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His Pound of Fresh

Marty Roth
May 16, 2016

by Marty Roth

Discussed in this essay: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson. Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016, 288 pages.

Portrait_of_Ermete_Novelli_as_Shylock“He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” —The Merchant of Venice, Act 3

THE FIRST ENTRY in the Hogarth Press Shakespeare Project was Jeanette Winterson’s Winter’s Tale, The Gap of Time. For the second, The Merchant of Venice, who better than Howard Jacobson? He claims it was really his last choice: After he had gone the rounds of plays by Shakespeare and plays attributed to Shakespeare, his agent told him they really wanted him to do Merchant, which had slipped his mind. There’s not much else around: a novel, Shylock’s Daughter, by Erica Jong; a poem by Humbert Wolfe, “Shylock Reasons with Mr. Chesterton” (“Jew-baiting still! Two thousand years are run/ and still, it seems, good Master Chesterton,/ Nothing’s abated of the old offense/, Changing its shape, it never changes tense”). Tchaikowsky created an opera on the subject, and Gabriel Fauré incidental music for tenor and orchestra. Arnold Wesker has written a touching account of the failure of his Shylock play when the principal, Zero Mostel, died after the first previews.

Jacobson’s novel opens on a dreary winter’s day in a Manchester cemetery where both a British philanthropist, Simon Strulovitch, and Shylock are visiting graves, Strulovitch of his mother, Shylock of his wife, both named Leah. The juxtaposition, the contraction of the present and the distant past, is never explained, except by the statement, “Of course Shylock is here, among the dead. When hasn’t he been?” Shylock still haunts the contemporary English landscape. In the next scene, Strulovitch is 11 and he and his mother see Hitler buying aftershave in an English department store.

The two Jews return to Strulovitch’s house and settle in with some deep thought and sharp conversation. We venture into Gentile territory to pick up the threads of Shakespeare’s plot as they are replicated in Simon’s life: the doings of Plurey — that is, Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine, the Portia of Jacobson’s novel — and D’Anton, his Antonio. Plurey’s father proposes marriage tests to eliminate potential suitors (one of which is to “suggest a viable scheme for assassinating Tony Blair”). Plurey runs a restaurant and hosts a successful TV program in which she settles disputes brought to her by her diners, and she attends sadness classes, “like Alcoholics Anonymous for sad rich people.” Strulovitch’s daughter Beatrice runs off with a footballer named Gratan Howsome, who is notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the pitch.

Jacobson carries through to the pound-of-flesh device. If the Shylock scenes are intense and passionate, the updating of the play’s story is sometimes caricaturish, overwhelmed by the glitter of millennial kitsch.

The book is both a pleasure and a pain to read, a pleasure because of Jacobson’s rich comic prose and firm styling, a pain because there is so much thrashing about, so much ambivalence about being Jewish — “an inflamed Jewishness that blew hot and cold but was always in the way.” Both Shylock and Strulovitch are monsters of Jewish resentment, chafing under the self-imposed terms of their anomalous status. By contrast, “Islam does not encourage the schizophrenia we live by” — “Being a Jew was everything to him, except when it wasn’t. Hence his being an on-again off-again Jew. Which is a debilitating characteristic of the Jewish mind; unless it is a strength.” Even the sentences are divided against themselves: of Howsome’s appearance, Simon thinks, “so much muscle constrained by an expensive suit made to look cheap by so much muscle.” Complementing those strains of agonizing self-consciousness is the inability of the Jew to separate himself from his Other: “when he saw a Christian he didn’t see a creature of the prehistoric dark. That, surely, was more what Christians saw when they saw him. Why, it was sometimes what he saw when he saw himself.”

THE TEXT is awash in stereotypical attitudes and behavior (circumcision trauma, lengthy bouts of pilpul, cutting Jewish jokes, acrid jeering, social prickliness, Jewish self-hatred), all subject to some ironic distance and yet all settling in too close for this reader’s comfort. The heavy weight of the daughter’s inevitable betrayal of the father — both men have a daughter who elopes with a Gentile — burdens them extraordinarily. Turned over and over, it is occasionally associated with incestuous, often with tribal, feelings. This is Jacobson’s specialty, the twisting excess that flows from the rabid interiority of his Jewish protagonists.

In centering narrative subjectivity in a Jew, in the Jew — Shylock standing for several centuries for the often attributed primitivism, bloodthirstiness, and material obsessiveness of his race — was Jacobson concerned about feeding the fires of an anti-Semitism he so persistently ferrets out in the “left” spaces of contemporary England? An anti-Semitism that he insists lurks at the core of anti-Zionism, when, for example, he accuses Jeremy Corbyn of unleashing this dark strain in the revitalized Labour Party? According to Tablet, Jacobson has become the “anti-Zionism code-reader-in-chief.” And the bile occasionally seeps out:

Jews had grown so careful now. If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? No, we shall not. We shall take it on the chin and be grateful. Unless we’re in Judea and Samaria, where we’re accused of being Nazis.

To his credit as a novelist, however, Jacobson touches lightly on the themes that, in his own voice, mean so much to him.

Jacobson is right to insist that The Merchant of Venice is not anti-Semitic, but the anti-Semitism in the play still poisons its atmosphere and dominates the discourse that follows. My Name is Shylock is in thrall to that anti-Semitism, which may be a Christian fact but is also a Jewish production, blown up by us for our own resentful ends.

Ultimately, however, one has to admire the text for its irreverent moments — Shylock reads to Leah and one time she asks him to read the comedy about the person who’s made to think he’s vermin. “Do you mean Metamorphosis?” “No, my love, Mein Kampf.” And they laugh like demons — the deep employment of jokes of all kinds but mostly quote unquote anti-Semitic.

Marty Roth is an expatriate American who left the U.S. with the reinstallation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For the last ten years he has been part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine.