The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

The BookDepository

 Long listed for 2010 Booker Prize

I’m not a fan of books about religion and so wasn’t sure how I’d get on with The Finkler Question. I was right to be concerned as the religious debate took precedence over the plot and I couldn’t bring myself to finish this book.

The book started off reasonably well, with a former BBC radio producer paying to see a fortune-teller in Spain. She tells him to watch out for a woman called Juno. Unfortunately the book went downhill quickly as Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, entered the book. I found the repetitive mention of Juno and its derivatives increasingly irritating.

Treslove and Finkler were sharing a room. ‘Do you know any one called Juno?’ Treslove asked.

‘J’you know Juno?’ Finkler replied, making inexplicable J noises between his teeth.

Treslove didn’t get it.

J’you know Juno? Is that what your asking me?

Treslove still didn’t get it. So Finkler wrote it down. D’Jew know Jewno?

Treslove shrugged. ‘Is that supposed to be funny?’

‘It is to me,’ Finkler said. ‘But please yourself.’

The book then deteriorated further into bizarre Jewish philosophising. At about p60 I lost any interest I originally had and started to skim read.

At page 107 I came across this passage and decided I couldn’t tolerate it any more – my reading time is too precious to persevere with a book that irritates me so much.

‘You can’t just get up one morning and decide you’re a Jew – or can you?’

‘I’ve worked with a lot of people at BH who got up one morning and decided they were not a Jew.’ Josephine said.

‘But it can’t work the other way, surely?’

‘Search me,’ said Alfredo. ‘But I don’t think Dad’s planning to become a Jew. If I understood Uncle Sam he’s got this bee in his bonnet that he already is a Jew.’

‘Christ,’ Roldolfo said, ‘what does that make us?’

‘Not Jewish,’ Josephine said. ‘Don’t worry about it. Jews don’t trust their women in the sack, so you can only be Jewish through the vagina. And I don’t have a Jewish vagina.’

I’m sure this is supposed to be funny, but I just didn’t get it.

The only good news is that this abandonment gives me more chance of finishing my final two books from the long list!


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  1. Jessica says:

    haha I have read two reivews of The Finkler Question this morning, yours and Johns over at Asylum and your reviews couldnt be more different.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, LOL! I’ve just seen John’s review. It is amazing how two people can take the same book in such different ways.

  2. Sandy says:

    I don’t get it either. How do things like this make it on the Booker Longlist????? Watch. This book will win.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I really hope it wont win, but I bet in makes the short list ;-)

  3. I love Jewish-interest fiction, but what the heck is up with that passage on the Jewish vagina?? I don’t understand what that means??

    1. Jackie says:

      Coffee and a Book Chick, I have no idea either! There were lots of similar passages and I thought they were all just weird
      – I didn’t find any of it funny. I think I’m just on a very different wavelength to this author.

      1. Sadly, doesn’t sound like one that will make the list to read for me!

    2. John Self says:

      For the record, the line about being Jewish through the vagina refers to the fact that Judaism is passed on through the matrilineal line, ie if your mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish, and it doesn’t matter whether your father is or not. Josephine (who is the mother of Rodolfo) is making the point that she is not Jewish, therefore he can’t be.

    3. Anne Wotana Kaye says:

      Religion is passed down through the maternal line, not the paternal. Hence this rather crude ‘joke’.

  4. Amy says:

    Huh… I have to say this sounds not even one little bit appealing to me!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, If you share a reading taste with me then I suggest you stay well clear!

  5. John Self says:

    Well, others have already pointed out how our views differ on this one Jackie (and how my view differs from KevinfromCanada too). If anyone wants to see what might be appealing to them in this book, then try my review by all means.

    One proviso – KevinfromCanada pointed out, like you, that he has a low tolerance for books about religion. To that I would say what I said to him, ie that The Finkler Question is not about religion at all. Jewishness as discussed in the book is cultural, social and political, but not religious.

    Anyway, as we’ve both observed, I think this is a book which requires you to have a natural affinity for the author’s style. I do have that affinity (though I haven’t loved all his books) and this one was catnip to me.

    1. Jackie says:

      John, Thank you for defending this book. It is good for readers to see that there are some people who enjoy this one.

      I take your point about this book not being about religion, but I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if it had been. I don’t have a problem with books that teach me about other religions (for example I loved learning about the way Muslim faith is different around the world in Sweetness in the Belly) but I have a problem with satire. I just don’t get it. Political and religious satire is the worst. I just don’t find it funny. I had the same problem with The Believers by Zoe Heller (even though I loved Notes on a Scandal)

      I hope you enjoy all Howard Johnson’s future releases, but I think I’ll be avoiding them!

