Saturday, February 12, 2011

Adam Roberts on 'The Finkler Question'

For those still interested here. (This continues Organic Cheeseboard's review and Rosie Bell's Harry's Place review.)

I still haven't got around to attempting the novel, but this puts me off even further.

Libor claims ‘I have discovered in myself a profound necessity to think ill of my fellow Jews.’
‘I can’t go on making these allowances. I can’t go on telling myself that that American swindler who has just been put in jail to serve a hundred life sentences is only coincidentally Jewish, or that bad-faced business Jew we see on television who brags about his money and the ruthlessness of his pursuit of it—I can’t convince me, let alone others, that it is only by chance that such men resemble every archetype of Jewish evil that Christian or Muslim history has thrown up.’ [214]

Bringing Bernie Madoff and Alan Sugar specifically into the discussion but refusing actually to name them seems oddly mealymouthed; indeed since part the point of this exchange is to have a character articulate a ‘let’s not pussyfoot around this any more’ attitude, it seems more than that: a failure of nerve. If you’re going to call Alan Sugar ‘that bad-faced business Jew’ in a book, we might think you should at least do it (as it were) to his face.

It's not just mealy-mouthed, I don't think Jacobson even understands Alan Sugar. Sugar is ruthless, but he's also clearly intensely loyal to a few people, some of his "bragging" about money takes the form of giving to charity, Great Ormond Street Hospital, for example. And 'bad-faced' apart from being a childish sounding phrase isn't even accurate, it's clear that he's playing a role. The 'bad-faced' thing is pantomimic if that's a word, and ironic if it's not. He's not mean as such; he tells it like it is. He also shows no favouritism for Jews. In short, I think Lord Sugar falls a good distance from resembling the archetypes of Jewish evil. This just seems like further evidence of Jacobson's desperate projection. As for Madoff, fair enough, but he mostly ripped off Jews, IIRC, and his scam was a Ponzi scheme named after the Italian, not Jewish (as far as I can tell) Charles Ponzi.

Also, the ‘Jewish Museum’ Hepshibah is setting up, and in which Treslove gets involved. It is to open, we assume in 2010; and already it is in trouble—antisemitic graffiti, bacon wrapped around the doorhandles and so on. But here’s the thing: the actual Jewish Museum in London (formerly in Woburn Place, later moved to larger premises in Camden) was founded in 1932, a time in which general European hostility to Jewry, on the Continent but also over here, was, shall we say, more acute and focussed than is the case today.

But why let facts get in the way of a good story?


Anonymous Sarah AB said...

I wasn't that keen on the book but I thought HJ was distancing himself from Libor at that point - that he and Finkler had swapped places in some way.

I agree with quite a bit of the review otherwise though.

2/12/2011 12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

Did anyone hear Jacobson on Desert Island Discs? He sounded really nice, warm and funny, as he apparently is as long as you can keep him off the subject of Palestine.

2/12/2011 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

I don't thnk it's very hard to keep him off the subject of Palestine itself. It's more the "anti-Israel and antisemitic" trope (and the Tropes trope) that turns him from old style humane, sensitive, affable, insightful, questioning, beardy-artsy Euro-jewish into the new bitter, hard-boiled, brutal, intransigent, docrtinaire, militaristic Ziono-jewish.

(The cycle of abuse writ large, perhaps, 'never again' and all that, but still.)

2/12/2011 01:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarah AB said...

Tim - I don't think there is anything wrong with being concerned about excessive anti-Israelism (if that's a word) or anti-semitic tropes. Even if you think he is over sensitive about such things or uses them too crudely in his fiction - that doesn't make him brutal or militaristic - and you don't have to be brutal or militaristic to be a Zionist.

2/12/2011 03:46:00 PM  
Anonymous skidmarx said...

@dd - and self-deprecatory, though I couldn't help wondering if his willingness to own up to flaws in his past self was OK because he feels himself a different person now.

2/12/2011 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

it's "and", not "or".

2/12/2011 03:52:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

(that to SAB.) But I'll certainly accept, if that's good enough, that my previous comment was unclear, impressionistic, bordering on the incoherent. Sketching two broad, stylised (even stereotypical) tendencies, camps, what-have-you, which exist independently of HJ, and presenting him as straying from one into the other, without necessarily manifesting in his own person all the characteristics of the latter.

