Books

Howard Jacobson's Shylock is full of mercy and compassion

This setting of the Merchant of Venice in Cheshire’s golden triangle is a serious comic masterpiece

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

Shylock is My Name Howard Jacobson

Vintage, pp.277, £16.99, ISBN: 9781781090282

Howard Jacobson’s novelistic riff on The Merchant of Venice for the Hogarth Shakespeare project turns, unsurprisingly, on what makes some people (in Jonathan Miller’s memorable self-describing formulation) Jew-ish. Is it the gentile’s anti-Semitism, with its manifestations varying from relatively polite social snubs to persecutions down the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, that defines Jew-ishness? Or is it the self-identifying Jew’s own attitude or beliefs that make him part of a clan? (The idea that Jews are a ‘race’ is too silly to consider. My own DNA profile shows that 97 per cent of my genes were probably shared by Jews of Biblical times, though my family has been blond and blue-eyed for at least the five generations I’ve met.)

The winner of the Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question pulls off a neat trick in this almost perversely serious comic novel, creating a parallel world to Shakespeare’s Venice in the wealthy, cultured Golden Triangle of Cheshire, and peopling it with parallel-ish characters. He matches the bereaved Shylock with the second-generation wealthy philanthropist Simon Strulovitch, the daughter Jessica with ‘Strulo’s’ wannabe performance artist child, Beatrice. He pairs Portia with ‘Plury’ — in full, Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine — and Belmont with her Old Belfry.


Plury collects celebrities, and wangles them to appear on her television programme, The Kitchen Counsellor. Plury has discarded the provision of her father’s will that enjoins three tests for suitors, substituting luxury cars for the gold and silver and a VW Beetle for the leaden cask, and chooses the pretty, feckless Barnaby, who, masquerading as a mechanic, chooses to work on the VW. He’s been tipped off to do this by D’Anton (Antonio), a rich, handsome man of taste and unsettled sexuality, born in Guinea. He loves both Barnaby and a tattooed footballer, Gratan Howsome, with whom he makes a match for Beatrice.

The author shows full power and ingenuity putting Strulovitch and Shylock in the same place and time, a Jewish cemetery, where Strulo sees (and recognises) Shylock and invites him home. The pound of flesh is transmuted into a demand that Gratan be circumcised, with D’Anton standing bond for Gratan. The subject of circumcision seems to allow Jacobson to answer the question of what binds Strulovitch and other godless Jews (the vast majority of us Jew-ish today): the Covenant somehow continues, though there is no divine party to it. Is this cheating? Probably. As is giving Portia’s speech to Shylock, because Jews formed the concepts of mercy and compassion millennia before Christianity appeared.

Jacobson begins his compelling retelling of the Shakespeare play with a sentence containing a metaphor that grabs the reader’s attention and keeps it:

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 letterbox of squeezed light…

So good is the opening that he repeats it to begin ‘Act Five’, his final chapter. He is not one to let a good line go unrepeated. Simon Strulovitch, stalking his underage daughter, drags her away from a raucous party in Moss Side, where she’s been snogging a boy. He demands of his beautiful child, encouraged to listen to Mozart and Schubert: ‘Have I brought you up to value noise as an entity — just noise for the sake of it, Beatrice —while some chthonic arsehole fondles your breasts?’ Having made the reader either reach for the dictionary or stop and think, there’s a whole disquisition, with Beatrice saying she’s proud to have a father who can turn a phrase like that, but nailing his true import: ‘What you really mean is a goy boy.’

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  • Dr_Eigenvector

    I don’t understand why Jews insist on living amongst Europeans when they so clearly despise us.

    • Hamburger

      Perhaps because they have a sense of humour. The real question is why are Europeans so frightened of Jews?

      • Dr_Eigenvector

        Utter nonsense.

        • Hamburger

          Think back over the centuries, pogroms, expulsions, libels, exclusion and murder are the hallmarks of European behaviour towards the Jews. Seems like fear to me.

          • Dr_Eigenvector

            Move to Israel then.

            Adios.

          • Hamburger

            Adios, and thanks for the bile.

          • Dr_Eigenvector

            You’re welcome.

          • jim

            No no no…thank you..Couldn’t have done it without you.

          • Émile

            Now the roles seems to have changed as hapless American intellectual Joe Sobran (and many others) painfully noticed:

            “A hypocritical etiquette forces us to pretend that the Jews are powerless victims; and if you don’t respect their victimhood, they’ll destroy you…”

      • Smedley Butler

        Probably because they are brighter than the rest of us.

        • Hamburger

          Not too loud!

          • Émile

            No, they consider themselves special (“chosen”, “the light unto nations”, “a nation of priests”, blah, blah, etc.) merely because they don’t eat… pork Hamburgers, yum, yum.

        • Émile

          But not brighter than the “brutish” Germans 😉

      • Émile

        You mean, they like to make fun of us?… Maybe they are afraid now of their A and H bombs…

        Below a sample of delightful Jewish humour…:

        Some have written about the “Samson Option” as a retaliation strategy. In 2002, the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by Louisiana State University professor David Perlmutter which the American Jewish author Ron Rosenbaum writes “goes so far as to justify” a Samson Option approach:[26]

        Israel has been building nuclear weapons for 30 years. The Jews understand what passive and powerless acceptance of doom has meant for them in the past, and they have ensured against it. Masada was not an example to follow—it hurt the Romans not a whit, but Samson in Gaza? What would serve the Jew-hating world better in repayment for thousands of years of massacres but a Nuclear Winter. Or invite all those tut-tutting European statesmen and peace activists to join us in the ovens? For the first time in history, a people facing extermination while the world either cackles or looks away—unlike the Armenians, Tibetans, World War II European Jews or Rwandans—have the power to destroy the world. The ultimate justice?[27]

        Ron Rosenbaum writes in his 2012 book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III that, in his opinion, in the “aftermath of a second Holocaust”, Israel could “bring down the pillars of the world (attack Moscow and European capitals for instance)” as well as the “holy places of Islam.” He writes that “abandonment of proportionality is the essence” of the Samson Option[dubious – discuss].[28] (Wikipedia)

  • jim

    Anti gentilism….the annihilation of the white race in their own countries……I think I’ve had enough of Jacobson and co.

  • Émile

    Based on look I think Mr Jakobsohn would make a great Shylock. I wonder what his heritage is. He should send his DNA to learn of his ancestors ethnic origin. Many people learn amazing things from such experiments. He could find, to his shock, that he has Jewish blood! Imagine! LOL.

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