The Finkler Question

Please blog here on Jacobson’s novel.  Also, let this be a friendly reminder if you have already done a presentation and paper to post your bibliography at the end of the appropriate thread.

11 thoughts on “The Finkler Question

  1. Phoebe Shang

    Treslove’s emasculation and morbidity seem associated with his fascination with the Jewish culture. When Finkler more openly accepts his Jewish heritage near the end, morbidity and fear of emasculation overtake him as well. During the ASHamed Jews’ debate with the Establishment Jews, a Gentile woman asks the Establishment Jews “Is the reason you (Israel) are uniquely singled out for censure, that you are uniquely racist?” Finkler unexpectedly cuts in with, “How dare you, a non Jew…sniff out racism in others?” (236). He expects to hear cries of, “shame!” in response to his sudden reversal of views. It’s strange that he now prefers other people’s censure to him feeling ashamed about himself. Tyler points out that Jewish people’s demonstration of shame is really is just protectiveness towards the culture; they criticize it so others’ won’t. It’s as if Finkler is letting go of that protective right. At the same time, he is giving up Tamara. Just as that one Jewish guy was obsessed with his foreskin, Tamara is obsessed with Zionism. These obsessions displace love and are fetishistic. This is suggested by Tamara’s repeated use of the word “hysterical” and in Finkler’s being turned on and disgusted by the word. Tamara says that “because the Jews had loved the Germans too much, and gone passively to their deaths, they had resolved against Eros, emptied their hearts of love, and now killed with a coldness that chilled the blood” (233). This seems rather hysterical in itself, as does Finkler’s fantasies about sleeping with then murdering Tamara. Perhaps Finkler had so many love affairs because other men’s envy helped alleviate his self-consciousness. Perhaps Finkler’s giving up of his leadership of the ASHamed Jews signals the end of his self-absorption/ is the reason why he is finally able to mourn Tyler.

  2. Siau Rui Goh

    James – Thank you for putting this novel into context. I know very little about anything Jewish and even less about Jews in England, so I found it helpful to get background on the events that actually took place. I also really appreciate you giving us a sense of how the book was received in different countries (via amazon ratings) – I guess I’m not really surprised that people didn’t love it, although, for some reason, I thought it would have been received better in the US. Which makes me wonder – for the people who actually loved the book – what did they like about it?

    Georgia – I like that you framed your presentation with Jacobson’s thoughts on what he was trying to achieve – something ‘so tragic that it was comic.’ I totally agree with you though – by the end it was just sad. I especially liked your point on friendship because I can see how people could just write this off as a Jewish book for Jewish people – and it was actually the friendship between the three men that drew me most into the story. On that note, did anyone else find Libor’s reaction to Treslove confessing to him about his affair with Tyler to be, in some sense, more tragic than his suicide?

    On your idea of oppositions coming together, I was thinking it might apply to Treslove too (or maybe this is just irony). Even though it is tragic what a farce his life is, he never really struck me as fragile or as a victim, probably because Treslove the tortured lover who women use and dump is also Treslove the horribly indifferent father who thinks that children ruin the story: ‘He didn’t see enough of [his sons]…and in their absence found it easier to conflate them’ (86). Near the end of the novel, he states simply that he dislikes his sons. Even for the women, while he thinks he’s ‘no Finkler’ because ‘he loved too absorbedly,’ the falsity of that is evident in one of the novel’s most hilarious scenes – when his sons’ mothers meet and realize how alike they are (his type: ‘scrawny Anglo-Saxon cows’) (86-7). There’s a strong sense that these women are interchangeable and he uses them to sustain his illusion of being a tragic romantic just as much as they use him.

    I also found Emily’s point about ‘Finkler’ accruing meaning according to what we learn about him particularly interesting. In the beginning, the substitution definitely lightens the tone; as Treslove claims, ‘It took away the stigma…the minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy you sucked out the toxins’(17). It also has comic associations since Finkler is described in the previous paragraph as looking somewhat ridiculous – ‘Finkler was almost orange in colour and spilled out of his clothes’ (17). Yet, Finkler never gets reduced to just a joke, there’s a mystique surrounding him, or, as Tyler puts it, ‘some air of secrecy that you want to penetrate’ (117) and, at the end, he’s the very figure of tragedy. It’s in light of this that I see Finkler as the strongest reification of the tragic and the comic in the novel. And even though Treslove comes up with it, it’s arguably also through this substitution of ‘Jewish’ with the name of a complex and changing character that Jacobson undercuts Treslove’s (or anyone’s?) static and stereotype-bound conception of Jewish people.

