Shylock is My Name

shylockThe Short Version: Simon Strulovitch is a present-day art dealer in Northern England whose daughter is running amok. As she rebels from him and from their shared Judaism, he chances a meeting with Shylock himself – and finds his only option for satisfaction being to demand his pound of flesh.

The Review: It should come as no surprise that one of the world’s foremost Jewish authors would take on one of Shakespeare’s thorniest plays and most anti-Semitic plays. What does surprise – although this may be due more to my unfamiliarity with his work than the content of this novel – is the way in which he “covers” it. If The Gap of Time was a modern pop group trying a little too hard to cover a complicated 70s deep cut (think Guns n’ Roses covering “Sympathy for the Devil” or most of the songs covered on Glee), Shylock is My Name is the deconstructed take on a song you realize you maybe didn’t know as well as you thought you did (think Lora Faye covering “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” without ever actually singing the title line or The Bad Plus covering… anything, really).

There are questions of narrative instability right from the start. We’re in the present, but then how is Simon Strulovitch talking with Shylock? Where has Shylock, in fact, come from? Is he real or a figment of Strulovitch’s (or, perhaps differently but along similar lines, Jacobson’s) imagination? This last question stuck with me and grew throughout the novel, even as Shylock has tangible encounters with other individuals in the course of the story. Jacobson has imagined a present-day set of circumstances, which begin slowly and innocently enough, that would put a Shylock-esque man in the same position that Shylock himself was in during Merchant – and then he’s brought Shylock himself into that moment, to comment on but also discuss and consider and debate. Even as Jacobson delivers a pretty faithful update of the plot of Merchant, he also delivers a critique not of Shakespeare or of the story but of Judaism itself. Despite my complete lack of Jewish background and my general reluctance to read novels where members of the Jewish community discuss how difficult it is to be Jewish… Jacobson had my attention from the very start.

Strulovitch and Shylock debate the finer points of Judaism and the ways in which “being Jewish” has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, almost to the point that I believed there would not BE a secondary plot and that the novel, this “cover”, was in fact just dropping Shylock in the present and seeing him debate with a modern man over the rights and wrongs of their religion. This would’ve been too much for a novel to hold, too avant-garde and also too insular, but Jacobson actually gets away with more than I thought he might, at least in terms of my interest and engagement. Another character, thinking of Strulovitch, describes him as “one of those Jews who was far more conscious of his Jewishness than Gentiles were” even as Strulovitch is at odds with considering himself a devout Jew. It’s this internal struggle that powers the debates between Shylock and Strulovitch, as they spend a few days together at Strulovitch’s house. These moments veer all over the place, only vaguely serving as anything other than a chance for Jacobson to use one of the most famous (and famously wronged) Jewish characters in all of literature to debate with himself and with the modern idea of Judaism. There’s a great shot taken at Philip Roth (“Do you have the one where everyone is leading someone else’s life?” / “That’s all of them.”) and discussion of a ventriloquist whose puppet is a Nazi sympathizer (I wonder what Jacobson and his creations here would think of Look Who’s Back). If it seems like this might be self-indulgent, I certainly started out thinking that way – before being utterly engrossed, to the point that I didn’t want to put the book down.

Perhaps it is because I was simultaneously baffled and riveted by the way Strulovitch projected his Judaism onto everything, the way that he could turn even the most ordinary childhood rebellion into an assault on/rejection of/dismissal of thousands of years of oppression. His daughter Beatrice, similarly to Shylock’s Jessica, is consorting with men not of the Jewish faith – and this, as it was to Shylock, is a slap in the face… and I had to stop and consider the fact that this isn’t just transplanting a story into the present but that this story actually plays out today. Sure, it might be joked about a bit more – I’ve heard friends joke about it and I’ve even been in a spot where I was the one being joked about –  but a Jewish individual dating a non-Jew is kind of a big deal, even today. This confounds me, in the same way that most strongly held religious beliefs do.
And it confounds the other characters of the novel, even Beatrice herself. This is not to say that the perceived anti-Semitism of Plury, D’Anton, Gratan, and the rest of them is simply paranoia – Gratan, the footballer who 16-year-old Beatrice has shacked up with, was suspended for giving the Nazi salute on the field after scoring a goal and Plury finds Beatrice because Gratan wants “a Jewess to play with” – but there is a sense, as the plot of Merchant begins to assert itself over the novel, of people deciding to fill a role they believe to be preordained. Strulovitch becomes the Shylock of this novel, both to himself and to the others, even though at the outset he would never have considered himself so dogmatic and so intractable. D’Anton would never have considered himself anti-Semitic or in any way bigoted against a Jewish person until he finds himself exactly that, in the specific person of Strulovitch. The only one who subverts expectations is, surprisingly, Shylock himself, earning at long last a reprieve from the villainy he’s long been saddled with.

The question, of course, is whether or not these thoughts/feelings/behaviors were actually in them all along or if circumstances pushed them in this way, made them develop these new ways of thinking. This is why Shylock and Strulovitch spend so much time in philosophical discussion and as the (sometimes a little silly, but then it is Shakespeare) plot kicks into high gear – along with a discomfiting twist on the “pound of flesh”, provoking altogether more conversation of circumcision than I think anybody really needs – it’s impossible not to be thinking about these things from a philosophical point of view, even as they play out in very deadly-real ways. In this, Jacobson has attained what I personally feel to be the ultimate achievement in “covering” a classic: he provides new understanding to something you thought you already knew.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Even having finished it, the book continues to grow on me. There is a lot of discussion about the finer points of Judaism and the responsibilities/onuses/expectations of being a Jew in modern (or any) society and I’ve always been a little uncomfortable when anybody, from any religion, spends a whole lot of time talking stridently about their religious principles. But Jacobson keeps it universal, especially when the reader knows that Shylock is one of the discussion participants, and he manages to not only make the plot of Merchant seem plausible in a modern context but he earns every moment of discussion and debate as the book comes together towards its brilliant Act Five – an update of Shakespeare’s denouement that tops the Bard by going a step further. Even though it took me a minute to realize what Jacobson was doing, it was that minute of sitting at a concert and thinking “wait, I think I know this” and then the broad, slow grin of comprehension as the band delivers an unexpected cover in the middle of their set. He’s set a high bar for the Hogarth Shakespeares to come after.



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