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“She passed away in a perfected dream of tragic love – consumptive, wet-eyelashed, and as often as not singing her goodbyes to him in phrases borrowed from popular Italian opera.”

Julian Treslove in The Finkler Question

Completely by coincidence, while I was reading the Man Booker-prize winner, a friend invited me to a fabulous production of La Boheme by The Metropolitan Opera. In Howard Jacobson‘s book, Julian Treslove, an obscure BBC radio producer-turned-celebrity-lookalike, has a “Mimi complex” :

“He couldn’t picture them dying in his arms. Couldn’t weep for them. And where he couldn’t weep, he couldn’t love.”

The beautiful music of La Boheme builds up to the climax of Mimi’s death but The Finkler Question deals with the grief of those left behind. Treslove is friends with two recent widowers –  the elderly Libor Sevick, who was devoted and faithful to his “inspiration, his instructress, his companion, his judge” Malkie in a long marriage and, in contrast, a much younger Sam Finkler, who had a string of extra-marital affairs.

Treslove wants to ask Libor :

“How do you go on living knowing that you will never again – not ever, ever – see the person you have loved ? How do you survive a single hour, a single minute, a single second of that knowledge ? …. Was it better then – measuring the loss – not to know happiness at all ? “

Treslove is not a widower and unlike his two friends he is not Jewish. However after a sequence of events which starts with being mugged by a woman Treslove decides he wants to be a Jew, or as he says, a  “Finkler” :

“If this was what all Jews looked like , Treslove thought, then Finkler, which sounded like Sprinkler, was a better name for them than Jew. So that was what he called them privately – 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.”

Jacobson uses the wannabe Treslove and the contrast between the old Eastern European Libor and the secular Finkler to explore questions of Jewish  identity, antisemitism, and Israel and Palestine. But he also uses humour, even when discussing the Holocaust:

“Perhaps they [Jews] were able by a glance to thought-transfer the Holocaust to one another. “

and Jewish stereotypes:

“It was what God gave the Finklers as the mark of His covenant with them – the ability to shrug like him.”

The humour strikes exactly the right tone so that it does not diminish the seriousness of the issues being discussed and the laughter highlights the mourning of the two widowers. The book manages to be both funny and sad and it also provides hope:

“At a funeral Jews wish one another long life. It is a vote for life’s continuance in the face of death.”

Continuance in the face of death is the subject of Joan Didion‘s  heartbreaking The Year of Magical Thinking. In her memoir she unflinchingly describes her feelings after the sudden death of her husband of almost 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, while their daughter Quintana lies critically ill in a New York hospital.

The first words she writes are:

“Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.”

I read this book when it first came out in 2005 but re-read it when it was the most recent choice of my book club. I had forgotten just how good Didion’s writing is – the language is spare but crystal clear in portraying her feelings frankly and honestly, especially as she reaches the end of her year of magical thinking during which she keeps imagining John will be coming back. Anyone who has experienced the death of someone they love will find she has expressed the feelings they found inexpressible:

“The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none…..

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.”

Letting go is not easy but after reading Didion’s book you will know the answer to Treslove’s question – happiness is worth the measurement of  the loss.

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