  3. Catherine Alexandre

    James- I particularly appreciated your information about events in the novel that had and had not happened in real life. What particularly fascinated me were the events, such as when the three “Gentiles” walking through the park were victims of an anti-Semitic assault, which then gets translated in the book as Treslove thinks that he is the victim of the same kind of attack, though it’s quite clear that he may have misheard his attacker. I think it’s interesting to think about why Jacobson chose to recreate the event in that way, and perhaps the answer is simply that the original attack was fairly absurd, given that these attackers didn’t even know how to properly identify the group of people they apparently hated enough to violently act out against. I also found it very helpful to understand the Gaza attacks and their influence on the rising number of anti-Semitic, rather than just anti-Zionist, attacks around 2009.

    Georgia, I agree with Siau Rui that it was great that your presentation revolved around the idea of being so tragic as to be comic. I also agree with both of you that the ending does not succeed in being that way, although I do think that many other moments in the novel were hysterically pathetic. And Siau Rui yes, I do agree that Treslove’s selfish decision to confess to Libor about his affair with Tyler is incredibly tragic, and I found that Treslove is definitely right to think that that confession was probably a catalyst for Libor’s suicide. Going back to Georgia’s presentation, I hadn’t really considered just how many times Jacobson combined to seemingly binary concepts, such as Finkler’s anti-Semitic son. I also think you’re correct to say that that it would be difficult to write a book like this about any other group, because I can’t think of any other identity that is cultural, religious, and also ethnic in some ways. I think Treslove tries to become a Jew simply by identifying with the cultural aspects of being one, while not actually enjoying or having any interest in the religious side of this identity (225).

  4. Emily McCabe

    James- I also really enjoyed your presentation and it left me with a sense that Jacobson engaged with, and drew from the cultural reaction to the current events he alluded to even as he created a work of fiction. As a person who is shamefully uninformed about international affairs and what is going on in the world I would have liked slightly more detail about operation cast lead and the English involvement (direct or indirect) in these events. Was is a bombing program initiated by the English, or simply something that because of their substantive Jewish population got Zionists and ASHamed jew equivalents alike incensed?
    I was also intrigued by your descriptions at the beginning of the presentation of the three men Jacobson dedicated the book to. However, I was somewhat confused what your ultimate goal in providing their short biographies was. Does their relationship in some way parallel that of the three men in the story? I would have loved to hear a more explicit connection there, if you feel there is one.
    I was also intrigued by your description of the Caryl Churchill play and revisited the moment in the novel as well as an online version of the play ( to see if that connection panned out. While the subject matter inspiring the plays stemmed from similar places Churchills play took a questioning and unsettling tone, whereas the play described in the novel “charted the agonies of the chosen people from ancient times up into the present” and seemed like a shocking brouhaha of a spectacle. Perhaps “Sons of Abraham” the fictional play while affected by Churchills work functions foremost within the framework of the story and is less of a direct allusion.

  5. Samuel Davidson

    Though Treslove is a hopeless character in many ways, on page 223-224 he says that he feels unsafe after reading Alvin Poliakov’s foreskin redemption site online, and his explanation is interesting. “What if ideas are like germs?” he says. “What if we are all being infected? This Alvin Poliakov – hasn’t he been infected somewhere along the line?” Hephzibah replies that Treslove shouldn’t be worried because Poliakov is just a simple “meshuggener.” Treslove responds: “The work of a meshuggener or not, this stuff circuates. It comes from somewhere. It goes somewhere. Opinion doesn’t evaporate. It stays in the universe.”
    I found this passage fascinating for a few reason. Jacobson seems to be playing around with these different “idea germs,” and exploring the way they penetrate into reality. Poliakov’s self-mutilation is one example. Another is Finkler’s anti-Zionist philosophy which, although he is unaware of it, is able to trickle down from the realm of ideas into the physical reality of his son who verbally assaults a group of Jewish men, even knocking off one of their “hats.” A third is Treslove’s idea of “family,” a “idea germ” which is only hinted at during the novel, but I think hinted quite obviously, when Treslove refers to himself as the “only child of divorced drug-taking parents” (260). Treslove sees Jewish community as a family – and he’s right in that, I believe – but the “idea germ” is his misconstrued notion of families – that families never fight, they are always accepting of one another, they have a secret bond which holds them together, and that they need to have a secret language, and that once you are a member of any family you will feel complete. These are certain “memes” which prevent Treslove – and everyone else – from seeing the world clearly. I think it is appropriate that Finkler has the story’s final say, because he also has it’s most powerful moment of lucidity. On page 236, it describes after his on-screen meltdown that “mainly what he saw was humanity trapped in conviction, like rats in rat traps.” I think that partly explains how mournful Finkler is at the story’s end – not only have his own convictions been “idea germs” that lessened his ability to interact with others, he knows that most of humanity is trapped in such constraining convictions.

