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The Finkler Question  By  cover art

The Finkler Question

By: Howard Jacobson
Narrated by: Steven Crossley
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Editorial reviews

This Booker Prize-winning novel doesn’t cover a lot of thematic ground; like Jane Austen, Howard Jacobson likes to explore a narrow field of study. In his case, it is the UK’s Jewish population especially as focussed around north London. But also like Austen, Jacobson’s miniaturist observations can illuminate and touch on universal questions, and has room for multi-layered comedy.

Julian Treslove is an unspectacular television producer of arts programs and a celebrity impersonator, with two failed marriages behind him and two distant, resentful sons. A gentile convinced that a Jewish identity would offer asylum from his identity crisis, Treslove is acutely envious of his old school friend Sam Finkler, now a highly successful author of glib pop-philosophy best sellers with titles like “The Existentialist in the Kitchen”. For Treslove, Finkler comes to represent Jewish identity: The ‘Jewish question’ (in all its loaded historical ambivalence) becomes the Finkler question, at once sanitized and personalized. Both men regularly meet with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a colorful Mittel-European transplant who serves as the book’s heart (as well as narrator Steven Crossley’s finest achievement). He is crotchety, funny, and touching in his devotion to his dead wife, even while on hilariously awkward dates.

Jacobson has great fun in pitting his character’s different approaches to Jewishness against each other, particularly Treslove’s gauche appropriation (“He looked like Topol; that’s how Treslove knew he was a Jew.”). There is a sense that the three male leads are facets of one personality with a schismatic approach to Jewishness: Crossley, however, is able to give each one their own unique voice. In fact, with The Finkler Question, Crossley gives a masterclass in narration. His characterizations are colorful without lapsing into caricature, and he unfailingly gets the intent behind each line, each rhetorical question, each instance of passive-aggressive indignation (and there’s a lot of that). Especially with this book, the narrator has an important task: the physical attack that kicks off Treslove’s identity crisis hinges on a linguistic confusion, and Crossley’s obsessive delivery of each permutation of the attacker’s garbled words is just one very funny moment in an excellent performance. —Dafydd Phillips

Publisher's summary

Man Booker Prize, Fiction, 2010

Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they've never quite lost touch with each other - or with their former teacher, Libor Sevick. Now all three are recently widowed, in their own way, and spend sweetly painful evenings together reminiscing. Until an unexpected violent attack brings everything they thought they knew into question.

©2010 Howard Jacobson (P)2010 WF Howes Ltd

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Poignant, complex and touch - very 'Finkleresque'.

This book captures the complexities of being Jewish and human, both for Jews and non-Jews alike. The Jew, as a character in human history has been both reviled (Shylock, Judas, modern-day Israel) and loved (Jesus, David, Einstein). This book cleverly explores the complex relationship that society and culture has with Jews and Jews with the rest of the world. The book's title is a play on 'the Jewish question' or 'Jewish problem', which was an ongoing vile debate in 19th and 20th century Europe, around the status of Jews, their rights and political status.

The fact that this was even a subject for debate and in some cases still is, shows a level of madness within the human mind I feel. This deeply destructive and hateful part of us has lead to genocides and discrimination against Jews and others; this is what the book tries to come to grips with. The protagonist, a non-Jew, who struggles with what it means to be Jewish, both in his admiration for them as well as jealousy of them, drives him to a type of hysteria that he struggles to explicate himself from. It's a funny, witty book that is both charming and challenging at times. The only issue I had was the narrator's Czech accent, that needed some work.

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