He’s a bit of a Marmite writer, Howard Jacobson. His new novel, ‘The Finkler question‘ (Bloomsbury, 2010) has had some rave reviews – “dazzling” one said, and I’m not going to argue with that – and each of the reviewers felt compelled to pick out a quote from the novel to display the sheer quotability of the prose. Listen to this, you want to say, constantly. I’m going with this:
“He dreaded getting so far with Maimonides and then suddenly hitting that blank wall of incomprehension that awaited him at about the same point, even at about the same page, in every work of philosophy he had ever tried to read. It was so lovely, bathing in the lucidities of a thinker’s preliminary thoughts, and then so disheartening when the light faded, the water turned brackish, and he found himself drowning in mangrove and sudd.”
I know the feeling, and for all the Jewishness of Jacobson’s later novels I’ve never had a problem identifying with his main, usually put-upon, protagonists, invariably shy of seizing the time. Judaism is at the heart of ‘The Finkler question’ – indeed Finkler was a school friend of the gentile Treslove, the main voice here, and up until the action of the novel Treslove has always shirked from using the word Jew, using Finkler as his synonym for it – and fascinating as this is in itself (no really), it also serves as a focus for a more general treatment of themes of community, belonging, commitment, friendship, tradition, grief, guilt and identity. The complexities and contradictions of being a Jew – is it religion? ethnic group? nationality? – are all played out at length, mostly in sparkling and sustained dialogue; in amongst the serious stuff there are passages of pure Monty Python, in particular those concerning the moral tangles in the matter of Israel, the Palestinians, Zionism and anti-semitism. The format also allows him to have fun with stereotypes too:
“You have to be born and brought up a Jew to see the hand of Jews in everything. That or be born and brought up a Nazi.”
All this may sound very didactic and cerebral, but Jacobson is a tremendous novelist and the characters who carry all this spring off the page, alive with all their shifting doubts, new fears, loves, regrets, losses, with glimpses of happiness past and future (or tragically not, as the case may be). It is a very funny book, though, without giving too much away, ultimately a bleak one, something that Jacobson carries off brilliantly. He’s the best British novelist of the last decade, simple as that.
Had a chance to go on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway at the weekend. Another War Department 8F, 90733, in steam, all shiny BR black and handsome. The sun came out; as ever, children (of all ages) excited by it, the impulse to wave never really goes away, smiles in abundance. A fine line, “Britain’s last remaining complete heritage branch line”, they say, a 20 minute journey each way. Heritage gents urinals for sure – not that I’m complaining – a further Proustian prompt. And in the Exhibition Shed a splendid green Jubilee class 4-6-0 loco – Bahamas – and this sign of earlier times:
The dark side of heritage, of the real fat controller.