The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
I once read an essay, in The Atlantic, I believe, in which the author posited that no one-on-one relationship is complete without the presence of a third, one which adds a different perspective to the dual relationship. While I don’t think the author of The Finkler Question overtly concerns himself with this phenomenon, it’s there all the same.
Julian Treslove is a born loser in this 2010 Man Book Prize winner, and his two closest friends, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik, aren’t afraid to tell him so, even as they shore him up against his own emotional baggage. Still, Treslove is the odd man out. Sam and Libor are Jewish, Treslove a Gentile. Sam and Libor have been married (their wives have both recently died) and Treslove has never married.
The author leads his characters through a series of encounters in which they reminisce about their earlier lives – Sam and Julian have been students of Libor’s – and about the losses they’ve suffered. Sam’s and Libor’s lives, however, have had many ups as well as the downs they are currently sharing. Treslove can empathize with their losses, but in his mind he’s never had the better moments. That is, until he meets Hephzibah, Libor’s niece, and moves in with her.
But life has never seemed real to Treslove, and his relationship with Hephzibah becomes one more learning experience – he wants to become Jewish. But even the patient and enduring Hephzibah can’t help Julian come to grips with his life.
Meanwhile, Libor bemoans the loss of his own wife to such a degree that he can no longer find reason to live. And Sam? He's a womanizer who never realized his wife’s effect on his life until she dies.
This only touches the surface of these three men’s lives and the dynamics the author imposes on their mutual relationship. Jacobson sketches them against a backdrop of Jewish-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East – and the shock waves the conflict causes for Jews in Britain. But the tripartite friendship, as well as the Middle East conflict, are metaphors Jacobson uses to examine relationships, personal, ethnic, and national. This, then, seems to be the larger Finkler Question up for examination here: how do we get along with one another?
Does the author provide answers? No – but then that’s not the purpose of such stories. Jacobson’s project is to ask the question in the context of these situations, these characters - and this he does quite well.
My rating 4-1/2 of 5 stars.
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