Saturday, April 30, 2011

In a break from Francophilia...

-I finished Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. The book has some amazing lines. Such as:

Page 190: "As Assistant Curator of the Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture, Julian Treslove did not exactly have too much on his plate."


Page 211: "Human vermin, Libor thought, lover of the English though he was."

And more, but I didn't make a note of them yet. So, so well-written. Also, while the novel's certainly more about men than women, more about Jews than non-Jews, no one's a cliché. The characters are to a certain extent types - the artistically-oriented liberal-minded Jewish woman in ethnic shawls, for example, made me picture a specific store on Broadway just below Columbia - but not clichés. If that makes sense.

If I didn't know it had been a huge success, I wouldn't have been sure what others would have thought of this book. I mean, I just had the rare experience of agreeing with the political stance of a novel - correctly described on "Sounds Jewish" as more anti-anti-Zionist than Zionist, although there's certainly some Zionism in there, but not the rah-rah cliché of Zionism that holds that Israel can do no wrong, or that its supporters are saints. That, plus - as commenter rshams, and my mother whose book it is, both suspected - it deals with issues of Diaspora Jewish identity in a way that meshes incredibly well with the way I do in my work, on this blog, and when my mind wanders while I gaze at the amazing cheese selection that is Paris. Rather than being one of those hyphen-Jewish novels that worries about being too parochial, it addresses the "parochial" question head-on. Well done, Howard Jacobson!

-So white-ish dresses with long lace sleeves are the new "it" look for brides. This is presumably because KM's people (yes, yes, the Marxists) heard my mother telling the somewhat incredulous salesman in the more casual/youthful womenswear section of Bon Marché that the dress she was getting me would be for my wedding, and thought, hey, put a nine-foot train on the bottom, and that's just the thing! They totally saw me reaching for it and trying it on first at the BHV, then once more at Harrod's (where it was a good bit more expensive, although Kate/the British people could've gotten a deal by comparison) just to be sure. Somehow I suspect the item (in bridespeak, my dress, The Dress) - remarkably similar, but above-the-knee - will now be worn for that purpose by others as well, no doubt sold out of the store it comes from. Let it be known that this dress-selection happened well before April 29th, and no I did not have lace sleeves sewn onto a preexisting dress, as The Brides Today are apparently doing in the aftermath. Just like, no, I was not named after Phoebe from "Friends." Sometimes these things just happen.

-Anyway, no, Kate Middleton's dress was not "timeless." Presumably no one responded to Diana's gown at the time by saying, wow, what a ridiculous cupcake-like 1980s monstrosity. I couldn't tell you - no one could tell you - what aspect of the Middleton gown will look so 2011 in a few years' time, but it will, that much is for sure.

-Her brother, however, has a timeless Rufus-y thing going on. But we only ever hear about Pippa, perhaps because there's a Facebook page devoted to her rear.

-What, no, since you asked, of course I didn't watch the thing. Not the part where her father givethed her away, or when the most preposterous "for richer or for poorer" was spoken. Not when all these horses suddenly appeared. I did not admire the ceremonial outfit William wore, nor did I ask my own betrothed, in vain, if he'd consider tracking one down for our wedding. (While one might think/hope astrophysicists would have a cool space-age uniform for special occasions, they don't.)


Anonymous said...

The Finkler Question was just an awful, awful book, and the vast majority of people I've encountered -- intellectuals and otherwise - tend to agree. Moreover, this opinion is not just anecdotal; the vast majority of reader reviews one can find on Amazon or other web sites convey the same sentiments.

Look, Jacobsen is a gifted craftsman, that is plain. But the magical realist elements are confusing and almost Dickensian in their convenience, the plot -- I think there is one -- is bizarre and keenly finds a great number of dead-ends, and I pray for the day when modern post-Roth Jewish male writers stop obsessing about their phallus.

I found the book exceedingly boring, honestly, and have difficulty recalling a case in which the opinions of most of the critics and those of most of the readers differ so widely.

Phoebe said...

