“In comedy down is up.” Yesterday, England’s most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, was won by a literary dark horse, Manchester-born Howard Jacobson, for his comic novel “The Finkler Question.” The racing simile is apt, for the Booker is followed -- and bet on -- like a sporting event, and Jacobson nosed out the odds-on favorite, Tom McCarthy (for “C”).
This is the first time in the Booker’s 42-year history that the Prize has gone to a comic novel. Previous winners include Salmon Rushdie for “Midnight’s Children" and last year’s bestseller, Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” In a pleasingly novel-like coincidence, the 68-year old Jacobson, who is highly regarded in the British literary community, just published the essay quoted above in England’s Guardian newspaper, in defense of the comic novel. “The novel was born of reckless critical intelligence,” he wrote, “and it was born laughing.”
If tragedy briefly exalts us, comedy -- and Dickens and Joyce are both favorites of Jacobson’s -- both unsettles and stabilizes us, placing us in the middle of our unknowable lives, and reminding us of “the absurdity of our supposing that we understand, that truth will stay still for us, that events will turn out as we think they should,” Jacobson said in the essay.
That’s pretty much the way “The Finkler Question” starts. With the line, “He should have seen it coming,” we are introduced to one of the novel’s three heroes, failed radio producer Julian Treslove. The other two principals are Sam Finkler, a philosopher, and Libor Sevcik, Treslove’s and Finkler’s former teacher. The book goes on to explore the nature of friendship, loss, Jewish identity (particularly English Jewish identity; Jacobson says he has read and admired the great American Jewish novelists, but that’s not him), and the sheer difficulty of assembling a life with meaning.
Indeed, Treslove, who is about to get mugged, describes his unsatisfactory life as a “beginning waiting for an end.” The novel that is doing its job, Jacobson asserts, is “laughing at the very idea that we can think our way out of the unthinkable.”
And yet, with “Finkler,” which has been variously described as “subtle,” “full of wit,” “warm” and “wise,” Jacobson has clearly made a very good start.