Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Howard Jacobson wins Booker prize 2010 for The Finkler Question

British author Howard Jacobson poses with his book after winning the 2010 Man Booker Prize British author Howard Jacobson poses with his book "The Finkler Question" after winning the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction at the Guildhall in London. Photograph: Luke Macgregor/Reuters

Howard Jacobson wins Booker prize 2010 for The Finkler Question

• Jacobson's The Finkler Question comes out top in 3-2 vote
• Andrew Motion praises 'clever, complicated, wise' novel

Howard Jacobson's laugh-out-loud exploration of Jewishness, The Finkler Question, last night became the first unashamedly comic novel to win the Man Booker prize in its 42-year history.

There will be cries of "about time too" for a funny and warm writer, now 68, who has long been highly regarded but unrewarded with major literary prizes.

The Booker prize chairman, Sir Andrew Motion, said it was "quite amazing" that this was the first time Jacobson had been shortlisted. But he was not, in any way, being rewarded because it was his turn.

"It never came into our minds," he said. "Having said that, there is a particular pleasure in seeing somebody who is that good finally getting his just deserts."

Jacobson admitted he had waited a long time and, yes, there had been bitterness. "I have been wanting to win the Booker prize from the start. I don't think I'm alone in that, it's such a fantastic prize. It was beginning to look like I was the novelist that never ever won the Booker prize.

"I have been increasingly talked about as underrated and I'm so sick of being described as the underrated Howard Jacobson. So the thought that's gone forever, is wonderful."

Jacobson claimed he was going to spend his £50,000 prize money on a handbag for his wife. "Have you seen the price of handbags?"

Motion said the decision was simple. "It won because it was the best book. You expect a book by Howard Jacobson to be very clever and very funny and it is both those things. But it is also, in a very interesting way, a very sad, melancholic book. It is comic, it is laughter, but it is laughter in the dark." Motion agreed it is a comic novel but said it was much more. It was "absolutely a book for grownups, for people who understand that comedy and tragedy are linked".

It will be a sweet victory for the Manchester-born Jacobson, who lamented the fact that comic fiction was not taken more seriously in the Guardian Saturday Review last weekend. "There is a fear of comedy in the novel today," he wrote. "When did you last see the word 'funny' on the jacket of a serious novel?"

Motion said times were changing and while he would go to music gigs when young, his children now go to comedy gigs. "The place of comedy in society has changed – so maybe we are more accommodating of it than we have ever been in the past.

However, The Finkler Question should not, he said, be seen as something that was "relentlessly middle-brow, or easy-peasy" because it was comic. "It is much cleverer and more complicated and about much more difficult things than it immediately lets you know. Several people have used the word wise, and that's a good word."

The book – Jacobson's 11th – follows the lives of three friends, Julian Treslove, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevick, and tackles not just what it is to be a British Jew, but also the nature of friendship itself.

Published by Bloomsbury, it beat a strong field including a novel that had unexpectedly become odds-on favourite with the bookmakers. Ladbrokes even stopped taking bets last week because of the betting patterns surrounding Tom McCarthy's C.

The others which missed out were Emma Donoghue's Room, Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, Andrea Levy's The Long Song and Peter Carey's Olivier and Parrot in America. Victory for Carey would have made him the only three-time winner and hopes had been high, with the Australian novelist believing it his best work and Motion praising him as a modern-day Dickens. Jacobson, meanwhile, has described himself as "a Jewish Jane Austen" but only, he said last night, because he was sick of others calling him the "English Philip Roth". He added: "People think I'm steeped in the American Jewish novel. I'm not. I've read them. I admire them. But I'm steeped in English lit, my favourite writer is Dr Johnson, my favourite comic writer is Dickens."

Jacobson's victory means he is the oldest winner since William Golding won in 1980, aged 69, for Rites of Passage.

The judges were much brisker than in previous years in taking just an hour to agree Jacobson should win, with a 3-2 split. "It was a pretty intense hour. It wasn't unanimous but it was a decision that everybody is entirely happy with," said Motion.

He declined to say which side he was on or which book just missed out: "I don't want that person to go to bed tonight and eat their pillow."

The judges, who this year also included dancer Deborah Bull, journalist Rosie Blau, broadcaster Tom Sutcliffe and writer Frances Wilson, read more than 140 novels before discarding books by big hitters including Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.

There was controversy when the longlist came out because it included Christian Tsiolkas's The Slap, which chronicled the lives of often unpleasant and misogynistic suburban Australians. The Booker judges contended that he was writing about misogynists rather than it being a misogynistic novel.

The victory will mean a sharp spike in sales but Jacobson admitted it might also affect his next book. "I was well into an extremely comic book with no sadness in it – it was looking like one of the funniest things I'd ever done - about a writer enjoying no success whatsoever. I'm in a bit of schtuck with this one."

Howard Jacobson's Booker prize win is long overdue

Howard Jacobson's Booker prize-winning The Finkler Question is a victory for that most overlooked genre, the comic novel

Howard Jacobson 'The Finkler question shows Jacobson at his most splenetic and most monofocal'. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

That Howard Jacobson's win is long overdue is pretty much undeniable: until tonight he looked set to challenge Beryl Bainbridge for the unenviable record of most frequent Booker bridesmaid. But this certainty will go in tandem for many of his fans with the suspicion that, like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan before him, he didn't break the jinx with his best novel. Many see his real triumph as 2006's Kalooki Nights, which didn't make the shortlist.