Look, I see something like "The Finkler Question was just an awful, awful book" and mentally insert an "I think." I mean, the fact that some others agreed with you, and that some of these others are important people (I take your word, and have read one such review), does not make this fact in the yes-Obama-was-born-in-America, yes-OBL-was-just-killed sense of "fact." While it was not my favorite novel ever ever every, I did like it, and found it refreshingly un-Roth-y. It twists everything around - Gentiles wanting to be Jews, the fact that a woman is Jewish and overweight makes her a sex symbol to some and does not prevent her from being attractive to others, etc.

And Jewish writers are going to be writing about phallic issues into eternity, or until circumcision becomes universal practice, which is unlikely to happen any time soon.

And, I, at least, detected a plot.

I think the issue is, some readers (hi, Amber!) have reached a saturation point with a certain kind of fiction. Amber has referred to NYC-based fiction, but there's also the whole Roth-y thing, which Shteyngart, Lipsky, and more I can't think of at the moment are guilty of pretty much insofar as they are published and they write what they know and what they know relates to a world readers of fiction don't have to strain to understand. For me, the various twists, plus the fact that London is not NY, the UK not the US, saved this book from falling into the oh-no-not-another-one-like-that trap.

Anonymous said...

Dammit. Blogger ate my comment. Can it be rescued? Otherwise I'll try to recreate.

Phoebe said...

Nothing appeared in my inbox, so alas, comment's gone. (Keeps happening to mine as well!) What was the gist?

Anonymous said...

Basic idea:

1. Of course, I absolutely meant to do nothing other than state my own (and some other corroborating) opinion on the book. You know, opinions, arseholes, tastes, accounting, YMMV, etc. I thought the book sucked, but not because Jacobsen isn't an extremely gifted writer. That much was obvious from the first page to the last.

2. Jewish male writers ought to stop obsessing about their phalluses and circumcision. I get that it's an issue, but the obsessive focus on it is so chauvinistic, so excessively narcissistic, it makes me want to scream. Just stop it. We all know it's there, it's fine to mention it, but must it be a bluddy centerpiece of so much writing by Western Jewish male authors? Stop it.

Meant no awful assertion of authority, just that I felt a bit of an emperor-no-clothes thing in finishing the book, and was somewhat relieved to learn that I am apparently not alone.

PG said...

There seem to be an awful lot of non-Jews who get circumcised nowadays, at least in the U.S., so I don't understand why this has as much significance now as it might have when the ONLY reason someone would be circumcised was a religious one.

Phoebe said...


I'm going to have to take issue here, because I get the sense that Jews are held to higher standards than others when it comes to having to avoid being/seeming narcissistic, identity-obsessed, etc. The goal should be finding new things to say about Jewish identity (if that's going to be the topic) and not imitating Roth, not avoiding issues of Jewish identity altogether.

And circumcision is, was, likely always will be a key issue of Jewish identity. If a crucial body part announces a man's Judaism, this is always going to interest writers, assuming there are Jewish writers who haven't been, er, shamed into not writing about their experiences. Given the prominence the topic of circumcision has in 19th C French-Jewish newspapers, I do tend to think of it as a universal preoccupation, universal to the extent that Jews are living among Christians. Muslims would be a different matter.


The U.S. is different from other places (such as, perhaps, the UK, where the novel is set and where the author is from?) in that regard, but even so, not being circumcised continues to represent not being Jewish for Jews, male and female alike, but, obviously, male especially, since they're the ones likely to be thinking more about this, certainly from a younger age.

Anonymous said...


*shrug* I don't feel like I'm holding Jews to higher standards in requesting that they tone down making every reflection on modern Jewish male life inevitably include a great deal of reflection on their penises and circumcision. And I'm well-aware, thanks, of the centrality of circumcision to Jewish history and culture.

Thus, as I said, I'm not suggesting it should be entirely ignored. But it occupies such a privileged position in modern Jewish fiction writing, and yes, I absolutely do find the obsessive focus on the phallus both chauvinistic if not downright sexist and hegemonic, and narcissistic to a level I personally find intolerable.

Obviously, YMMV.

Phoebe said...

Not sure what YMMV stands for, but you're certainly entitled to your opinion. I wasn't implying you didn't know that circumcision's important to Judaism (remember, it's entirely possible that others also read the comments), but I think it's an important thing to point out in terms of explaining how on earth such a topic because so ubiquitous. It's not this random choice to focus on genitalia.

