It was always going to be fascinating to see what would happen when Howard Jacobson – who is often referred to as the English Philip Roth, who styles himself the Jewish Jane Austen, and who has spent his writing-life interrogating the idea and the experience of Jewishness – agreed to offer a retelling of The Merchant of Venice; a play that has done so much to both perpetuate and undermine the classic motifs of anti-Semitism.
Shakespeare’s Shylock is human, and his humanity is emphasised: we are all familiar with his rhetorical question, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” But he is also villainous, avaricious, cruel: the stereotypically imagined Jew.
Jacobson in Shylock is My Name preserves the sense of ambiguity and uncertainty (qualities that his writing has always embraced) that gives Shakespeare's play much of its unsettling force. His Shylock is the real Shylock, Shakespeare's Shylock, temporally and geographically relocated to the present day and the gaudy "Golden Triangle" of Cheshire, South Manchester.
But unlike Shakespeare’s character, whose opportunities to speak are relatively scant and who disappears entirely for the play’s fifth and concluding act, Jacobson’s Shylock is almost congenitally voluble.
We first encounter him at Gatley cemetery where he stands before the grave of his wife, Leah. He converses with her and reads to her in order to slow her rate of decomposition (he wants “to keep her alive to herself as well as to him”), and as he does so he is observed by the wealthy art collector, Simon Strulovitch.
Strulovitch – a man of "acrid jeering", "death-revel ironies", "mortal indecision" – is a determinedly unobservant Jew who, at the same time, is beset by a kind of "inflamed Jewishness": he reads the "best bits" of the Talmud in a spirit of "bolshie" contrarianism; he claims not to care about Jews but has been caught "throwing the Guardian in the bin, saying that Jews were on the brink of extermination and it was the Guardian's fault"; and he cannot bear the prospect of his only daughter, Beatrice, marrying or going out with a non-Jew: when he once found Beatrice kissing a Chinese boy, he accused her of "letting Hitler win".
Sensing at the cemetery that Shylock is a man who understands the burdens of fatherhood (as in Shakespeare’s play, his daughter, Jessica, has betrayed and deserted him), Strulovitch befriends him and invites him to become his house guest.
Shylock agrees, and the two men engage in a series of sharp, polemical, energetic and tremendously compelling conversations about the nature of Jewishness, belonging, conversion, mercy, revenge (Shakespeare’s great themes), and about how these subjects relate to what Strulovitch is going to do about a new liaison his daughter has formed with a witless footballer named Gratan Howsome. Howsome is not a Jew. And he has recently attracted a very modern kind of fame after giving a Nazi salute in celebration of a goal.
Into this story are weaved the narratives of Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine (a version of Shakespeare’s Portia, and a TV star with a social networking site named Bicker) and D’Anton (original: Antonio), a devoted friend and art dealer who believes that Jews have made victims of themselves.
When Strulovitch tells Beatrice that she can only marry the footballer if he converts to Judaism (his circumcision, as is hinted at in the subtext of Shakespeare’s play, will be Strulovitch’s “pound of flesh”), D’Anton and Plurabelle help the couple to elope.
The resulting novel is the product of deep thought, deep feeling, deep scholarship. But this book is never leaden or lenten. It is fresh, exuberant, funny, almost preposterously entertaining and engaging. It is also possessed of an irony, wit and restless addiction to exploring conflicting arguments that leaves you feeling enriched – more thoughtful, more complicated, more morally aware, more morally compromised – in the special way that only fiction can achieve.
There are moments of infelicity: Jacobson's prose is occasionally inattentive (he uses inert phrases like "truth be told"). But, more often, it is vibrant, inventive, precise, arresting, and full of memorable cadences and elegant modulations. Shylock is My Name is a stunning achievement: Shakespeare's Jew has at last been granted his final act.
Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.