This week I went to a reunion, which wasn’t nearly as traumatic an experience for me as it is for Martin in Grosse Pointe Blank, partly because I gave up contract killing years ago, but mainly given that we meet regularly every six months, but we call it a reunion to make it a slightly bigger deal to try and ensure all six of us make an effort to be there. In trying to decide which books to discuss, I found those treating the subject of reunions a bit sparse. As a result, I’ve picked two that share a lot of similarities; both are written by British male authors, both consider the subtleties of male friendship, and both won the Booker prize. So there may not be as much contrast this week as I normally aim for in my book choices, but I hope you enjoy them. I will also claim that together they represent the characters’ relationships in both books as they are united yet disparate, sharing a common ground but a very different language. While this is true, I’m not clever enough to have made this my reasoning at the time. The reason was they were all I could come up with. I hope you enjoy!
Firstly The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. This was the first book by Jacobson that I’d ever read, and I think on the basis of this I will hunt down more of his work. I found The Finkler Question funny, intelligent and thought-provoking, not an easy balance to achieve. After a reunion with his schoolfriend Sam Finkler and their teacher Libor, Julian Treslove walks home and is mugged by a woman who he believes says “You Jew” to him, despite the fact that he’s not Jewish (both Sam and Libor are). Following this incident Treslove begins to explore Jewish culture and identity further, struggling to work out his place amongst it. Meanwhile, both Finkler and Libor are grieving widows, searching for ways to stop themselves drifting rudderless with grief.
All three characters are fully drawn, but it is Treslove who provides the main point of view, and he is an incredible creation, because frankly, he is a monumental prick, and yet Jacobson manages to make you not despise him. He would claim he loves women, but really only sees them as a vehicle for his over-developed sense of sentimentality, continuously picturing them on their deathbed, himself wracked with grief, living out the operas he adores. When Libor, who actually is wracked with grief for a woman he genuinely loved, mentions trying to cope with the pathos of life: “Treslove couldn’t bear the thought. Why did anyone want a defence against pathos?” Alongside this sentimentality he is fixated with Judaism, but doesn’t think of himself as an anti-semite, despite the fact of referring to all Jewish people by the name of his Jewish friend, to construct thoughts such as: “if you were a Finkler you just found it in your genes, along with other Finkler attributes it was not polite to talk about.” He is so self-deluding that: “For a moment he wondered if that was the reason he had fared so badly at the BBC himself –anti-semitism.”
Oh boy. What an arsehole. An yet the humour of the novel lends it such a lightness of touch that you end up seeing the pathos of Treslove, not the one he wants whereby he can rend his garments, but a more ordinary pathetic quality, of someone trying desperately hard to understand the life they are living, and failing. Even at the small level, things are baffling: “At a certain age men began to shrink, and yet it was at precisely that age that their trousers became too short for them. Explain that.” So Treslove’s attempt to understand Middle East politics is bound to fail. It’s here that the book becomes more complex, as Jacobson uses the lives of these characters to explore wider notions of identity, history and politics, particularly regarding Jewish culture. At this point I felt I wasn’t clever enough for this story, as Jacobson is so adept at painting the various shades of grey that I felt my understanding wasn’t subtle enough. One of the characters realises “What she might be wrong about today she will be right about tomorrow.” That’s what I took away from this novel, that there are no easy answers, no one story to be told, either on a personal level or a worldwide stage. But it is better to laugh than cry: “He did something with his shoulders which he hoped she would interpret as emotional pain, but not too much.”
Secondly, Last Orders by Graham Swift. The reunion in this novel is defined by who doesn’t attend: the friends of Jack Dodds meet in south London (Bermondsey) to travel to Margate (a seaside town in Kent) to scatter his ashes at sea. The characters take it turns to tell the story of that day and the history that binds them. His son Vince, Ray the lucky gambler, Lenny, whose daughter had a baby with Vince, and Vic, the undertaker. Jack’s wife Amy stays behind but also narrates (as does Jack and Vince’s wife Mandy at points). It is determinedly ordinary: although an unusual day nothing extraordinary occurs, there is no great drama. As they tell their stories you begin to understand what binds these men together, and what the great moments and great disappointments of their daily lives have been. Some of the chapter headings take their names not from the narrator, but geographical locations along the way. I’ve decided to quote from “Canterbury” because it reminded me (deliberately, I’m sure) of Chaucer’s pilgrims, who also travel from south London (Southwark) to Kent. The men in this group aren’t Knights and Squires, they aren’t captured in epic poetry, but Swift shows us the grandeur of daily life:
“I sit there, keeping an eye out, but I don’t see them anywhere, so I get up and find the way out, and then I spot them, standing on the paved area, looking out for me. I think, Friends. The sky’s dark and threatening, and the wind’s cold but they don’t look like they’re getting peeved. They look like they’re glad to be here together, like all’s forgiven. I think, maybe….I can feel the cathedral behind me, looking at me.”
This quote also highlights the main drawback of the book. Swift has attempted to capture vernacular south London speech (of which I am a native speaker), but he doesn’t quite manage it. I think with this sort of thing you’ve either got to go all out (like Trainspotting) or ignore it completely. What Swift ends up with is a mixture of the two and as such the voices don’t sound authentic. What is authentic however, is the characters’ experience, feelings and reactions, and this is the story’s great strength. Not a flawless novel, but still a moving one.
Here are the books, reunited (I know, totally uninventive photo, but how to portray a reunion?):