Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson, Hogarth Press, 275 pages, $25. Howard Jacobson is this kind of writer: pigeonhole him as “the British Philip Roth” and the septuagenerian writer is likely to snap back that he’s “the Jewish Jane Austen.” How his last novel “J” – an uncharacteristically dystopian novel with overtones of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” – fits into that is a larger subject.
What we have here, though, from Jacobson is the perfect casting for the second volume of one of the most interesting series of novels planned in our era.
“Shylock is My Name” is Jacobson’s new novel based very loosely on Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” The first novel in Hogarth’s adapted-Shakespeare series was Jeanette Winterson’s novelistic retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” called “The Gap of Time.”
The Hogarth series, as planned, is quite brilliant – select modern writers from the cream of the profession retelling in novel form Shakespeare plays. Future novels planned in the series will be Anne Tyler’s novelistic version of “Taming of the Shrew” to appear this summer with the title “Vinegar Girl,” Margaret Atwood’s later novelistic retelling of “The Tempest,” Gillian Glynn’s retelling of “Hamlet,” Jo Nesbo’s version of “Macbeth” and Edward St. Aubuyn newly reimagined “King Lear.”
Prose retellings of the stories of Shakespeare’s plays are nothing if not traditional in literature (see, most obviously, Charles Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare”) but actually constructing brand new novels out of them on this level in a new century is unique.
What Man Booker Prize winner Jacobson does to “The Merchant of Venice” is to take one of Shakespeare’s most eternally disturbing plays and make comic capital out of art dealers, “high society” in Manchester, a neo-Nazi footballer (i.e., soccer star), daughters who are performance artists and a younger Jewish generation traveling far indeed from traditional Jewish values. Would you believe, in passing, the memorable line “oi gevalto, we’re back on the rialto?” All of it observed by a writer who invents a character who “preferred older money to new even when the new was his own.” – Jeff Simon