The Quality of Rachmones

Shylock Is My Name

by Howard Jacobson

Hogarth, 288 pp., $25

In 2012, two years after The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson published a comic romp called Zoo Time. Its randy, grumpy protagonist, a Jewish novelist named Guy Ableman, complains that literary fiction is dead and that the public favors plot-driven page-turners over good writing: “Reading should be like sex,” he declares. “The ending is written in the beginning, so just lie back and enjoy the journey.” Zoo Time, sniped The Guardian’s reviewer, is a “400-page tantrum” directed at reading groups, Amazon reviews, vampire novels, Kindle, and so forth. Considering Jacobson’s Man Booker, the critic continued, “You’d think conspicuous success might have softened his attitude to the reading public.” How, in other words, dare this inflexible arriviste, newly admitted to the pantheon of English lit, act with such coarse ingratitude?

Touchy Simon Strulovitch, had he read the review, would have doubtless taken umbrage. Strulovitch is the title character’s Anglo-Jewish doppelgänger in Jacobson’s sparkling new novel of resentment and revenge, Shylock Is My Name. The book is one of a series of contemporary adaptations by top-flight novelists commissioned by the Hogarth Shakespeare project. Jacobson, in press interviews, claimed he’d asked for Hamlet but was typecast to do The Merchant of Venice, a one-liner echoing his shtick about wearying of the label “English Philip Roth” and preferring  “Jewish Jane Austen.” The opening scene of his Shylock takes place in a graveyard, a location suggesting that Hamlet will haunt this book too, and it’ll be all about ambivalence as well as anti-Semitism.

Shylock and Jessica by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1876.

Shylock and Jessica by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1876.

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About the Author

Stuart Schoffman writes about Jewish culture and politics from Jerusalem, where he has lived since 1988. His latest translation of Hebrew fiction, The Extra by A.B. Yehoshua, will be published in June by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


h_silverman on March 30, 2016 at 1:09 pm
I have just finished reading the novel, and found it vintage Jacobson. His stye is polished, his humor sly, his familiarity with the sources deep. He deals so profoundly, yet humorously, with questions that engage me every day -Jewish identity, our place in the wider culture of which we're part, ever-present anti-Semitism.

There's no-one who deals with these issues better than Mr. Jacobson, who is so funny and transgressive. There's no-one whose writing I admire more.

I have read him with great pleasure for many years, always waiting impatiently for his next novel. BRAVO!
gwhepner on April 20, 2016 at 7:23 pm

Weary of the label “English Philip Roth,”
Howard Jacobson would prefer “Jewish Jane Austen.”
“Bellowing British Behemoth,”
would link him Chicagoan who retired in Boston.

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gwhepner on April 20, 2016 at 9:26 pm

Compared with Adam Eve was like a monkey,
declares the an aggadata in Bava Batra.
In the wilderness where I'm a poetic stutterer,
a Yekke who's anan Ostyid too, but not a Hunkie,
I recall how Shylock said he would have given
a wilderness of monkeys for his late wife's ring.
Mine's still alive, my eshet hayyil of whom I now sing,
hoping that my pounds of flesh will be forgiven,
verses that with great bewilderness I write,
which, though they don't match the sonnets of the gentile Bard,
have not caused me to be out-Portia'd and discard,
as Shylock, poor shit, was compelled, my Yiddishkeit.
I add a rhyming couplet for the sake of sonnetry,
praising her for whom my love is hardly monetary.

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