September’s book club choice. Shylock is my name by Howard Jacobson

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Though I’m posting this in October, it was the September choice of my book club. It is a book that split the readers between those who liked it and half who had no kind words to say! It is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

Personally, I enjoyed reading the story, though if it had not been a book club book, I might have given up well before it engaged my attention. It is Jacobson’s reimagining of the Merchant of Venice. Though it achieves this through the character of Shylock speaking for himself to the contemporary word. Shylock meets a wealthy Jewish man in a graveyard in an area of Cheshire located just outside Manchester, part of the gaudy golden triangle, where T.V. celebrities and footballers party hard. The man, Simon Strulovitch, is an art collector who invites Shylock into his home.  Strulovitch is not an observant Jew; he does not attend synagogue or observe Sabbath. However, he retains strong views about the identity of his daughter’s boyfriends who he firmly believes should be Jewish. It is through Strulovitch’s struggles with his daughter that his dialogue with Shylock unfolds in a story that cleverly mirrors the Merchant of Venice. (However, if a reader is not familiar with the original play, it is advisable to at least read a synopsis to understand what it is mirroring.) As they speak of Strulovitch’s problems with his daughter, the two men explore the nature of what it means to be a Jew. Strulovitch’s daughter, Beatrice, becomes involved with Plurabelle, a reality television star and a modern day reinterpretation of Portia. Her friend Danton (Antonio) wants an artwork owned by Strulovitch and they draw Beatrice into a sequence of events that cleverly mirror the original play. These events are really a subtext to the whole novel where Jacobson explores the inner life of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters. Through their dialogue, Shylock and Strulovitch explore the nature of patriarchy, vengance, mercy, the duty of Jewishness and the weight of history being a Jew brings culturally and religiously (and whether these things can be separated). It is in these areas the novel is stimulating and revealing.

Jacobson assumes that the reader is familiar with Shakespeare’s Shylock and I suspect that it would be less attractive to those who are not. It certainly aims at intellectual discourse rather than narrative entertainment. One of the book club criticisms was that Jacobson did not challenge the patriarchal actions of Strulovitch towards his daughter, his apparent ownership of her in places. It is not an easy read and probably a book I will pass on rather than revisit. I did find the font difficult to read and the paper quality poor – sorry Vintage!

 

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