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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 12 March 2017

"Shylock is my name" by Howard Jacobson

The book starts with the sentence: "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 letter box of squeezed light, the sky itself unfashionably banal." (p 1) This seems to summarise the rather depressing, not to mention convoluted, story to come. A rich philanthropist, Simon Strulovich, whose second wife is an invalid following a stroke, whose daughter has been trying to run off with men since the age of thirteen, meets Shylock, whose wife Leah is dead, whose daughter Jessica has run off with a man. Yers, the real Shylock, at least the real character in the play, who seems to have acquired flesh (and more than a pound). Tangential to all this is Plurabelle, daughter of another very rich man, who repeatedly requires her suitors to guess which of several choices her whim has alighted on this time.

One of the problems I found was that I just didn't really care about the problems of these rich men worried about their spoilt daughters. And much of the humour seemed heavy handed. And there was a lot of theology.

The half way turning point occurs when Strulovich asks that his sixteen-year-old daughter's much older footballer husband undergoes circumcision as the price of his daughter's hand. A two page dissertation follows on the theology of circumcision: is it a mutilation or not? And circumcision becomes the proxy for the pound of flesh.

Possibly for good reasons, Shylock really doesn't like Christians. He is very apt to talk about 'Christians' in generalities. For example, Shylock claims that "they can't see a Jew without thinking they have to tell him a joke" (p 63), "they feel no embarrassment in proclaiming that the proper Jew is a wandering Jew" (p 64), that gentiles "haven't been able to draw their imaginations from us sexually for centuries" (p 69). Shylock also points out that Jesus was Jewish and claims: "Charity is a Jewish concept. So is mercy." And it is not just Shylock. Strulovich explains to his daughter why a gentile husband cannot be good enough for her: "your intelligence is five thousand years old, they were born yesterday. They can only think one thing at a time; you can think a dozen." (p 206) I found this repeated drawing of battle lines between Jews and Christians exhausting; no character seemed able to see beyond their tribe.

A difficult book. Perhaps I needed to know the play more intimately to appreciate the finer points. But in the end the characters seemed stereotypical and the endless philosophising just seemed endless.

March 2017; 277 pages

Some nice lines:

  • "With water you did wash away the foul impurities of death." (p 54) has a slightly archaic sentence construction (the insertion of 'did') which makes you pay greater attention to the sentence and thus imparts a little extra emphasis.
  • "On occasions she even cried over their incompatibility of whim." (p 73)
  • "his friend, still bedwarmed, so to speak, with the perfumes of Plurabelle still on him" (p 73)
Other novels which adapt a Shakespeare play and are reviewed in this blog include:

Vinegar Girl by Ann eTyler which rewrites The Taming of the Shrew: very funny
Nutshell by Ian McEwan rewrites Hamlet and is told from the perspective of a not quite yet born baby
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson rewrites A Winter's Tale and is mostly brilliant
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is set in a prison and rewrites The Tempest: fabulous

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