  6. Oh dear. I haven’t read a single good review of this one yet. I’m somewhat intrigued by it’s subject matter (I gravitate toward books about religion) but I’m also incredibly trepidacious. I have a feeling this one won’t make the shortlist, so I it’s near the bottom of my pile.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I wouldn’t bank on this not making the short list. I think it is a very close field this year and almost anyone could make it in.

      If you’d like to read a positive review then head to John’s blog (link in comment above) Perhaps you’ll be able to work out whether or not you’d enjoy it by reading his review.

  7. Steph says:

    Wow. I realize that obviously some people like this one (like John from Asylum), but the passages you shared were really painful and I know I wouldn’t have much patience for them at all. This is the kind of writing that I tend to find is so in love with itself with its own cleverness that it fails to connect with the reader, or at least this reader… I’m going to avoid this one like the plague!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, Most of the time I didn’t have a problem with what was being said – it was the way it was phrased – the whole “D’Jew know” thing drove me mad!

  8. Kathleen says:

    This book sound awful. You have to wonder how it was longlisted for the Booker.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, You either love it or you hate it. I think any book that divides opinion must have some quality, but I certainly wouldn’t have selected it :-)

  9. Ouch. Kudos to you, though, for being able to walk away. I’m cursed with the inability to walk away out of an irrational fear that I might miss something brilliant on the second-to-last page. Of course there never is anything brilliant, but hope springs eternal.

    1. Jackie says:

      Michele, I never used to put a book down, but after wading to the end of several books I didn’t enjoy I have become a lot more ruthless :-)

  10. Lynne says:

    Thanks for your review, Jackie. This doesn’t sound like my kind of book. And there are waaaay too many books out there that I’d like to get to. Because of that – and like you – I’ve learned to put books down that aren’t doing it for me :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Lynne, It is scary when you start to calculate how many books you can actually read in a lifetime – far to few to continue with ones you aren’t enjoying :-)

      1. Lynne says:

        It IS scary when you measure it against your lifetime. Yikes! I’d better get reading.

        And I’m like you, too, in that I rarely find books funny. Such a critic, I am.

  11. Dorte H says:

    I don´t know what I would think about the religious aspects of it, but the humour is juvenile. Un-funny.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dorte, I find very few books funny. I often think I have a very different sense of humor to most of the world :-)

  12. LizF says:

    As someone else who often finds herself looking at things that make other people fall over laughing and wondering what all the fuss is about, glad it’s not just me!
    Thanks for the well timed review – I had thought I might take myself out of my reading comfort zone and try this book but if the passages you quote are representative then it is definitely not for me!
    Sounds like the sort of classic male juvenile humour that a lot of men never quite grow out of – something for which I have no tolerance whatsoever (ask my other half and sons!)

    1. Jackie says:

      Liz, I’m afraid I can’t comment on male juvenile humour as my sons are too young and my husband doesn’t make these kind of jokes in front of me. I’m sure it goes on, but I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided it since I left school ;-)

  13. Stephanie says:

    To me, it sounds like this book has the quality of an “inside joke” — either you “get” the humor, or you don’t. Maybe it helps to come from a Jewish background?

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, I have no idea. I don’t think that all those who love this are Jewish, but I admit that I haven’t a clue about the religious background of those raving about it. They have all been men so far though…..

  14. Robbie says:

    Oh boy Jackie…I don’t know. This sounds awfully intriguing to me. You may have just convinced me to read a book that you gave up on for the exact reason you gave it up.

    1. Jackie says:

      Robbie, It is good to know that I’ve given you a good idea of what the book is about. I hope that you enjoy it :-)

  15. Alyce says:

    Thanks for the warning. I’ll definitely be skipping this one.

  16. Violet says:

    I might have to read this one. Sounds right up my street, I think. :)

  17. Tomcat says:

    I loved this book (my review is pending; give me a coupla days); there were moments when I literally had to pu the book down, I was laughing so hard.

    It’s an odd form of comedy though; comedy through pathos – which is often the best, in my humble opinion.

    Also, the debate about Jewish anti-zionism is fascinating.

    1. Jackie says:

      Tomcat, Sorry I missed your comment :-( Better late than never I guess?

      Comedy is such an individual thing and so I’m pleased that this worked for you.