The Finkler Question shows Jacobson at his most splenetic and most monofocal. His subject is Jewishness, and the lenses through which he observes it belong to an ageing goy, an arts producer and failed romantic, who finds himself upstaged culturally and in affairs of the heart when his two Jewish best friends are widowed. So begins Treslove's project to prove himself more Jewish than the Jews – an enterprise which takes him into various cultural truisms, from humour to food to circumcision.

It is a victory for that most overlooked genre on literary prize lists, the comic novel. As Jacobson argued in Saturday Review last week, "There is a fear of comedy in the novel today – when did you last see the word "funny" on the jacket of a serious novel?"

However, not everyone has seen the funny side. In a blog earlier this month on the Guardian books website, Jonathan Beckmann said the Finkler Question "flattered" critics into thinking it had something interesting to say about Jewishness when in fact it is reliant on cliche.

But reviewing it for the Guardian Review, Alex Clark wrote: "In its insistent interrogation of Jewishness – from the exploration of the relationship between the perpetrators of violence and hatred and their victims, to the idea of the individual at once in opposition to and in love with his or her culture – it is by turns breezily open and thought-provokingly opaque, and consistently wrongfoots the reader." The final judgment will lie with the many readers who have yet to discover the novel, which has trailed behind the popular shortlist favourites, Room and The Long Song, in sales terms. Three interested parties will be happy with the judges' answer to the Finkler question: first is Jacobson's publisher Bloomsbury, which snatched him from his long-term publisher Jonathan Cape for this novel. The second are the bookies, who put him near the bottom in the odds. And the third is Jacobson himself, who has waited so long for this moment.

Claire Armitstead is the Guardian's literary editor

Source : The Guardian

'Finkler' Questions The Meaning Of Jewishness

In 2002, during my final semester of university, I went to the Caribbean on spring break. Settling into my seat on the airplane, the girl next to me introduced herself. Her name was Nalah, she proudly proclaimed, and she was Palestinian. "What's your background, David?"

There it was. The question. Who, or what, was I really? She knew I was Jewish. I knew she knew I was Jewish, but I was going to do everything in my power to avoid that answer. This was during the peak of the second Palestinian intifada, a time of suicide bombings and army airstrikes, and I'd seen enough shouting matches on campus that year to know I didn't want to be accused of war crimes in the cramped seat of a 737. "My family's from Eastern Europe," I told her, and when she prodded for more, I countered with "Romania, Lithuania, who knows, it was a long time ago." After a few minutes of ducking and weaving she saw I wasn't going to play the game, and we both turned to the in-flight movie. Thankfully it wasn't Munich.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Finkler Question
By Howard Jacobson
Paperback, 320 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $15

Read An Excerpt

What does it mean to be Jewish? To some it means sitting down at Katz's delicatessen with a pastrami sandwich. To others, it's setting up a hilltop outpost in the West Bank and waiting for the messiah. That essential uncertainty, pondered by everyone from rabbis and philosophers to Shakespeare and Sammy Davis Jr., is what Howard Jacobson tackles head on in The Finkler Question.

This unabashedly Jewish novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The winner will be announced Tuesday and, for me, The Finkler Question should win the award. [Editor's Note: The Finkler Question did, in fact, win the Booker prize on October 12.]

The story revolves around Julian Treslove, a melancholy, lackluster London liberal. After Treslove is mugged one night, he believes, with increasing certainty, that his attacker called him a Jew. Though his best friends are Jewish, Treslove is not. Or at least he's fairly certain he isn't. But as a result of the incident, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the question of Jewishness.

Treslove doesn't approach his journey into Judaism from a religious standpoint. He takes no steps to learn Hebrew or convert. Instead, his obsession is cultural. He wishes to understand the mannerisms of Jewish life; the hidden code of Jewish sarcasm and the subtleties of Jewish body language.

As Treslove yearns to pass as a Jew, many of his Jewish contemporaries in the book do their best to pass as gentiles, including one pitiful character who spends his waking hours trying to reverse his circumcision, chronicling his efforts on a blog, photos and all.

Howard Jacobson
Jenny Jacobson/Bloomsbury USA

Howard Jacobson is the author of several novels, including Who's Sorry Now and The Making of Henry.

Jacobson isn't the first writer to delve into the question of Jewish identity, and he surely won't be the last. But he is definitely one of the most fearless. Over much of the past three decades, he has established himself as the literary voice of the Jewish community in Britain; a country where Jews are a much smaller and less assimilated minority compared with America, and where the specter of anti-Semitism makes many British Jews wary of drawing attention to themselves. But Jacobson is unabashedly proud of being labeled a Jewish writer, and The Finkler Question tackles an uncomfortable issue with satire that is so biting, so pointed, that it pulls you along for 300 pages and leaves a battlefield of sacred cows in its wake.

