Booker Prize: the Jacobson Question

October 15, 2010 at 12:06 am (anti-semitism, Champagne Charlie, comedy, literature, media)

Howard Jacobson has won the Man Booker prize for ‘The Finkler Question’: this has pissed off (go to 33.50/45.25) a lot of people, especially professional “anti-Zionists”. I haven’t yet read the book and if any (sane) person wants to review it before me, feel free to send your review in to us. In the meanwhile, here is the opening chapter:

 Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson.  Photo: ANDREW CROWLEY (Daily Telegraph)

He should have seen it coming.

His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one.

 He was a man who saw things coming. Not shadowy premonitions before and after sleep, but real and present dangers in the daylit world. Lamp posts and trees reared up at him, splintering his shins. Speeding cars lost control and rode on to the footpath leaving him lying in a pile of torn tissue and mangled bones. Sharp objects dropped from scaffolding and pierced his skull.

Women worst of all. When a woman of the sort Julian Treslove found beautiful crossed his path it wasn’t his body that took the force but his mind. She shattered his calm.

True, he had no calm, but she shattered whatever calm there was to look forward to in the future. She was the future.

People who see what’s coming have faulty chronology, that is all. Treslove’s clocks were all wrong. He no sooner saw the woman than he saw the aftermath of her – his marriage proposal and her acceptance, the home they would set up together, the drawn rich silk curtains leaking purple light, the bed sheets billowing like clouds, the wisp of aromatic smoke winding from the chimney – only for every wrack of it – its lattice of crimson roof tiles, its gables and dormer windows, his happiness, his future – to come crashing down on him in the moment of her walking past.

She didn’t leave him for another man, or tell him she was sick of him and of their life together, she passed away in a perfected dream of tragic love – consumptive, wet-eyelashed, and as often as not singing her goodbyes to him in phrases borrowed from popular Italian opera.

There was no child. Children spoilt the story.

Between the rearing lamp posts and the falling masonry he would sometimes catch himself rehearsing his last words to her – also as often as not borrowed from the popular Italian operas – as though time had concertinaed, his heart had smashed, and she was dying even before he had met her.

There was something exquisite to Treslove in the presentiment of a woman he loved expiring in his arms. On occasions he died in hers, but her dying in his was better. It was how he knew he was in love: no presentiment of her expiry, no proposal.

That was the poetry of his life. In reality it had all been women accusing him of stifling their creativity and walking out on him. In reality there had even been children.

But beyond the reality something beckoned.

On a school holiday in Barcelona he paid a gypsy fortune-teller to read his hand.

“I see a woman,” she told him.

Treslove was excited. “Is she beautiful?”

“To me, no,” the gypsy told him. “But to you . . .  maybe. I also see danger.”

Treslove was more excited still. “How will I know when I have met her?”

“You will know.”

“Does she have a name?”

“As a rule, names are extra,” the gypsy said, bending back his thumb. “But I will make an exception for you because you are young. I see a Juno – do you know a Juno?”

She pronounced it “Huno”. But only when she remembered.

Treslove closed one eye. Juno? Did he know a Juno? Did anyone know a Juno? No, sorry, no, he didn’t. But he knew a June.

“No, no, bigger than June.” She seemed annoyed with him for not being able to do bigger than June. “Judy Julies Judith. Do you know a Judith?”

Hudith.

Treslove shook his head. But he liked the sound of it – Julian and Judith. Hulian and Hudith Treslove.

“Well, she’s waiting for you, this Julie or Judith or Juno I do still see a Juno.”

Treslove closed his other eye. Juno, Junos

“How long will she wait?” he asked.

“As long as it takes you to find her.”

Treslove imagined himself looking, searching the seven seas. “You said you see danger. How is she dangerous?”

He saw her rearing up at him, with a knife to his throat – Addio, mio bello, addio.

“I did not say it was she who was dangerous. Only that I saw danger. It might be you who is dangerous to her. Or some other person who is dangerous to both of you.”

“So should I avoid her?” Treslove asked.

She shuddered a fortune-teller’s shudder. “You cannot avoid her.”

She was beautiful herself. At least in Treslove’s eyes. Emaciated and tragic with gold hooped earrings and a trace, he thought, of a West Midlands accent. But for the accent he would have been in love with her.

She didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know. Someone, something, was in store for him.

Something of more moment than a mishap.

He was framed for calamity and sadness but was always somewhere else when either struck. Once, a tree fell and crushed a person walking just a half a yard behind him. Treslove heard the cry and wondered whether it was his own. He missed a berserk gunman on the London Underground by the length of a single carriage. He wasn’t even interviewed by the police. And a girl he had loved with a schoolboy’s hopeless longing – the daughter of one of his father’s friends, an angel with skin as fine as late-summer rose petals and eyes that seemed forever wet – died of leukaemia in her fourteenth year while Treslove was in Barcelona having his fortune told. His family did not call him back for her final hours or even for the funeral. They did not want to spoil his holiday, they told him, but the truth was they did not trust his fortitude. People who knew Treslove thought twice about inviting him to a deathbed or a burial.

