1. I just finished reading Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, “The Finkler Question”. I almost hadn’t even started to read it, because a number of people I know had started it, but not finished it, quitting out of boredom, or something worse. But start it I did, and I am glad I did, because I enjoyed in thoroughly.
Now, one thing that I think might be true. If your are female, the chances that you will like this book are much lower than if you are male.
There are a number of reasons for this. The book is told from a very masculine perspective, for one (I am not editorializing, just reporting). For another, the female characters are barely characters – two of the primary women in the book have already died, and there third one is there more as a foil, than as a participant.
A couple of other points are to be made. First, the book is a comedy, sort of what I would term an urban, picaresque comedy, set in contemporary London, but given a feel more like Leopold Bloom’s Dublin. Second, the comedy centers on Jewishness and anti-Semitism. So, if you have no interest in Jewishness, the book is probably not for you, and if you are so engaged in Jewishness that you would never find a comedy about anti-Semitism funny, the book is probably not for you, either.
So, this leaves out a lot of people. More than half of the world’s English language fiction readers are women. And I would bet that most of the male fiction readers of the world (not all, certainly, but most) really have no great interest in Jewishness. And of course, many Jewish readers do not want to laugh at anti-Semitism.
And, to make it worse, it’s not only about anti-Semitism, but about Israel, and particularly Israel’s relationship with the West Bank and Gaza, and their occupants. Here we hit another delicate subject. So if you are interested in Jewishness, and don’t mind comedies about anti-Semitism, but believe that Israel’s geopolitical situation is not to be trifled with, perhaps you should stay away from “The Finkler Question” as well.
This then leads to the obvious question: how did this book win the Man Booker Prize. Even the obvious question for me to ask, I being one of those readers apparently not excluded from giving the book a try, and one who found it extremely insightful and engaging. And I cannot answer that question.
The Leopold Bloom of “The Finkler Question” is one Julian Treslove, a 49 year old Englishman, who makes his living (sort of) as a film double (he doesn’t look exactly like any particular celebrity, but he somewhat looks like a lot of them), whose best friends are Samuel Finkler, a pop philosopher from Oxford, who is also somewhat of a late night TV personality, with whom he went to school, and Libor Sevcik, a 90 year old urbane Czech-Jewish refugee, and former film journalist. Finkler and Sevcik are Jewish; Treslove is not.
But Treslove, more than anything else, wants to be Jewish and, in some way, thinks he is Jewish, and irrespective of the complications involved, wants to act as Jewish as possible. And it is this last determination that causes all the problems. Just how do you do that?
For one thing, Treslove thinks that he should fall in love with a Jewess, and does not understand why Jewesses don’t want to be called Jewesses. That is what they are, isn’t it? And for another, how do you relate to Israel, and Israel’s occupation of the lands conquered in 1967? Sam Finkler is, in more ways than one, Treslove’s model of a Jew (warts and all), and Finkler is very anti-Israel, so much so that he, at least for a while, joins a group of anti-Israel Jews (breaking with them only on the question of whether or not boycotts, academic or consumer, are proper tactics. But most Jews, Treslove notes, do not have this problem with Israel, and for some Jews Israel does not seem important one way or another. But he is intrigued by Finkler’s position – after all, it seems to him, that Finkler’s opposition to Israel is manifested in an extremely Jewish way, in that he seems to be Jewishly embarrassed as a Jew that Jews can act as Israel is acting. Not in a typical way, but Jewishly, as only a Jew can feel. How will Treslove accomplish these emotions?
And who is Treslove anyway? Outside of his relationship with his two Jewish friends, and his obsessive need to re-invent (or perhaps simply invent) himself as a Jew, there is not much to Treslove. There is no hint that he is a Christian certainly, and his upbringing plays no role in the book. In fact, he is an only child of two only children, a man without a living relative. Yet Jews, even Jews without apparent living relatives, are not alone; they are part of a group, like an extended family. Treslove clearly longs from this group membership and identification.
One more thing about Jews. They are clever. This Treslove firmly believes, although there is not much in the book to demonstrate this. But this clearly is another reason why he wants to be Jewish.
There is, throughout the book, an undercurrent of sadness, of mourning, of victimhood, one that follows Jews wherever and whenever they may be found. This feeling of victimhood does not deter Treslove, however, it is one more thing that intrigues him, although it’s the one Jewish characteristic that traps him in the end.
