This post comes from our bookseller Molly Odintz.
I first came to British novelist Howard Jacobson’s work through his dystopian novel J, set in a future Britain after a second Holocaust, where the 20th century call to remember the dead has been replaced with enforced societal uncertainty. “What happened, if it happened…”is the catchphrase of the novel, and the title is not actually the letter J, but rather the sound of a word beginning with “J” being smothered and shushed; the low hum of forced linguistic absence. J is a novel of erased histories, replaced by a confused void, every gap filled in by the reader’s own knowledge to devastating effect.
When I found out that Jacobson had chosen to reinterpret The Merchant of Venice as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which many of today’s greatest writers will put their own spin on Shakespeare’s plays, I felt a sense of relief – Jacobson would do it right.
Shylock is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s re-imagining of The Merchant of Venice for the 21st century, is the second installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. The series launched last fall, with The Gap of Time, Jeannette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale. Upcoming contributors to the project include Margaret Atwood (The Tempest), Jo Nesbo (Macbeth) and Gillian Flynn (Hamlet).
Shylock is My Name revolves around Shylock and Simon Strulovich, two men of vastly differing temperment, similar only in their shared faith and their shared worry for their daughters’ assimilationist futures. Shylock, although somewhat modernized, is basically the Shylock of the play. He stands for a more traditional outlook towards ritual and faith, and his character makes constant, dour assertions of antisemitism lingering below the surface. Strulovich, meanwhile, strives for acceptance among the wealthy patrons of his art gallery. He preserves his name and a vague sense of allegiance, but generally embraces an assimilationist mentality. He feels his own identity more through others’ rejection than his own embrace.
Jacobson transposes his source material’s conflict between Shylock and his daughter Jessica over to Strulovich in his adaptation. Strulovich’s rebellious 16-year-old daughter studies performance art and runs with a wealthy, subtly antisemitic crowd, including an heiress who hosts televised salons at her estate. The bored heiress introduces Beatrice to a footballer with a confused attraction to both fascism and Jewish women, and the understandably dubious Strulovich sets the footballer a wince-worthy task, reinterpreting the “pound of flesh” for a bawdier crowd, in order to drive him away from his teenage daughter. The result is both a brilliant reimagining of Shakespeare’s work and a sardonic, damning vision of today’s world.
When interviewed about his contribution to the Hogarth series, Jacobson described the logic behind his choice: ‘Only a fool would think he has anything to add to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare probably never met a Jew, the Holocaust had not yet happened, and anti-Semitism didn’t have a name. Can one tell the same story today, when every reference carries a different charge? There’s the challenge. I quake before it.’