(#69): The Finkler Question: Howard Jacobson in discussion with Rick Gekoski
Well, confession time: although I managed to read a few of the authors’ books that I went to sessions on today, such as Tea Obreht and Kim Scott, I haven’t yet got to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. As Darren Hinch might have said: “Shame, Dilettante, Shame!” And it seems that it is a shame as this session was so entertaining. Jacobson seemed more comedian than author, but of course, one would expect that as that is his thing: comic fiction. It will be very difficult for me to convey the humour in static, bland, black on white text. I thoroughly recommend you all hunt down the audio (possibly video too?) recordings on the SWF website when they get them up, you’ll have great fun.
Given Finkler’s Man Booker Prize win Jacobson was asked by Rick Gekoski what his views on literary prizes were. He replied by saying that he has two views: one when he hasn’t won (they are the worst things, an abomination), and one when he does win (literary life is healthy and all is right with the world)! He said he could never be a judge. He is a writer not a reader. He couldn’t read that many books, he said. When he was shortlisted, he thought for moment, ‘I’ve won’ – as it meant the judges had read his book at least twice and for some just getting past the first page of his books is a problem! He had many funny tales of his mother. She told him he wouldn’t win, it was too Jewsih – he said that as a Jewish mother she couldn’t stand her son being in a state of hope! (Apparently when he was accepted into Oxford he got his acceptance letter and told his mother he was in – she said, ‘let’s just check the envelope was addressed correctly!) So he went to the Booker presentation dinner not feeling nervous as by then he had calmed down and wasn’t nervous, unlike everyone else. As Andrew Motion, the chair of judges last year, summarised the winner, he was using words that Jacobson thought described Peter Carey’s book, then others’ books, until there was one word that caught his ear and he thought, I’m going to win this. But then came the announcement that the winner was the Finkler Qu- and he thought, Damn, some guy called Finkler has won! (But he did have an acceptance speech ready, he says he always has one ready, even on Oscars night he has one ready!).
When he was asked why his books are so polarising, he said it was because laughter is divisive – comedy is harder to get people to agree on. One look at people’s reviews on Amazon or the blogosphere will tell you that. But when all is said and done Finkler will have outsold all his other novels combined. He mentioned a very curious fact: that he has been #1 in Pakistan. When asked why that might be so, he said that he always saw the flip side of questions and said, I don’t know why I’m number one, but the flip side is this: why haven’t I always been #1 in Pakistan?! Still he thought it wonderful that Osama Bin Laden might have been captured because he was so deeply engrossed in the stories of Jewish men in London!
Jacobson has a long history with Australia and with Sydney in particular – he lectured at Sydney University for three years ‘way back’ and said of his time that he loved it, that he was having too much fun, that to work, to become a success, he needed to get back to dreary old England. Too much fun can be a bad thing.
When it was said that he is often compared to Philip Roth, he said he prefered to be thought of as the Jewish Jane Austen. He spoke lovingly about Persuasion. He said both he and Austen both write about social comedy. Other influences include all the English titans: Dickens and Austen particularly, and all the big names, as well as ‘the Russians’: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
He did one reading from The Finkler Question. He said of the book it is a tragedy, but one that should, he hopes, make us laugh out loud.
I don’t think anyone in the audience left without a smile on their face. Really great fun. And Finkler is going straight to the top of the To Be Read Tower!
That’s it for Thursday. Bring on Friday!
The D! 🙂