  6. Emily Scarisbrick

    Both presentations yesterday really helped clarify the novel, which was rather beyond my grasp at times. James: I thought you took a great angle by telling us what is real and fabricated in the novel. I had no idea about the severity of racial violence in Britain in early 2009, but I’m not incredibly surprised. In fact, a point I meant to bring up in class was that (from my experiences) Britain is a far less race-conscious society than the US. Maybe it’s because we never had slavery actually happen inside the country itself, we just facilitated it pretty much everywhere else, but there seems to be a greater acceptance even amongst the forward-thinking British of the kind of racial stereotyping that Treslove engages in, and less awareness of the problems of thinking in racial terms in any way. Another thing is that the Jewish population (again, from my experience) is relatively poorly integrated when compared to the States. I was wondering the whole time I was reading the book if Treslove’s attitudes were a comment on this particularly British racial approach. I was also wondering if it would have been published in the States, if the author had been unknown.

    While I think Georgia’s broader point is enormously valid and very well expressed – that apart form being about Jews, the book is about friendship and human experience and that’s what makes it interesting and valuable in a literary sense – I also found Jacobson to be a little too close to the line sometimes. And I think this is a product of Jacobson being a British writer, that the book was published in this society. The issue then is intent, which is thorny but I think worthwhile: does Jacobson push the buttons he does knowingly? (FOOTNOTE: I’m also glad the book won, because when you think of the Booker prize and their expectation/goal/association of representing minority populations or different ethnic voices, I had never even thought of the Jews in England among them.)

    The end of the novel was very interesting to me because I think that it opened a window to the kind of Jewish experience Treslove can never access, the deep communal grief that he has no right to because he lacks that essential blood-tie. This and many other things might constitute the annoyances or realities of Judaism in the book, like when Hephzibah gets irked at all the ceremony of mourning and expresses that it doesn’t really matter. They are the realities that Treslove can’t even begin to understand from the outside, despite his fascination and education. So then we’re back at Georgia’s point that the book seems to suggest the possibility of changing one’s identity and then dash it and say people just are what they are. For Treslove this isn’t so great, because the community he so longs for is ultimately inaccessible. I also saw him as kind of perpetuating his total lack of ability to relate to other people in his interactions with his sons, first of all in basically ignoring the, but then specifically when they are on holiday and he seems to be encouraging them to chase women, to engage in the same surface relationship with people he too experiences: whether it be looking for companionship out of a short-term need, or wanting to borrow an identity.

    I’ve gone on for too long already, but I also wanted to raise the question of the very last line. When I was reading it, I thought it was perfect. But when I revisited it I wondered if it might be slightly compressive, again defining Finkler as a Jew above all, a part of a community he cannot ultimately escape. I just don’t know, and I just don’t know what Jacobson was after and aware of in his work.

  7. Meaghan Flood

    I thought your presentation was really helpful and answered a lot of questions that I didn’t even realize I had. I’d be interested to hear a bit more about Jacobson’s personal involvement in the British Jewish community and the kinds of topics he addresses in his column. Do you think that any of the characters act as carriers for Jacobson’s own political views? Or are they always implied by the humor and then projected onto the text by the reader?

    Also, I discovered this little gem of a website that you might find helpful: Two fun facts from it for everyone: “Thus most of Jacobson’s English readers immediately recognized that Finkler’s despicable confession of shame on Desert Island Discs exactly duplicated that of Miriam Margolyes, the pudgy little character actress, a few years earlier; and that the tearful comedian who discovered his “Jewishness” while making a TV program was Stephen Fry, a stalwart of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.”

    Coming up with something to say about this novel must’ve been difficult since the characters themselves say so much. I thought your point—that everyone else so far seems to have commented on, sorry—about the novel being “so tragic that it’s comic” was interesting. I think the comedy perfectly suits the subject matter. By making (Treslove’s) anti-Semitism comic Jacobson exposes the absurdity of it. Anti-Semitism is so wrong, so tragic that it is comic. Many of us noted that the end of the novel contrasted sharply with the comic tone of the rest of the narrative. I think the reason for the shift, and the reason that the novel ends with Finkler’s/Jewish infinite mourning, is Jacobson admitting the limits of comedy when it comes to the all too serious problem of anti-Semitism, the serious question of Jewish identity, the serious silence between male friends.

