This morning I finished reading Howard Jacobson’s new novel, a modern-day retelling of The Merchant of Venice: Shylock Is My Name. Deceptively short, 275 pages, Shylock Is My Name is a difficult read, especially if you’ve never read or seen Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which I haven’t. I’m acquainted with Jacobson. As part of a personal challenge to read the shortlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, I read J. But in all honesty, I found Shylock Is My Name much harder to wrap my head around. To be fair to myself, I’ve read far more dystopian novels than I have Shakespeare or Shakespearean tales retold, unless you count 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s The Man or Clueless, of course. I’m only being honest!! I’m sure many of you are secure enough in your intellect to admit that it’s fun to have fun with Shakespeare. The bulk of Shylock Is My Name is a series of conjectural, introspective tete-a-tetes: What does it mean to be Jewish for Jews? How do Gentiles define Jewishness? Main characters (this is reductive) Shylock and Strulovitch tease out the roots of anti-Seminitism. Its a talky book rooted in conjecture, undermined by a 21st Century plot twist.
If you feel like you’ve seen a lot of 21st Century retellings of Shakespeare’s works in 2016, rest assured, you are not crazy. It’s worth checking out Hogarth Shakespeare’s website because they’re up to something. The Hogarth Shakespeare project began in 2015 and seeks to offer 21st Century retellings of Shakespearean works by the world’s best selling novelists. In October 2015 Jeanette Winterson published The Gap of Time, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale. Alongside Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name, Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, Vinegar Girl was released in June 2016. Margaret Atwood is herself tackling The Tempest in Had-Seed. 2017 is no less exciting, Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø is tackling Macbeth and Tracy Chevalier has set her sights on Othello. A sure sign of their success is the acquisition of Gillian Flynn, on Hamlet for 2021.
I’d love to give you a review of Shylock Is My Name but in the spirit of full disclosure, I am still digesting it. BUT it is the first book I’ve read in a few weeks that inspired me to publish a list of new words (with a few additions from Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night):
Roué – n. a debauched man, especially an elderly one
Chtonic – adj. of or relating to the underworld
Kunsthaes – n. a term in German-speaking regions for a facility that mounts art exhibitions; “art gallery”
Mamzer – n. in modern Jewish culture is someone who is either born out of adultery by a married Jewish woman and a Jewish man who is not her husband, or born out of incest (as defined by the Bible)
Vila – n. female fairy-like spirits who live in the wilderness and sometimes in the clouds
Footler – v. to waste time; trifle
Fach – n. The German Fach system is a method of classifying singers, primarily opera singers, according to the range, weight, and color of their voices
Pulchritude – n. physical beauty
Pidgin – n. a grammatically simplified means of communication that develops between two or more groups that do not have a language in common: typically, a mixture of simplified languages or a simplified primary language with other languages’ elements included