Shylock Is My Name – Howard Jacobson – Audible Book Review by Pat V.
Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is my Name, based on The Merchant of Venice, is the latest volume to be published in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project where established writers have been asked to retell Shakespeare’s plays in narrative form. Already published is Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time based on The Winter’s Tale. Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew and Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest are due to be published later this year, and Jo Nesbo will will present his novel based on Macbeth in 2017.
Jacobson’s novel is set in the present day among the mansions of Cheshire’s so-called “Golden Triangle”. It begins in a cemetery where Simon Strulovitch, a fabulously wealthy, middle-aged art collector and philanthropist has come to pay respects to his mother’s remains. In another corner, Shylock is talking to his long dead wife, Leah. Through Simon’s stream of consciousness ramblings we learn of his past, of his first marriage to Ophelia-Jane, a Gentile, which led to his being disowned by his Jewish father, of his second marriage, this time to a Jew, of his daughter, Beatrice, who has been a constant source of trouble since her birth, of his complicated friendship with Shylock(who is in effect his alter ego), and his even more complicated relationship with his Jewish heritage, a recurrent theme in Jacobson’s work.
The story shifts to another part of the Golden Triangle where lives Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine (known as Plury), an heiress with a lot more money than sense. Her recently dead father had left a list with a number of ordeals to which every aspirant to her bed must submit. Plury, however, takes matters into her own hands and in a parody of Portia’s three caskets in Shakespeare’s play, she throws the keys to three of her cars, a Volkswagen Beetle, a BMW, and a Porsche into an ice bucket at her 21st birthday party and waits in the Beetle for her ideal suitor- the man who sees beyond wealth and mere social advancement- to appear. Though no one turns up to claim it (or her) furious fistfights break out at the party between young hopefuls in an attempt to get hold of the key of the BMW.
This satirical view of the over-privileged in contemporary Britain underpins the narrative in Jacobson’s novel. While the plot can on occasion seem a little convoluted, the writing is virtuoso. His ornate -sometimes even baroque- language introduces characters and incidents we are familiar with and by presenting them in a contemporary context he underlines the universality of Shakespeare’s play. He often quotes directly from the original text as when Shylock “would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” on learning that his daughter, Jessica, had sold the ring she stole from him to buy a monkey or with his celebrated “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech but it is always woven seamlessly into the modern text and never seems imposed.
Jacobson’s preoccupation through the soul-searching of Simon and Shylock is to examine what it means to be a Jew in today’s world. This is never dry or ponderous but whether they are discussing family or politics, art or society, the role of the Jew takes centre stage. The author diverges from Shakespeare by adding an “Act Five” where he allows Shylock to have the last word, unlike the play where he fades away without a resounding exit line.
An excellent reader like Michael Kitchen (Foyle’s War) is an added bonus. His clipped, ironic delivery perfectly matches the author’s sardonic wit. The complex language makes the novel perhaps easier to listen to than to read and Kitchen’s performance gives us many laugh out loud moments. This audiobook is available from audible.co.uk and lasts 7hrs 28