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Jacobson’s Politics and England’s Jews

Intellectual skywriting with James Wood, Harold Bloom, and more!

Marc Tracy
November 05, 2010
Jacobson, last month, with his book.(Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)
Jacobson, last month, with his book.(Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)

One person who—unlike Tablet Magazine’s Adam Kirsch, the New York Times’s Janet Maslin, and the Man Booker Prize committee—did not particularly enjoy Howard Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Question was New Yorker critic James Wood, who found it striving too hard to make the reader laugh—“monochromatically devoted to funniness, as a fever is devoted to heat”—thereby sacrificing verisimilitude, plausibility, and therefore the ability to make the reader care.

Well, to each his own. It is worth noting Wood’s closing remark, on the novel’s politics, though. Writes Wood:

Formally, The Finkler Question gives voice to a decent Jewish liberalism, in which the question of Israel can be even-handedly debated (Jacobson writes a column for the left-leaning London newspaper the Independent); informally, The Finkler Question is always shading toward the atavistic and reactionary, the constant message being that, just as goys are more goyish than they seem, so Jews are more Jewish than they seem (witness Finkler’s political conversion, from liberal to conservative). Anyone can be an anti-Semite, the author says, but not anyone can be a Jew … .

I … dunno. It is only within the sphere of “decent Jewish liberalism” and a “left-leaning London newspaper” that the “question of Israel can be even-handedly debated”?

The passage is reminiscent of a letter written earlier this year to the New York Times Book Review complaining about Harold Bloom’s review of Anthony Julius’s mammoth history of English anti-Semitism (which Adam Kirsch also reviewed). “If there is more political discussion of [a left-wing nature] in Britain than in America,” the letter-writer argued, “it is not necessarily because the English are so anti-Semitic—or at least, I certainly hope not—but more likely (as [Tony] Judt has pointed out) because most Americans live in almost complete ignorance of the ‘fierce relevance’ of certain political realities and facts.”

The punch line is as predictable as, according to Wood, Jacobson’s are: The letter-writer was James Wood. (“What makes England so intrinsically enlightened?” retorted Leon Wieseltier. “They have The Guardian, I know.”)

Of course, I have a feeling that over at some daily magazine of British life and culture, they are examining this mini-brawl from an entirely different perspective.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.