Mr. Jacobson doesn’t just summon Roth; he summons Roth at Roth’s best. This prizewinning book is a riotous morass of jokes and worries about Jewish identity, though it is by no means too myopic to be enjoyed by the wider world. It helps that Mr. Jacobson’s comic sensibility suggests Woody Allen’s, that his powers of cultural observation are so keen, and that influences as surprising as Lewis Carroll shape this book. Mr. Jacobson stages a Mad Seder that brings Carroll’s Mad Tea Party to mind … Treslove so loathes his old friend Finkler that he has turned ‘Finkler’ into his own private synonym for ‘Jew.’ So the real meaning of book’s title, The Finkler Question, is The Jewish Question, and that’s only where the Finklerisms begin. Obsessively, and with a razor-sharp acuity that justifies the Roth comparisons, Mr. Jacobson has Treslove begin cataloging what he thinks are Finkler traits, Finkler talents, Finkler customs and so on. What unifies all of this in Treslove’s mind is that they’re things he doesn’t have.
Although there is a plot, The Finkler Question is really a series of tragicomic meditations on one of humanity's most tenacious expressions of malice, which I realize sounds about as much fun as sitting shiva, but Jacobson's unpredictable wit is more likely to clobber you than his pathos … No other book has given me such a clear sense of the benevolent disguises that anti-Jewish sentiments can wear. And no one wears them more attractively than Julian Treslove, the handsome, middle-aged gentile at the center of The Finkler Question … Even while we're trying to disentangle what's so disturbing about Julian's special regard for Jews, the book pursues (and belabors) another line of comedy, this one about self-loathing Jews...Jacobson has stirred this pot before (and Philip Roth stirred it before him), but the novel's real depth develops slowly beneath the satire, as anti-Semitic attacks begin to filter into the story from around London and the world.
Treslove doesn't approach his journey into Judaism from a religious standpoint. He takes no steps to learn Hebrew or convert. Instead, his obsession is cultural. He wishes to understand the mannerisms of Jewish life; the hidden code of Jewish sarcasm and the subtleties of Jewish body language … Jacobson isn't the first writer to delve into the question of Jewish identity, and he surely won't be the last. But he is definitely one of the most fearless…The Finkler Question tackles an uncomfortable issue with satire that is so biting, so pointed, that it pulls you along for 300 pages and leaves a battlefield of sacred cows in its wake … The book's appeal to Jewish readers is obvious, but like all great Jewish art — the paintings of Marc Chagall, the books of Saul Bellow, the films of Woody Allen — it is Jacobson's use of the Jewish experience to explain the greater human one that sets it apart.
Julian Treslove’s ‘sense of loss,’ it turns out, is that he has really wanted, all along, to be a Jew. The dopey, goyish wannabe Jew is not necessarily a bad comic premise. But the catalyst for this self-realization is as incredible as the girlfriend setting fire to the sheets, or Max’s father storming out of the house because his little son seemed to be saying, ‘Jew Jew’ … There is a secondhand quality to Jacobson’s portraiture: the outlines are garish rather than vivid; one feels that Bellow or Malamud might achieve in one paragraph what Jacobson struggles toward in an entire scene. And Treslove’s admiring stupidity constantly pushes the representation of Jews and Jewishness toward caricature … Needless to say, this is a decisively male and modern version of Jewishness, much influenced by the histrionic pugilism of Philip Roth’s weaker novels. As far as I can tell, it is also Howard Jacobson’s preferred version of both Jewishness and Jewish comic fiction.
The Finkler Question is very funny, utterly original, and addresses a topic of contemporary fascination. That is to say, it is about the anguish of middle-aged men, it consists of a series of loosely arranged episodes rich in argument and incident, and it examines how Jews now interrogate their relations with Israel … This is a novel of immense fluency. The writing is wonderfully mobile, and inventive, and Jacobson's signature is to be found in every sentence. Much of the comedy is in small moments of pause, arresting a narrative compelling in its interest.
Julian, who isn't Jewish, takes the attack as a license to explore all aspects of Jewishness, which has fascinated him since childhood. It was then, thinking of his friend Sam Finkler, that he adopted Finkler's name for his own silent euphemism … Julian's greatest gift is his wry, witty perspective: He tumbles ideas over and over in his head, as if they'll somehow be polished to a conclusion when he's done (they rarely are). His path through life is knitted with switchbacks and internalizations; it takes more than 30 pages for him to replay the mugging through to the end, setting him on his quest about Jewishness … This novel-length meditation on Jewishness seems, to this American reader, to veer unfortunately close to a midcentury comic routine, sacrificing the complexity of multiple, mixed and competing identities of our moment for oversimplifications last heard in the Borscht Belt.
