Can Howard Jacobson Play In America?

The British author’s new novel, ‘The Finkler Question,’ tackles anti-Semitism across the pond, with a good dose of humor. How well it travels is open to question.

08/31/2010
Staff Writer
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Book publishing has a logic all its own, though even “logic” may be too generous a term. For the wildly popular British author Howard Jacobson, it is way too generous.

A case in point is his new novel, “The Finkler Question,” which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize earlier this summer, but had no American publisher until last week.

It is the third time one of Jacobson’s books has vied for that prize, Britain’s highest literary award. But though he is often called the “British Philip Roth,” many serious American readers have never heard of him.

In an interview with The Jewish Week last week, Jacobson, 68, gave his own theory for this: “Americans feel that if he’s the ‘British Philip Roth,’ then, well, we’ve already got one.” Of course there is also the possibility that his novels trade in subjects either still off-limits for many Americans, like humor and the Holocaust — the main conceit behind “Kalooki Nights” (2006), another Man Booker finalist. Or they deal with Jewish issues too abstruse to travel easily across the pond, like British anti-Semitism, a prime concern of “The Finkler Question.”

Jacobson does not deny that anti-Semitism exists in America, but in Britain, he says is it something else entirely. “You often feel [in Britain] that to be American is to be Jewish.” But in his home country, he said, “to be Jewish is to feel that you’re too parochial. … You must demonstrate your remove from Jewishness in order to feel more English.”

That is certainly the impression you get from one of his novel’s main characters, Samuel Finkler. A brainy best-selling author who resembles an older Malcolm Gladwell, Finkler feels he must downplay his Jewish background to achieve real success. But rather than conceal his Jewishness altogether, he becomes an outspoken critic of his own kind. In one of the book’s many biting, hilarious scenes, Finkler heads up a group called “ASHamed Jews,” whose raison d’etre is their grievance toward Israel.

“Jesus f------ Christ, Shmuelly,” says Finkler’s wife, Tyler, upon hearing this news. “Have you forgotten that you don’t like Jews? You shun the company of Jews. You have publicly proclaimed yourself disgusted by Jews because they throw their weight around and then tell you they believe in a compassionate God. And now because a few mediocre half-house-hold name Jews have decided to come out and agree with you, you’re mad for them.”

The book is full of caustic moments like these that are also, essentially, funny. Jacobson says that humor ... allows him to couch his critique of Jewish society, functioning as a kind of emollient for his lacerating criticism. “Comedy is the handmaiden of tragedy,” he said, adding that “humor doesn’t make things light — quite the contrary.” It makes the tragedy in life bearable; “We affirm life with it.”

That is one of the reasons he takes issue with the oft-repeated comparison to Philip Roth. The parallel was first made when Jacobson’s debut novel, “Coming From Behind,” came out in 1983. And though it probably helped him get attention in Britain, he says that it no longer makes sense. “Roth has essentially stopped being funny,” Jacobson has said recently. “He is perfectly within his rights to have stopped being funny … but [life’s] never too serious to laugh.”

And despite the comedy in Jacobson’s new novel, it raises serious issues too. While he admonishes Jews who feel they must hide or apologize for their heritage, he also takes up Christian anti-Semitism with equal force. This is most often seen through another main character in the book, Julian Treslove, a middling BBC producer and childhood friend of Finkler’s.

Treslove is not a Jew, but he would not mind being one. And embedded in his admiration for Jewish friends like Finkler and their beloved high school teacher, Libor Sevcik, are all sorts of unwitting stereotypes. Jews — or “Finklers,” as Treslove calls them — are shrewd, smart, and almost always successful. “Jewesses,” like Tyler, are sensual, seductive and promiscuous.

Jacobson grew up in a working-class, secular home in Manchester. His father drove a taxi and his mother raised their children at home. But both his parents had an abiding love for culture: his father for opera, his mother for books. They stressed education, too, and that led Jacobson to pursue a degree at Cambridge. He later taught literature at various universities, but said that his academic career ran aground in the late-‘70s. “I didn’t do all the things you were supposed to do,” he said of his academic career.

But his teaching experience at an engineering school in Wolverhampton did bear some fruit: it became the comic grist for his first novel, “Coming From Behind.” The book focused on a thinly veiled version of himself, a literature professor named Sefton Goldberg at a dreary British college. “To my surprise,” he said, Jewishness became “part of my subject.”

The book launched Jacobson’s career. He has since published 10 other novels, plus several works of non-fiction, many of which have prominent Jewish themes. “Roots Schmoots: A Journey Among Jews” (1993), for instance, is a comic survey based on interviews with Jews from all over the world. He is now a literary celebrity in England, with the country’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, officiating at his wedding in 2005; regular appearances on BBC documentaries; and a weekly column in a leading British paper, The Independent.

The question now is whether that success can carry over to America. Only on the morning of Jacobson’s interview with The Jewish Week last Friday, did he learn that Bloomsbury USA would publish his novel here (the exact date is not yet known). But the irony is that the British version of “The Finkler Question” has a cover blurb by Jonathan Safran Foer, an American writer who is one of Jacobson’s biggest fans.

Foer’s endorsement will probably be a selling a point when “The Finkler Question” comes out here. But Jacobson may have another one by that time too: the Man Booker Prize’s short list comes out next week, narrowing the current list of 12 down to six. The winner is announced in October.

On the theme of British anti-Semitism in the book itself, there is, for Americans, still a learning curve that must be surmounted. Explaining the issue in greater detail, Jacobson said that while “there’s a lot of good will towards Jews in England, there’s a lot curiousness about them too.”

That curiosity is not inherently bad, but it can turn ugly, he added. By writing the book in part from a non-Jewish perspective, he was able to feel his way through these subtleties. “I quite like writing his attitude,” he said of Treslove, implying that some of the interest Britons take in Jews is entirely benign, perhaps even benevolent. But he also noted that the book was written in an extremely uncomfortable environment.

Jacobson was writing “The Finkler Question” during Israel’s 2008-9 war against Hamas in Gaza, a time when the British press was attacking the country particularly hard. He put himself in the center of the storm by taking on a connected event, the controversial play by Caryl Churchill, “Seven Jewish Children,” which was being staged at the Royal Court Theatre around the same time.

Jacobson devoted one of his weekly columns in The Independent to “Seven Jewish Children,” calling it a “hate-filled little chamber piece.” A core theme of his essay was that Israel had, for Britons, become synonymous with Jews. And in such an environment it was impossible to view the vitriolic criticism of Israel as anything but anti-Semitic.

Moreover, he argued, the incessant connection made between Palestinians in Gaza and Jews in the Holocaust was an attempt to “punish [Jews] with their own grief. … “Don’t mistake me,” he went on, “Every Palestinian killed in Gaza is a Palestinian too many, but there is not the remotest similarity, either in intention or in deed — even in the most grossly misreported deed — between Gaza and Warsaw.”

The piece was widely circulated and filled a real need for critiques of anti-Semitism from the left. Jacobson says that those kinds of voices are sorely lacking in England, however. “I don’t think that it’s easy to do,” he said, adding that more often than not, you come off sounding like a “philistine, right-wing Jew.”

Still, that self-professed liberals fail to see their own anti-Semitism “is utterly reprehensible and shoddy,” Jacobson said. “The heat of the anti-Israel comment here [can be] uncomfortable for anyone, and some of that just spilled out into the novel.”

No matter the book’s themes, the way Jacobson weds humor to seriousness make it affecting for anyone. And yet, Jacobson conceded, there might be something particularly Jewish about it — “tragedy and comedy at once; how we do it,” he said. “When I do comedy,” he added, “it bleeds.”

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