FromtheGhet­to­totheGuardian

DavidHer­man ap­plaud­sHowardJa­cob­son’sVene­tian­jour­ney. PaulLester en­joys­apor­traitofamanofex­tremes

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

HOWARD JACOBSON’S new novel be­gins with two Jews in a grave­yard. Si­mon Strulovitch, “a rich, fu­ri­ous, eas­ily hurt phi­lan­thropist”, is vis­it­ing his mother’s grave. The other is Shy­lock, who has come to speak with his dead wife, Leah.

Strulovitch in­vites Shy­lock home. As they talk, it be­comes clear they have much in com­mon. They are both “in­fu­ri­ated and tem­pes­tu­ous” Jews, ob­sessed with­theirdaugh­ters.Shy­lock’sdaugh­ter, Jes­sica, has left him. Strulovitch is wor­ried that his daugh­ter Beatrice will do the same.

And, fi­nally, they are both full of words and ideas; it is hard to think of two more in­ter­est­ing Jewish char­ac­ters.

Part of a strik­ingly imag­i­na­tive pro­ject i n which con­tem­po­rary nov­el­ists re-in­ter­pret Shake­speare’s plays (among the oth­ers are Mar­garet At­wood’s take on The Tem­pest, and Tracy Cheva­lier’s Othello), Shy­lock is My Name is about The Mer­chant of Venice.

Jacobson takes the play’s themes — jus­tice, re­venge, mercy, Jews and Chris­tians, Jew-ha­tred, fa­thers and daugh­ters — and works away at them with dark hu­mour and rare in­tel­li­gence. His novel is full of echoes from Shake­speare’s play: quo­ta­tions, plot par­al­lels, sim­i­lar char­ac­ters. How­ever, what makes the novel so good is what Jacobson him­self brings to the party.

This is Jacobson at his best. There is no fun­nier writer in English to­day. Not just laugh-out-loud hu­mour, though there

Fa­cial hairs ap­par­ent: Howard Jacobson is plenty of that, in­clud­ing won­der­ful jokes about cir­cum­ci­sion and mas­tur­ba­tion. But a sharp, bit­ing hu­mour, which stabs home in a sin­gle line.

There are few more in­ter­est­ing writ­ers ei­ther. For ex­am­ple, Jacobson writes know­ingly about art, which plays an im­por­tant part in the novel. There are in­ter­est­ing ref­er­ences to Kafka and Philip Roth, and Jacobson knows his Shake­speare in­side out. The ded­i­ca­tion to Wil­bur San­ders, an old col­league from Cam­bridge, is a re­minder of a book they wrote to­gether back in the 1970s, Shake­speare’s Mag­na­nim­ity.

trans­fer­ring Shake­speare from stage to page, and Al Pa­cino as Shy­lock look­ing mean on screen in 2004

Above all, there is no one in this coun­try who writes bet­ter about Jews, Jewish­ness and Jew-ha­tred, past and present. Shy­lock is not the only “in­fu­ri­ated and tem­pes­tu­ous Jew”.

Jacobson could give him — and Strulovitch — a run for their money. There are ur­gent ref­er­ences to con­tem­po­rary de­bates about an­tisemitism and Guardian read­ers are in for a shock.

The best chap­ters in the book turn on con­ver­sa­tions be­tween the two Jews, both mourn­ing their wives — while Shy­lock’s Leah is dead, Si­mon’s Kay has suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing stroke — and wor­ry­ing about their un­con­trol- lable daugh­ters. As the men talk, they range through time, from the sac­ri­fice of Isaac to the Venice Ghetto.

They ar­gue about Jews, mercy and Chris­tian an­tisemitism; speak in de­fence of cir­cum­ci­sion; ad­dress Jews and the law, and Chris­tian­ity as a mere in­ter­reg­num in the long war be­tween Jews and pa­gans.

There isn’t an ounce of fat in th­ese de­bates. They are full of pas­sion and in­tel­li­gence.

And, as al­ways, Jacobson has a keen eye for the Jew-haters. He re­minds you how th­ese ideas can still shock and burn. How vis­ceral they are. How they still hurt more than 400 years af­ter Shake­speare.

Jacobson has al­ways been smart and ver­bal. He’s al­ways been funny and dark, in turn. And he’s al­ways writ­ten well about melan­choly, middle-aged Jewish men and their women. And here he adds fa­thers and their daugh­ters. This is one of his best nov­els yet. Howard Jacobson will be talk­ing about ‘Shy­lock is my Name’ with Alex Clark of the Guardian at Jewish Book Week on Sun­day Fe­bru­ary 28. David Her­man is the JC’s se­nior fic­tion re­viewer

PHOTO: MICHAEL DON­ALD

(above)

PHOTO: ALAMY

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