2010

May 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Booker Prize Project

Jean’s guidelines for writing an award-winning book:

The first chapter must be a grabber—no long, slow build. Well, unless you can depend on the infamy of your name to make the jurors read the whole thing.

Right now books about middle class folks with middle class problems are not in vogue. You need to write books about dysfunctional families peopled with characters that would make Edith Sitwell proud.

Sentimental often makes the short list.

Don’t make it hard or experimental. Straight ahead narrative appears the most often.

Make sure the publisher packages and markets the book as a winner.

The perfect prize-list-making book is 218 pages, often. The other approach is the large sweeping BIG novel. Either political or generational. Cue the violins.

Have a good story about the book. How it was written, or researched. I was in Egypt and met a man from Vancouver who was a camel driver…

Historical fiction often works with juries. Or if you are after the Booker and can be sure a UK publisher will pick up your book, UK economics or social issues are worth considering.

Sex.

Find a research topic, a cause or an historical period that is either very popular and you have a new tact (Wolf Hall), or one that is unknown (Half Blood Blues). That being said, don’t pick something Canadian if you are after the Booker—historical Canadian stuff is hard to pitch to UK publishers. Think Politics and Marginalized groups.

Look at what Carey and Rushdie have done with national allegories. Try an ethnic allegory. Post-colonial exotic.

Use a young narrator. Very often first person.

Find something controversial or create a good scandal. Or better yet, if something falls into your lap, milk it. A good recent example was the decision of BC Ferries to ban Annabelle Lyon’s book from its bookstores because of a nude on the cover. Or Rohinton Mistry’s book being banned by the University of Mumbai.

Women buy most books. So, write for a female audience.

Have a map or genealogical tree.

I will repeat a section from my 1987 Booker report:

In a New Yorker review by Louis Menand of The Economy of Prestige, Menand also looks at The World Republic of Letters by Pascale Casanova and concludes: “Between them, English and Casanova list the features of the world-literature prototype: a trauma-and-recovery story, with magic-realist elements, involving abuse and family dysfunction, that arrives at resolution by the invocation of spiritual or holistic verities. If you add in a high level of technical and intellectual sophistication, this is a pretty accurate generic description of a novel by Toni Morrison.”

Here’s one: write a multi-generational novel about coming to Canada as an indentured servant, and the long-term consequences. The elusive search for a Father, etc. It will make old white guys fashionable, and victims at the same time. And maybe result in the PM issuing an apology to survivors of indentured servants. See?

If you are a writer and have seriously considered any of my above comments, reconsider your career.

Jean’s more serious suggestions to writers

If you are short-listed or happen to win a prize, it is only as relevant as the organization behind the prize and the jury. I’ve said this before but let me elaborate on relevant to whom. Relevant to the writer. I’ve been having an ongoing discussion about this matter with regular reader and a writer, Michael Turner:

MT: What I am saying is, When I receive a prize, I cannot separate it from jurors who decided on it, as the prize is an extension of them, their conversation, and my place in it. At the same time I have been on juries where the ambition is not the works under consideration but the opportunity for some past or future quid pro quo. Recently I was on a CC grant jury where, as usual, we are asked to assess the works on their terms and the CC’s. Another juror and I did just that, while the third juror proceeded with 1-5-10 voting scheme, the kind designed at winning, not assessing. As her selections made no sense I Googled her name with her 10s and sure enough they were part of some mutual support group — not a TISH or a KSW but people who merely like each other.

JB: I think I’m beginning to see. Let’s use George Bowering as an example. If he won a prize and Robert Creeley was on the jury that would enhance the prize win for George. That’s what you are saying? If Robertson Davies had been on the jury, for George, it wouldn’t mean much.

MT: Yes, if Creeley was on and George was shortlisted/won. Ouch! if Creeley was on and George was not shortlisted/lost.

The criteria has expanded for winning these things awards. Back in the days when progressive Modernism’s only rival was the unexamined romantic tendency, Canadian juries were loaded with romantics. With multiculturalism — gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity — came a relativism that often deferred to the face of the award (the writer), as opposed to the book (the writing).

Linden McIntyre never would have won his Giller if not for an “international jury” simply because he is not considered someone Canadians have been made to recognize as part of the country’s literary culture, the pool from which shortlisted books are drawn. Linden’s background is journalism; he doesn’t know who bp Nichol is, nor is he interested in where this writer fits within the conversation that is modern Canadian Literature. Indeed, Linden is closer to sociology than literature (GeoBo, as you’ve noticed, produces a mild tick when the word sociology is spoken), and international jurors (as selected by the Giller Foundation) will always be more attracted to the sociology of Canada than its literature’s formal contribution to the international literary conversation.

