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Jacobson’s Politics and England’s Jews

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

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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.

Member of the Tribe [The New Yorker]
Letters—The Anti-Semitism Question [NYT Book Review]
The Jewish Question: British Anti-Semitism [NYT Book Review]
Family Business [TNR]
Related: Mirror Images [Tablet Magazine]
Albion’s Shame [Tablet Magazine]
Jewish Funhouse Mirror Is Alive and Not So Well [NYT]
Earlier: Howard Jacobson Pulls Off Man Booker Upset

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Jacob Arnon says:

I am glad Marc brought up the letter by Wood attacking Bloom’s review of Anthony Julius’ scholarly book on British antisemitism.

I thought when I first read it that the letter was an instant of chauvinist defensiveness on the part of Wood.

Wood who is married to the writer Claire Messud who has also written and anti-Israel book. Wood attack on Julius and now Jacobson then should be seen as another instant of British intellectual antisemitic superciliousness.

I loved Jacobson’s Finkler Question and didn’t think that it strove too hard to make us laugh. The book was very poignant and had a number of dark moments: one of the main characters (a holocaust survivor) commits suicide.

Maybe Wood finds being a holocaust survivor who commits suicide material for belly laughter. I doubt that most down to earth readers do.

Shalom Freedman says:

James Wood is on the anti- Israel team. This is a great shame because he is a critic of extraordinary ability and intelligence. Greater minds than his however have been mistaken, and even ‘evil’.
I once was a fan. But when I consider the bigotry and bad faith in his writings on Israel I simply lose my interest in reading him on other matters.

Jayrich says:

What hasn’t been said, and needs to be said:

Wood’s review is not just a poorly argued review, and poorly written review. It’s an anti-semitic review. Right down to the big-nosed illustration that accompanies it.

Full-bore anti-semitism? No. Subtle anti-semitism, the more insidious kind. And, frankly, a particularly English brand of it.

The entire review can be summed up this way: Jacobson, you’re too Jewish.

Wood caricatures Jacobson in order to put him down. “Garish,” “hyperbolic,” “impatient,” “shouting,” “fatalistic.” In other words: Jewish.

The review is very, very uneasy with what is not decorous and considered — what is not formal and elegant. He has real problems with Jacobson’s tendency to exaggerate — but what is comedy, if not exaggeration?

I was surprised to see Wood speak of Bellow as
“Mozartean” — completely ignoring that what makes Bellow Bellow is his elegant pugilism, his brio, his zesty exuberance. His Jewishness. All his best writing has these qualities.

The review is also full of laughers. Wood writes of filling the margins of his copy with criticisms. Well, I wrote in the margins of his review several times. To wit: “Comedy is the angle at which most of us see the world?” Huh? Who’s us? Ruling class elites? And how about this one: “monochromatically devoted to funniness, as a fever is devoted to heat.” Huh? And this one: Jacobson “can’t take his foot off the exaggeration pedal.” Wow; really bad.

Wood is not always so bad, but he’s vastly overrated as a writer of prose; he tries toohard; his analogies and metaphors are too often straining. Seldom does a review simply FLOW. It’s criticism of the most constipated kind.

I was also bothered, here, that he uses an author’s own words in an interview — not considered words, but spoken words — against him. Bad, bad form.

Also bad: the review never mentions that Jacobson’s novel won the Booker Prize, the preeminent British literary award.


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Jacobson’s Politics and England’s Jews

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

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