The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

25 February 2011
Chapters 1-2…
…which make up the first quarter: they’re long chapters, with sub-chapters breaking them up. It’s the fourth comic (or semi-comic) novel by male British writers that I’ve read in the past three months, which is probably why I’m finding a lot of the territory a bit, well, dull. I’ll come back to that. Julian Treslove, the character whose point of view we follow for the whole of Chapter 1 and much of the rest, has three comic selling-points. The first is that he isn’t Jewish…. I’ll come back to that as well. The second is the comedy neurosis we find out about straight away: he can never live in the present, but has to wind things forward to the inevitable disastrous outcome of whatever is happening. A walk down the street is bound to end up with something heavy or sharp (or both) falling on to his head – he can hear the sound of his splintering skull – whilst any first encounter with a desirable woman has him fast-forwarding to his proposal, their marriage, and her tragic death.

The third thing about him is he’s somehow invisible, a non-person. He has a degree that is somehow a non-degree, made up of shards of ridiculous-sounding modules like concrete poetry or some form of anthropology that are somehow – even the tutors don’t understand the process – enough to get him a qualification. With this he is able to get a job as a radio producer on a Radio 3 programme that nobody listens to, and even his bosses don’t seem to know what he does. Etc. After he leaves the BBC he has some – guess – stupidly pointless jobs until he starts to get work as a look-alike. He doesn’t actually look like anybody, but he looks as if he might, so he gets work. (Are you finding this hilarious yet?)

He has two widower friends, one an old Jewish school-friend and the other who was briefly a teacher of theirs, also Jewish, who has made a living reporting on Hollywood. Julian isn’t a widower himself, but enough of his relationships have come to comic ends that he senses a fellow-feeling. In fact, they all deal with their bereavements (or whatever) differently: Julian is permanently maudlin because that’s what he’s like; Libor, old-school (and old) Eastern European, still idolises his dead wife and seems to be some sort of representative of the undying love party; and Sam Finkler the school-friend seems rather pragmatic, as though by comparison with whatever Libor had, his own marriage wasn’t up to much. As you would expect, the conversation often turns to Judaism in general, Zionism, Israel, anti-Semitism. Treslove doesn’t feel left out, because the same conversations are recycled endlessly.

Anyway, we have this drifting, unsuccessful non-Jew spending a lot of time with successful Jews. Finkler has made a name popularising philosophy in books and on television – think Alain de Botton, because that’s what Jacobson seems to have done – and Libor has spent time in the company of Hollywood stars and has written biographies of them. Finkler is constantly warning Treslove not to fall into the trap of stereotyping him or Libor. No, only Jews are allowed to do that, he says… so that’s what Jacobson does. I’m hoping he’ll start undercutting the stereotypes he’s set up fairly soon…

…which he might have begun to do with the only bit of plot we’ve had. I’d forgotten that another of Treslove’s comedy traits is the way that disaster affects those around him, but never him. He doesn’t travel on the Underground, not because of the 7/7 bombings but because a mad gunman was once on the next carriage to him; a tree once fell on the person standing next to him; the doctor who delivered him died on the way home, his son, another doctor, also died after treating him… etc. He’s now being treated by the grandson because, for the first time, trouble has happened to him instead of the next man. He’s been mugged by a woman who, as she robbed him, said something like ‘You’re Jules’ or ‘Your jewels – or, bizarrely, ‘You Jew!’

Mistaken identity? He asks Finkler, who simply takes the piss. Was he sure he was mugged by a woman? If she did call him a Jew, why would that be? There’s the merest whiff of an existentialist puzzle here, but for a philosopher, Finkler has yet to say anything terribly clever . And, now I come to think of it Libor, famous for being propositioned by Hollywood stars because he ‘makes them laugh’ has yet to say anything funny. Maybe he will soon. And maybe the next chapters will be more engaging than the first two. And, oh, I’ve just remembered: ‘Finkler’, as well as being his friend’s surname, is Treslove’s name for Jews. It’s to do with Jacobson holding up the word ‘Jew’ and worrying away at its difficult connotations.

