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review 2016-09-06 11:10
Nie jesteśmy na tym świecie po to, by wiecznie się smucić.
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review 2016-06-14 07:19
Shylock Is My Name
Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Howard Jacobson

Recently, I'm going through a Shakespeare period, its climax probably the three plays I'll be seeing in the Globe in two weeks time (For those of you who're interested: A Midsummer's Night Dream, The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth). The Merchant of Venice, upon which Shylock is My Name is based, however is one of those plays that I still rather unfamiliar with. Both the story and the character of Shylock to be honest.


It felt like a great miss when I was reading Shylock is my name. Not only was I unable to see all the parallels between the story and the play, I also didn't know what to expect at all. Strangely enough, perhaps for those who're familiar with The Merchant of Venice, I didn't expect this story at all.


Most of the dialogue, most of the story even, surround about the two main characters, Strulovitch and Shylock, two old men who above all seem to be angry at the world. Due to their negative world view, the whole back has something depressing over it, which for me caused it to be not an easy read at all. I kept putting it away, because it was so depressing. This is why it cost me months to finish it. It's not what I would call a nice or enjoyable read. At least not when reading. Now that I'm finished, I can't say that I regret reading it. The prose was very beautiful, and would certainly be a reason to pick up another book by Howard Jacobson, but only if the theme is less depressing.


Thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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review 2016-04-04 15:52
Shylock is my Name / Howard Jacobson
Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Howard Jacobson

‘Who is this guy, Dad? What is he doing here?’

With an absent wife and a daughter going off the rails, wealthy art collector and philanthropist Simon Strulovitch is in need of someone to talk to. So when he meets Shylock at a cemetery in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, he invites him back to his house. It’s the beginning of a remarkable friendship.

Elsewhere in the Golden Triangle, the rich, manipulative Plurabelle (aka Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever Christine) is the face of her own TV series, existing in a bubble of plastic surgery and lavish parties. She shares prejudices and a barbed sense of humour with her loyal friend D’Anton, whose attempts to play Cupid involve Strulovitch’s daughter – and put a pound of flesh on the line.

Howard Jacobson’s version of The Merchant of Venice bends time to its own advantage as it asks what it means to be a father, a Jew and a merciful human being in the modern world.


Confession of ignorance first: I am completely unfamiliar with this author. Even his name is unknown to me, which is unusual for one who works in a library and frequently plays in them too. But the Hogarth Shakespeare has chosen well for their Merchant of Venice rewrite. Jacobson is a talented writer.

To my mind, the two plays of Shakespeare which are the most challenging for modern audiences are The Taming of the Shrew due to the role of women in it and The Merchant of Venice for what appears to be anti-Semitism. I know that there are plenty of arguments on either side for why these plays are or aren’t examples of prejudice and whether we should care or not. I don’t have the credentials to express any definitive opinions on these matters, although I can see where the debates spring from. I just know that I enjoy the works of Shakespeare and I don’t avoid these two plays, although they may make me uncomfortable.

Writing a modern version of the beloved works of Shakespeare can’t be an easy task, but Jacobson is up to it. The choice of a Jewish author for this volume was inevitable—who else to tackle the thorny problem of prejudice embedded in the plotline? And Jacobson explores it thoroughly and examines the nature of the prejudice from several angles. I found the introduction of the “actual” character of Shylock into the modern setting an interesting choice. At first, I was unsure that people besides the main character Strulovitch could see him, but it soon became obvious that he was an actual corporeal being. He is definitely more than just being Strulovitch’s outer conscience or cheering section. In fact, it is through his commentary that Jacobson analyzes the prejudice embedded in the play, and by extension in society.

During the first maybe 50 pages, I was strongly reminded of our Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, who wrote so colourfully of the Jewish experience in Montreal (thinking of St. Urbain’s Horseman). Perhaps it was just the suggestion that both men were Jewish and the impression melted away as I progressed. But it did make me think that I need to return to more of Richler’s works, which I haven’t read since I was in university many years ago.

I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as Jeannette Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale, which is not to say that I didn’t find it worth my time. As usual, it is probably more to do with the fact that I have never seen The Merchant of Venice performed. I will also definitely keep Mr. Jacobson in my mind for future reading. I am very much looking forward to the next Hogarth Shakespeare volume—I have a library hold on Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl and have recently seen The Taming of the Shrew, so I expect to enjoy it a great deal.

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review 2016-01-15 00:00
Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Howard Jacobson [I'm going to talk about the whole book. I don't believe there are any spoilers since this is a retelling of a well-known tale and hardly relies on suspense. But if you don't want to know any details of how the retelling is done, it's probably best you don't read this.]