So life was still all his to lose. He was, at forty-nine, in good physical shape, had not suffered a bruise since falling against his mother’s knee in infancy, and was yet to be made a widower. To his knowledge, not a woman he had loved or known sexually had died, few having stayed long enough with him anyway for their dying to make a moving finale to anything that could be called a grand affair. It gave him a preternaturally youthful look – this unconsummated expectation of tragic event. The look which people born again into their faith sometimes acquire.

BTW: it is not true that this is “the first comic novel to win the Booker”: what about Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils (winner, 1986)?

Below: Jacobson in sparkling form at an ‘Engage’ meeting in 2007, calling  anti-Israel boycotters for what they are:

12 Comments

  1. Sarah AB said,

    That was an interesting clip – I haven’t read the book either. In a sense Mieville’s condemnation – he seems to be saying the novel attacks people in a crude and cruel way – seemed a potentially fair one. But John Mullan appeared to offer a more nuanced and subtle take on the book – and thus I’m more inclined to imagine that my own interpretation of the book would be closer to Mullan’s than to the book’s detractors – particularly as I tend to disagree with Mieville and Greer on other issues too.

  2. skidmarx said,

    “But to youe_SLps maybe.
    I think this might be a typo.
    There was something exquisite to Treslove in the presentiment of a woman he loved expiring in his arms.
    There is something crappy about this line, among many other crappy lines.”

    Who are these PROFESSIONAL ANTI-ZIONISTS you speak of? Yet another slur on those who give their time to defend the rights of one of the most marginalised nations on Earth. You should be ashamed of using such language.

  3. Sarah AB said,

    I’ve now read the chapter because I wanted to think about Skidmarx’ comments. I don’t mind the line he thinks is crappy. But I’m not sure about whether I particularly want to read the book or not – but first chapters can be a bit awkward. The one bit which I really didn’t like was the sentence:

    “That was the poetry of his life. In reality it had all been women accusing him of stifling their creativity and walking out on him.”

    This puts me on my guard because it seems potentially be stereotyping women as intellectually and creatively ambitious yet slightly silly (Wilt’s wife in Tom Sharpe’s novels springs vaguely to mind). But maybe this is meant to be Treslove’s voice rather than Jacobson’s own take on his marriages. Obviously, either way, Treslove is being satirised and I certainly don’t see anything sinister (on the author’s part) about his obsession with dead women.

  4. David D. said,

    one of the most marginalised nations on Earth.

    Whatever one’s stand on the Palestine-Israel issue, this has to be the baldest lie imaginable. The Palestinians have easily had more money spent on them per capita — by UN organizations (they are the only group of “refugees” with a unique and very privileged definition and a UN body of their own), EU groups, Western governments, and NGOs — then any other group in modern history. Their cause dominates debate in international bodies, in the press, in the academy, and in politics far removed from the area geographically and philosophically. It is the dominant issue in the Left today (often to the detriment or total exclusion of such issues as the rights of women and gays or human rights in Africa, Iran, China etc.). Why this is so has a variety reasons, not the least of which is that — unlike, say, the Kurds or the Tibetans — the Palestinians have had the great fortune of having Israel as their adversary.

  5. skidmarx said,

    Sarah AB – there seems a general infelicity in the language, though that may just be because the Treslove character is meant to be an infelicitous one. I think the line I called crappy is grammatically awkward, and the word “presentiment” is just a bit ugly in that usage.

    David D – I’m sure that all the Palestinians that haven’t seen their homes for 60 years thank their lucky stars each night that they have an oppressor that casts itself as the eternal victim.

  6. Rosie said,

    I will get round to reading The Finkler Question when the other 25 people who have reserved the copies at the library have finished with them. It’s sad that the prize has been politicised like this. If he hadn’t won it, there would have been mutterings about anti-Semitism, progressive/London Review of Books circles obsessed by Israel etc, now he has won it, the pro-Israeli people see it as a victory. I wish they would give the Booker judges the credit that when they awarded the prize it was for literary merit and without political considerations.

    I admire Jacobson’s writing in the Independent and he can write beautiful prose but I don’t like him much as a novelist. He can be very mannered. I found The Act of Love absurd and Kalooki Nights a lot of history and sociology about English Jewishness disguised as a novel.

  7. Rosie said,

    But John Mullan appeared to offer a more nuanced and subtle take on the book – and thus I’m more inclined to imagine that my own interpretation of the book would be closer to Mullan’s than to the book’s detractors – particularly as I tend to disagree with Mieville and Greer on other issues too.