Julian Treslove, a middle-aged BBC producer of little note, is in fact a typical Jacobson creation, obsessed with Jewishness. He loves what he sees as the Jewish cult of rivalry and expertise in introspection. His friends are Jewish; he is intrigued by them as individuals and as cultural specimens. Their angst seems wonderful in its intensity … Why exactly does Treslove want to be Jewish? It’s hard not to sense that the chief reason is that it allows Jacobson to have great fun with Treslove’s non-Jewishness – and to draw a succession of enjoyable contrasts between Jewish and Gentile behaviours … Yet while The Finkler Question is both an entertaining novel and a humane one, it isn’t Howard Jacobson at his best. The characters are not as satisfyingly developed as in 2006’s superb Kalooki Nights and his writing here feels less precise than is his wont, less fresh and less frighteningly mordant.
Masterfully, Jacobson will bury a joke only to knock you out with a punch line 10 pages later. Though undeniably a comic novel, The Finkler Question is a tragicomedy, centered on a wayward man whose quest for a self serves as a platform for Jacobson to explore the complexities of British Jewish identity … Despite a Jewish friend's assertion that ‘you can't be us,’ Treslove sets out to prove otherwise, keeping kosher, studying Yiddish and moving in with a Jewish woman named Hephzibah (both name and woman biblical in scope). Of course, Treslove finds that becoming a Jew is more elusive than he anticipated. Because what truly makes one a Jew? The joy of the book is following Jacobson as he explores that tangled question … This darkly absurdist meditation is classic Jacobson and highlights a major theme throughout the book: that Jewish reverence and prejudice are inextricably bound.
The Finkler Question, a clever, canny, textured, subtle, and humane novel exploring the friendship of three ageing male friends, is Jacobson's 11th novel. Like the others, it is a work of greatness. The central preoccupation is with the nature of modern Jewishness, a common Jacobson theme, but over the course of the book this flays into a powerful and, at times, haunting examination of friendship, love, and loss … Jacobson's capacity to explore the minutiae of the human condition while attending to the metaphysics of human existence is without contemporary peer.
The characters spend a lot of time talking about Gaza, swastikas, and ‘never forgetting.’ As you keep reading, however, the brilliance of the book comes clear: Jacobson is using the novel form precisely in order to help us limn these polarizing issues through the consciousness of a flawed character as an excuse,freeing himself—and us—from the conventions of argumentation … Rare is a work of fiction that takes on the most controversial issues facing Jews so directly—and with enough humor,intelligence, and insight—that it changes a reader’s mind or two. Be warned: The Finkler Question will probably distress you on its way to disarming you. Can we pay a novel any greater compliment?
Weisberg's Law states that any Jew more religious than you are is mentally insane, while any Jew less religious is a self-hater. The Finkler Question demonstrates this rule's applicability in Britain, where the striations of Semitism have their own complications and subtleties … Like Phillip Roth, to whom he is fairly compared, Howard Jacobson is a magnificent prose stylist who is often at his most serious when he is being uproariously funny.
Jacobson’s wry, devastating novel examines the complexities of identity and belonging, love and grief, through the lens of contemporary Judaism … Jacobson brilliantly contrasts Treslove’s search for a Jewish identity—through food, spurts of research, sex with Jewish women—with Finkler’s thorny relationship with his Jewish heritage and fellow Jews. Libor, meanwhile, struggles to find his footing after his wife’s death, the intense love he felt for her reminding Treslove of the belonging he so craves. Jacobson’s prose is effortless—witty when it needs to be, heartbreaking where it counts—and the Jewish question becomes a metaphor without ever being overdone.
[Jacobson’s] lead character, a London media type named Julian Treslove, is not Jewish, but he might as well be: He has a Woody Allen–size complex of neuroses and worries, and ‘his life had been one mishap after another.’ Mugged by a woman who utters a mysterious syllable—‘Ju,’ Treslove thinks—while going through his pockets, he finds himself about as angst-ridden as an angst-ridden person can be … Jacobson’s gentle tale of urban crises of the soul slowly turns into an examination of anti-Semitism, of what it means to be Jewish in a time when ‘the Holocaust had become negotiable.’