2/12/2011 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

I was interested to read the review. I'd thought the novel was a roman a clef, so was glad to see a few more characters identified.

As for Alan Sugar - does anyone think of him as displaying "Jewish" characteristics particularly? I thought he was regarded as the business version of Simon Cowell, a tough bastard whose rudeness the viewers enjoy - he's rude to a bunch of egocentric would-be managers, not disabled children.

HJ himself - in his non-fiction writing he is endearing - sensitive, observant, a good prose writer. Humorous as well in a rueful way. He can't make his novels work - he hasn't got the particular novelistic talent of making up characters that you're interested in and whose fortunes you want to follow.

2/12/2011 07:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Did anyone hear Jacobson on Desert Island Discs?

I switched off pre-emptively, but my wife (who doesn't follow all this stuff) managed to tolerate about half of it. What made her switch off was Jacobson saying (with no apparent irony or self-mockery) that he couldn't stand to see another man make his wife laugh, since, well... head thrown back... transports of physical pleasure... and I mean come on when it's your wife... What my, er, wife said about this was that it seemed to show a complete inability to think himself into another person's experiences - rather than using them as emotional wallpaper for his own life - which you'd think would be a bit of a handicap for a novelist. (Written before reading Rosie's comment!)

As for Alan Sugar - does anyone think of him as displaying "Jewish" characteristics particularly?

It had never crossed my mind. Apart from anything else, what you see is an act - and it's a self-made no-nonsense call-a-spade-a-spade never-went-to-no-college you-poncy-lot-don't-know-you're-born act rather than anything particularly Jewish. He occasionally - very occasionally - invokes his Jewish background, but it's clearly not that important to him, either as a businessman or as the version of himself he plays on TV.

2/12/2011 10:28:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/13/2011 01:49:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Yes, agree re Sugar. There was some conversation on Crooked Timber where it was mentioned that Ed Miliband is Jewish (in that nebulous sense - in this case bordering on the merely - and dubiously - genetic? *I've removed some irrelevant info from here*). I was surpised at how obvious or well-known this was supposed to be. I had no idea nor any great interest. It did mean that when someone reported 'their wife' (again) saying EM wouldn't do well because he was 'too foreign looking', that was immediately interpreted by very many as antisemitic (or as a prediction of antisemitism), even though, for one thing, the constrast class was his brother.


While wittering on, just to clarify the point about logical connectives re: anti-Israel and antisemitic. SAB mentions 'anti-Israelism' - which unlike anti-Americanism isn't a word, presumably because '[anti-Israel and] antisemitic' is the preferred propaganda term. (Anti-Americanism itself being a prop. term - being used solely to connote political opposition to 'the US', and not for example snobbish disdain for the American populace.)

SAB used 'Anti-Israel or antisemitic' - i.e. the disjunction or the two. It's easier to think of this in set-theoretci terms as the union of the two - i.e. in the classic two-ovrelapping-circles venn diagram, all three regions are coloured in. But the term very often used, e.g. (but by no means only) by Dershowitz, is 'anti-Israel and antisemitic' - which is conjunction, or set-theoretic intersection - only the overlap is coloured in.

But while the sense of the the 'and' version is such as to suggest that what is referred to is the overlap of a-I and a-s, it is used as though it covered the same actual phenomena as SAB's version (its extension is that of the 'or' version - i.e. both a-I or a-s, whether coinciding or not). That can be done because of a certain ambiguity in natural language 'and' - it could mean '+' - mereological sum - as in 'anti-Israel attitudes and antisemitic attitudes', rather than 'attitudes that are anti-Israel and antisemitic'.

But anyway, the effect is to give the impression that 'anti-Israel and antisemitic' is a single category, while in fact applying it to anything that is either 'anti-Israel' or antisemitic. Of course bothof those are somewhat problematic - anti-Israel being a propaganda term like anti-American, and antisemitic being rather over enthusiastically applied.

Here's and example of what could justly be called anti-Israel sentiment being immediately branded antisemitic. I remember when Michael Levy got pinched in connection with the cash-for-seats-in-the-legislature business, his Rabbi turned up on (I think) newsnight, with some circumlocutory but unambiguous stuff about how 'he was being singled out' and 'if it quacks like a duck', etc. - which I found a weird spectacle.


