Category Archives: Thoughts on fictional words

The Finkler Question: a worthy Booker winner?

“How is it possible”, chundered The Times, “to read Howard Jacobson and not lose oneself in admiration for the music of his language, the power of his characterisation and the penetration of his insight?” After starting The Finkler Question, which won the Man Booker 2010, I wondered if it would be possible for me to finish it.

I don’t slate novels often, or casually. Partly this is because I rarely dislike all of a book; three hundred pages of dreck can be redeemed with one insight, one funny set piece, one pithy sentence. But this novel won the Booker, and I am struggling to point out a redeeming characteristic or an enjoyable moment. There were a few smirk-worthy gags, I suppose, but it seemed to wobble like a drunk uncle between antic, silly comedy and meditations on death and friendship and Jewishness. God knows it avoided anything unseemly like an actual plot.

picture by clayworkshop

The Finkler Question. What's the answer??

I mean, Jesus Christ, have we set our literary standard so low that this boring, boring, pointless novel can be published to a golden shower of praise?

John Banville commented a few years ago that “the kind of novels that I write very rarely win the Man Booker Prize, which in general promotes good, middlebrow fiction.” The Finkler Question is certainly middlebrow, but I would hesitate to call it good. The central conceit, which sets up the protagonist as an absurdly naïve semitophile, is laboured and silly. The characters are, I suppose, caricatures; but Jacobson can’t seem to decide how far he wants to exaggerate them, and as a result all we really get is an outline of a personality. Exploring the different responses of the British Jewish community to the situation in Israel is actually a pretty good idea for a novel, so it’s a shame Jacobson feels compelled to bounce us around unlikely friendships and contrived relationships as well.

It’s a pity that such an offensively bland novel has won the Booker when exhilarating work like Tom McCarthy’s C was shortlisted. However, it’s not really a surprise, given the committee was chaired by the offensively bland Andrew Motion. I really, genuinely believe that fiction can still be relevant, that telling stories is crucial to understanding the world we live in. Reading a good book can be like having a conversation; The Finkler Question is just mumbling to itself.

Fearghus Roulston

A literary experiment

Scottish literature has a history of experimentation, both in form and content. But what would happen if a handful of the legendary characters of the genre were subjected to an experiment outside their original authors’ control? Say, locked together in a cramped flat, Big Brother style, and forced to talk to one another?

Luckily for the curious among you, a transcript of just such an experiment exists. Here is an extract from it… (key to characters can be found below)

Jean Brodie: Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.

Thomas Begbie: Ah’m tellin’ ye, nae fucking cunt could sort oot ma wee Betsy.

John Rebus: I don’t think Jean was referring to pitbull cross bitches, Thomas.

Begbie: Ken what you are Rebus. Ye’re a fucking smartairse cunt.

Jean: But underneath that rough exterior lies a yearning artistic heart. Won’t you come with me to Italy, John. John. Look into my eyes, John…

Rebus: I’m feeling sleepy.

Harry Potter (aside): That’ll be my quaffleswidditch potion taking effect.

Hermione Granger: You mean my quaffleswidditch potion!! You couldn’t remember the recipe.

Begbie: Hey Doll. Yes, you. Care to come over and sit on old Uncle Begbie’s knee?

Harry: Don’t go, Hermione.

Hermione: I’ve got to Harry. I’ve got to make Ron jealous.

Jean: Sexual desire is an important quality to nourish in the human soul. Just ask Mussolini.

Begbie: That’s mair fucking like it, Jeanny-babes. Now pass me my skag.

Harry: Are you sure the policeman is the one possessed by Lord Voldemort?

Hermione: Only one way to find out…

To be continued. Possibly.

Key to characters

Jean Brodie: eponymous Edinbugh schoolteacher anti-hero of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

Thomas Begbie: ‘the psycho one’ in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, played by Robert Carlyle in the film.

John Rebus: Ian Rankin’s grizzled Edinburgh copper, veteran of fifteen novels and recently retired by his creator. Played on the small screen by the awesomely-nig-nosed Ken Stott.

