by John Freeman
He has been called the British Philip Roth. He’s dubbed himself the Jewish Jane Austen.
But after tonight, Howard Jacobson’s most enduring moniker will surely be that of “Booker Prize-winning novelist.”
Jacobson is the author of 11 novels and has had several close calls on the Booker Prize “longlist.” He has finally had his day with The Finkler Question.
“The first draft of this speech is dated 1983,” Jacobson joked in accepting the award.
Just like Jacobson to use humor to unsettle.
His exuberantly comical, unflinching novels are, in Britain’s often toned-down literary world, warm but barbed reminders that all is not well.
Julian Treslove, the hero of this new book, is mugged on the way home. He could have sworn, but is not certain, that his assailants called him a Jew. In London’s highly assimilated literary world, Jacobson has often had to stand alone in pointing out the persistence of anti-Semitism.
In contrast to New York, where literary history has been written in the ink of so many Jewish writers, the thrust and torque of that question — what it means to be Jewish — can, especially for an American, sometimes feel strangely absent from the London scene.
Yet Jacobson has been asking the question for three decades in his fiction. Of all his novels, The Finkler Question comes at it most directly. It is a funny novel full of loss and friendship, tweaked by the amusing storyline that its hero isn’t Jewish at all, but has to learn what that means.
The U.S. publishing market has never quite caught on to Jacobson, now aged 68. How welcome, after a spate of recent winners aged 45 and under, that the Booker Prize will be reintroducing and giving a second lease on life to a writer nearly forgotten.
It recalls a passage from Jacobson’s 2004 novel, The Making of Henry, in which its hero ponders eternal life. “If anyone is going to be exempted [from death], shouldn’t it be the joyous, the kind-hearted, the exuberantly fleshly even? To those who have loved life shall more life be given.”
Tonight that was true.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta magazine and a frequent book reviewer for NPR.org.