I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
Lauren Karwoski-Magee teaches architecture at Drexel University, runs her own architecture and design firm The Drafted Line, and reads a lot.1. Cover art and a book’s spine are important. The spine of this book does something that I refer to in class as “drawing the viewer in,” making a person look closer and become more intimate with a work. The intriguing spine coupled with a cover that is a series of thin thresholds draws me in immediately.2. Thin thresholds: a threshold, according to dictionary.com, is “any new place or point of entering or beginning.” Often thresholds are spoken of as zones or spaces, rather than simply a line or a point, beyond which starts a different condition. This suggests that the slightest of variables could evince the beginning of something new and doesn’t always require a threshold as dramatic as a door or a wood saddle.2a. If a variable can be minuscule, must we recognize the variable or only the outcome to realize we’ve reached a turning point?2b. New: what is new, really? Is life a succession of interconnected elements, one feeding into the next, however abruptly?2c. Dramatic doors and saddles made of wood…3. I happen to enjoy thinking about the interconnectedness of things. In fact, I sometimes sit and daydream about it. It’s like the Kevin Bacon game for inanimate objects and life events (with a dash of whimsy) to help see things in new ways, paired unexpectedly, like multi-dimensional puzzles.4. Puzzles can become unexpectedly intricate, especially when new variables (even if minuscule) are involved. Variables keep life interesting, making us think about what it is that we really believe (remember, want) to be true.5. Memory and truth. The storytelling in The Way Through Doors relies on train of thought in which the characters may have multiple identities and versions of experiences with the end result of helping to restore memory. The narrative takes a path wherein the pieces of story overlap but don’t necessarily grow as more information becomes known. It progresses linearly as if you were to take a spring, stretch it out a bit, and then flatten it.
Much has been made of Howard Jacobson’s “Surprise!” Booker Prize win earlier this month, largely because The Finkler Question, his eleventh novel, is unapologetically comic, a book brimming with moments that inspire laughter. Humor is its modus operandi, its raison d’être. It bristles and overflows with set-ups and punchlines, with observations and jests. That this never becomes tiring or tired is reason enough to award Jacobson literary prizes aplenty. But the very headlines inspired by the mere fact of a comedic novel taking home Britain’s highest literary prize belie the very many strengths of the work, the way its comedy bleeds into tragedy, the way it plays with pathos and longing and devastation. Though Jacobson once dubbed himself the “Jewish Jane Austen” in jest—and largely as a refutation of the “British Philip Roth” label, which has somewhat awkwardly stuck to him (really, the “Jewish Martin Amis” strikes me as far more accurately descriptive)—there really is something to that comparison. The Finkler Question is a novel of (occasionally bad) manners, one that, in turning a penetrating eye, an alert ear, and a mordant pen on contemporary mores, lovingly ridicules what it accurately chronicles.
What The Finkler Question chronicles are the intersecting lives of three men: old, school friends, Julian Treslove (disgruntled former BBC employee and current celebrity double, though he is the double of no particular celebrity) and Sam Finkler (pop-philosopher, author of The Existentialist in the Kitchen, and frequent television guest), and their onetime history teacher, Libor Sevcik (Czech émigré and former Hollywood gossip reporter). Finkler and Libor have recently been widowed; they also happen to be Jewish. Treslove, neither widower nor Jew, experiences his exclusion from both states as a serious lack indeed, having aspired, his entire life, to tragedy, to the sort of monumental loss that concludes the “popular Italian opera” he is drawn to. Julian knows he is in love with a woman when he can see the
aftermath of her—his marriage proposal and her acceptance, the home they would set up together, the drawn rich silk curtains leaking purple light, the bed sheets billowing like clouds, the wisp of aromatic smoke winding from the chimney—only for every wrack of it—its lattice of crimson roof tiles, its gables and dormer windows, his happiness, his future—to come crashing down on him in the moment of her walking past… she passed away in a perfected dream of tragic love—consumptive, wet-eyelashed.
But such is not the lot of Julian Treslove, who instead consistently finds himself unceremoniously dumped by the sickly-looking women whose lives he intends to make better before the romantic finale, the soaringly-sung death thrall. As he dines with his two friends at Libor’s house, Treslove feels discomfiting envy. An outsider at this feast of mourning, he wants simply to belong.
Treslove’s chance comes when, melancholically walking home, he is assaulted, “pushed… face first against a shop window, told… not to shout or struggle, and relieved… of his watch, his wallet, his fountain pen and his mobile phone.” But it is the assailant’s parting words that truly trouble and traumatize. “Your jewels,” Treslove thinks he hears. But no, that cannot be quite right. “You Jules,” then, an attempt to cower him further by darkly noting that his identity is known. No, no, still. “You Ju,” the assailant said. “You Ju.” He has been, Treslove concludes, the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. No matter that he, Julian Treslove, is not, technically, a Jew.
What technicalities—the ways of thinking and being and feeling—make one a Jew becomes, then, the central question of the novel, as Treslove, his account of events dismissed by his friends, becomes determined to explore the nature of Jewishness, though, in honor of his friend Finkler, the first Jew Treslove had ever known, he privately refers to Jews as “Finklers.” (“He would have liked to tell his friend this. It took away the stigma, he thought. The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins. But he was never quite able to get around to explaining this to Finkler himself.”) As Treslove ponders the mysteries of being Jewish—how is it, for example, “that Jews didn’t have to mention the Holocaust in order to have mentioned the Holocaust”? Are they perhaps “able by a glance to thought-transfer the Holocaust to one another”?—Sam Finkler has his own crisis of self to tend to, having enthusiastically committed himself to the cause of the ASHamed Jews, whose shame is officially directed at Zionism (Finkler speaks of “Palestine,” or even, for good measure, “Canaan”), though the group’s rhetoric increasingly blurs the line between Zionism and Jewish identity. When, then, does a Jew become an anti-Semite? And, if he can be one, why can’t a Gentile be a Jew?