I have heard it said that some authors have clauses in their contracts that prohibit their publishers from entering their books in competitions (Martin Amis, for example). As much as I respect an author’s decision to argue for this clause, I also recognize that a book “belongs” not only to its author but also to its publishing house, publishing being a complex of relations that involve a publisher, an editor, a designer, a product manager, sales and publicity people, etc. While I would prefer that my books are not entered into awards competitions, I would rather proceed as someone who acknowledges this complex of relations than as an author who, inadvertently or otherwise, upholds the romantic notion of the author as singular genius, rude individual, etc.

I am in full agreement with Michael—Prizes should be part of the larger conversation that is literature.

Prizes that are conferred should be for the merit of the work, not for the geographical location of the writer (oh, it’s time someone in Newfoundland won this prize), the gender of the writer (three women in a row, we should give it to a man this year), the ethnic background of the writer (this prize has never been given to someone of Japanese heritage), or the marginalized group that the book portrays. Such “wins” taint the prize and are demeaning to the writer.

*   *   *

Chaired by Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate, the 2010 judges are Rosie Blau, Literary Editor of the Financial Times; Deborah Bull, formerly a dancer, now Creative Director of the Royal Opera House as well as a writer and broadcaster; Tom Sutcliffe, journalist, broadcaster and author and Frances Wilson, biographer and critic.

Tom McCarthy—C   VPL

Jean’s Booker Club discusses C

Another messy night at the book club.

The blurb on the book jacket says, “Only a writer like Tom McCarthy could pull off a story with this effortless historical breadth, psychological insight, and post-modern originality.” Well, our group sure didn’t agree with this assertion. The novel is not post-modern, has little style or form, though McCarthy does have things to say. It seems a case of if you refer to certain things then you are post-modern, which isn’t the case.

Writing style was a big stumbling block. We pointed to examples of too much detail. We found some sections to be excruciatingly boring and tedious, and we did recognize that at times this technique is deliberate. Colin cited some other novels where the beginnings are a mess, but recover and end up packing a wallop. Not so C. This is indulgent 19th century novel style, too often clunking and disappointing. Where’s the editing, we wondered? Colin wondered if he was paid by the word.

The main character is Serge, whom we meet as a young man and whom we follow as he grows, joins the air force, becomes a drug addict, spends time in a German prison, delves into the occult and climaxes, literally, in a tomb in Egypt. Yup, heavy on the symbolism, folks. But this is not a novel about character. Characters are dropped or disappear from the narrative without concern or coherence.

One theme is the metaphorical parallels that exist, and how we connect, or don’t, to them. As Judith will note below, the insistence on this theme almost becomes a game. There are quadruple meanings for everything. And McCarthy is aware of what he is doing, and often points it out, several times, including all the “useless information” he supplies as if it had been lifted from a turgid encyclopedia:

That fucking twit,” Macauley snorts. “Bombards us all the time with useless information. Not just him: every two-bit traveller, ‘adventurer,’ ‘novelist’ or general man of leisure who’s inherited more money than sense…ladies of leisure too: they’re just as bad… Sending us their ‘reports,’ briefing their friends on Fleet Street to extol their bravery and cunning to readers who aren’t any the wiser, then expecting knighthoods when they get home…Fantasists and frauds, the lot of them! The worst part of it is, they’re actually quite useful.”

I wonder if I should take that personally?

The ending of novel fired more heated debate. Colin argued that the end is not well achieved—it’s too transparent. Death is just another trip, nothing to be feared. We all agreed that the novel had some wonderful moments, that McCarthy does have something to say and pulled some nice stuff out of the research. But we couldn’t help but wonder whether the novel was on the short-list because a previous jury missed the much-acclaimed earlier novel Remainder, as well as McCarthy’s reputation as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, “a semi-fictitious avant-garde network.”

Dennis said the novel was “ambitious as all hell” and gave it 6. Judith said that while reading she was thinking 4 but afterwards found it somehow more interesting despite its shape and arrogance and gave it 5. Colin, 5.5 for Carbon. Deb found it very annoying and voted a 4.5 as did GB. I gave it a 4, no juice and joy.