Harry Potter: Young wizard, male, good at quidditch.

Hermione Granger: Young wizard, female, good at spells.

Tony Garner

The problem with Dublin’s literary heritage

In Ulysses, James Joyce’s most famous novel, a character wonders if it would be possible to walk across Dublin without passing a pub. When I lived in Dublin I used to wonder if it would be possible to go into a pub in Dublin that didn’t claim to have some kind of connection with a famous Irish writer! Like no other city in the world, Dublin is self-consciously ‘literary’- it has a reputation and it is intent on maintaining it, with pictures of Beckett and Joyce in every other pub and hotel, and plaques everywhere pointing out where famous writers were born, died, or at least sat down for a while. Like leprechauns and traditional music, literature helps create Ireland as a global tourist brand. The benefits for tourism have been impressive in the last few decades, but it can seem a little trite, and a little silly.

Joyce, Samuel Beckett and the poet William Butler Yeats are the most commodified and publicized writers on the tourist trail, which is interesting given that Yeats had a difficult, often unhappy relationship with Irish life, and that Joyce and Beckett left as soon as they could. Joyce in Zurich and Beckett in Paris both wrote about Ireland throughout their careers, but with anger and scorn as well as affection. Joyce sneered at it as ‘that priest-ridden nation’. So with this in mind, I thought I’d try and write a kind of alternative tourist guide to ‘literary Ireland’, and discuss some writers who haven’t been as exhaustively celebrated in the capital.

Joyce’s Ulysses is rightly praised for its descriptions of Dublin. However, the city has been beautifully depicted elsewhere. J.P. Donleavy, an American serviceman who took the opportunity to study in Dublin after the war, supplied one of the most memorable descriptions in his novel The Gingerman (after which, of course, a pub has now been named). The roguish protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield, drinks and romances his way through various parts of town, and Donleavy recreates the beauty of the city whilst poking fun at the conservative, Catholic middle classes who make up a large chunk of the population. The book was banned after its publication, mainly because of a scene where Sebastian inadvertently exposes himself on the tram. Another controversial portrayal of Dublin is contained in James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, a fictionalized description of the industrial riots of the 1920s. Plunkett creates a colourful, Dickensian cast of characters from the inhabitants of one of the city’s slums, and describes the poverty and degradation of their lives unsparingly.

His ear for the evocative language of inner-city Dublin is reminiscent of a more recent novelist, Roddy Doyle. Doyle, who was a school-teacher before writing his first book, used his experience of the way schoolchildren talked to create some memorably funny dialogue. The Commitments, about a group of Dublin teenagers who form a soul band, is a great example of this style. It has since been made into a successful film. Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy was also adapted for the cinema, but the two novelists couldn’t be more different. McCabe’s characters speak in the crudely colourful language of small-town Ireland, reflected through a gothic, violent style. The New York Times sees him as “uncovering a hidden English-Irish lyricism that has not previously found its way into literature”. Lyricism is also a key element in the work of another novelist, John Banville, whose evocatively written books often describe a nostalgia for childhood and for old Ireland.

These writers are just some examples of the counterpoint to the endless discussion of Joyce and company. I don’t think we should stop talking about them; their success and their work is of lasting importance to Irish cultural heritage. But McCabe and Doyle have a great deal to say about contemporary Ireland, and their names don’t appear on any plaques as far as I know. Roddy Doyle runs a scheme called Fighting Words for inner-city Dublin children. The idea is to teach them to approach creative writing in the same way they would approach football. Even if you’re not Cristiano Ronaldo (or John Banville), you can have fun with it and enjoy yourself. Schemes like this are far more important than statues of dead poets, or selling green hats to gullible Americans with Irish ancestors. I’m glad Dublin is seen as a tourist destination, and as a literary hub. I would just like it if more was done to encourage visitors to look past Ulysses and Innisfree and see that there’s still a vibrant community of novelists making exciting, relevant work, which talks to the future of Ireland as well as its past.

Fearghus Roulston