Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson

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Reviewed by Rob Spence

2016 is clearly going to be the year of Shakespeare, though it seems rather gruesome to ‘celebrate’ the anniversary of his death. In 1964, when the world was a simpler place, the quatercentenary of his birth led to a glut of books, many of which have not stood the test of time – though I should make an exception for Anthony Burgess’s brilliant Nothing Like the Sun, which highlights the author’s dexterity with language in a tour-de-force of verbal invention.

Howard Jacobson is about as close as we can get in contemporary writing to Burgess: also a Mancunian, also long exiled, and also a lover of the extravagant in language. His contribution to this year’s Willfest is a volume in Hogarth’s Shakespeare Retold series, in which leading writers are invited to reimagine the canon. Jacobson, rather predictably, has been assigned the task of presenting a version of The Merchant of Venice, and he approaches the job with his customary vigour.

Jacobson sets the scene, not in Venice, but in the rather strange Cheshire hinterland of Manchester, haunt of trendy media types and millionaire footballers. It really is known as the Golden Triangle, that area around the leafy and affluent towns of Wilmslow, Alderley Edge and Mottram St Andrew, and Jacobson makes much of that handily fairytale-like name. It lends a somewhat surreal air to the proceedings, and this suits the author’s method here. The characters derive rather loosely from the cast list of the play, though the relationships are altered. Fathers and daughters, Jews and Christians, deceit and duplicity, all feature strongly. As in the ur-text, the central character is not nominally Shylock, but the merchant, here transformed into car-part mogul (and lapsed Jew)  Simon Strulovitch, whose tempestuous relationship with Beatrice, his wayward daughter, is the engine by which the plot is propelled. And it’s really rather a creaky plot. The sixteen-year-old Beatrice has acquired a footballer boyfriend, the improbably named Gratan Howsome (Graziano from the Shakespeare, I suppose) who, when not celebrating goals with a modified Hitler salute, is fetishising  Jewish girls. Strulovitch, in a Burgessian formulation, calls him a ‘chthonic arsehole.’ The couple are supported by local TV celebrity Plurabelle ( or Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine, to give her full ludicrous name) and mysterious art dealer d’Anton (Antonio in the play, I guess) in their efforts to thwart angry dad Strulovitch’s attempts to part them.

As for Shylock, he appears early on in the cemetery where Strulovitch is visiting his mother’s grave. It is not clear (at least to me) if Shylock has been transported whole from the play, landing intact in twenty-first century Cheshire, or whether he is a present-day version of Shakespeare’s character. Either way, he soon takes up residence in Strulovitch’s luxury home, acting as his advisor and confidant in the matter of l’affaire Beatrice.

The play is notoriously difficult to categorise, though Shakespeare’s contemporaries had no qualms in seeing it as The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice. Jacobson seems to take his cue from that interpretation, and the novel features quite a bit of knockabout humour reminiscent of the author’s early work. In those scenes, Jacobson scores a few easy goals in satirising the vacuous lives of the celebrity set. Interspersed with the low comedy is a series of dialogues between Strulovitch and Shylock, touching on some of the key themes of the play: forgiveness, Jewishness, mercy, revenge. These passages are conducted in the sort of language one might expect to hear on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, and seem oddly out of step with the tone of the rest of the piece, perhaps echoing the uneasy status of the play. What about the pound of flesh?, you ask. Jacobson is clever here in making it a central element in the bargain that Strulovitch proposes, but not in the way you might expect.

Jacobson is always entertaining and engaging, and this novel has many fine moments. Anyone who knows their Shakespeare will enjoy spotting the embedded allusions and quotations, not all of which originate in the parent play: the figures of Lear, a father with  daughter troubles, and Malvolio, a victim of deceit, are also often evoked. In the end, I felt the idea of the sombre figure of Shylock intruding on the garish playground of empty-headed hedonists, whilst startling, did not convince. But the rather uneasy feeling at the end is precisely what I have experienced on more than one occasion at the conclusion of a performance of Shakespeare’s play. So maybe Jacobson hits the spot.

Rob Spence blogs on books, music and anything else that appeals to him at Dr Rob Spence

Howard Jacobson, Shylock is My Name, (Hogarth Press, 2016). 978-1781090282,  288 pp., hardback.

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