The book's appeal to Jewish readers is obvious, but like all great Jewish art — the paintings of Marc Chagall, the books of Saul Bellow, the films of Woody Allen — it is Jacobson's use of the Jewish experience to explain the greater human one that sets it apart. Who among us is so certain of our identity? Who hasn't been asked, "What's your background" and hesitated, even for a split second, to answer their inquisitor? Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question forces us to ask that of ourselves, and that's why it's a must read, no matter what your background.

David Sax is the author of the book Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'The Finkler Question'

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Finkler Question
By Howard Jacobson
Paperback, 320 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $15

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. . . Julie. . . Judith. Do you know a Judith?’


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, Juno.

‘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.

Excerpted from The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson Copyright 2010 by Howard Jacobson. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

Source : N P R

from Bloomsbury

‘He should have seen it coming. His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one...’

Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular former BBC radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they’ve never quite lost touch with each other – or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech always more concerned with the wider world than with exam results.

>Now, both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and with Treslove, his chequered and unsuccessful record with women rendering him an honorary third widower, they dine at Libor’s grand, central London apartment.

It’s a sweetly painful evening of reminiscence in which all three remove themselves to a time before they had loved and lost; a time before they had fathered children, before the devastation of separations, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. Better, perhaps, to go through life without knowing happiness at all because that way you have less to mourn? Treslove finds he has tears enough for the unbearable sadness of both his friends’ losses.

And it’s that very evening, at exactly 11:30 pm, as Treslove, walking home, hesitates a moment outside the window of the oldest violin dealer in the country, that he is attacked. And after this, his whole sense of who and what he is will slowly and ineluctably change.

The Finkler Question is a scorching story of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and of the wisdom and humanity of maturity. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best.


Author and columnist Jacobson beat contenders including double winner Peter Carey to win the £50,000 prize.

The book had sold 8,500 copies before it was announced as the winner, according to Nielsen BookScan.

Waterstones spokesman Jon Howells said the bookseller had ordered thousands of extra copies of The Finkler Question in the wake of Jacobson's win.

Bloomsbury's new print run includes 50,000 copies for the UK, 30,000 paperbacks for export to Europe and 75,000 for the US and Canada.

Before the prizegiving, Emma Donoghue was the biggest seller on this year's shortlist - her book Room had sold more than 34,000 copies before Tuesday.
'Marvellous book'

“Start Quote

Tonight, I forgive everyone - they were only doing their job, those judges, every one of whose names I could reel off”

End Quote Howard Jacobson on missing out on awards in previous years

Jacobson's winning book explores Jewishness through the lives of three friends - two of them Jewish and one who wishes he was.

Chair of the Booker judges, Sir Andrew Motion, described the novel as "very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle".

Accepting the award, Jacobson joked he had been writing unused acceptance speeches for years.

"I note that my language in these speeches grows less gracious with the years," he said.

"You start to want to blame the judges who have given you the prize for all the prizes they didn't give you. But they aren't, of course, the same judges.

"Tonight, I forgive everyone - they were only doing their job, those judges, every one of whose names I could reel off."

Sir Andrew said the "marvellous book" was "all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be".

"It's highly articulate, everything works in it very well," he said.

"That is what you expect from him but it's also, in an interesting and complicated way, a very sad book, a very melancholy book."

'Jewish Austen'
Howard Jacobson Jacobson writes a weekly column for The Independent

The Finkler Question is Jacobson's 11th novel. It tells the story of a former BBC radio producer, Julian Treslove, who is attacked on his way home from an evening out reminiscing with friends.

After the incident, his sense of his own identity begins to change.

Jacobson, who describes himself as "the Jewish Jane Austen", has said the book is about "what Jewishness looks like to someone from the outside".

"I bring the ways of Jewish thinking into the English novel," he added.

The five-strong judging panel met on Tuesday afternoon and decided the winner in one hour.

But the decision was not unanimous with the judges - Sir Andrew, journalist and broadcaster Tom Sutcliffe, Royal Opera House creative director Deborah Bull, author Frances Wilson and Financial Times literary editor Rosie Blau - voting three to two for The Finkler Question.
Luggage entrepreneur


Howard Jacobson's book is the first comic novel to win the Man Booker Prize and, in doing so, goes some way to dispel criticism of the award that it is a 'genre prize'”
--- Will Gompertz, BBC Arts Editor

Jacobson, who lives in London, was born in Manchester and educated in Whitefield, Greater Manchester, before studying at Downing College, Cambridge,

He taught at the University of Sydney before returning to Cambridge to teach at Selwyn College.

Jacobson's time lecturing at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in the 1970s provided the inspiration for debut novel Coming From Behind, published in 1983.

He went on to write books including 1992's Cain-and-Abel inspired The Very Model of a Man, 1998's No More Mister Nice Guy - the story of a TV critic's mid-life crisis - and the Mighty Walzer, based in the Jewish community of 1950s Manchester.

He was previously longlisted for the Booker in 2002, for Who's Sorry Now, about a south London luggage entrepreneur who loves four women.

Jacobson, who writes a weekly column for The Independent and has presented a number of TV documentaries, was again longlisted four years later for Kalooki Nights.

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