For me, the Merchant of Venice is captivating because of two remarkable and problematic characters: Shylock and Portia. I don't think I'm alone in this, but it's clear that Jacobson does not share my opinion. He clearly thinks of Portia as a throw-away character, and because of this fundamental disagreement, I was bound to be disappointed by his adaptation. For Jacobson, MoV was Shylock, all Shylock, and his telling of the story re-orients around Shylock and the relationships in the story that define his character. The principle relationships in this story are between Shylock and his daughter Jessica, and Shylock and Anthony. Both place a remote second to the relationship between Shylock and himself.

There is much to think about and to discuss in this book, and for that I rate it fairly high. It is, however, not an enjoyable book to read. Shakespeare's play is not enjoyable because it is so problematic, and Jacobson's retelling is not enjoyable because the author so clearly holds all of his characters in disdain. We cannot develop empathy for any of them because the author holds none. MoV is categorized a comedy because they don't all die at the end, but it is decidedly unfunny, which makes me inclined to forgive the Golden Globes and their strange interpretation of what a comedy is. In an echo of this categorization, Jacobson's characters exchange jokes and are either often laughing (the Christian characters), or never laughing but rather overanalyzing their jokes and why they tell them (the Jewish characters), but it is also not a comedy in any sense of the word in modern usage.

The core of the book is wrapped up in Jewish identity and relationships to the extent that much of the plot does not make sense, and I had to release my expectation of logic in order to consider what the author was trying to get across. Despite the references to email and phones, reality television and social media, this classic story has not been dragged successfully into the 21st century. At 15, Strulovitch's (the modern Shylock's) daughter was in college, and at 16 was of age and free to marry. Circumcision is treated as the defining mark of Jewish men instead of the norm it is today. The characters seem incapable of using their modern technology to either solve problems or communicate (the letter is written, addressed, and hand-delivered). And Strulovitch is portrayed as having just as isolating a life in modern England as Shylock did in 16th century Italy, and this is unbelievable. All these inconsistencies drove me mad and inclined me to give the book a much lower rating, but let's get to the relationships.

Strulovitch finds the fictional Shylock in a cemetery in the first scene of the book and takes him home with him to serve as his advisor, his mentor, his conscience. The fictional Shylock is visible to humans in the story but not Strulovitch's dogs. He is constantly in conversation with his dead and absent wife, Leah, and bemoaning his lost relationship with his daughter Jessica. Strulovitch's wife Kay is bedridden after a stroke and is not available to her husband for counsel, her living mind silenced while Leah counsels Shylock from beyond the grave like a silent Lady MacBeth (I do not exaggerate -- it is on her advice that Shylock decides to drive Strulovitch to rage). The debates between Strulovitch and his conscience Shylock drive the story and define Jewish male identity. They are the central story. They are foreign and extreme to me, but worth reading and considering.

Strulovitch further explores his identity through his relationship with his daughter Beatrice and D'Anton, the art trader from whom he, in the end, demands a little flap of flesh. In an exception to all other characters in the story, Beatrice is actually a little more interesting than her counterpart Jessica, in that she is allowed to think for herself after fleeing her father's home with her lover. But all of her thoughts are about her father and how maybe he was right, so this extra level of interest circles back to keep Strulovitch central. In an interesting and appropriate tweak, Strulovitch and D'Anton are far more similar to each other than Shylock and Anthony, both in profession and in character. They live near each other and move in the same circles, albeit very seldom interacting. They should understand each other; they do not that the excuse of foreignness and removal. Their interaction makes this adaptation more intriguing.

All of this is good for mental mastication, but then Jacobson reveals his real motivation at the end. Shylock (not Strulovitch -- let's not beat around the bush) delivers Portia's mercy speech for her and then tells her off. Or rather, he tells the empty-headed, shadow-of-a-character Plurabelle off. And it feels like this was what it was all about, and it doesn't matter that it's modern but not modern and the plot doesn't make sense and the characters are strangely told. It's all really about Shylock telling that damn Portia off. Jacobson first guts her and then flattens her, all to make it easier to crush her beneath his boot heel. So you could argue that I only object because I'm a woman and a feminist who has studied Shakespeare and thought there was some value in Portia as a character despite her anti-Semitism, and you'd be right. And maybe my position is untenable and unforgivable. It's worth discussing. But I think it makes Jacobson's story problematic in and of itself, not because of wit and wisdom, but because of a cultural blindspot, much like the original. So maybe that makes it an appropriate retelling after all.

I got a free copy of this from First to Read.
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review 2016-01-13 06:21
Shylock is My Name, by Howard Jacobson
Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Howard Jacobson

The Merchant of Venice has vexed me since I read it in college. I was fascinated by Shylock, but felt that the rest of the characters except for Portia were a waste of ink. I remember rolling my eyes a lot at Portia having to step into save her drip of a lover. With the anti-Semitism on top of everything, The Merchant of Venice is one of my least favorite works by Shakespeare. So when I learned that Howard Jacobson was going to take a stab at retelling the story in Shylock is My Name, I leapt at the chance to read it...


Read the rest of my review at A Bookish Type. I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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