(Recent comic novels note. As in One Day by David Nicholls (2009), Treslove finds it hugely easy to stumble into a career as a media producer; another character, like Dexter in that novel, finds himself a household name through regular appearances on television. Again as in that novel, a main character is briefly a teacher, but then goes on to become, like two of the characters in The Finkler Question, much more successful (and famous) as a writer. As in Deaf Sentence by David Lodge and If It Bleeds by Duncan Campbell….

Sorry, I’ll shut up about it. Except the characters in all these novels are famous and/or successful or know people who are, tend to complain a lot about how rubbish everything is – traits they share with the middle-aged male characters in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which is neither British nor mainly comic – live in London (except for Desmond Bates in Deaf Sentence, who only visits London to see his dad), are (except in One Day) middle-aged, hypochondriac and tend to worry about getting older. And all of them, even the shy, less successful ones – like Julian – obsess endlessly about themselves and their problems. And now I really will shut up about it.)

27 February
Chapters 3-5 – to the end of Part 1
God, this is a silly book. I’ve been looking at the snippets of critical praise on the back cover, about how it’s a masterpiece, brilliant, sharply intelligent…. What? What? I know I’m only half-way though, but I can’t believe that anything is going to happen to this ridiculous man that I’m either going to believe or to give a shit about. Ok, he’s finally met his ‘Juno’, a plump and voluptuous Jew to stand in stark contrast to all the skinny blonde non-Jewish women he’s ever known (The way Jacobson makes groups of people indistinguishable from one another is one of the things I find silly in this book. We’re even to believe that after 20-odd years he can’t really tell his two sons apart. Yawn.) ‘Juno’ is the name of the woman he’s been waiting for since a fortune-teller with a hilarious West Midlands accent told him to, and I suppose this is Jacobson’s way of reminding us that he’s not presenting us with reality here, but a fiction in which names can signal profound things. Oh, God. And I’ve got all of Part 2 to read yet.

What’s happened in these chapters is mainly to do with Jacobson conniving with Treslove to heap significance on to the low-key McGuffin of the mugging. Some time during Chapter 2 Jacobson has decided that he’s done enough work on his character to describe him from now on as ‘obsessive’. I don’t see it myself, but it’s the author’s way of giving credence to the way that Treslove can’t simply let it lie: he has to go on and on about it. It leads to the other thing that he has to go on and on about – there’s a lot of this kind of thing in these chapters – his hilarious idea that he might really be Jewish. (And from now on I promise to stop using ‘hilarious’ in that sarcastic way.)

Of course, it isn’t only supposed to be a joke. Here we have a famously Jewish writer creating a demonstrably non-Jewish character who is having an identity crisis. When Treslove says he’s happy with what he is, Finkler asks him, ‘What are you?’ – and he can’t answer. This, surely, is the ‘Finkler question’ of the book’s title. Treslove’s non-Jewish status, a fact that comes as an immediate surprise in a Howard Jacobson novel, is a smokescreen: all the Jewish people around him are as unsure of their identity as he is. Bizarrely, Treslove has become a Jewish Everyman. Everyjew? (Am I, a non-Jew, allowed to be as flippant with terminology as Jacobson?)

Have I made it sound impressive? I didn’t mean to, because of Treslove himself: I find him endlessly tedious, so that’s how I’m finding most of the novel. (There are other reasons why I find the novel tedious, but I’ll come back to them.) For a start, how does he live? He’s had a succession of poxy jobs, has had relationships leading to two sons, and he has absolutely no money worries. This is one of those blanks in the novel. This man lives comfortably in a part of London that isn’t really Hampstead – but nearly is – and lives on the income he drives from not really looking like anybody famous. Hmm.

It’s the problem you get with some comic novels: the world they take place inside – usually London – is a bit like the world we know. But, like any information about Treslove’s income, most of it is a blank – which might explain why there’s no mention of the 7/7 terrorist attacks: they took place in the real London, not this one. Jacobson isn’t interested in what might have motivated the real attackers anyway: the Middle East, for him and his navel-gazing characters, begins and ends with the question of Gaza. All the rest is another blank.

