A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to 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.
Sometimes, I’m forced to read a book. That’s right. Utterly forced. Even as I try to open my mind to more and more books, I get pigeonholed into reading something specific, a “required read” that – because of it’s non-organic nature – feels more like a high school book report project. As long time readers know, I like the fluid motion that comes from going between books on a whim.This September, downtown Sioux Falls will be hosting the Fourth Annual South Dakota Festival of Books, which means South Dakota will be heading full swing into a grand display of oneness as we join together to read this year’s One Book South Dakota: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.Which means that by the end of September, there’s a good chance that many of us South Dakotans will be sitting stunned, not by any grand force of action, but by the wordplay Robinson engages in her story of an elderly priest coming to terms with his age, his son, and his vocation. Yeah, that’s right – I enjoyed this required read. Very much. And I had no problem writing the book report to go along with it.This month’s Book of the Month was easy to choose – I mean, no offense to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (two books that I finally got around to reading and enjoyed, though their legend and mystique far outweigh the true nature of their stories), but the Pulitzer spoke, and it forced my hand. Gilead it is.Gilead is a basic story with an inventive style, employing an old pastor’s journal to dictate its pace and breadth. In doing this, Robinson is able to dive into the feelings of a man, John Ames, who was raised to be as pious as life will allow. Inner struggles with his own interpretations of faith and the differences between his father and grandfather’s views on sin serve as a primer to theological thinking, while the prospect of explaining himself – his legacy and theology included – seems daunting, yet necessary.Robinson presents Ames as a man who has won and lost so many times in his life that he’s filled with a melancholy happiness, one that grasps the failure of life and holds it up as triumph. He celebrates everything as a grand experiment in “experience,” and his narrative serves a double track; he’s both telling the reader about his life and preparing his son – a seven-year-old boy from a second marriage – for the death of a father.There is a certain sadness in reading someone’s final words. Ames uses this narrative to connect with his son from beyond the grave, to try to make up for years of unwanted separation. Through his comments, he reveals the frustration in becoming a father with so few years left to give. In fact, Ames has already conceded that he will have little chance to watch his boy grow up. And from this stems an incredible outpouring of experience; pages after pages of his life story, his thoughts, and his feelings.Robinson’s writing brilliantly captures every desire of Ames’ life, though there is an incredible, solemn nature floating just below the surface. It punctuates the idea that we all die, but that we cannot forget to live. There’s no reason to fear the end. We should still try to live what’s left of our storied and vast existence.Ultimately, Gilead presents itself as an incredibly heartbreaking masterpiece, pitting the laws of time against the power of hope and the sheer wall of nostalgic history, forcing each of us to take a long time in thinking about what it takes to be remembered. It underlines the thought process in throwing life away a sliver at a time and remembering the cold, calculated truth: we’re all mortal, and regardless of how important we are, we’re all destined to be swept away in the throes of time.September isn’t just a month. It’s a bridge between the life-bearing summer and the slow decline of fall, when animals and plants disappear, leaving the trees bare and the ground piled with dead leaves. We all feel a little bit more mortal in the fall, and though we celebrate the past summer with gusto on Labor Day, we all know what we’re in for as the coming months begin to freeze over and become stagnant.With that in mind, a certain bit of parallelism can be found in autumn’s return and in Gilead. We all need to celebrate our lives while they’re still in bloom. But the ultimate freedom might be found when we realize we’re merely here for a short amount of time, in knowing someday we’ll be gone, and that our thoughts and actions dictate a great deal about what we’ll be remembered for. In John Ames’ case, we’re left with a picture of a grand man; a caring father who took great pains to strengthen his son’s life before it was too late.Life’s too short to live in the past. Preparing for the future might be the only way to really live forever. In Gilead, that might be the most important piece of advice to remember.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July