    Greer is amazing. Amazingly brilliant sometimes, amazingly wrong-headed and batty at other times.

  8. Klaus Kimski said,

    skidmarx: we’d pay more attention to your whining about Palestinians if you hadn’t gloated about 800,000 murdered Tutsis. You fucking animal.

  9. BenSix said,

    …this has pissed off (go to 33.50/45.25) a lot of people, especially professional “anti-Zionists”…

    Yeah, what else has China Mieville ever done. Er —

  10. Steve said,

    What could this guy have against Palestinians I wonder????

    Much talk of fortune telling here, I thought Shiraz stood firmly against this sort of bullshit mystification? Is it cos he’s a Zionist?

  11. sackcloth and ashes said,

    ‘skidmarx: we’d pay more attention to your whining about Palestinians if you hadn’t gloated about 800,000 murdered Tutsis. You fucking animal’.

    And lest we forget, it’s all here:

    https://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/nocide-denial-here-we-go-again/#comment-32289

    ‘Yeah, what else has China Mieville ever done’.

    China Mieville. Otherwise known as the only swuppie who wrote anything that normal human beings would actually would actually read.

    I recall Mieville talking about how you could admire someone’s writing even if they were an utter scumbag with loathsome politics. He was talking about Celine, but I think the comment applies to him as well.

    ‘What could this guy have against Palestinians I wonder????’

    Newsflash – support for a two-state solution is anti-Palestinian. Who’d have thought it?

    ‘I’m sure that all the Palestinians that haven’t seen their homes for 60 years thank their lucky stars each night that they have an oppressor that casts itself as the eternal victim’.

    And during those 60 years the Palestinians were never crammed into ghettos or butchered by their Arab ‘brothers’, were they? But then you are a genocide denier, so I expect a selective approach to the facts from a swanker like you.

  12. Dr Paul said,

    Here’s what Deborah Maccoby wrote about it. She is the daughter of the noted Jewish historian Chaim Maccoby, and is a leading activist in Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    I think I should start by declaring an interest. I am a member of the Executive Committee of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, which seems to be one of the groups that Jacobson is targeting in “The Finkler Question”. I agree with an earlier reviewer that, though some of the novel is indeed entertaining and complex, the parts about the “ASHamed Jews” (which are actually a major part of the book, though many reviewers don’t mention them) are crude political propaganda – which is surely very detrimental to a work of fiction – rather than satire. Of course I am politically biased against the book, but it is such blatant political propaganda that it calls for a political response.

    First: all these groups, including anti-Zionist groups such as JAZ (Jews Against Zionism) (JfJfP is not an anti-Zionist group) reject entirely the label imposed on us by Jacobson that we feel “ashamed” of being Jewish – on the contrary, we are asserting a universalist and prophetic Jewish identity of which we are proud and which this book repudiates. Instead, Jacobson retreats into tribal paranoia – the extreme paranoia about antisemitism in Britain is worthy of satire itself.

    I think true satire should contain some compassion and understanding for the characters, rather than the over-the-top fantasising in which Jacobson indulges. For instance, there’s a founder-member of the ASHamed Jews who is obsessed with the fact that he is circumcised and spends his whole life sitting naked on a chair pulling at what remains of his foreskin in an attempt to lengthen it and reverse the circumcision – he does this all morning and then spends the rest of the day writing about his efforts on his blog and posting video and photos of his attempts on his blog.

    The book can be very inconsistent and illogical. At one point two non-Jewish characters are discussing the “ASHamed Jews” in a very puzzled way, asking why Jews living in Britain should be ashamed of Israel’s actions, which have nothing to do with them – then later on, at an “ASHamed Jews” meeting, Finkler objects to the idea of a boycott of Israel, saying Israel is their “family” – “Whoever boycotted his own family?”. So here it is clear that Jews ARE very much associated with Israel.

    Against the background of Operation Cast Lead, the author writes of Finkler (with evident approval) “Gaza didn’t do it for him” and (again with authorial approval; indeed Finkler stops being a character and becomes a mouthpiece for Jacobson’s political views) Finkler doesn’t understand why Israel’s response is called “disproportionate”. (According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, in Gaza 773 civilians and 330 combatants were killed; 13 Israelis were killed, including four civilians.) I’ve just been reading Gideon Levy’s recent book “The Punishment of Gaza”, containing articles expressing his anguish over the atrocities committed during Cast Lead, and to read Jacobson after that is truly appalling. I suggest that everyone who has lauded this novel reads Gideon Levy’s book. As I’ve said above, if a novelist decides to spoil his novel by including large chunks of political propaganda, then he issues an open invitation for his work to be judged in political terms.

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