Not a massive amount has happened beyond Treslove’s wanderings in Finkler-land. (And that neologism is another irritant. I read a travelogue last year, part of the forgettable Narrow Dog franchise, in which Terry Darlington refers to the people who politely ask him why he’s travelling in foreign parts in an English narrow boat. He calls them ‘gongoozlers’, and I remember alleging that the word made me want to be sick. Finkler: ditto.) A woman he meets at a fancy-dress party guesses, wrongly, that he’s the lookalike of four possible Hollywood actors. They are all Jewish, which confirms him in the preposterous belief ever since the mugging that he looks like a Jew. We find out about his two sons, both named after operatic heroes whose lovers die tragically (from La Trav and La Bo). His ex-lovers give them those names, separately, in order to expunge the memory of the boys’ tragic heroine-besotted father. No comment, except…

…this brings us to names. Sometimes they are part of Jacobson’s endlessly tiresome word-play: the names of Alfredo and Rudolfo jingle through the narrative, and all Treslove’s ex-lovers have names beginning with J. (For a no-hoper, Treslove has had remarkable success with women. Sure, they get sick of him fairly quickly, but the no-hopers I know don’t get the women in the first place.) But Juno isn’t just another J, because it’s only a nickname for a the woman really called Hephzibah, and we’re on to the tricky (as in endlessly self-regarding) subject of the names of people and things. ‘Jewess’ is out, Treslove is told by Finkler’s wife – who is only Jewish by conversion; ‘Jew’ has had all its pejorative connotations endlessly explored; Yiddish and Hebrew pepper the narrative, usually to confuse Treslove and, I suppose, raise the issue of the linguistic exclusivity of Judaism. And, of course, names can be changed. Libor changed his to something more WASP-ish in Hollywood, and we all know how common it is for ambitious Jews – and don’t we all know how ambitious they are?! – to do exactly that. Maybe – Aahh! – one of Treslove’s ancestors did it too.

What’s my problem? It’s not new, that’s my problem. None of this comes as a surprise or a revelation, and things aren’t improved when Jacobson repeats a riff on one of these themes with very minor variations, if any. One of the few new things in these chapters – actually, it’s an extension of a theme covered before – is the theme of Jewish ambition and success. Finkler denies any interest in celebrity – a word, bizarrely, that Jacobson seems keen to avoid, perhaps because he’s aware that it’s already been done to death in plenty of other places – but he appears on Desert Island Discs anyway. The joke – chortle! – is that he doesn’t know any music and has to canvass his friends for suggestions. And the other joke is that on the programme he comes out with a blatantly insincere apologia for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. This leads to his becoming the figurehead for ASHamed Jews – the spelling is his idea, though the group is not – and, well, here’s Jacobson picking at yet another scab.

There must be other stuff I haven’t mentioned. If it’s important I’m sure it’ll come up again.

2 March
Part 2, Chapters 6-8
If these chapters are anything to go by – I’m not quite half-way through Part 2 – Jacobson has finished with anything we’ve read about so far that doesn’t come from the Encyclopaedia of Jews and What Makes Them Endlessly Fascinating. It’s as though he set himself the task of ticking off some kind of mental list: the Jewish obsession with food whose names evoke a shared heritage; the way that only Jewish people can play Western classical music (and how everybody seems to be related to a Heifitz or a Horovitz); circumcision; the Holocaust, and whether they go on about it too much; victim status, and whether they go on about it too much; Gaza, and whether they go on about it too much…. And, obviously, anti-Semitism.

One of the quotations on the back cover alleges that this book is ‘full of dangerous shadows,’ and during Part 1 I didn’t understand why. It seems to be because the subject of anti-Semitic attacks, which had merely been part of the absurdity of Treslove’s life in Part 1, has suddenly become central. Or, rather, Jacobson begins to pick away at the issue at regular intervals all through these chapters.

At the beginning of Part 2 we get a taste of an ASHamed Jews meeting, at which nuances of anti-Semitism – including the possibility of their own – are endlessly kicked about. In the next sub-chapter we get one of Treslove’s sons playing with the idea, inconsequently enough. Except, reader, it’s never inconsequential. In the sub-chapter after this, Libor hears from a (very) old flame that her grandson has been stabbed in the face by an Algerian calling him a ‘dirty Jew’. Libor finds it hard to make the right sympathetic noises: he’s been expecting the attacks to start ever since, well, the 1930s. Next, he thinks, it will be the return of Fascism.

