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Monday, March 27, 2017

Shylock Is My Name

Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson, is the second of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which the Bard's plays are turned into contemporary novels. Unlike the first one, A Gap in Time, which basically updated the plot of A Winter's Tale, Jacobson instead takes the essence of The Merchant of Venice--the Jew as outsider--and creates a whole new story. He does, though, toward the end, bring things in line with the play, but not with a pound of flesh. More like just a snip of flesh.

"It is one of those better-to-be-dead-than-alive days you get in the north of England in February, the space between the land and sky a mere letter box of squeezed light, the sky itself unfathomably banal. A stage unsuited to tragedy, even here where the dead lie quietly. There are two men in the cemetery, occupied in duties of the heart. They don’t look up. In these parts you must wage war against the weather if you don’t want farce to claim you." This is when Simon Strulovich, an art dealer, meets Shylock. Strulovich is the main character of the novel. He is a Jew, but doesn't really observe: "Being a Jew was everything to him, except when it wasn’t. Which is a debilitating characteristic of the Jewish mind; unless it is a strength."

However, he has a daughter, Beatrice, who is only sixteen and is a constant point of frustration for him, as she rebels: "My whole life, she thought, has been made a misery by him. She tried to remember a time when he hadn’t pursued her, dragged her out of parties, punched her boyfriends, wiped the lipstick off her face with the back of his hand, pulled her down the street by her hair while clutching at his heart, as though to threaten her with cardiac arrest."

Beatrice is now dating a football player many years her senior, and what galls Strulovich is that he is not a Jew, even though his first wife was a gentile and his father disowned him for it. The only way for him to bless the union is for Gatan, the footballer, to convert, i.e., get a circumcision.

There is a subplot, just like in The Merchant of Venice with Portia, involving a woman improbably named Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Wiser Than Solomon Christine.and her circle of friends, including D'Anton, an art dealer who runs afoul of Strulovich (note his name's similarity to Antonio, who owed Shylock a pound of flesh). In the last act, everyone comes together in a hullabaloo, and the last line of the book borrows from another of Shakespeare's plays, when a character says, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you."

I found the beginning of the book a bit of a slog, as I was trying to figure out what this had to with The Merchant of Venice, other than Shylock's name. The conversations he and Strulovich have about Judaism are very witty and erudite, but they don't really push the plot forward. It seems that nothing happens, then everything happens at once.

I'm still with this series, there's two more out; adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew and Margaret Atwood's version of The Tempest.

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