The Trouble With Tropes

is that they're just so debatable, often misidentified, potentially subliminal or inintended, even unrecognised by those 'using' them. It's a McCarthyite (or rather HUAC-ite - see AWatch, passim) term which engenders an excessive level of self-censorship, and that's a deliberate effect in the case of self-conscious propagandists, self-serving in the case of the middle ranked, and self-reinforcingly useful so far as the lowest ranked purveyors (who are also consumers) of Likud-like Hasbara.

But this stuff has been discussed round these parts before, here.

2/13/2011 05:28:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

am too busy to post much but i liked that piece a lot. there's a real problem in HJ's novel - it's not quite realist, but not quite otherworldly. That leads to oddnesses like the Jewish museum thing.

i would take issue with this:

The 'bad-faced' thing is pantomimic if that's a word, and ironic if it's not. He's not mean as such; he tells it like it is. [...] This just seems like further evidence of Jacobson's desperate projection.

Sarah's right; in that passage Jacobson's getting Libor to voice uncomfortable ideas and as such you can't really pin them on HJ; he's meant to be misguided by that point in the book, he's meant to be very depressed.

The problem is, though, that there's no way at all that Libor wouldn't be able to name either of these men. He's evidently the character Jacobson most enjoyed writing, and why not; but he's also unbelievable from start to finish. Too many characters in the novel are there to demonstrate HJ's beliefs about politics; it's alarming, too, that Jacobson genuinely seems to believe that almost everyone in the world's political beliefs can be traced back to family background. Not that he's necessarily wrong, but that it doesn't apply to everyone - or if it does, then that's a pretty worrying place to be too

it seemed to show a complete inability to think himself into another person's experiences - rather than using them as emotional wallpaper for his own life

I think he's just too quick to try to make a (not very good) joke. He probably doesn't genuinely believe that laughing thing; but it's a sort of entertaining observation, if you squint hard enough. There's an awful lot of them in TFQ.

2/13/2011 06:10:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Talking of decent authors, I'm looking forward to seeing lots of new villains called Martin in children's literature.

I don't think there is anything wrong with being concerned about excessive anti-Israelism

Up to a point (a phrase I confess I overuse) but it does strike me as an extremely abusable concept. If "abusable" is a word.

Tropes trope

Heh, very good.

2/13/2011 07:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

He probably doesn't genuinely believe that laughing thing; it's a sort of entertaining observation, if you squint hard enough

You mean he was adumbrating...

2/14/2011 07:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Sarah AB said...

I remember reading a useful piece on Engage which discussed anti-Israelism (not sure if that precise locution was used!) and its relationship (or otherwise) with antisemitism but can't track it down.

I agree that tropes can be (or seem) too generic to count, can certainly be invoked unintentionally, and are (in my opinion) occasionally invoked as an inappropriate, though probably sincere, response to a legitimate piece about Israel.

But that doesn't mean they don't exist or are never used!

2/14/2011 07:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Sarah on this - though we might differ on which particular expressions fall into which precise category.

Another data point is that racist abuse of visibly Jewish people in the UK happens quite often, is under-reported (even to the CST) and often involves the abusers mentioning Israel. I would imagine that this would make those who are abused, and those who hear about the details, more likely to connect anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism than are those who are not aware of this.

Chris Williams

2/14/2011 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

CW, I'm 'with' Sarah too. I can't see any contradiction or even much tension in what all three of us have said, taken together.

I don't think there's a difference of principle here - perhaps one of proportion, and, as CW points out, of the analysis of cases.

But I'm not clear on the provenance of your 'data point' - not that I dispute it (I may or may not disagree with whatever conclusions you are drawing of course).

2/14/2011 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

I just had a quick google for that Levy story (a very odd, mishandled, bit of PR, I thought).

The choice of his rabbi as the advocate in particular, quite apart from the quacking-duck inference, was intended to make it quite clear that Levy is Jewish. I am certain that this was indeed necessary if the issue was to be sufficiently heavily loaded with (self-)doubt about possible antisemitism, since as with Sugar, there are many people to whom the fact that Levy is Jewish just doesn't occur, unless their attention is directed to it, in which case they would probably mostly find themselves to be aware that Levy and Sugar are Jewish names (not a guarantee of being Jewish of course, though, e.g. Nick, though being a Cohen is patrilineal so I don't know where that leaves him, technically, as if it actually matters, I'm just being nerdy...)

