It's about time. Howard Jacobson, a novelist who has been consistently overlooked by the British literary establishment, has landed the big one. The Booker. It feels as if the British novel has shifted on its axis.
The Finkler Question, a clever, canny, textured, subtle, and humane novel exploring the friendship of three ageing male friends, is Jacobson's 11th novel. Like the others, it is a work of greatness. The central preoccupation is with the nature of modern Jewishness, a common Jacobson theme, but over the course of the book this flays into a powerful and, at times, haunting examination of friendship, love, and loss.
Jacobson's capacity to explore the minutiae of the human condition while attending to the metaphysics of human existence is without contemporary peer.
Jacobson's leitmotif, and the oft-cited reason for why he has hitherto been snubbed by those who hand out literary baubles, is his predilection for comedy. Critics of a certain mindset seem to abhor wit, supposing that it is indicative of superficiality and insufficient moral seriousness. This, of course, is a depressingly lazy perspective. In the right hands, comedy is a powerful rhetorical device, subverting assumptions and probing biases. Although The Finkler Question is by no means a straightforward comic novel, it once again demonstrates Jacobson's mastery of the form.
Those who have championed Jacobson over the years will perceive this year's award as a vindication, not least because the judges were explicit that Jacobson's victory was about challenging the bias against literary humor. Sir Andrew Motion, the chairman of the judges, said that comedy's place in society had changed. "It would be very easy to characterize a book we have called comic as being somehow relentlessly middlebrow and easy-peasy," Motion said. "Actually it's a book which is much cleverer and more complicated. . . It has that depth of cleverness and subtlety and human understanding in it. I think it is a wise book."
The Finkler Question is a fine and endlessly satisfying novel, and thoroughly deserving of the Booker. But it is by no means Jacobson's best. From No More Mr Nice Guy (about the dark side of the masculine psyche) to The Mighty Walzer (about ping pong in the north of England), Jacobson's capacity to explore the minutiae of the human condition while attending to the metaphysics of human existence is without contemporary peer. Perhaps the most pleasing thing of all is that Jacobson's back catalogue, for so long overlooked, might be due for a seismic reevaluation.
Matthew Syed is a columnist for The Times of London and a commentator for the BBC. He has been named British Sports Feature Writer of the Year by the Sports Journalists' Association. He is also a three-time Commonwealth table tennis champion, a two-time Olympian, and the author of Bounce .