REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Jacobson’s novel, Sherlock Is My Name, is the retelling of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It’s part of Vintage’s Hogarth Shakespeare series which features current authors such as Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler , Tracy Chevalier and Jeanette Winterson reimagining some of Shakespeare’s well known works. To refresh my memory I read Merchant of Venice before picking up Shylock. The main characters and dilemmas are all here, but its modern day and we are in the “golden triangle” of Chesire, England. Two Jewish men meet at a cemetery, one grieving his dead wife, one with a semi-living wife, both have troubled relationships with their rebellious teenage daughter. Enter Plurabelle (Portia) a Kardashian style celebrity. Plury uses a semi-famous Christian jock to seduce one of the daughters into her vapid life, eventually a demand of the infamous pound of flesh (albeit this one from a different part of the male anatomy) is made, and the two men spend the novel debating what it means to be a Jew and to what extent the Gentiles should be punished.

The stereotypes of both cultures are purposefully exploited to make the reader think about their own beliefs. Are you really Jewish if you don’t keep Kosher? If you don’t want your offspring to marry someone of a different religion, are you racist? Do you have to be antisemite in order to be Christian? Is Jacobsen trying to inflame the Christian readers to antisemitism? Is he trying to inspire Jewish readers to connect more to their history? Or do you have to be Jewish to understand that it is all sarcasm.

I was enjoying the book, the story line and the modernized characters, but soon found myself offended by the anti-Gentile rantings of Shylock to Strulovitch. I don’t believe I’m antisemitic, but my reaction to a lot of the writing made me wonder. I didn’t like the book at this point. I didn’t want to start wondering why he couldn’t just forgive and move forward. I’m not Jewish and that will never be my place. So the book began to make me angry. Whining of any sort always makes me angry. It has nothing to do with racism or antisemitism. Not to my mind anyway. But do I think people should just get over themselves because I am a product of an upper middle class white Christian American life and have nothing really to get over? Is Jacobson trying to prove to me that what I think is irrelevant? Does it help that I that I feel the same anger at right-wing evangelicals who whine about declining morals or white Americans who whine about their country being invaded by immigrants?

And then I’m back to liking the book. Because this is what literature should do. It should open your mind and make you question why you think the way you think. It should lead you to either confirm your belief or change it. I thought about this book and the soul searching it brought up for me for weeks after I finished it. That’s a good book.

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