Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Circumcision As A Reading of the 'Pound of Flesh'

Howard Jacobson has published a new novel, Shylock is My Name, Hogarth Shakespeare £16.99

From a review:

...Simon Strulovitch [Srul is diminutive for Yisroel, as I know well], a Jewish self-made millionaire art collector, visits a cemetery where he meets Shylock, the villain or victim, depending on how you look at it...Jacobson’s description of Shylock’s eyes – “deep ponds of pitted umber” – evokes Shylock’s famous speech (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”) and Strulovitch feels an affinity with him because both men have lost their wives and both have torrid relationships with their daughters. So, Strulovitch invites Shylock back to his and Shylock stays for the rest of the novel.

Jacobson satirises 21st-century Britain’s shallowness via the chat-show host Plurry and her clique, which includes D’Anton, Strulovitch’s anti-Semitic art dealer nemesis. Via a series of connections and coincidences, it’s D’Anton who introduces Strulovitch’s teenaged daughter, Beatrice, to Gratan Howsome, a footballer who’s notorious for his Nazi salute goal celebration and penchant for Jewish women.

Meanwhile, Strulovitch and Shylock argue about fatherhood, loss and Jewishness in the kind of thought-provoking, irreverent exchanges at which Jacobson excels. One minute they’re discussing “how vilification works”, the next Shylock is admitting to being a George Formby fan.

Strulovitch says his wife, whose terminal illness is one of the novel’s missteps, accused him of “Judaeolunacy” for keeping Beatrice away from gentile boys at the same time as he slams fellow Jews for observing religious rituals. Shylock, who’s accustomed to more overt religious conflict, observes: “The times have grown nice.” Strulovitch replies: “Appearances can be deceptive.”

Strulovitch is furious about Beatrice’s involvement with Howsome and says he’ll grant them his blessing only if Howsome converts to Judaism and undergoes circumcision. Horrified, the couple flee to Venice while Strulovitch threatens to report D’Anton to the police for procurement. D’Anton makes Strulovitch an offer: if he can’t persuade the couple to return, he’s prepared to be circumcised in Howsome’s place. Strulovitch and Shylock discuss circumcision, but ultimately Strulovitch must decide whether to take D’Anton’s “pound of flesh” or show mercy.

After the novel’s denouement, which leaves Strulovitch looking defeated, Jacobson describes “the greatest illusion of all – that time would labour and bring forth beneficent change”. This encapsulates Jacobson’s warning that anti-Semitism lurks beneath the surface of every society.

Sometimes, Strulovitch simply sounds like Jacobson in his columns for The Independent. For example, Strulovitch’s caricature of a nightmare boyfriend for Beatrice (“over-principled, money-hating, Isis-backing Judaeophobe with an MA in fine art”) might have hit home in a few hundred words of erudite Corbynista-baiting but, in an ethically complex novel, its silliness is beneath Jacobson...

From another:

The winner of the Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question pulls off a neat trick in this almost perversely serious comic novel, creating a parallel world to Shakespeare’s Venice in the wealthy, cultured Golden Triangle of Cheshire, and peopling it with parallel-ish characters. He matches the bereaved Shylock with the second-generation wealthy philanthropist Simon Strulovitch, the daughter Jessica with ‘Strulo’s’ wannabe performance artist child, Beatrice. He pairs Portia with ‘Plury’ — in full, Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine — and Belmont with her Old Belfry...

...The subject of circumcision seems to allow Jacobson to answer the question of what binds Strulovitch and other godless Jews (the vast majority of us Jew-ish today): the Covenant somehow continues, though there is no divine party to it. Is this cheating? Probably. As is giving Portia’s speech to Shylock, because Jews formed the concepts of mercy and compassion millennia before Christianity appeared...imon Strulovitch, stalking his underage daughter, drags her away from a raucous party in Moss Side, where she’s been snogging a boy. He demands of his beautiful child, encouraged to listen to Mozart and Schubert: ‘Have I brought you up to value noise as an entity — just noise for the sake of it, Beatrice —while some chthonic arsehole fondles your breasts?’ Having made the reader either reach for the dictionary or stop and think, there’s a whole disquisition, with Beatrice saying she’s proud to have a father who can turn a phrase like that, but nailing his true import: ‘What you really mean is a goy boy.’

One more:

As Strulovitch admits to himself, he needs his new, “black-hearted friend”: “Jews had grown so careful now. If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? No, we shall not. We shall take it on the chin and be grateful.”

...The plot is, frankly, ludicrous, and creaks and groans for a good deal of the book. The tone, too, slides queasily between moral seriousness and farce. Whereas the jarring elements in the play discomfit the audience, here the discordance serves little purpose. Plurabelle is an anaemic reincarnation of the spirited Portia. The relentlessly inquisitorial Shylock is a bit of a bore, obsessively probing the polarities of “us” and “them”, Jews and Gentiles...

...Jacobson, with glorious chutzpah, gives Shylock his Act V, and the end when it comes is extremely satisfying. In translating The Merchant of Venice from stage to page, Jacobson’s gift for anatomising self-doubt has found its true north. Provocative, caustic and bold, his version won’t please everyone, but it will certainly make them think.


BPO asked me "but where is your critique?" and since I have not yet read it (anyone coming back from the UK?), all I can write now, after reading "The Finkler Question" in connection with the above is that

Jacobson is a mohel but with words as an instrument


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