And to many others, while they may be dimly aware that Levy is Jewish, the fact just has no salience, at least until the spectre of antisemitism is invoked.

Anyway, found a couple of links about it (the latter one incidentally featuring Alan S) in case anyone is interested.

I regard the ploy as pretty irresponsible and reprehensible myself, though as SAB says, it's not easy to discern producers from consumers of this kind of propaganda effort (And the labyrinthine human mind allows people to be both at once - a phenomenon that is of great interest to me in a much wider context of PR/propaganda/'agnotology' in general.)

2/14/2011 03:33:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I'd thought the novel was a roman a clef, so was glad to see a few more characters identified.

me too - though I find it pretty interesting that I didn't recognize either Alexi Sayle or Jacqueline Rose AT ALL when I read the novel. Essentially because the novel made them seem, like everyone involved in ASHamed, like utter, utter imbeciles. All of that, and the Churchill, is HJ creating himself some nice easy straw men/women/plays to have a go at; because the truth is somewhat stranger and less clear-cut.

In terms of that part of the novel, in relation to tropes etc, I think that part of the point HJ is trying to make is to do with how easily one can slip from identifying tropes AS tropes to starting to believe in them. As I said, this is at a point in the novel where Libor is seriously depressed, though the progresion he makes to that point was really badly-handled to the point of being pretty much incomprehensible. Certainly uninteresting. But it works in the internal logic of TFQ, where everyone's political beliefs are really all manifestations of family/mental background; so Libor starts to 'self-hate' at the same time that he literally hates himself. As I said before, seriously dodgy; but according to TFQ-logic it works.

To add to Adam R's discussion of humour, here's HJ on topic:

one of the first things you notice about the anti-Israel stuff is that it is not funny. There’s none of the ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ business that we do.

As Adam says, TFQ is almost entirely unfunny. I'd forgotten that 'widows/windows' joke since it doesn't even make sense; i can just about believe that Libor's 'beach head' might sound like 'bitchy 'ead', though it's still not funny; but widows and windows? And even if we get over the lack of realism - it's. still. not. funny.

It's odd how both HJ and Martin Amis use 'funny' when what they really mean is 'something i like'. Especially cos neither Mart nor HJ are all that funny, really. 'Money' is, I guess, but most other Amis isn't.

2/14/2011 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Would someone with a google account be willing to link to my review on Adam R's website? in the interests of not outing myself...

2/14/2011 04:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 'data point' is research conducted by Paul Iganski and ongoing research by Abe Swiery, which I find convincing.

Chris Williams

2/14/2011 05:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarah AB said...

Hi organic cheeseboard - I've linked to your post successfully on Adam Roberts' blog (I think).

2/14/2011 05:40:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

CW - Okey doke. I may take a look at some point.

oc - There’s none of the ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ business that we do.

In the context of discussion of Israel, that shows a considerable lack of self-awareness.

Again, perhaps the stylised Euro v Mideast/Ziono distinction comes in here, if by 'we' he means some class of Jewish people. In fact, humour was one attribute I immediately realised I'd missed from my list of old-style (stereotypical) Euro-Jewish virtues that are notably absent from the militant Zionist tendency.

- Link posted.

2/14/2011 06:16:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

And unposted again (crossed with Sarah's by some weird browser-related delay)

2/14/2011 06:25:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Not having an actual citation or anything, Googled "Paul Iganski" and got this article, which I have to say doesn't inspire tremendous confidence.

Also found that the other guy is his PhD student, so not exactly independent corroboration, even if the conclusions(?) of research still in progress (an unfinished PhD thesis?) were to be accorded any weight.

+ for actually existing 'concern about excessive anti-Israelism', rather than the abstract concept, see the latest AWatch post...

2/14/2011 07:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim, I'm making my mind up on the basis of what I've heard of Iganski's and Swiery's actual empirical research, rather than the ideological positions either of them might have adopted in regard to it. It's a day job thing.

Note that their empirical research itself offers no evidence whatsoever for the caricature Decent view that the relativism of the liberals is allowing the islamofascists to be anti-semitic. In the UK, Muslims do not apppear to be over-represented in hate crime against visibly Jewish people.

