Jacobson fan for a while. I really enjoyed Kalooki Nights, and loved The Mighty Walzer. Those novels were energetic and deftly-written - serious but with a light touch - in a way that The Finkler Question simply isn't. Finkler feels like a performance. The author wanting to say a lot about the state of being Jewish these days. The novel is comprised almost entirely of characters opining, and the humour is heady and forced. But the main problem is that the novel is missing a solid, empathetic core; a central character for whom the reader can genuinely care, as Walzer had Oliver, and Kalooki had Max Glickman. Julian Treslove is a pathetic, self-obsessed drip, a loser who overthinks and spins his wheels in place. There's little that's enjoyable, or particularly funny (or excusable) about watching him sink deeper and deeper into the mire of his own making. As an exposition on the modern Jewish psyche, which it is undoubtedly intended to be, The Finkler Question is tiresome and dreary. As a meditation on friendship it is unrelentingly melancholic. Only a brief glimpse of Jacobson's storytelling brilliance is in evidence when near the very end of the novel he briefly touchingly describes the actual deaths of Libor's and Finkler's wives in successive chapters. The contrast is achingly revealing about their respective marriages, relationships and lives. It's also telling that these sections, the most authentically and beautifully wrtten in the novel, were not about Treslove. Still, I'm thrilled the novel won the Man Booker. Hopefully, it will bring more attention to Jacobson's superior earlier novels. I have no doubt that the award jury intended it that way.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

File under: Jews and sports

I don't know whether to cheer or cry about this headline. I mean the times have definitely changed when the venerable Habs have two Jewish players on the roster, Mike Camalleri and Jeff Halpern.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Conscious Mind and the Fulfilled Life

Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

Another brilliant article from the indispensible untouchable David Brooks.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Yiddish wit

No one sees the hump on his own back and more Yiddish wit and aphorism in this delightful illustrated compendium for bubbie, zaida and the whole family.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A New Year poem

A pleasant surprise to receive this poem in my email inbox on New Year's day from the Saskatchewan Book Award winning poet Dave Margoshes. I think it properly captures the held-breath sobriety of the day; our aims, the goals we set for the New Year, and the feelings of hopefulness mixed with uncertainty at that moment when the midnight clock's hand is about to strike.

A stopped clock

The spiraling ball hovers in the plangent air,

a bullet misdirected. It could go either way,

straight to its true mark, or as far wide

as all the error we are capable of, all

the weight of our hopes skewing its course.

Win or lose is beyond the point, each winner

harbouring a loss within, each loser right

at least once. Tomorrow country, they call it

tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

all our tomorrows spiraling just out of reach,

a ball sinking at last to a confounding certainty.

- Dave Margoshes, copyright 2010

Wishing us all brighter tomorrows