After meeting comments from Judith: I think Tom McCarthy discovered some things and thought he was the only one. In a YouTube interview he declares that writing isn’t about self-expression, as though all writers before him only squeezed out words like primary coloured evocations of house, sun, family—kindergarteners compared to him. He goes on about transmissions, the air is full of sounds, quotes from The Tempest, talks about the writer as (I’m remembering, not quoting) receiver and conduit, a romantic concept if I ever heard one. Isn’t that like saying, I will just sit here ready for the muse to come through, the muse as all sound, all visions, all sensations. The universal muse, I guess. He might as well call it God or All-in-One, but he can’t do that because oops, the audience he really wants to please (somewhere in the art world) wouldn’t like that and the audience or readers he wants to educate, aren’t that interested. He is full of half-digested half-truths, a mishmash of philosophical concepts and not so arcane knowledge.

Serge (of many possible references, is one to serger, the machine that overlocks seams?) realizes in his dying delirium that the message he has been waiting for is coming through him. He is the message. (Haven’t we heard that somewhere?) Is that McCarthy being ironic about self-expression or having a laugh? It seems to me he conflates self-expression (and the idea of self that he rejects) and transmission in one big All-Olympic-Opening-and-Closing-Ceremonies-of-All-Times grand penultimate scene. (Elizabeth Renzetti, writing in the Globe and Mail of her time in England, recently reminded Canadians that there’s no humour, only threat, in the British expression, “Are you having a laugh?”)

Oh for God’s sake (there’s that murkily conceived muse again), stop fighting the story, Tom, and get a good editor.

However, after I had finished reading C (and listening to parts of it on CD), I found the book a lot more fun to think about than to actually, painfully, plough through. Once you accept the book as a big game board puzzle you can while away a drive across the city sorting out all the clues and moves. I’d think, oh he’s incorporated the five elements (earth, down the tombs; air, up in the plane; fire, the spark set, the plane on fire; water, the Baths, the murky waters for the cure; ether, the messages that travel from here to there, etc.). Under, beside and above every phallic symbol or reference to penetration, infection, constipation, vapours, smoke, filth and incest lies another, barely disguised (and described three different ways each time). Now, even the three words “incest lies together,” unintentionally typed sequentially, evoke another game of meanings

McCarthy isn’t as interested in story, although he is telling one, as he is in the very British tradition of pageant, pantomime, ceremony—acting out while in disguise–where symbol is more important than plot, costume more important than character. To go back to the Olympic opening ceremony idea, imagine if Danny Boyle, instead of presenting his recent spectacle, had decided to describe it to us in minute detail so that, instead of a visual display, those of us sitting in the stadium or in front of our screens had to read the unedited, un-illustrated written version of 2012 Summer Games Opening Ceremonies Second by Second The Book.

Rather than “the horror, the horror,” our cry might be, “the ink, the ink….” (Get it, readers? Or should I hit you again?)

Question for McCarthy: Do you think this is the most effective use of the novel form? Question for his champions: If the philosophy or philosophies underpinning McCarthy’s novel are worth consideration, why was the communication of them in this novel not subjected to critical rigour? What is idea without language?

And by the way, McCarthy may be smarter than I am, but to quote the pronoun form he used repeatedly, he is not smarter than me.

And from Colin:

I keep thinking that he DID have an editor and that the editor tried to make a more conventional novel out of a maelstrom of whizzing and at times interesting connections. The result was a struggle between quantity and subtlety, with easy sensationalism winning out over an almost unmanageable but intriguing overarching conceit. I’d guess that the chapters were altered so that each had the same structure, with their conclusions telegraphed early in the chapter, and always in service of a possibly disturbing sexual act at the end. This is the type of chapter we seem to encounter in almost every novel that appears these days. (How’s that for an unsupportable statement? But novels have become like movies in this way.) Overall, and sadly, It was as if a governor had been bolted onto what might have been a fascinating, unruly and chaotic machine. In fact, the novel felt dumbed down, and, should I say, overexplained. Example:

Editor: What’s this?

McCarthy: The First World War.

Editor: What?

McCarthy: The First World War.

Editor: Sorry?

McCarthy: It was a vicious European war that occurred between 1914 and 1918 in which millions of men and women from all over the world were slaughtered and we still don’t really know why it started in the first place. It helped spark the Bolshevik revolution and led to a rise in Fascism that in turn…

Editor: OK, OK, but if we don’t know how it started, I mean, that’s weird, isn’t it? Perhaps it didn’t really happen. Are you sure?

McCarthy: Pretty sure….

Editor: Tom, you can’t expect your readers to swallow this sort of thing without an explanation. How many of our readers will even have heard of this…what did you call it…?