Chris Williams

2/15/2011 09:39:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Thanks very much, both of you.

2/15/2011 09:40:00 AM  
Anonymous dd said...

Here's something by Paul Iganski which on a skim read looks methodologically sensible and talking about the sorts of things Chris mentioned - it's certainly very thorough.

2/15/2011 10:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Sarah AB said...

Chris - I think there is some probable over representation of Muslims in such crimes - but a) this has to be extrapolated from subjective data about ethnicity of the attacker and b) once you drill down into the data the correlation becomes much less significant - taking into account various demographic factors etc etc. The CST wrote up something about this but I couldn't track down the reference last time I looked.

2/15/2011 11:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sarah, I agree that there is _space_ for over-representation of Muslims in contemporary anti-semitic crime, but (a) there are a whole bunch of methodological problems with arriving at any kind of robust figure and (b) I think that I's and S's research show quite convincingly that if every possible Muslim refrained entirely from committing hate crimes against Jewish people, this wouldn't reduce the total amount of such crime significantly.

Chris Williams

2/15/2011 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS - sorry, forgot to add to Sarah in the last post "So we agree here."

Chris Williams

2/15/2011 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

I don't see the potential problem area as being the Islamophobia type stuff, but rather the topic under discussion here, i.e. the conflation of 'anti-Israel' and antisemitic sentiment, especially in the context of purely-subjectively-assessed racial incidents of a merely verbal, and perhaps esp. of a 'non-crime-book', kind (bearing in mind the very capacious nature of public order provisions).

(When it comes to hate crime I am in favour of long sentences.)

2/15/2011 04:58:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

especially in the context of purely-subjectively-assessed racial incidents

Post MacPherson, and for reasons I basically agree with, there are no other kinds of racial incidents - they're classed that way if someone perceives them as racial. The Iganski study goes into quite a bit of detail on this. What interests me is that even at the height of the conflict, only 20% of incidents involved any mention of Israel.

2/15/2011 05:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that when bearing actually existing anti-semitism in mind, we also have to remember the context of the victims. Once in a while I might be a victim of
prejudice, but on the other hand, nobody ever rounded up my great aunts, took all their stuff, and murdered them and their infant children for no good reason. If they had done, I might feel very differently about expressions of hatred which 'objectively' are minimal.

Chris Williams

2/15/2011 06:06:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

CW - yes, certainly. It's partly because I do take actual antisemitism exactly that seriously that I object to abuses like that carried out by or on behalf of Levy which I consider to have been disingenuous on the part of at least some participants.

(And note earlier reference to the cycle of abuse.)

But I don't think anyone is going to deny that there is an unhealthy atmosphere of excessive willingness - on the part of some - to attribute anti-semitic motives to those who criticise Israel, nor that that goes in tandem with a narrative of a new wave of New Antisemitism, which is accompanied by increasingly tendentious definitions (or hallmarks, 'signs' etc) of a-s.

And one likely result of that is heightened sensitivity to the phenomenon, feeding back via increased perceptions of it (or as of it) into more data, which leads to even more heightened sensitivity, etc.

That's as well as the possible consequences of a 'you're either with us or with the antisemites' ultimatum - that some will say 'so be it', and actually adopt, or unleash, antisemitic attitudes.

The result, if the foregoing is roughly correct, is increased polarisation and hardening of attitudes, siege mentality, exaggerated concern either about being a victim or a (supposed) perpetrator of a-s remarks, an increase in general kevels of hatred all round, and generally a very poor climate in which to try and discuss the already quite thorny enough issue of Israel/palestine.

2/15/2011 07:47:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

I think Iganski's work (if I understand it right) is basically showing that mainstream discussion of Israel/Palestine is borderline irrelevant to anti-Semitism in the UK; in "normal" times, barely 5% of anti-Semitic incidents mention Israel at all (and presumably fewer mention it in the relevant context). This rises to 20% during periods when Israel/Palestine is *always* on the news, but then it would, wouldn't it?

What I am not seeing is *any* evidence, *at all*, that hostile criticism of Israeli government policy, or the academic boycott campaign or anything else has had any material impact on anti-Semitic hate crime in the UK. I suspect that this might be part of the reason that Abe Sweiry's report for EISCA was so long in coming and so orthogonal to the commission; the facts just don't support the conclusion Pollard was looking for.