I suppose I don't find the focus inherently sexist (it can be done in a sexist way) because there is no equivalent for women. Jewish women's bodies are not marked as different, so this anxiety doesn't exist. It would certainly be refreshing to hear more about Jewish women's experiences, and maybe one day I'll write that novel, but as long as there are Jewish men writing semi-autobiographical, we'll be hearing about this topic.

Anonymous said...

YMMV = Your mileage may vary.

The fact that there is no analogue to circumcision for women does not imply that the obsessive focus on it within modern writing about Jewish men (typically by Jewish writers, of course) escapes charges of sexism and chauvinism. In fact, that is entirely the point, that such writing is grossly andronormative; the sexism is not that women don't get equal time because there's no analogue, it is absolutely because there is no analogue that the obsessive focus on it is so damn sexist.

It's also deeply reductionist, because as significant a cultural frame as circumcision is for Jewish men, I would suggest that it is nowhere near as central a part of many modern Western Ashekenazi Jewish's men lives as one would think in reading the genre. Some of us don't really reflect on our phalluses and on circumcision all or even most the damn time.

But anyway . . . obviously lots of room for disagreement on these matters and on the book in general. Just voicing my own in the navel-gazing space of WWPD's comments . . .

PG said...

not being circumcised continues to represent not being Jewish for Jews

Sure, though as you implicitly note, it's also representing not being Muslim. I think the first time I really thought about the circumcision issue was when I saw "East Is East," wherein the initial conflict of the film is between the Muslim immigrant father and his British-born wife over having their youngest belatedly circumcised. Even in the UK, circumcision is hardly peculiar to Jews.

Phoebe said...


Now I'm confused. Is the problem for you that: a) Jewish men of a certain background have too great a role in writing contemporary English-language fiction, b) the Jewish men writing this fiction fail to represent your experience/what you see as the more representative experience of Jewish men in their concerns, or c) that Jewish women are not so involved in representing the American-Jewish experience? That, and I think what we need to look at is, is there fiction that gets at the Anglophone Jewish experience in a less offensive-to-you way out there, and not getting published? Is there some kind of systematic reason for things being as they are? The idea that wunderkind novelist=man is pervasive, but are men rewarded for being a) Jewish, and b) willing to write about a phallus? There I'm not so sure.


This actually gets at another question, one that simply pointing out the existence of Muslims and their circumcision practices (which, as you acknowledge, I, at least, did not need pointing out) doesn't answer. Namely, the Western tendency of Jews to have as a primary Other - or, more like, to see themselves as the Other of - white Christians. Thus why "shiksa" even to this day, in the States, refers to a white, Protestant or Irish Catholic, woman, blond most likely, and not to any of the many many women who are neither Jewish nor NW-European in background. Jews, in other words, have an odd and not-so-straightforward relationship to whiteness. I mean, when someone says there's no such thing as looking Jewish, what they might mean (and what would make sense) is that there are black Jews, Asian Jews, etc., but what they really mean 99% of the time, unless otherwise specified, is that Jews are impossible to spot in a crowd of white people. I could go on and on about this, but the point here, for these purposes, is that it's of no particular interest to the Western Jewish man wary of his Other-ish status that Muslim men are also circumcised. If anything, it makes him feel more Other. Meanwhile, a Jewish man from a predominantly Muslim country is unlikely to be in danger of channelling Roth. (Albert Memmi, however...)

Anonymous said...


Not sure where you'd get the impression that I have any problem with Jewish men having "too great a role" in anything at all, fiction or underwater basketweaving. So definitely not "A."

"B" is closer, although I'm not sure it is Finkler's intention to represent as such. (OTOH, if he's going to pontificate such much on Jewish masculinity perhaps he must be held to such a representation).

Not sure about "C," but it is certainly possible. I guess I saw Jacobsen as an obvious part of a subgenre regarding Jewish masculinity that is obviously dominated by Roth. And in that subgenere, yes, there is far too much talk of penises and circumcision, and inasmuch as masculinity of any kind cannot be conceptualized absent honest and respectful engagement with femininity, such discourse necessarily excludes such engagement. That is at least in part why I find it so chauvinistic.