And so on. By the time we reach Chapter 8 it’s Finkler who is on his way to be with his son, injured in an anti-Semitic attack in Oxford. Except Blaise, his daughter, tells him that Emmanuel – yes, reader, this really is how philosophers name their children in Jacobson-land – isn’t the victim, he’s the perpetrator. He’s knocked off the hat of an Orthodox Jew who, during an argument, seems to have come to personify Zionism for him. Finkler – whom we’ve seen being far more willing to acknowledge his own Jewishness recently, at least in private, ho ho – is appalled. It’s racism, he shouts. But how can it be, Dad? And so on.

The most recent attack is an insult which, at one level, misfires. Treslove is disturbed when Hephzibah gets home – yes, he now lives with her at her expensive place overlooking Lords – needing a drink. She tells him of an attack on the museum she is creating, and he is appalled. She begins to sob… except it isn’t a sob, it’s laughter: the attack takes the form of bacon wrapped around the handles and decorations on the door. Whoever did it obviously doesn’t realise that most British Jews – including Hephzibah – like nothing more than a bacon sandwich. But we know, don’t we? This might be a comic novel, but Jacobson has signalled his serious purpose clearly enough for us not to be fooled into thinking that this isn’t important.

God save us from comic novels with a serious purpose – the ones that lull us into a false sense of security and then, Wham! My problem with these chapters is the same as it’s always been: the comedy doesn’t work for me. And the subject of Jewishness, however many comic riffs Jacobson throws at it – the comic hyperbole, the pre-emptive ‘Oh, aren’t we self-obsessed?’ conversations, the satirical parading of Jewish stereotypes that doesn’t feel satirical to me at all – just isn’t interesting enough. As one character says of the Gaza issue (I think it’s in the ASHamed Jews chapter), it’s all on one note.

I haven’t said much about the plot because, at any conventionally novelistic level, nothing’s happened. Relationships don’t move on, they stay where they are – so, for instance, Treslove starts off besotted by Hephzibah and in scene after scene remains so. And man, doesn’t he love her little Jewish ways? What we get instead of development are scenes in which conversations take place and interesting things can be said about Judaism. Like, once and for all, does circumcision make sex a more or less pleasurable experience? And, my God, the riffs on ‘them and us’. There’s one scene in which Finkler and Hephzibah contrive to exclude Treslove, first about her name – Treslove, having spent months learning Hebrew has neglected to look up its meaning so is confused when Finkler greets her with ‘My delight is in you’ – and then about food. There’s a paragraph following the name thing when the words ‘they’ and ‘them’ are used four times in three lines – and whenever the Jewish characters use the word ‘us’ we know exactly who they mean.

A quarter of the novel to go. What’s going to happen? A real atrocity? Libor, who has been the focus of Jacobson’s contemplations about death, might die. (All the comic novels I’ve read recently have contained the death of someone significantly older than the main characters.) Treslove might stop with his lovable clown schtick. And… something that’s just occurredt to me: maybe this novel is only purporting to be about Judaism. Maybe the self-satisfied, exclusive attitudes on show are really a metaphor for the whole of Western society, with anti-Semitism a sub-metaphor for anti-Western terrorism. ‘Why do they hate us?’ is the plaintive cry of one character, the same words as were spoken after the 9/11 attacks. Of course, I don’t believe this for a minute. Really, I can’t think of any reasons why this self-indulgent stuff won the Man Booker.

3 March
Chapters 9-11…
…which leaves only about one-tenth of the book to go. Jacobson carries on with what I’ve always found an uneasy combination: slapstick comedy and high seriousness concerning Jewish identity. The slapstick usually takes place whenever Treslove is anywhere near. We get his comedy jealousy – are Hephzibah and Finkler having an affair? – his comedy pretensions to being Jewish crashing humiliatingly against his comedy sense of exclusion whenever a Jew is within 100 yards of him… etc. The serious stuff comes whenever Libor makes an appearance and, increasingly, as Jacobson gives us an inside view of the uncertainties that are beginning to trouble Finkler.

Yes, Finkler. For most of the novel he has represented a particular Jewish archetype: the pushy, confident, self-centred success story with an eye for the main chance. He’s always had affairs outside marriage – referring to the women involved as his mistresses as though to claim membership of a very old club for men with a particular status. He’s even good at on-line poker, winning £3000 in a single session. But all that is changing. The resentments of the other members of ASHamed Jews are leading to him feeling marginalised; debates he could previously win in his sleep suddenly seem fraught with hidden hazards; he has fantasies of sexual conquests but finds himself on the prowl for prostitutes – and he’s losing at poker.