2/16/2011 07:15:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

It's an interesting one because actually the rhetorical purposes of yer militant supporter of actually-existing-Israel would be best served by the ideas

1. that antisemitism is on the rise and is lurks ready to issue in 'incidents' in the most unlikely places, even in apparently right-thinking people (people just like you sir, yes you with the sandals and the Free Gaza badge)

2. that what looks like mere criticism of Israel may often 'express' such sentiments in ways that are hard for anyone to detect.

The underlying inferences being

a. ooer, I better be pretty careful, and pretty sure I want to bother getting involved, before expressing opposition to Israel because I may be accused (and may even - could I? - actually be) motivated by atavistic hatreds and perennial viral tropes


b. Hmmm, maybe these arguments against Israel should be rejected since they have emerged from the poisoned well of antisemitic and anti-Israel discourse.

A link in the opposite direction - from anti-Israel reactions to anti-Jewish expressions (esp. targeting Jews as representatives of Israel) would potentially be undesirable, since it would have neither of these effects (though it could have 'I better not inflame antisemitism by criticising Israel', as dd points out). It might even cause some wavering among the faithful supporters of Israel, whether out of fear or an inference from angry reaction to provocative action.

The study linked seems to support (in the sense of adopt) propositions 1 and 2 with only token, and rapidly shelved, caveats: 'this should be borne in mind by the reader in interpreting the data - anyway, back to my own interpretation of the unadjusted data, which the reader may take or leave.'

(This may be 'devastating critique' territory, but I think I would describe it as 'widespread problem' territory. Cf the economics profession, and the 'someone I otherwise ignore has addressed these issues, and found that there are such problems, so you see we as a profession have taken into account all these criticisms' defence.)

As an aside, btw, I suppose I may as well point out that the data provided (and even as summarised/analysed) doesn't seem clearly to support any of the things that CW mentions.

It's not as if I even have any particular prior reason to think any of the study's conclusions are implausible. But if we're going to bother with studies at all, then we might as well actually have a look to see if they do what they say (or it is said) they do, innit.

2/16/2011 01:36:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I've found the end of James Wood's review, btw:

At forty-nine, and having been close friends with two Jews for more
than thirty years, Treslove apparently has no idea what a Seder is. He
is equally clueless about Israel. In a flashback, he recalls a
conversation with Finkler's wife, Tyler, about Finkler's decision to
join an anti-Israel group that calls itself ASHamed Jews:

"How can you be ashamed of a country
that's not yours?" Treslove truly was puzzled.
"It's because they're Jewish."
"But you said they're not ashamed of
being Jewish."
"Exactly. But they're ashamed as Jews."
"Ashamed as Jews of a country of which
they are not citizens . . ."?
Tyler laid a hand on his arm again.
"Look," she said, "what do we know? I think
you've got to be one to get it. . . . You've got
to be a Jew to get why you're ashamed of
being a Jew."
Yet this same idiotic character is constantly providing envious and
admiring assessments of exactly what and how Jews just are: "The Jews
were a hyperbolic people. Had he been hyperbolical enough?" When he
meets, at Libor's Seder, Hephzibah Weizenbaum, he is ecstatic, and
instantly falls in love with her: "He thought his heart would break
with love for her. She was so Jewish." He embarks on a course of
Jewish self-instruction, reading Yiddish dictionaries and Maimonides.
Hephzibah is plump, earthy, sensuous, Oriental--the ideal Other for
the etiolated Gentile. "Before Hephzibah he had eaten only with his
mouth. Now he ate with his whole person." He even loves the way she
says the word "good," because it sounds Biblical. "It was--not to
allow this to become too fanciful--the creative Jewish force: if you
like, the Creator herself. And God called the dry land Earth; and the
gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it
was good. " Libor picks up the theme when he explains to Treslove why
a Gentile like him would want to be Jewish:

"The fall, the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah,
the Last Judgment, Masada, Auschwitz--
see a Jew and you think of Armageddon. . . .
We tell good creation stories but we
do destruction even better. We're at the
beginning and the end of everything. And
everyone's after a piece of the action. Those
who can't wait to pitchfork us into the
flames, want to go down screaming by our
side. It's one or the other. Temperamentally,
you were always going to choose the other."
Or, as Hephzibah reflects elsewhere: "You could divide the world into
those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews."

