Book 56: Shylock Is My Name
Thursday, December 22, 2016
"I the Jew, they the Christians- no two ways about it, no weasel words. Was it better like that, he wondered. A naked antagonism. No pretending that fences could be mended. An unending, ill-mannered, insoluble contrariety. Did it mean that all parties at least knew where they stood? That at least you knew your enemy. And would go on knowing him until the end of time."
Dates read: May 27-29, 2016
When something is written about 400 years ago, it's likely that however good it is, it's also problematic. So even though Shakespeare's classics have endured over time, there are some portions of them that take your breath away a little reading it in modern times. Like in one of my favorites, Much Ado About Nothing, a couple we're supposed to be rooting for as endgame has a man who publicly humiliates his fiancee on their wedding day because he has been misled into believing she's no longer a virgin. After she's been dumped at the altar, her own father believes the man over her and tries to do violence to her and to himself for the shame of it all. These two do marry at the end of the play and we're meant to be pleased by this reunion. Um, what? And then there's The Merchant of Venice, which contains both one of the most poignant speeches on our shared humanity I've ever come across as well as an astonishing amount of anti-Semitism. But in England in the 1600s, anti-Semitism was par for the course.
Howard Jacobson's Shylock Is My Name is another entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series (like Vinegar Girl), updating the just-mentioned The Merchant of Venice. This presents a definite adaptation challenge...while open hatred of Jews was common in Elizabethan England and Italy, where the play is actually set, and anti-Semitism is definitely still alive and well today, it's not really the same world we live in anymore after the Holocaust. There's some interesting ways you could go with the sentiments underlying The Merchant of Venice, probably most obviously anti-Muslim sentiment in a post-9/11 world, or any country with ethnic disputes over a contested border. But Jacobson chooses to set his work in modern-day England and keep the play's original dynamic in place. Not only that, he wholesale imports the original character of Shylock the moneylender himself.
During most of the book, it's unclear whether Shylock is a hallucination seen only by Simon, our protagonist, but eventually other characters interact with him as well. How exactly this works is never explained, which is confusing because Shylock is a pretty major character. Why Jacobson chose to gloss over this detail while including an entire section about Simon's failed first marriage to a Gentile woman is a choice I found confusing and kind of off-putting. What I found far more off-putting though, was Simon's relationship with his daughter Beatrice, which is at the center of the plot. He spends an awful lot of time thinking about his daughter's sexuality, whether it's the boys she's sleeping with (and whether or not they have a foreskin) or thinking about his daughter's body in ways that seem way too close to the line of impropriety for a father. I'm a reader who really looks for character-driven dramas, and none of the characters, including Simon, Shylock, and Beatrice were particularly well-developed or interesting.
Ultimately, I just felt like this book wasn't for me. And by that I mean that besides my own quibbles with the writing choices, it was very concerned with Jewish male identity, particularly as it relates to fatherhood. As a childless Gentile female, the long discussions between Shylock and Simon about their shared religion/culture and their struggles as fathers to young Jewish women were just things I have no frame of reference to appreciate or understand. Since that was a central conceit of the novel, I never connected with it and unless those are issues that are relevant or appealing to you, I can't imagine that many people would enjoy reading it. I pushed myself to read it as quickly as I could so I could move on to the next thing.
Tell me, blog friends...do you need to connect with the characters somehow to enjoy a novel?
One year ago, I was reading: Still Occidental Mythology
**I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review**
Posted by Gabby at 9:00 AM
Labels: antisemitism, contemporary fiction, hogarth shakespeare, howard jacobson, shylock is my name, the merchant of venice, two stars