Elegiac—but also humorous—meditation on life’s big questions: life, death, the nature of justice, whether to sleep with a German. The book won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
Nearing the end of his 60s, Jacobson, who has likened himself to a “Jewish Jane Austen,” is a very funny man. His lead character, a London media type named Julian Treslove, is not Jewish, but he might as well be: He has a Woody Allen–size complex of neuroses and worries, and “his life had been one mishap after another.” Mugged by a woman who utters a mysterious syllable—“Ju,” Treslove thinks—while going through his pockets, he finds himself about as angst-ridden as an angst-ridden person can be. His widower friends Finkler and Libor, great successes in their day, are no pikers in the angst department, though, lonely and full of the usual aches and veys; as Treslove notes, “A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.” The three pass their days together gnawing various questions to the bone, not least whether, in the post-Holocaust days, it is possible to “contemplate having an affair with someone who looked German.” (Consensus: No, even if that someone was Marlene Dietrich.) When Libor’s great-niece, Hephzibah, sweeps into the picture, Treslove finds himself thinking much more about questions of the heart, even as Finkler, a writer of pop philosophy, is swept away in a flood of “ASHamed Jews” who “were not to blame for anything” but were in the thick of controversy all the same—for, Finkler sighs, the very word “Jew” (was that what Treslove’s attacker was saying?) is “a password to madness…One little word with no hiding place for reason in it.” Jacobson’s gentle tale of urban crises of the soul slowly turns into an examination of anti-Semitism, of what it means to be Jewish in a time when “the Holocaust had become negotiable.”
At turns a romp and a disquisition worthy of Maimonides; elegantly written throughout, and with plenty of punchlines too.