This vision, in which Jews are God-like (the Alpha and the Omega,
before and after), and non-Jews must inevitably become either
God-lovers or God-haters, is quite useful: it has the functional
utility of interpreting anti-Semitism as a twisted form of love, while
by the same token suggesting that philo-Semitism is a twisted form of
hate. Between the Gentile and the Jew, it would seem, stands an
impregnable alienation. The novel is ultimately politically fatalistic
in similar ways. In this book, Jews are clever, musical, loud, fast,
confident, vital, and unbeatable. "You could never steal a march on
them," Treslove muses. "They always had something you didn't, some
verbal or theological reserve they could draw on, that would leave you
stumped for a response. . . . It was as though they spoke a secret
language. The secret language of the Jews." And, if the reader finds
the relentless examination of Jewishness a touch self-absorbed, the
circle closes: "Talking feverishly about being Jewish was being

2/17/2011 04:06:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Needless to say, this is a decisively male and modern version of
Jewishness, much influenced by the histrionic pugilism of Philip
Roth's weaker novels. As far as I can tell, it is also Howard
Jacobson's preferred version of both Jewishness and Jewish comic
fiction. Max Glickman, in "Kalooki Nights," announces, in proper
Rothian form: "So we are an immoderate, overemphatic people, much
given to exaggeration--so what? I call it giving value for money
myself. You prick us so we bleed profusely." In an interview with the
online magazine Tablet, Jacobson has said that he thinks of Jewish
fiction as possessing "a strong, disputatious voice. You feel you're
listening to ethical argumentativeness that reminds you of the
Talmud--pedantic disputatiousness." He has, he feels, "a Jewish mind,"
a "Jewish intelligence," and that "what a Jew is has been made by the
experience of 5,000 years, that's what shapes the Jewish sense of
humor, that's what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness."

It's not an eccentric perspective, though it tends to favor one kind
of Jewish comedy over another. (In Jacobson's "disputatiousness,"
there is little room for the wryness of Italo Svevo or Joseph Roth or
even Anita Brookner, let alone that Mozartean quality of Bellow's
comic joy.) Forced down the funnel of a reductive brand of English
comic writing, this vision issues in caricature: "Stuffed chicken
neck, for Christ's sake! The entire history of a people in a single
neck of chicken." One could say that the world divides into those who
think an entire history of a people can be seized in a single neck of
chicken and those who don't.

The novel is a deliberate intervention into contemporary debates about
the rise of European anti-Semitism, and especially about whether
British anti-Zionism constitutes anti-Semitism. Finkler dreams
anxiously of seeing his father beaten up, his fedora knocked to the
ground. Treslove witnesses a group of schoolkids taunting a young
Orthodox Jew in a park. Treslove and Finkler go to see a barely
fictionalized version of Caryl Churchill's infamous (and, I think,
actually anti-Semitic) play "Seven Jewish Children." (In the novel, it
is called "Sons of Abraham.") Meanwhile, Finkler, having joined
ASHamed Jews, is steadily repelled by their leftist anti-Zionism. In
fact, he finds each member more repellent than the last--so revolting,
indeed, that his initial decision to join seems quite implausible, and
his alleged leftism just an opportunity for Jacobson to embarrass it.

2/17/2011 04:07:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...


One of these ASHamed Jews is Tamara Krausz, an academic who has
written about Zionism as a pathology, and who "never appeared in
public looking anything other than an executive of a fashion
consultancy, at once businesslike and softly feminine." This is a
London in-joke, since the portrait is clearly based on the elegant
English literary theorist and convinced anti-Zionist Jacqueline Rose,
"a woman whose quiet authority commanded respect not only in England
but in America and the Middle East, wherever anti-Zionists--Finkler
would not have gone so far as to say anti-Semites--were gathered."
Notice that subclause ("Finkler would not have gone so far as to say
anti-Semites"), which retracts the charge of anti-Semitism while still
dangling its scent. Finkler, in an oddly heartfelt passage, dreams of
sleeping with Tamara Krausz, and killing her: "He knew what would
happen if by some mischance or mutual misunderstanding they ended up
in bed together and she screamed the dialectic of her anti-Zionism in
his ear--he would come into her six or seven times and then kill her.
Slice off her tongue and then slit through her throat."

