Many different adjectives have been used over the years to describe the books that have won the Man Booker Prize, one of the English-speaking world's most sought-after literary awards. But "funny" has rarely been one of them. Until now.
British novelist Howard Jacobson surprised much of the literary world by becoming the 42nd winner of the £50,000 ($80,000) prize for "The Finkler Question," a darkly comic novel that explores Jewish life in Britain today along with questions about love, loss, and male friendship.
The chair of the Booker judges, Sir Andrew Motion, called "The Finkler Question" "a marvelous book: very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad, and very subtle."
At 68, Jacobson is a literary veteran. He published his first novel 27 years ago and has written a total of 15 books. He also has a weekly column in the British newspaper The Independent and was long-listed for the Booker twice before, in 2002 and 2006.
Jacobson joked that he began preparing his acceptance speech for this award in 1983.
Perhaps because humor is rarely associated with the very literary Booker prize, Jacobson's victory was a surprise to many. He beat out some very strong contenders, including Australian writer and two-time Booker winner Peter Carey whose novel "Parrot and Olivier in America" had been predicted as the winner by many. British writer Tom McCarthy was favored by British bookies for his novel "C," a meditation on time and technology.
One way or another, humor and questions of Jewish identity are at the core of his work. Although Jacobson says that he does not consider himself to be "conventionally Jewish," he also has said, "What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence.... What a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that's what shapes the Jewish sense of humor, that's what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness."
Jacobson's victory is also being seen as a big win for the comic novel. Last week, in an essay for The Guardian, Jacobson lamented that "We have created a false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness." He asked: “[W]hen did you last see the word ‘funny’ on the jacket of a serious novel?"
Perhaps "The Finkler Question" has now become the novel that will close the gap.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.