McCarthy: The First World War.

Editor: Wait, wait, it’s coming to me. Do you mean…is that like World War One?

McCarthy: You got it!

Editor: And it happened in Egypt?

I probably could have gone for more chaos.

Judith replies:

While your theory (and your amusing dialogue) makes sense, I’m not sure why any editor would think the tedious descriptions in the first section of the book –the doctor following path, wall, passageway, another wall, maze over there, trellis, doorway and on and on, for example, or so many quotes from The Faerie Queene–were necessary. These seem more like attempts to put the reader into the maze (hopelessly lost?) than explanations of what it all means.

By the way, if you want to get into an endless loop with Haydn, Google Addison’s line, “The spacious firmament on high.” But perhaps that doesn’t appeal.

As a compendium of amusing tidbits, C has its place.

Caul

Chute

Crash

Call

Were those section headings a starting place for the writer, or the afterthought of the editor?

Peter Carey—Parrot and Olivier VPL

I’ve now seen this type of novel so many times it merits its own Category: historical figure’s life expanded. It’s what Mantel did with Thomas Cromwell and what Carey has done before with Ned Kelly, though for my money less successfully with the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, the real man who is the basis of Olivier.

Carey is a terrific storyteller and writes with verve and distinctive voice. The novel is structured around the voices of the two main characters. Olivier, the spoiled brat aristocrat, tells one chapter. Parrot, the parentless artist, narrates the next chapter. And so on. Essentially it’s the story of their lives, how they meet and then go to the USA so that Olivier can do a survey of the penal system.

But the novel isn’t really about Olivier or Parrot. It’s about the contrast and conflict between the old world and the new, art and commerce, and privilege and servitude. Or how the mess that is now the USA was bred in the bones of its democratic birth—the “awful tyranny of the majority.”

Olivier gets off several good rants in the last chapter of the novel and there is some sense that the whole novel is only there to support those final rants:

In a democracy there is not that class with the leisure to acquire discernment and taste in all the arts. Without that class, art is produced to suit the tastes of the market, which is filled with its own doubt and self-importance and ignorance, its own ability to be tricked and titillated by every babule. If you are to make a business from catering to these people, the whole of your life will be spent in corrupting whatever public taste might struggle toward the light, tarnishing the virtues and confusing the manners of your country.

Olivier could be speaking about the Bookers!

I don’t think this novel is Carey at his best. It goes on too long. Many of the flashbacks to previous times in the lives of the characters are confusing. In many ways Carey has written a Dickensian novel with just as many unlikely coincidences.

Here’s Ursula k Le Guin’s review:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jan/30/peter-carey-parrot-olivier-america

Damon Galgut—In a Strange Room VPL

The cover blurb compares Galgut to Coetzee and the structure of the novel does seem to mimic Coetzee’s style in Summertime. The narrator is “I” the writer writing about the experience of Damon “he” the character.

I wander around and come back, then wander again. A large part of traveling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details.

Structured in three segments, the novel is in some ways a travel book. In each section—The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian—the narrator plays a different role with his fellow travellers. He is always unable to connect with others, to find a sense of place.

The writing is tight as the excerpt above shows. The style is flat, very fast and easy to read and there are no extraneous details. The reader puts together that Damon has a life, with some income and friends, but the narrator tells us nothing about these things. In some ways this novel reminded me of Figures in a Landscape from the 1969 Booker short list.

Somehow they have passed a point and gone from one world into another. In the old world they had their usual life, with its habits and friends, its places and choices, but now all that has been left behind. In this new life they have only each other and the selection of objects that they carry on their backs. Everything else, even the people they stop and speak to at the roadside, is passing by.

The themes are otherness, space, solitude and relationships but within the context of travel or what one reviewer calls the “social happenstance of travel” and the resulting “disjunctions of experience and memory.” That last section is “almost an unbearably convincing evocation of guilt, anger and powerlessness in the face of self-destructive behaviour.”

My Booker Book Club rebelled when I suggested we should take on this one, so we passed it by. That was a mistake. The book club would have had fun with this one.

Emma Donoghue—Room VPL

This novel was short listed and won the Writers’ Trust fiction prize, so received a lot of press in Canada. It also received a lot of media attention in the UK. First because the manuscript resulted in a bidding war and a huge advance. But the novel was also challenged about the content. In an interview with The Guardian Donoghue recalls the period as “quite painful. A lot of people made out I was writing this sinister, money-making book to exploit the grief of victims. I was thinking, it’s not like that, but no one will know until they read it.”