What’s going on? Guess. His easy certainties about where he fits into Judaism simply don’t work for him any more. Jacobson needs us to understand that there’s a ‘paradox’ at the heart of his position, so he spells it out in a sub-chapter at the point I’ve just reached based on a rather clunky premise. It’s Finkler’s dead wife who has to do the spelling out, in a posthumous message she left for him that he’s never read properly before. It’s to do with the special moral status Jews accord themselves so ‘they can treat everybody else like shit.’ But if they’re morally superior they ‘should know better.’ She goes on to say that the ASHamed Jews are more critical of Zionism than they need to be: every settlement is based on the displacement of the people who live there already…..

I’m bored with this. For me it’s not the paradox that’s interesting, it’s this concept of in some way being set aside from normal judgments. Jacobson mocks the endlessly self-important self-examination whilst allowing it to carry on, endlessly, in his novel. I’m bored with this now as well.

More serious stuff. Hephzibah, who for most of Part 2 has represented the promised land for Treslove, is also developing an inner life. She’s becoming subject to concerns about anti-Semitism: there’s been more vandalism at the museum, which she doesn’t tell Treslove about. (He mistakes her quietness for evidence of her keeping something from him – an affair? Yawn.) She starts to imagine a more serious attack, tries to imagine those women transported out of their lives by the Nazis. Like her, they probably thought it couldn’t possibly happen…. There’s a play that they all attend which I can’t be bothered with just now. And, of course – I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed its absence before – there’s Holocaust denial. It’s one of Treslove’s sons who comes out with it and, as Jacobson presents it, it’s a preposterous Aunt Sally. (As is the blogger attempting to re-grow his own foreskin, daring to refer to circumcision as genital mutilation. Give me strength.)

So. The seriousness of purpose, despite the comic relief of Treslove’s clownishness, is prevailing. There’s death in the air – Libor’s mortality is being signalled in foot-high letters, and even when the Holocaust is mentioned sarcastically – ‘Here we go again!’ – it’s still being mentioned. This is a novel that celebrates what it satirises, for hundreds of pages. I’ll be glad when it’s over.

5 March
Chapters 12, 13, Epilogue
Somewhere earlier in Part 2 the phrase ‘dying fall’ occurs. It isn’t signalled strongly enough to echo at the start of Chapter 12, in which Libor makes his way to Eastbourne by train and to ‘Bitchy ‘Ead’ by taxi. He’s told his friends ages ago how he and his beloved wife came there years ago to check it out as a possible suicide venue, but I was too slow to pick up on it as a clue. Jacobson repeats the joke that Libor’s pronunciation is so bad the person listening – this time an Eastbourne taxi driver, for God’s sake – can’t be sure where he means. (The first time I think it’s Treslove who wonders who Bitchy Ed might be.) That’s our Howard, always mixing the comic with the unbearable. Except it isn’t unbearable, it’s a bit ordinary. For me there’s another echo, definitely unintentional this time, of the attempted suicide of a different old man who is finding everything too much to bear. It’s Alfred in The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, an author who really does make old age seem unbearable and the suicide attempt a kind of black farce. By comparison, Libor’s pessimism seems little more than another aspect of his Jewishness and the whole sub-chapter struck me as glib.

I didn’t mention that Part 2 has its chapters shared out far more equally among its main characters than Part 1. It doesn’t even begin with Treslove, who has to take his turn between Finkler and Libor. So whereas the first half of the novel is really about him, the second half is far less so. I find this strange, and I wonder whether Jacobson had cold feet about basing a novel about Jewishness mainly on a non-Jew – the one whose comedy exploits and attitudes I found so tiresome in Part 1.

Whatever. Whilst there’s still occasional comedy, the seriousness is almost all-pervasive now. I would be perfectly ok with this if it worked but, as I’ve already suggested, I think it’s a terribly difficult one to pull off. (David Lodge doesn’t really manage it in Deaf Sentence, another novel that becomes suffused with mortality in its second half, and even has the main character visiting Auschwitz near the end.) I say, slip the comedy in amongst the seriousness, not vice versa: I can’t think of any novels where vice versa works.

