Riff­ing off a Bard plot

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ai­dan Cole­man

Shy­lock and Strulovitch are the novel’s cen­tre of grav­ity. Their char­ac­ters give a sense of what it is to live with 5000 years of his­tory and tra­di­tion, chal­leng­ing neat divi­sions be­tween sec­u­lar and sa­cred. While Shy­lock op­er­ates as Strulovitch’s Jewish con­science (whose feel­ings for Ju­daism are mostly off-again), he is a tan­gi­ble pres­ence who con­verses with oth­ers be­sides Strulovitch. In so­lil­o­quies and his con­ver­sa­tions with Strulovitch, Shy­lock peels away cen­turies of in­ter­pre­ta­tion: to tem­per, qual­ify and cor­rect what has been dis­torted but also to in­vent, with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight and his­tory. The threat of cas­tra­tion looms over the court scene in Shake­speare’s play and St Paul’s in­junc­tion to cir­cum­cise the heart takes a bru­tally lit­eral turn. Jacobson plays with such ma­te­rial while in­ter­ro­gat­ing it. Shy­lock, who is well-schooled in the scrip­tures and Rab­binic teach­ing, dis­courses vig­or­ously on the sta­tus of the law but also on mercy — he might quip (a la He­brew scholar John Goldin­gay) that the se­cond tes­ta­ment adds noth­ing new.

The con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Shy­lock and Strulovitch bring father-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ships sharply into fo­cus — it was a theme that ob­sessed Shake­speare through­out his ca­reer. Some of the book’s fun­ni­est flash­backs de­scribe Strulovitch’s shad­ow­ing of Beatrice in her many amorous pur­suits from age 13. Freud is in­voked with good hu­mour. Both Shy­lock and Strulo- vitch are por­trayed as fa­thers who “love their daugh­ters not wisely but too well”, echo­ing Othello’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for mur­der­ing Des­de­mona in the self-eu­lo­gis­ing speech he de­liv­ers be­fore his sui­cide. There are dozens more al­lu­sions where con­text is im­por­tant, adding a game-like el­e­ment for Shake­speare buffs.

Jacobson un­der­stands that Shake­speare’s is an el­lip­ti­cal art: that the spa­ces left by his re­mark­able con­ci­sion are a key part of his char­ac­ters’ mag­netism. His flesh­ing out of Shy­lock/ Strulovitch com­pli­cates where a lesser writer might sim­plify. His of­ten spare di­a­logue is deft, and in the prob­ing voice of the nar­ra­tor, we wit­ness his pen­chant for long, di­gres­sive sen­tences where qual­i­fi­ca­tions are qual­i­fied and sub­or­di­nate clause is stacked on sub­or­di­nate clause, like a clown on a mono­cy­cle bal­anc­ing an ever in­creas­ing num­ber of plates — the higher the tee­ter­ing stack, the fun­nier and more vir­tu­osic.

Shy­lock is My Name is more comic than Shake­speare’s orig­i­nal but Jacobson’s hu­mour is guided by a moral in­tel­li­gence that doesn’t negate the tragic. He is re­source­ful and in­ven­tive in his han­dling of plot, with adroit de­ploy­ment of a few red her­rings. The de­noue­ment isn’t quite com­men­su­rate with his bril­liant prose but, then, Shake­speare’s re­hash­ing of old sto­ries was never as good as his word.

is a poet and critic.

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