She is keen, too, to contextualise the link between her novel and the Fritzl case. “To say Room is based on the Fritzl case is too strong,” she says firmly. “I’d say it was triggered by it. The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl [Elisabeth’s son], aged five, emerging into a world he didn’t know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me.”

In the novel a 19-year-old woman has been kidnapped and held in a room (actually a sound-proof shed at the rear of a property) and raped almost daily. She conceives a child who dies at birth with the cord choking her to death. Then conceives and delivers a second child, a son she names Jack. The novel begins on Jack’s fifth birthday. Jack narrates the entire novel:

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”

The first half of the novel details the daily routine of life in Room—meals, game, TV watching (Jack loves Dora the Explorer), exercise and excrement. At night Ma puts Jack to bed in Wardrobe before the arrival of Old Nick, their captor. There is a highly unlikely escape and the second half of the novel outlines the transition of the first three or four weeks of life on Outside.

Many readers and critics have praised the novel for the sustained voice, the life-affirming love of the mother for her son and Donoghue’s bravery for delving into such a topic.

I have no problem with the topic but I do have problems with the way the material was presented, and a number of other things in the novel. Some online readers concur:

Frankly I found myself irritated to the point of angry, while reading it, because of the way the author wrote the character of the boy, Jack. The kid knows what the word ‘stave’ means, gets the irony of a crayon called ‘mauvelous’, which is a take on marvelous, knows what ‘independant living’ is, uses the word breasts frequently, and is such a good speller he can spell and understand such words as f e c e s, but he can’t formulate a proper sentence?! He says things like, “why you can’t think with me in room”, and “what’s the tall of door?”, I mean c’mon the 5 year old is either bright or he isn’t, he can’t be both Emma Donoghue!

Another reader suggests that Room is the Uncle Tom’s Cabin for our time:

It took me a while to figure out why I have a problem with this book: it’s too cute. It seems paradoxical to say this about a novel which deals with such horrific subject matter. In a way, Room is a sort of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for our times. Rape, forcible confinement and child abuse have the same power to move us to disgust and outrage as slavery did for progressive minds in the 19th century. It’s therefore understandably difficult while reading to separate our moral feelings from our critical responses.

But there’s a basic weakness at the heart of this novel. As many reviewers have stated, this is a story of survival and the mutual love of a mother and her son. No problem with that. But it’s not survival in itself but rather the decisions and choices made to achieve that survival that supply the substance of a fully realized novel. When the central character is a five-year-old the possible development of that character through purposive action is severely limited. It’s the same problem Faulkner faced with Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Like Faulkner, Donoghue tackles the problem head-on by exploiting the character’s limitations to the maximum. Her invention of a child-like language to express a child’s perceptions is without question original, ingenious and brilliantly carried out.

I accepted that interpretation for a while. But how can a child who is so sharp with language and so astute to its implications not be able to use the article “the”?

Other things that bothered me:

  • Old Nick is a plot device, not a character.
  • Jack goes from being an imaginative boy to a literalist.
  • Jack has been watching TV but doesn’t know the word for rock or what one looks like. Likewise with rain.
  • Ma is highly protective of Jack. But a few days after she finally finds freedom she attempts suicide. Not convincing.

Room reads like a creative writing assignment.

But my reaction moved from irritation to anger when I hit page 213. Ma has a brother Paul, now married and the father of a 3-year-old daughter named Bronwyn. My daughter who died in 2006 was named Bronwyn. As you might imagine, every time I see that name in print it triggers some response. What it underlined this time is the falseness of the novel, the contrived pain. Disneyesque.

And that would explain the preposterous ending of the novel. Jack persuades Ma that he must return to Room so the police take them. Everything seems smaller to Jack, less real. Ma pukes. And then it is time to leave and Jack goes through the routine:

Good-bye, Wall. Then I say it to the three other walls, then Good-bye, Floor. I pat Bed, Good-bye, Bed

And so on. Other than the lapse and Jack’s use of the article “the” this is a blatant rip off of Good-bye, Moon, one of the most-beloved bedtime stories of the twentieth century. Oh, and if you think I am overstating the cute, contrived and safe edge of this novel, check out the website:

http://www.roomthebook.com/

The book irritated me so much I thought I would ask someone else to read it and report, and Pauline Butling agreed to my request:

I had expected a more tragic finale for some reason so was somewhat relieved to find the hopeful ending, but also felt disappointed with it. The prospect of a rosy future seems unlikely. I also found myself skipping some of the last section: the details about Jack’s re-integration were less interesting than the details about the daily survival routine in the room, not because disaster is more interesting than success, just that the imaginative intensity of the first section was more compelling. Or maybe it was just that the voice was more convincing. Jack’s voice seemed more contrived and/or formulaic in the last part. Perhaps the diminished intensity toward the end is intentional—to show Jack’s life normalizing—but even if there’s a psychological reason for the shift, that doesn’t make it work artistically.

