“Oy gevalto, we’re back on the Rialto.”
This bit of shtick pops out of the mouths of two of the three most interesting characters in Howard Jacobson’s latest novel, “Shylock Is My Name”: Simon Strulovitch and his daughter, Beatrice, who, years apart, defy religious strictures to find themselves in Venice in romantic relationships with gentiles. It’s a wisecrack with its own truth, touching on the persistence of the vexing issues evoked by the character of Shylock, central to Jacobson’s reimagining of “The Merchant of Venice” for Hogarth’s series marking 400 years since the death of Shakespeare.
The novelists participating in the project — including Jeanette Winterson, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood and others — had their pick of the play they’d prefer to adapt. Jacobson, a writer of fiction known for his humor, high and low, happens also to be a veteran Shakespeare scholar and teacher. His first published book, in 1978, with the late Wilbur Sanders, to whom this novel is dedicated, was “Shakespeare’s Magnanimity: Four Tragic Heroes, Their Friends and Families.” But two of his most recent novels, “The Finkler Question,” winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, and “J,” shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2014, reflect a preoccupation with what it means to be a Jew, and especially anti-Semitism. It seemed a no-brainer: Jacobson was the man for “The Merchant of Venice.” He took on the assignment and has delivered with authority and style.
The most interesting character in Jacobson’s novelization is Shylock himself. He appears in a cemetery in northwestern England in the 21st century in all his ancient dignity. There he meets the philanthropist and collector of Anglo-Jewish art Simon Strulovitch, who has come to inspect the newly erected tombstone on his mother’s grave. Shylock is conversing with his dead wife, Leah, to whom he’s in the habit of pouring out his soul wherever in the world he might be summoned up. In Shakespeare’s play, one of the glimpses we’re allowed of Shylock’s humanity is his lament when he learns that his daughter Jessica has absconded with the turquoise ring that Leah had given him before their marriage and sold it to buy a monkey. Shylock is a widower when his daughter betrays him, still seemingly tender with loss. Jacobson takes this intimate nugget and runs with it.
Strictly speaking, though, for the purposes of this novel, it’s Strulovitch who is the modern-day Shylock character, creatively improvising on the “pound of flesh” to be exacted as payment from the merchant, a melancholy aesthete named D’Anton. Strulovitch’s 16-year-old aspiring performance-artist daughter, Beatrice, is the contemporary version of Jessica, running off with her Nazi-saluting footballer goy. Whether or not Strulovitch regards Shylock as real, or explains him as his “conscience” or “role model,” or even as the creation of a Sephardi Jew who changed his name from Shapiro to Shakespeare, the old man, much mellowed, is a living presence in this novel. He becomes a guest in Strulovitch’s home in the affluent Golden Triangle near Manchester. Together, they mull over Shylock’s story, father-daughter tensions, and sound off on the plight of Jews then and now.
The return of Shylock is credible as a literary device in the context of a novel lapsing into formal language and rich with Shakespearean references. Shylock’s role is sustained throughout the novel, even into its final section, which Jacobson calls “Act Five.” Here Shylock is given the opportunity to deliver the definitive speech to correct the record about Jews. This is in striking contrast to the play itself, where, utterly defeated, he is disappeared before the last scene of Act Four. Unlike Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” (another “comedy” by Shakespeare featuring the humiliation of a major character), who at least exits with the cry, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” Shylock meekly fades out without even “a resounding exit line.” “Where the story stopped, I stop,” Shylock acknowledges to Strulovitch. This is Jacobson speaking in his literary persona. But as an outspoken Jewish advocate, Jacobson then goes on to get Shylock to admit regretting the lost opportunity to have the last word. For the character of Shylock and all the troubling stereotypes perpetuated by it have had grim consequences for Jews over the centuries.
With regard to the Jewish question, Jacobson gives himself considerable license in this novel to declaim against present-day British anti-Semitism, genteel and otherwise, anti-Zionism, boycotts against Israel, aversion to tough Jews (settlers in Judea and Samaria specifically). He singles out the Guardian newspaper for special anti-Israel dishonorable mention. He also vents on the importance of Jewish continuity, covenant, circumcision and so on. Politics and religion aside, things improve when he shifts from tribal mode back to deft artist firmly in control, offering witty twists to a play long experienced by many as a racial tragedy.
“Jews jest because they are not amused,” Strulovitch says. In that spirit, Jacobson re-envisions “The Merchant of Venice” as a “merry jest,” renewing it in comic terms.
Tova Reich’s most recent novel is “One Hundred Philistine Foreskins.”
On March 14, Howard Jacoboson will be in conversation with playwright/director Aaron Posner at the Folger Theatre in Washington. For tickets call 202-544-7077.
By Howard Jacobson
Hogarth. 275 pp. $25