DavidHerman applaudsHowardJacobson’sVenetianjourney. PaulLester enjoysaportraitofamanofextremes
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