Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson (review/ramble)

shylockismyname_jacobson_hogarthI miss the future, Shylock thought. (p.193)

When I became aware of the Hogarth Shakespeare retellings I gleefully entered every giveaway I could find for any of the titles, I was so excited to get my hands on them.  I decided that whichever one I was lucky enough to win, should I be lucky enough to win one, would be the first one I would read – after I had reread the original play. Then, when I was lucky enough to win one, I didn’t react with my typical barely restrained burst of undignified glee but with a petulant “of course that would be the one I win.”

Now, I’m not ungrateful.  As a physical object, I think this is a smashing book.  The cover, the size and feel of the paperback copy I received are perfection.  It was the interior that concerned me, and the original play – so I began to procrastinate (a particular skill of mine).  Now, nearly a year later, I decided it was time.  Forget rereading The Merchant of Venice, one of my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and just dive in regardless of having grown unfamiliar (after 30+ years of avoidance) with any nuances to the characters and basic plot.  It’s a short book by a Man Booker prize winner (according to the cover) and the library has an audiobook copy to get started with and so I told myself (to paraphrase the words of one of my favorite BookTube people, Steve Donoghue) to get on with it and just read the darn thing.

If you’ve already been upset by my admitting that there are Shakespeare plays that are not favorites, you may want to stop reading now because I’m about to make it worse.  Here goes:

I liked Howard Jacobson’s version better.

That’s right, I prefer a retelling over Shakespeare’s original.  It was shocking to me, as well.  Not that it isn’t without it’s problems.  As I listened and read, I went back and forth between enjoyment and a feeling that it was a just too affectatious.  He does use a lot of ten dollar words – packs soliloquy worthy passages full of them – and even repeats some so often that you’ll put the book down in exasperation to look them up (I eventually looked up ‘chthonic’).  There is also rather a lot of sexual talk, though no graphic description of activities, and a great deal of time is spent by the narrator as well as the characters in discussing circumcision.  But, while I found these aspects challenging and unpleasant to read, respectively, these things that I took issue with really are in keeping with the original.  As I was uncomfortably reminded the last time I viewed a Shakespeare in the Park performance in the company of my parents, Shakespeare can be quite naughty.

But for all of the difficult words, the naughty bits, the Jew vs. Christian feeling that runs through both works, the unsavoriness of certain characters, and the unpleasantness of much of the story, this was a book to be enjoyed.  Not too happily (though there is humor), not gleefully, but with a bit of melancholy and an appreciation for the well crafted prose.

This is a story filled with themes of religious dissension, family disintegration, fatherhood, and death.  While The Merchant of Venice is made of words to be spoken, here the text feels like more of a contemplation, a series of observations and often more exposition than plot or storyline.  Listening to the audiobook (at 1.6 speed) for large portions, I was reminded of the wonderful narration of some highly stylized movies (portions of the more recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and television shows like Pushing Daisies.  When attempting to read the print version, I came to the conclusion that, much like Shakespeare and particularly in it’s most Shakespearean parts (I did not check the original, but I know I’ve heard a similar line about “If you prick us…” though I do not recall finding the same subtle humor before), this is a book better listened to.

Well worth the read/listen (Michael Kitchen does a fabulous job).  I would very much like to read more by Howard Jacobson.

◊   ◊   ◊   ◊

Publisher’s Description:

Winter, a cemetery, Shylock. In this provocative and profound interpretation of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock is juxtaposed against his present-day counterpart in the character of art dealer and conflicted father Simon Strulovitch. With characteristic irony, Jacobson presents Shylock as a man of incisive wit and passion, concerned still with questions of identity, parenthood, anti-Semitism and revenge. While Strulovich struggles to reconcile himself to his daughter Beatrice’s “betrayal” of her family and heritage – as she is carried away by the excitement of Manchester high society, and into the arms of a footballer notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the field – Shylock alternates grief for his beloved wife with rage against his own daughter’s rejection of her Jewish upbringing. Culminating in a shocking twist on Shylock’s demand for the infamous pound of flesh, Jacobson’s insightful retelling examines contemporary, acutely relevant questions of Jewish identity while maintaining a poignant sympathy for its characters and a genuine spiritual kinship with its antecedent—a drama which Jacobson himself considers to be “the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for anyone, but, for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish, also the most challenging.”


Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson | Hogarth, Feb 2016 | Hardcover, 288 pages (paperback due out Feb 2017)

Audiobook version: Narrated by Michael Kitchen, published by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, Feb 2016, ISBN 9780147526960, 7 hours 27 minutes

This review refers to an uncorrected proof received through a GoodReads First Reads giveaway, courtesy of the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.  Audiobook version listened to courtesy of Overdrive Listen, through my local library.

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