Worth looking at and enoying…..provided you fit the profile.
2. Masha Gessen is an interesting person. Born in Russia to Russian-Jewish parents, her family was a part of the Jewish diaspora from Russia, settling on Long Island, leaving her two grandmothers (and at the time one great-grandmother) behind. What makes Gessen special, however, is that she returned to Russia, first on a temporary work related basis, and then on a permanent (as much as anything can be permanent these days) basis. She has been there over twenty years.
She is outspoken, and also an anti-government activist. Last year, she published “The Man Without a Face: the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin”, a book describing Putin as a dangerous dictator. I have not read the book, but understand it to be quite good. She has recently been named the Russian head of Radio Liberty, a U.S. sponsored radio station that recently (after her appointment) lost its place on the Russian AM spectrum. I heard her speak last year in Washington. She speaks very convincingly, but to me is riding a perilous road. She says that she takes precautions against attack, and believes that her international visibility to a degree is also a protection.
A few years ago, she wrote “Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace”, a family memoir written with the help of her two living grandparents. I recently read the book and recommend it highly.
It is not only the story of her two grandparents, but also the story of the Soviet Union, and Belarus, during World War II and after. Her one grandmother, Ester, came from a fairly prominent Jewish family in Bialystok, in Belarus. During that brief period of time when the Russians (after the abrogation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty) moved into Bialystok and before the Germans displaced them (and murdered the Jewish community of the city), she had the good fortune to go to Moscow for schooling. This saved her the fate of the remainder of her family, including her father and her fiance, who were killed, and her mother, who was taken to Siberia. She is sent to Turkmenistan to work, but learns that her mother is in the far north, and she travels to live with her under very difficult conditions, coming back with her to Moscow after the war.
Ruzya, her Soviet born grandmother, suffers equivalent depredations and eventually finds a job in Moscow, but she becomes – of all things – a government censor.
The story of these two women is both extraordinary and typical. Gessen’s narrative lets you appreciate how, with everything that they went through, they did survive. (It is true that, as you go from grandmother A to grandmother B, sometimes things get a little complicated and confused and I, for one, often mixed them up with each other; perhaps this is what was meant to happen.)
3. On New Year’s eve, we have had a practice of watching a couple of films on DVD that we missed during the year. This year turned out to be an exception, in part because we actually had seen a number of the more prominent movies this year, and found that the extensive selection of current releases at the video store didn’t give us any good choices. So, we took home two movies that were outside of our normal profile.
First, was a recent Israeli film, “Footnote”, which I thought was a fascinating and unusual story, well acted and well filmed (in Hebrew with subtitles). It is the story of two Talmudic scholars, a father and his son. The father, a rather bitter man, had spent thirty years analyzing the Jerusalem Talmud and determining that the version in use was probably not the original version, which he tried to reconstruct. His scholarship was clearly on point, but shortly before he was ready to publish his results, an older draft of the Jerusalem Talmud was discovered in a remote monastery library by an academic competitor. This discovered version was published, giving the father’s scholarship no place to go, even though it corroborated all or most of what he had developed on his own. In the meantime, his son also took Talmudic scholarship as his chosen field of activity, and developed himself quite a career teaching and writing, with a less scholastic, and more popular, style.
This brings us to the very important Israel Prize. The committee’s representative, after a decision was made by the committee, calls the father to tell him that he has been awarded the prestigious prize. Although he does not alter his laconic, bitter reserve, he is in fact overwhelmed that his scholarship, his years of work, and the injustice that had been done to him previously, have finally been appreciated and will be recognized. Unfortunately, it turns out that the phone call was made in error, that the committee had not decided to award the prize to the father, but rather it was to be given to his son.
You can imagine the tensions that this brings about. Tensions within the committee, tensions within the father-son relationship. It is a situation which has no seeming happy ending. The movie is the story of the fraught relationship between father and son, and how this difficult situation exacerbates pre-existing strains.
We also picked up a 1953, black and white, film noir mystery, starring Joan Crawford and Jack Palance. Palance, struggling actor, marries the older and very wealthy writer, Crawford, living the life of ease in her home town of San Francisco. That is, until his ex-girl friend arrives from the east, with ideas of her own, which don’t include Crawford, but do include her fortune. No happy ever after here, but a couple of interesting twists and turns. The movie was nominated for four Oscars.