Some British reviewers have suggested that the novel’s concern with Jewishness is merely cover for a larger concern with the self. Writing about the novel in the Observer, Edward Docx concludes that “Jewishness” is here “a metaphor for human culture in general.” This is true in so far as The Finkler Question is finally interested in the way a particular personal identity intersects with the larger world and in what it means to be an outsider in the very worlds that we expect to be most welcoming. But it also seems false to deny the particularity of the way in which such issues are explored in The Finkler Question. For one thing, there is Jacobson’s own identity, which, despite his lack of religious feeling, he has repeatedly identified as Jewish: “What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence,” he remarked in a 2004 interview with Tablet Magazine. “I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past. I don’t know what kind of trouble this gets somebody into, a disputatious mind. 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.” There seems to be, for Jacobson, a personal concern with what it means to be a Jewish writer, especially in a country that has given rise to a number of anti-Israel boycotts, measures that Jacobson has publicly opposed, and it is this concern that gives The Finkler Question so much of its energy, its frisson. Having said that, it would indeed, be unfortunate to reduce the novel to identity politics, or, rather, to any one set of identity politics, given Jacobson’s enthusiasm for poking fun at the highmindedness brought to discussions of what it means to be anything. And anyway, what the novel is about is hardly half as important as how it goes about being about anything. The Finkler Question is never portentous, never precious. It swells with laughter and with sorrow, and you are glad to be its reader, whatever your identity.
To paraphrase the critic Georges Poulet: a poet of written poems does not necessarily aim only to write a poem; he or she aims to become, and for those who read his or her poems to become. Becoming is an activity that many young African Americans are engaged in today — whether it be formal, revolutionary, or informal — and it is an activity that requires undivided dynamism. If Kendrick Lamar’s chant “we gon’ be alright” — four words that when repeated meld a fight song to a primordial moment in the foundation and the defense of a collective and its culture — is now considered the foremost musical expression of this era’s black activism, Nate Marshall’s poem “repetition & repetition &”, the very first poem from his book Wild Hundreds, should be considered the foremost articulation of contemporary blackness’s dynamism in literature. It’s an engine of becoming.
Our is a long love song,
A push into open air,
A stare into the barrel
With those three lines, Marshall begins an epic comparable to Robert Hayden’s renowned “The Middle Passage” and other black epics; but this is an epic of guidance and instruction. It’s built on the thesis that black “works,” as painful as it may be to be black. The poem begins by posing the question What do I feel as a black person, its title “repetition & repetition &” having given us the context. The opening of the poem removes any ambiguity we might attribute to the poem’s message, plunging us into the poet’s project.
We are a pattern,
A percussive imperative,
A break beat
“repetition & repetition &” quickly comes to feature the collective “we” as fundamental to the poem. Marshall uses the word “we” as the black community loves for it to be used. If “I” is modernism, and postmodernism, Marshall pushes it aside for the beloved “we” — the “we” of the hard road to salvation and joy. Sorry, he seems to be saying: despite claims that our sentiment is tribalism or that we are just Americans, the black community remains a place where a black “we” is a beautiful way of saying “me.” With “we” he expresses the blackness that has us all feeling, one that cannot be found in oh-so-many poems that center the lonely “I” or “me.”
“We” is brilliantly defined in the line “we are love.” We = love, in convivial crowds and effective political rallies.
Baby we are hundreds:
Wild until we are free.
Wild like Amnesia
This is an epic of identity. It proposes black identity (love, being wild) to its reader, as a written articulation of “black is beautiful”; it functions as a model of identity to adhere to and trust.
Identity is an old and persistent question in black life, to the point where passing, pretending that one is not black or not claiming one’s blackness, has been a theme of many black novels (see Nella Larsen’s Passing). Faith in blackness and in one’s own blackness is a feature in our age of contradictions: of a black president, of interracial marriages, of a growing middle class, of foreclosures of homes owned by blacks, of predatory and racist practices, of the killings of young black men and women, of Black Lives Matter. It’s an age of youthful comic modernities, where tragedy is not the sort of thing that co-workers of other races want to talk about. Should I be happy in public? Who am I in all of this? Marshall answers these questions and others with an epic that can guide, in terms of how to think about blackness or being black.
The black identity being proposed is not a simple one. As John Edgar Wideman wrote as a blurb for Mitchell Jackson’s novel The Residue Years, it embraces the English language as a means of expression, saying loud and clear, Despite my difference, I am culturally a descendent of the English language and of poetry in English. It is perhaps the most complex aspect of the poem — the poet does not want to settle for blackness as some sort of noble savagery. His language tells us that a black person can read French theory and find solace in Modernist English poetry all the while feeling the pain and rage that comes from seeing a dead black child on a television; all of it combined being who “we” are or “I” am as a black person.
In the end, Marshall offers an engine for the pursuit of self that can only be the undercurrent of black production — ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Greg Osby’s many great yet unknown albums of genius Jazz blackness, or a teacher’s persistence with children — but also a vehicle for any non-black person to think about the blackness of co-citizens and friends. His poem is an epic of strength in love and in numbers, where in despite “a stare into the barrel,” and “repetition,” as he ends the poem, ‘we are 1’ and will remain it.