Sign up for our weekly newsletter
Framework - Power Up

Howard Jacobson wins the 2010 Booker

15 October 10 words: James Walker
The Finkler Question proves when it comes to the Man Booker, the bookies haven't got a clue
The Finkler Question, a story of male friendship and Jewish identity scooped the 2010 Booker Prize for Howard Jacobson.

Whilst most of the population sat in front of the television watching yet another lacklustre performance by the national football team, Howard Jacobson scooped the Booker Prize for his eleventh novel, The Finkler Question, proving once more that when it comes to the written word, the Bookies haven’t got a clue. The favourite was C by Tom McCarthy for its sheer experimentalism which in common parlance means ‘it’s really clever but boring to read’ but was perhaps too avant garde for this year’s judges. Emma Donoghue’s Room was deemed a close second due to its topicality (The Fritzl Question) but it is very rare that a ‘popular’ book wins what is essentially an elitist prize. So how did the one-time 8/1 outsider scoop the coveted prize? In a nutshell, by making complex issues (philosophy and religion) accesible and enjoyable.

In essence Jacobsen’s book is about two things; male friendship and religious identity. The males in question are Julian Treslove, who ‘found himself with a degree so unspecific that all he could do with it was accept a graduate traineeship at the BBC’ and two recently widowed men, Sam Finkler, author of such classics as ‘The Glass Half Empty: Schopenhauer and binge drinking’ and their knowledgeable former teacher Libor Sevcik. They all meet up at Libor’s grand London apartment and reminisce about the past. Then afterwards, on his way home, Treslove is mugged by ‘a woman’ who mutters something in his ear that will profoundly change his life.  

In Treslove and Finkler we have two flawed characters who between them embody every deplorable trait going, with misogyny and hubris the most damning. Their attitude to paternal responsibilities and fidelity will outrage many female readers but rest assured, this isn’t Updike with a Jewish twist. Jacobsen has an excellent get out of jail card in the form of Libor Sevcik, an elderly man of impeccable manners and integrity who ‘offsets’ his friends dubious morality. Indeed, when Treslove later confides a particularly deplorable secret to Libor it so upsets him that it has (although this is not made implicit) dire consequences.

The second element of the book deals with religion and its importance in cementing identity. This is carefully explored through every conceivable angle (young v old, male v woman, them v us) so that a complex picture emerges of Jewish culture. No prior knowledge is required of this religion to enjoy the book as Jacobsen exposes the basic conceits in superb one-liners.  For example when he goes into detail about the symbolic meaning of food being prepared for Passover he then counteracts it with ‘food that symbolises nothing was easier to digest’, similarly ‘we don’t do six degrees of separation, we do three’ tells you all you need to know about family. These jovial comments are perfectly weighted out with more serious observations that we can all relate to, such as, ‘faith wasn’t a mystery to him, the mystery was holding onto faith’.

 "Treslove found himself with a degree so unspecific that all he could do with it was accept a graduate traineeship at the BBC"

When it comes to literature, size is everything, and the 307 pages that comprise this novel are just about right to keep you focussed on the subject matter. This was also made possible by the fact I never felt as if Jacobson was trying to indoctrinate the reader, rather exposing the myriad contradictions of belonging. As he poignantly warns ‘you never knew with Jews what was a joke and what wasn’t’. I guess it is this ‘not knowing’ that binds us all. None of us really know why we’re here and so we seek out numerous distractions before the inevitable full stop draws an end to the sentence. Laughter, particularly self-depreciation, is one device we can employ to cope with the madness and for once the Booker has acknowledged this.

To celebrate the Booker and to avoid watching another pointless England match, myself and five other panellists hosted a Booker debate at Arnold Library organised by Sheelagh Gallagher and Stuart Hosker. Needless to say it is vital that we use libraries before the government make all staff redundant and then get the community (e.g. recently made unemployed) to then run them for free. Check out the shortlist below and let us know whether you thought the judges made the right choice...   

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber) 
Emma Donoghue Room (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Atlantic Books - Grove Atlantic)  
Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)
Andrea Levy The Long Song (Headline Review - Headline Publishing Group)
Tom McCarthy C (Jonathan Cape - Random House) 

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now