  18. Anne Wotana Kaye says:

    I was really disappointed by this book. I found it repetitive, and only funny at the beginning. It lost all humour by the boring repeat performances of corny jokes. I have a theory why this book won the prize: The British Establishment is full of ‘liberals’ and Marxists who hate Jews, but to be politically correct, use Israel as their whipping boy. Finkler is an anti-Zionist Jew, but to the Establishment he is first and foremost a Jew, and therefore is to be despised. This book was voted as the winner to confound and confuse Anglo-Jewry, and although Jacobson presents Finkler as a very flawed and mixed up protagonist, the Establishment have metaphorically taken him to its arid bosom. As a life long lover of literature, I have one word for this book – Fah!

    1. Jackie says:

      Anne, Sorry for missing your comment. :-( I do agree with your “fah!” and about the corny repetitive jokes. Lets hope they choose a better winner for the Booker this year. :-)

      1. Anne Wotana Kaye says:

        Hello, Jackie,

        So we both agree, a double “fah”.

        Last year, I read a great book by Natasha Solomons, “Mr Rosenblum’s List”, also with a Jewish theme, but unlike Finkler, a brilliant, funny story and a great first novel. Found her new book “The Novel of the Viola” published by Sceptre, and grabbed it. I have many books to read, and haven’t opened it yet, but feel certain it will not disappoint.

        1. Jackie says:

          Anne, It appears that my computer ate my reply to you too :-(

          I’m afraid that Natasha Soloman’s books are a bit too gentle for me. I can see why people love them, but I prefer things to be a bit darker. I hope you enjoy her new book though.

          1. Anne Wotana Kaye says:

            Hi Jackie,
            I though Solomons had only written two books. Haven’t read the new one yet, as I am reading a series of books by Upton Sinclair. Wonderful!

  19. Ros says:

    Just reading this for my reading group and am really struggling. I was sure you’d read it so thought I’d stop by for a look at your review. I am close to finishing it but boy has it been a struggle, Had it not been for my reading group I’d have given up ages ago. It did have early promise and I even mentioned to a friend that I thought it might be worth a read – I really regret speaking so soon!

    1. Jackie says:

      Ros, Sorry to hear that you are reading this for your book group – I’m really pleased that I didn’t have to finish it! The one good thing is that it should generate an interesting discussion as hopefully some peope will love it and some hate it. I hope the book group is more enjoyable than the book and that they pick a better one next time.

      1. Ros says:

        Jackie, our reading group met last night and I was very much in the majority. Two hadn’t finished the book, no-one liked it much and we all wondered how on earth it had won the Booker Prize! It didn’t engender much discussion and we ended up chatting about other books we had read recently and enjoyed. Next book is Orhan Pamuk’s Snow so I hope we fare better with that.

        1. Jackie says:

          Ros, I’m glad you managed to have a good discussion – even if it wasn’t about the book you read!!

          Your book group picks some tough reads. I’d be interested to see how many manage to finish Snow. I did enjoy it, but read it slowly as it is a complex book. Good luck with it.

          1. Jackie says:

            PS. I’m sure I replied to your last comment, but it must have been eaten by my computer as it doesn’t seem to have been submitted. Sorry – I wasn’t ignoring you. :-(

  20. KJx says:

    Yours is the first review that I agree with, maybe you have to have a Jewish connection to appreciate the humour – don’t get me wrong, I see where it is, just don’t find it that funny.

    Dreary and overindulgent, no real plot, just mmusings of three boring men – ok, maybe I’m going a bit far there…

    Bought it abroad so having paid morethan double for it I felt compelled to read on to the end, wish I hadn’t bothered! Waste of time as well as money.

    1. Jackie says:

      KJx, Thanks for commenting on my blog for the first time! It is always good to know you’re not alone in your opinions of a book. I’m afraid I can only agree with all your assessments. Let’s hope the Booker judges choose better this year.

  21. Anne Wotana Kaye says:

    KJx I am Jewish and find the book without humour. Good literature, and true humour is accessible to all people, all religions, colour and race. It is really a boring novel, by a dull writer. I rushed out and bought it in hardback, a waste of money.

    1. Jackie says:

      Anne Wotana Kaye, I couldn’t agree more :-)

  22. Ha ha! I just put this book aside at page 300 and decided enough was enough. Then I wondered if you had read it. I’m braver than you, I read so much more of this… booooooring book. So glad I finally allowed myself to abandon it! :-)

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, Wow! You nearly made it to the end. Congratulations on wading through so much. Abandoning books is a wonderful thing to do sometimes.

  23. Anne Wotana Kaye says:

    Hi Jackie,

    Surprised to hear from you. Hope you are well and Happy New Year! That horrid book is now like a bad dream, barely remembered, yet still causing a shudder.At the moment I am reading Upton Sinclair, a brilliant writer, but not one for a book club as the books are very long and didactic in nature. Political and of the Thirties and Forties. What are you reading now? Kind regards.


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