Shylock is my Name (2016) by Howard Jacobson

shylockismyname

There has been frustratingly little reading time this last week or two and I’m trying very hard not to feel a bit down about it. It’d be horrible if reading were to become some sort of competition where I have to read so many books in a year or I’ll feel like a failure…. But at the moment it seems to be taking me a long, long time to finish any books at all. It’s disappointing. I miss reading. It makes my day (and me) a little bit nicer.

“That’s how vilification works. The victim ingests the views of his tormentor. If that’s how I look, that’s what I must be.”

This book was a birthday present from P earlier in the year on the back of a documentary we saw with Jacobson and Alan Yentob in Venice in which they talked about our responses to Shylock. I came away with the impression that this was a sort of retelling of The Merchant of Venice but that’s not quite right; it’s more of a re-plotted, re-imagined tale in which Shylock – not a version of Shylock but the actual Shylock fresh from Venice – strikes up a strange friendship with modern day art dealer Simon Strulovitch in a Manchester cemetery. The two have a lot to talk about and when Strulovitch’s precocious daughter Beatrice becomes entangled with a Nazi saluting footballer, Shylock suggests that Strulovitch exact his ‘pound of flesh’ from the man who has wronged him in a way that will sound eerily familiar.

The conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock form the backbone of this novel. They discuss errant daughters, fatherhood, what it means to be Jewish and how Jews and non-Jews regard each other in the modern world. Their discussions are interesting, funny and challenging enough that they aren’t as tortuous as they would be in the hands of a less clever author. In fact, they’re the perfect mouthpiece for Jacobson to explore Shylock’s place in our world and you get a strange sense that he’s really enjoying doing this. The rest of the novel feels kind of flimsy in comparison and I wondered whether Portia (or Plurabelle as she is here) deserves a bit better than Jacobson is willing to give her; she’s no longer the spirited young woman capable of annihilating Shylock in court but the vapid star of a reality TV show. It doesn’t seem quite fair. Shylock on the other hand is just as disconcerting here as he is in the play; he’s vociferous both in defending his own actions four hundred years previously and in urging Strulovitch towards revenge.

It helps if you have at least a passing familiarity with The Merchant of Venice beforehand. I haven’t read the play but I’ve seen it performed on stage and on film so I was fairly confident that I’d get to grips with this in no time. Within a few chapters, however, I was flicking through The Complete Works of Shakespeare trying to remind myself what the hell the monkey had to do with anything (and then kicking myself for having forgotten that the monkey is the final twist of the knife in Jessica’s attempt to hurt her father; it’s kind of a big deal). I think I kept up with this novel but maybe I’d have appreciated some of the nuances a bit more if I’d had a deeper knowledge of the play. It’s something I’ll have to bear in mind for a future reread. Even armed with a bit of knowledge, I imagine this isn’t always easy going, partly because the conversations between the two main characters require some concentration but also because, while there’s a certain amount of dark humour here, there’s also some bewildering anti-Semitism on the part of some of the other characters. Much like The Merchant of Venice, this isn’t a comfortable experience and although it doesn’t have the same power to devastate I admire the way it’s told.

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