Shylock Is My Name

I have a lot to say about this book, it being my first read of 2017 and all. My Name Is Shylock is a retelling of The Merchant of Venice and if you just want to read a short review, here it is:

****

The writing style is complex, the vocabulary is intense although not so hard that the book is unreadable but I deducted half a star from my rating because I think some of Jacobson’s pedantic text distracted a little from the overall presentation. All that aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book – I sympathized with the characters and understood their motivations. As a religious Christian myself, I loved the religious discussions – Jew vs Christian – as well as how the author explored the parent-child, specifically father-daughter relationships, without solving all their problems in the resolution of the story. While I think the author stayed true to the original themes, I felt like he added even more to this story, digging deep into cultural and historical references that I didn’t get from reading the original story.
I found this retelling to be an enhancement to the history of the Merchant of Venice, instead of a replacement, because it made me want to reread Shakespeare’s original play for comparison and do an even more in-depth literary study on both.
Wonderful retelling. I look forward to more of these adaptations from Hogarth Publishers and I think I’ll go check out more of Jacobson’s writings now.

*****

If you want to know a little (or a lot) more, my long-winded spiel is next:

I was a shy, impressionable, fourteen-year-old high school student the first time I read The Merchant of Venice. I remember thinking how clever Portia was to figure out that Shylock couldn’t secure the pound of flesh he was due without yielding a drop of the blood he hadn’t thought to include in his contract. It was the first time I thought about a career in law. You’ll know from reading my blog regularly that I didn’t go on to become a lawyer (at least not yet) so clearly that motivation didn’t last long but the story has been one of those that stayed with me.

Greed and the triumph of good over evil is an enduring theme in this timeless story. Another is the comparison between the value of relationships and the value of possessions. Religion plays a very important role in the tale – Shylock portrayed as the stereotypical Jew – miserly, temperamental, angry – and Antonio, the tenderhearted Gentile, castigated for his single worst failing – that he is not a Jew.

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is such a well crafted, perfectly delivered story, does it really need to be revamped to be applicable for modern times? Howard Jacobson thought so because he set out to rework the story. The result is this novel entitled Shylock Is My Name.Shylock Is My Name by HowardJacobson

What The Book Is About

My Name is Shylock is about the relationship between two Jewish men, Strulovitch and Shylock, both reeling from disappointment with the blows that life has dealt them, both capable of the lack of compassion we expect from the title character of this story. The story opens on the men meeting in a cemetery where Strulovitch is there to end his year of mourning his mother’s death and Shylock is there to commune with the spirit of his own dead wife who he still feels as a constant presence in his life. Both are unwilling to move on from losing these two most important women, mostly because they are failing in their relationships with the still-living women in their lives.

Through a series of flashbacks and remembered encounters, we see how Strulovitch’s character has been molded as the coddled son of a Jewish mother, whose death has now forced him to be weaned from her protection, and the father whose ideologies are steeped in orthodox religion, the kind that would drive him to disown his son for marrying outside their faith. What could we expect from Strulovitch other than the flawed character he presents?

And Shylock, abandoned  – by his wife in death, by his daughter’s rejection of their Jewish faith. What can come of a relationship that is based on shared sorrow? In a cruel twist, both men this time are Jewish, Shylock tormenting Strulovitch for being a secular Jew, a title Strulovitch has earned for his Christian tendencies.

Reading this book and understanding the language and themes will make anyone feel smart. The author uses very high level language with vocabulary words and references that, for me, were so complex I wanted to post passages of the book on social media to let everyone know I read difficult books! Jacobson uses nuggets of literature, history, art, science and modern culture to create a story that is a nod to both the original language and context of the Shakespearan times and reality TV stardom. 

This version of the story explores the subtext of Shylock’s original intent – to obtain the pound of flesh closest to Antonio’s heart literally or figuratively. And by entitling the retelling My Name Is Shylock, who is actually demanding payment – is the character named Shylock the only one making demands? What of Strulovitch demanding his daughter’s suitor be circumcised? Isn’t that asking for a pound of flesh? What about D’Anton requesting the artwork Strulovitch values more than any other? What of the orphaned Plurabella enticing Beatrice away from a relationship with her own family? Each time someone takes something of value, for retribution or vengeance, aren’t they also being a type of Shylock?

Cautions

If you haven’t recently studied for the SATs or GREs, you might need a dictionary handy to read this book. As is true for the original story, this retelling is told through vocabulary that might not be part of everyone’s everyday speech which makes it a little hard to immerse ones self into the story, at least at first.

With so many references to Bible characters and Eurocentric mastery, any reader unfamiliar with this history will miss some of the story’s subtleties.

Would I Recommend This Retelling Or Shakespeare’s Original?

While this story is acutely more complex to read, the characters and their situations are more relatable. In our present world where interracial and inter-religious relationships are commonplace, this retelling makes the the issues the characters face that much more understandable. I think you should read both versions – for completeness.

My Rating

This is the best book I’ve read in 2017. Okay, so it’s the first book I’ve read in 2017. Haha. I gave this book 4.5 out of 5 stars. While I enjoyed how well researched and expertly woven Jacobson’s version and think he mastered a retelling that was true to the original themes but showed sufficient departure to be a standalone book, I had to deduct a half a point because his complex sentence structure gave me pause at times and I found myself glossing over words, hoping to understand them in context and praying that I didn’t misunderstand his meaning.

My Recommendation: Read this book with a  dictionary handy and your web browser open so you can look up some of the historical, religious and cultural references included in the book. It’s not necessary to understand the superficial meaning of the book but I think it will be well worth it to get to the deeper level of appreciation that this truly remarkable piece of literature deserves.

Book Details

  • Format: Paperback
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Pages: 288
  • Author Details: Howard Jacobson is the author of four works of nonfiction and several novels, including The Finkler Question, which won the Man Booker Prize; The Mighty Walzer, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for comic writing; and Who’s Sorry Now?which was long-listed for the Booker Prize. He has a weekly column for The Independent and regularly reviews and writes for The Guardian, The Times, and The Evening Standard. Jacobson has also done several specials for British television. He lives in London.

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Blogging For Books in order to complete this review. 

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