But for sure her characterization of Jack is superbly done in the first part. I was walking with our grandson on Sunday when he fell and scraped his knee. The blood alarmed him and he was convinced he couldn’t walk at all. Nothing that the promise of an ice cream cone couldn’t fix, but I was struck by the similarities to Jack in his intense focus on selected details. She gets an A+ for that.

And she gets more kudos for tackling such a difficult topic. The double-edged innocent I/eye of the child’s point of view works well for me—seeing through the lens of his “normal,” his pleasure in the daily activities, to the underlying horror. BUT despite all the kudos, I’m left feeling dissatisfied. Was it you or Judith who said they found it too “cute” in the end.  I can’t quite put my finger on what is missing. In any case, it’s one of the better reads from the Booker lists, if that’s any recommendation.

Andrea Levy—The Long Song VPL

Here’s a find. A first-person narration that is captivating, sly and funny.

Set in Jamaica around the time of the Baptist uprising—the Jamaican confrontation for freedom for slaves—the story is narrated by July. July is a mulatto, daughter of a slave who was bent over and used by the plantation overseer. The wife of the plantation owner dies, and his sister, recently come to the island from England, tries to take on the running of the plantation. As a young girl, July captures the eye of this sister and is taken away from her mother and into the Big House to become a lady’s maid.

July, now an old woman living with her son, tells the story of her young life. The story itself isn’t particularly new or remarkable. The power of the novel comes from the nuances about racism. I have some quibbles with the novel and here’s a review that nails my own concerns:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R3VIS0PWXTL18K/ref=cm_cr_pr_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0755359402&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=#wasThisHelpful

Howard Jacobson—The Finkler Question VPL Winner

This novel was not a popular winner with many readers. One snappy blogger called it “intellectual masturbation.”

The first chapter or so sparkled but I quickly found the prose to be plodding far too often. Yes, there is humour but there are also long passages of conversational debate that don’t stir and don’t convince.

The Finkler Question refers to all things Jewish including anti-Semite Jews and Jews who are embarrassed by their Jewishness.

The story (not that much actually happens) revolves around three main characters. Sam Finkler (Jew) and Julian Treslove (Goy) have been friends since school. They developed a special relationship with a teacher Libor Sevcik (Jew) who has had a glamourous career in Hollywood. Finkler and Libor are recently widowed. Treslove has two sons from brief relationships but has never married.

Treslove aspires to be a Jew, falls in love with the Jewess Hephzibah then goes about reading and immersing himself in Jewishness.

But there was a tendency to sudden gloom in him which worried her. And more than that a hunger for gloom, as though there wasn’t enough to satisfy him in his own person and he had come to suck out hers. Was that, at bottom, all that his Jewish thing was really about, she wondered, a search for some identity that came with more inwrought despondency than he could manufacture out of his own gene pool? Did he want the whole fucking Jewish catastrophe?

He wasn’t the first, of course. You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews. The bad times were simply those in which the former outnumbered the latter.

Oy, vey.

But then, “talking feverishly about the oppressiveness of being Jewish. Talking feverishly about being Jewish was being Jewish.”

The novel is about friendship, relationships, marriage, families, and the passage of time. But all of these things are tied to Jewishness. The book didn’t further my understanding of Jewish nationhood and the Israeli situation but I did notice the attitude toward the Holocaust: the Holocaust “has become a commodity that you trade.” Certainly for this Booker project there is a Category for Holocaust books.

After finishing the novel and having some time to reflect on it, I’m not sure if I’ve been had or not. For sure I don’t think this novel merited an international prize. If forced to pick from this short list I’d give it to Galgut. But go back and look at the jurors for 2010. Motion, I would suggest, is a self-serving careerist who is pleased as punch with his own ideas, more than he is with the dialogue of literature. Is that, too, the case with Jacobson? Or is The Finkler Question part of some larger and ongoing conversation that Jacobson has been having with his readers?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/28/howard-jacobson-booker-novel

 

 

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