I read two novels during my recent Sicilian sojourn, Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (diverting enough as a Sharpe-ish comic novel, woefully facile as ‘literature’) and Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (the work of a master craftsman, though perhaps the craft overwhelmed the feeling).
Read back to back, I was struck by the similarities. Not just in the tone of voice - though it does seem that these middle-aged male prose stylists tend towards the same accent, all of them still in debt to the Great American Trio of Updike, Bellow and Roth - but also in more surprisingly specific ways.
Both books riff on Hamlet’s Ophelia (both specifically referencing the “There is a willow grows aslant the brook” monologue), ceiling fans (yes really - both concerned about how they might unscrew themselves), the giants of English literature, and - of course - breasts.
And, ultimately, at their heart both books appear to be about striving to live in a house in Hampstead. They are both astonishingly parochial novels, even though the writers work hard at conjuring grand themes. Jacobson’s more successful in this department, but I couldn’t help thinking that The Finkler Question is so specifically located - BBC-affiliated, middle class St John’s Wood dwellers (read: “Booker judges”) - that I’d be amazed if it translated internationally.
I devoured both in days, but came away feeling there must be more to the heavyweight English novel than this.link