More dying falls, of a less literal nature. We get self-blame which, in this novel, is more or less universal. For a start, why didn’t Treslove’s son, the one who plays piano in hotels, try to stop the old man in the train? Sure, he didn’t know who it was, but where else would an old man on an Eastbourne train be going if not to his own death? This is preposterous, of course, and it’s supposed to be, but Treslove’s own guilt is more real – and more predictably self-obsessed. In his mind Libor was probably tipped over the edge (so to speak) by hearing Treslove’s confession regarding his adultery with Finkler’s wife. (Adultery is a kind of given with him and Finkler; even Libor at least pretends, for form’s sake. It’s one of the lazy things I hate about this novel: men screw around, so live with it. Christ.) Is he right to blame himself for his crassness? Do I care? Meanwhile Hephzibah is wondering whether she could have taken Libor under her wing a bit more – she’s his great-niece – made his widowerhood more bearable. And Finkler… we hear very little about him now, except that he is going to go through the Jewish rites of mourning like a true son of the faith.

This is another theme of these last chapters: the defeat of reason by, well, whatever its opposite might be. Sometimes it’s the idea of a guiding fate: Jacobson makes it easy for Treslove to believe that his ‘Juno’ – a name that disappears almost without trace once both author and character have had their little jokes with it – is an inevitability, and that his previous one-night stand, the one who thinks he’s a lookalike for Jewish film stars, was sent by his guardian angel to prepare him for a non-Treslove-style lover. We’d expect this from him – but Finkler starts to do it as well: the events of Part 2 contrive to undermine his rationality, send him more and more back into what he’s been denying all his life: his Jewish spirituality. Christ, again.

The last of the dying falls is the end of Treslove’s relationship with Hephzibah. All along it’s seemed too, well, silly: the way that every little thing she does is magic for him, the doting way he pretends that she’s some kind of Jewish homecoming. Well, thank God that’s over – except the way it ends is, like Treslove himself, a non-thing. He stays out all day, contemplating Libor’s death and other things of deep personal concern that I can’t remember now. He sees a young Hasidic Jew surrounded by a group of other young people, mildly taunting him. Is this the beginning of the end of civilisation? No. Treslove and a woman out walking her dog tell them to stop it and they do. But…

… the incident gnaws at Treslove – bet you didn’t guess that would happen – and he goes for an uncharacteristic drink. It’s only when he gets home that he remembers he’s missing the reception for the opening of Hephzibah’s museum. What? What? Does he phone her? No, because nobody has a mobile phone in Jacobson’s alternative reality. Does he run to the reception? No, because he’s an idiot. He’s hours late by the time he gets there, and isn’t allowed in.

And that’s it. Ok, there’s some business with bouncers and their insistence on an invitation, there’s a preposterous scuffle with some anti-Zionists staging a low-key vigil outside. But, basically, it’s apparently all over with Treslove and Judaism. We don’t know because, having been inside his clownish head on and off throughout the novel, suddenly we’re not. There’s a short epilogue in which the remaining Jewish characters – Hephzibah and Finkler – talk about him as though he’s disappeared from their lives. For Hephzibah, he’s ‘dead to her’. It’s as though – gulp – he was never there. That’ll teach him to try and gatecrash this party. Haven’t you been listening? No invite, no entry.

I still don’t know what this book thinks it’s about. It offers Jacobson what I’ve been complaining about for so long I’m not going to do it any more: the opportunity to go on about the Finkler question. Why he has a non-Jewish character at the heart of it I don’t know. Why the burning question of the 21st Century – the relationship between the powerful nations and the powerless – should come down to the single issue of Israel in Gaza I don’t know. Why anybody thinks this is a good novel at any level – structure, plot, character development – I have no idea. Enough.


2 Responses to The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

  1. Adele Perlov says:

    Having hated this book even as i read it (for a book club discussion), and havng listened to so many friends and colleagues praise this awful book, i was ecstatic to read this reveiw. Finkler’s Question is the first book by Jacobson that i’ve read – and it is also surely the last. I have read many books with no sympathetic characters, but somehow this one had no interesting characters, either.

  2. Edmundzew says:

    Righteous dope ! an dazzlingpresent
    Good click

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