  8. Amy Prescott

    James: Thanks for putting the novel in context, particularly temporally; your reminder that the novel took place during the winter of our freshman year made the (factual) anti-Semitic incidents described that much more poignant. Like you, I’d noticed the dedication at the beginning of the book and I wondered if the pain of losing three friends inspired Jacobson to write this story, a story that turned out to be less about Jewishness than about friendship. Do you happen to know when he did the bulk of the writing, if The Finkler Question had been in the works prior to the men’s deaths?

    Georgia: I liked your analysis of the recurring opposites throughout the text, from friends and enemies to Jews and anti-Semites, and the idea that none of the opposites that Jacobson wrote about were set up to be mutually exclusive. Discussing the male rivalry that kept popping up in Treslove and Finkler’s friendship brought me to consider the personal lives of each of these two men and their individual ideas of family.

    Treslove grew up with just his parents and had no extended family whatsoever. It seems like his desire to be Jewish stemmed less from any sort of religious or even cultural inclination but the need to be a part of a large group of people willing to accept him once he’s managed to master a few basic social rules. His first conversation with Hephzibah at the Seder immediately turns to matters of family, with Hephzibah describing the three degrees of separation between any two Jews and Treslove instantly succumbing to the idea of their future together, with lots of Jewish children (131). Despite having fathered children with two different mothers, Treslove has never taken on a familial role or even wanted to, but the idea of merging into a culture that operates as an extended family intoxicates him. He’s never managed to find a niche for himself in life; his studies at the university lacked focus, his work at the BBC never really reached out to anyone, and even his current job involves making mediocre attempts at looking like someone else. Being Jewish would offer Treslove free membership into the best sort of club, one where he could separate himself from the general populace by pure virtue of being a Jew but where, once accepted into that group, he’d no longer have to worry about proving something special about himself.

  9. Jae woo Lee

    Starting the book, I feel like there was certain expectation on my side that this book would address contemporary political issues as its main theme, or Jewish identity if not. James and Georgia’s presentations helped me not only put the book in context but also to take a step back from seeing it as a mainly “Jewish” book.
    James, I found the parallel between the anti-semitic/political incidents in the book and real incidents interesting. I think Jacobson did a great job mixing the fictional and real events together– especially the ASHamed Jews– which I think adds to the subtle comedy (something I wasn’t able to catch before your presentation). I don’t know how open Jacobson’s is about his personal life, but I agree that it could’ve been helpful to know his personal relationship with the Jewish community.
    Despite my initial expectation, I agree that this book is more about life than about being Jewish. Georgia, the insider/outsider, friend/enemy, male/female relationships you pointed out got me to get a bigger picture of the book, something I had a hard time with initially, which i felt was because of my unfamiliarity and lack of personal connection with Jewish culture. Thinking about these relationships, I thought the parallel of people’s reaction to Treslove’s mugging and Finkler’s initial reaction to his son’s arrest was especially brilliant, where i realized that Jacobson was talking about life as a whole after all. I also loved the conversation between Alfredo and Rodolfo’s mothers, which portrays Treslove completely clueless about women as he is about Jews.

  10. Ty Carleton

    James: I’m sorry for the lateness of my post. I really enjoyed your presentation. This is maybe the first time ever I’ve read a novel that takes place in a time in which I was not only alive but (occasionally) reading the news. This of course since it was revealed that Harry Potter takes place during the early nineties (lame). It was helpful for me to hear about the factuality of the events discussed in the book because it gave me a better sense of the extent to which the book should be read politically. As I had suspected, most of the events discussed by characters actually occurred while the ones involving the characters in the book were fictional. I think that was a very intelligent way to approach your presentation.

    Georgia: First I want to apologize that I may have appeared to not pay full attention to your presentation. Cold medicine always makes me loopy, but I really did try my best to listen. As many have said before me, I thought your presentation was quite clever. The novel is so tragic it’s funny. Except of course the ending, which is just sad. But of course the ending elegantly captures the tragic nature of Finker’s and thereby (allegorically) the Jewish population’s mourning for the loss of family. With Libor’s death, Finkler is finally able to truly mourn not just for the past tragedy of Tyler’s death, but also for the life that Tyler would never have the chance to live. This of course can also be read as allegorical for the new Jewish generation in regards to the Holocaust. I also agree that at its core the book is more about male friendship than it is about being Jewish…somehow. Well, perhaps Treslove’s desire for belonging is the central theme and is exemplified by his exclusion from Finkler and Libor’s Jewish bond, or perhaps it is the other way around and Treslove is a device against which the ‘Jewish inheritance’ is defined. Or, given some background on the author, probably both and neither and some of each all at the same time. Maybe I foregrounded the male friendship aspect in my reading because I connected to it more than the musings on Jewishness.

    Have a great break everybody!

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