Howard Jacobson’s novelistic riff on The Merchant of Venice for the Hogarth Shakespeare project turns, unsurprisingly, on what makes some people (in Jonathan Miller’s memorable self-describing formulation) Jew-ish. Is it the gentile’s anti-Semitism, with its manifestations varying from relatively polite social snubs to persecutions down the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, that defines Jew-ishness? Or is it the self-identifying Jew’s own attitude or beliefs that make him part of a clan? (The idea that Jews are a ‘race’ is too silly to consider. My own DNA profile shows that 97 per cent of my genes were probably shared by Jews of Biblical times, though my family has been blond and blue-eyed for at least the five generations I’ve met.)
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.
Plury collects celebrities, and wangles them to appear on her television programme, The Kitchen Counsellor. Plury has discarded the provision of her father’s will that enjoins three tests for suitors, substituting luxury cars for the gold and silver and a VW Beetle for the leaden cask, and chooses the pretty, feckless Barnaby, who, masquerading as a mechanic, chooses to work on the VW. He’s been tipped off to do this by D’Anton (Antonio), a rich, handsome man of taste and unsettled sexuality, born in Guinea. He loves both Barnaby and a tattooed footballer, Gratan Howsome, with whom he makes a match for Beatrice.
The author shows full power and ingenuity putting Strulovitch and Shylock in the same place and time, a Jewish cemetery, where Strulo sees (and recognises) Shylock and invites him home. The pound of flesh is transmuted into a demand that Gratan be circumcised, with D’Anton standing bond for Gratan. 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.
Jacobson begins his compelling retelling of the Shakespeare play with a sentence containing a metaphor that grabs the reader’s attention and keeps it:
It is one of those better-to-be-dead-than-alive days you get in the north of England in February, the space between the land and sky a mere letterbox of squeezed light…
So good is the opening that he repeats it to begin ‘Act Five’, his final chapter. He is not one to let a good line go unrepeated. Simon 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.’
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