The politics of the novel is a little like this, too. Formally, "The
Finkler Question" gives voice to a decent Jewish liberalism, in which
the question of Israel can be evenhandedly debated (Jacobson writes a
column for the left-leaning London newspaper the Independent);
informally, "The Finkler Question" is always shading toward the
atavistic and reactionary, the constant message being that, just as
goys are more goyish than they seem, so Jews are more Jewish than they
seem (witness Finkler's political conversion, from liberal to
conservative). Anyone can be an anti-Semite, the author says, but not
anyone can be a Jew: Jews are Finklers.

2/17/2011 04:13:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

That opening quote reads exactly like a pastiche of (or, of course, failed attempt to imitate) Heller

2/17/2011 05:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

Treslove and Finkler go to see a barely fictionalized version of Caryl Churchill's infamous (and, I think,actually anti-Semitic) play "Seven Jewish Children."

I thought that about Seven Jewish Children. I'm glad to see that one of the best literary critics around thinks the same.

2/18/2011 09:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Martin Wisse said...

Incidently, The Finkler Question is number 45 on the list of The 50 Most Essential Works Of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years. Make of this what you will.

2/19/2011 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Re: 7 Jewish children, antismieitism.

Looks like quite an interesting case study for discussion of the topic actually, I didn't know much about it, having got the impression that it basically wasn't very good, and having no intention of going to see it.

But the reactions to it could be quite informative about how this kind of debate works, I suppose.

This Guardian piece not v useful but with some links.

This guy didn't think it was a-s, and has a discussion involving some rather crass, overgeneralised and overcategorical statements about (or statements about statements about) the general vague impression I've been trying to articulate about cycle of abuse, lack of magnanimity in the attitudes of some (the most visible) Israelis and their supporters (is there an Israeli national character?).

Also, having used the expression 'atavistic hatreds' somewhere above, I see Mel P is reported as pre-emptively undermining any such attempt at satire: "This is an open vilification of the Jewish people, not merely repeatedly perpetrating incendiary lies about Israel but demonstrably and openly drawing upon an atavistic hatred of the Jews."

The bits and pieces I've scanned have quite a bit of trope-talk, too, which I do think is often a sign of a lazy attempt to smear without having to give actual reasons.

I currently haven't time or sufficient incklination to attempt a thorough analysis of all the talk about the play, or the thing itself, but it might be interesting. (And I should acknowledge the above comments are not necessarily balanced, since I come at it from the angle of the preceding discussion here rather than an attempt at an authoritative overview.)

(word verification: cogisin)

2/20/2011 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

That went into moderation, I don;t think it's the links, as Phil also got modded and only had one link - could be some kind of keyword thing. But then I can't see anything new in there except perhaps Phillips's mention of 'the Jews', which is certainly a loaded phrase.

2/20/2011 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

It wasn't (just) that then

2/20/2011 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

Rosie@ Tim Wilkinson

Looks like quite an interesting case study for discussion of the topic actually, I didn't know much about it, having got the impression that it basically wasn't very good, and having no intention of going to see it.

It's on YouTube and lasts for 10 minutes. As for "good" - it is an effective piece of agit-prop.

But the reactions to it could be quite informative about how this kind of debate works, I suppose.

A starting point would have to be to see if the reactions to it were reasonable or far-fetched. I don't see how you could be informed on this point unless you had seen/read the play first.

2/20/2011 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Yes, for anyone trying to do a reasoned analysis of the play, or t9o judge how accurate various assessments of it are, watching a performance and reading the script would be important. 'How this debate works' wasn't intended to conclude prematurely that the thing is not actually a-s to some degree and some way(s). I am reasonably certain that the battle-lines mean that the debate probably doesn't work as debate. One of the problems about the politicisation of a-s is that you would expect false negatives from one side, as well as false negatives from the other, as each looks past the evidence to the political implications.

But actually, not having seen it might be quite useful in analysing what is actually said, sticking to the reasons (or lack of them) given and the arguments made, without reading ahead to compare the conclusions to my own assessment.

All of which is a prolegomenon to something I probably won't get round to doing.

2/20/2011 02:50:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

one of those 'negatives' should of course be 'positives'

2/20/2011 02:51:00 PM  

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