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Man Booker Prize 2010 winner: Howard Jacobson

Man Booker Prize 2010 winner: Howard Jacobson

This was originally posted in July 2010.

MBP: Congratulations on being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Is it exciting to be longlisted?

HJ: Thank you. The glib answer is that it beats not being longlisted, but the truth is that it matters a great deal, at a time when a novel can very easily slip past people's notice, to have attention drawn to your work. The irony is that there's a vast public out there looking for books to read, while there's a vast body of writers looking for someone to read them. To be longlisted is not just to be acknowledged, it is to be brought to the attention of that book-hungry public.

So yes, it is exciting, but of course it's nerve-wracking too, because what's given to you today, can be taken from you tomorrow.

MBP: The Finkler Question explores the nature of Jewishness. Two old friends have very different views on what it means to be a Jew. Does this reflect how Jewish communities approach their ‘jewishness' in different ways?

HJ: There are as many ways of being Jewish as there are Jews - probably more, as most of the Jews I know have a dozen ways of being Jewish each. To say we are a disputatious people is unfair to those Jews who are not disputatious, but we relish argument, and arguing over what being Jewish means is a favourite topic, except to those to whom it isn't.

MBP: One of the main characters, Julian Treslove, is a Gentile who feels he would quite like to be a Jew. What were you hoping to explore through this character?

HJ: There is fun in introducing a non-Jew to Jewishness. Few things have made me laugh when I'm writing as much as the scenes in which Treslove tries to fathom what makes the intonation of a Jewish joke funny, or shows off to the Jewish woman he has fallen in love with his newly acquired mastery of Yiddish terms of endearment.

But I was after something else, as well: I wanted to show the warmth with which many English non-Jews view Jewishness, how much respectful curiosity and even affection there is for it in this country. In a novel where some of the characters are concerned that there is anti-semitism in the air, it felt important to show how much philo-semitism there is too.

MBP: The Finkler Question, like many of your novels, is full of humour and comical moments. Do you manage to see humour in most life situations?

HJ: I don't like the word humour: it feels like an ingredient that can be added to a novel at will. My novels are funny - at least I hope they are funny - because I cannot make them anything else. Comedy is central to the way I use words. But that doesn't mean I see life lightly or humorously. I write the comedy I do because I find life desolating. I enjoy the invigoration of a little knockabout sometimes, but essentially the comedy in my novels is the last laugh before there's nothing left to laugh about.

MBP: There is a certain amount of rivalry between two of the characters in your book - is rivalry amongst friends something that particularly interests you and if so, why?

HJ: Yes, I love writing about rivalry between friends. The laughter we enjoy when admitting to how envious we are of our friends, how much we resent their success, is the laughter of release. It releases us from the pretence that friendship is all love. I don't discount the love, but we are not being honest if we don't admit how much the success of even our very best and most deserving friends can hurt us. Envy of our friends is the last taboo, and taboo breaking is one of life's sweetest pleasures. This is half the point of writers: that they will taboo-break for us.

MBP: As a Jewish writer are you often asked to give your own views about Israel - is this something that you wanted to tackle in this novel?

HJ: No. There is no Israel in this novel. In this novel Israel is an imagined place. Its politics exist only in the conversations characters have about it, even in the way they pronounce it - one of them loading it with r's (Isrrrrael), another refusing to call it anything other than Palestine or Canaan. What I wanted to tackle was the fear experienced recently by many Jews that a certain anti-Jewishness seemed to be flowing from anti-Zionism. I wanted to render that fear as it was felt by different kinds of Jews and indeed non-Jews. Treslove, for example, feels it more keenly than any actual Jew in the novel, as does the non-Jewish wife of Finkler.

I also wanted to look at the ways some Jews express their contempt for this imagined place, where (right or wrong) it leaves them as Jews, how their rhetoric of shame (appropriate or not) affects their fellow Jews, and what climate of uneasiness it creates. This is a novel about love, loyalty, memory and loss. Mainly it is about the way these things impinge on person to person love, but it is also about the way they impinge upon ideas, and Israel is an important contemporary idea.

Howard Jacobson, shot for the Man Booker Prize
Howard Jacobson, shot for the Man Booker Prize