Rating: 3 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room March Madness challenge.
I haven’t read The Merchant of Venice. I suppose this might have put me at a disadvantage in reading Howard Jacobson’s retelling of the play.
I’ve also not read any Howard Jacobson before. When I opened the book, I didn’t know what his style would be. I ended up enjoying it, despite initial misgivings. It’s a cheeky chappy style, but with depth. He put me in mind of Michael Frayn. I enjoyed the way he peeled away the layers of the issues with which he concerned himself in the book.
As I read the first chapter, though, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling. It felt a bit smug, a bit self-satisfied, a bit ‘look at how clever and knowing I am’, a bit dull. In chapter one, Jacobson seems a very male writer, with obsessions about sex, the penis as extension of personality (excuse the pun), being misunderstood by women, his lead character not knowing who he’s supposed to be or how he’s supposed to act, being middle aged and in crisis. This comes to make sense as the story unfolds.
Struggling as I was, I hopped off to read a couple of newspaper reviews of the book. In The Guardian I learnt that Jacobson is the undisputed British master of black comedies featuring Jewish characters and has a relaxed, garrulous style. In the FT I learnt that Jacobson is interested in how Jewish identity plays out in a specifically English context and has a gift for anatomising self-doubt.
Okay, then. I don’t really like reading newspaper reviews before embarking on a book, but I did feel a little better equipped to get into Jacobson’s mind set.
I got the satire of chapter two. It still felt a bit smug, and a bit sneery, and made me ponder whether satire should be cleverer than that. There’s low satire (course/crude) and high satire (biting/informed), but this seemed more like medium satire, neither one thing nor the other. I’m not an expert on satire, though.
I got his commentary on the attitudes of the born wealthy to those who have built their wealth, his commentary on the modern obsession with reality TV, and his commentary on whether the wealthy are still allowed to feel normal human emotions like sorrow or whether they are expected to be protected from it by their privilege. I smiled at this passage
Oh, but sadness is a curse.
Plurabelle’s mother told her it was natural in a girl who had recently lost a father. But Plurabelle sought a deeper cause. Or maybe a more superficial cause. A different cause, anyway.
Her mother couldn’t help her with that. ‘Philosophy exceeds my maternal brief,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you go to sadness classes in Wilmslow?’
I liked the idea of sadness classes in Wilmslow, but it didn’t do for me what the satire of TV shows like The Daily Show or The Day Today, or even shows like Nathan Barley, do for me. Perhaps I prefer my satire more biting and surreal. Perhaps Jacobson’s satire is too cozy for me. I’ve never really thought about my relationship to satire before. I am an angry person, though, when it comes to what I think of as injustice, so it makes sense that I like my satire barbed.
I discussed my initial feelings of doubt about the book with my husband, who made the point that perhaps Jacobson’s satire isn’t rooted in anger, but is more a whimsical thing that plays with abstract concepts held in his hand and examined at a remove rather than experienced in the fibre of his being, perhaps because he’s lived a life removed from being a practising Jew who experiences hatred on a daily basis. I’m paraphrasing. Our discussion was more wide ranging than that, taking in Woody Allen, what Jewishness comes to mean to an individual as a result of experience, and whether or not Jacobson should feel angrier than he initially seems to about antisemitism. It stemmed from a question posed in James Lasdun’s review, the second Guardian article linked to above, of whether Jacobson’s satirical approach to the Christian characters and antisemitism “plays into the nastiest antisemitic trope of all: that it is all just a Jewish persecution fantasy.” I widened the question further to ask whether the whimsical, Allenesque, “Am I a good Jew?” theme becomes another fallacy, a cliché to sit alongside the fallacy that Jews are greedy and the root of all economic problems in society, and becomes another reason for antisemites to hate Jewish people. Because they go on about being Jewish so much.
And then I started thinking about identity and belonging. Maybe I struggled to know what to feel about the book because these divisions into culture, class, social groups, whatever don’t really mean anything to me. I’ve never been in a gang. I’ve always wanted to be an individual. I can label myself in all kinds of ways. I’m white, from a working class background, educated into a middle class lifestyle, a former practising Christian made agnostic by life experiences and other Christians’ short comings, a woman in a largely patriarchal society, British, English, Northern. But I don’t feel automatic kinship with anyone else who also falls within those definitions, because we’re all different, all individuals. I think the nearest thing I have to belonging is being from the North West of England, but even then, I dislike professional Northerners. I don’t get sport, that need to align yourself with a team and become part of the tribe of supporters. I don’t get religious divisions, either between faiths or within them. I’m anti plenty of things. Anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-sexism, anti-anything I perceive as injustice. I’m just not pro-clique.
I think that’s what I liked about the last book I read. That all the characters were individuals, and didn’t belong to factions, but got on with life, coming together through necessity.
After all that over thinking from the first two chapters, on I went. And my aversion to reading newspaper reviews before reading a book was borne out, because the book revealed that Jacobson was considering the questions the reviewers seemed to be posing as their own, and even the questions I had as a result of the reviews. I should have been patient and trusted Jacobson to know what he was doing.
The exaggerations of the Christian characters gave the book the feel of a comic book/graphic novel, but with the bold colours and stark outlines of the artwork rendered as words. I’m a visual reader, and I partly visualised this book as Dick Tracey, partly as Acorn Antiques. Or perhaps as the day-glo banality of a reality TV show, based on the short glimpses I’ve had of TOWIE and Made in Chelsea. Primary colours and empty personas inflated to give the impression of substance. There was something too over the top about the theatricality of Plurabelle and D’Anton’s world. Quite aside from them being gross in their blatant antisemitism, and therefore undeserving of sympathy, I couldn’t find sympathy for any of them. They weren’t real. It seemed to me that this was Jacobson’s aim, but it also felt clumsy.
I found the conversations between Shylock and Strulovitch more interesting, but still largely overblown. I was pleased to find that Jacobson was pondering the same question as me, about whether any cliché about Jewishness that is taken up by someone Jewish as a creative trope makes it easier for Jewish people to be vilified by those who hate them without really knowing why. Strulovitch asks Shylock whether the proliferation of stories about Jews masturbating is how Gentiles see Jews or how Jews see themselves. Shylock replies
‘Both … After so many years of being told what Gentiles see when they look at us it’s hardly a surprise that we end up seeing something similar. That’s how vilification works. The victim ingests the views of his tormentor. If that’s how I look, that’s what I must be.’
Once I settled into the rhythms of the book, and got over my initial expectations of what it should be, I enjoyed it. The exaggeration, although clumsy at times, was playful, the interactions between Shylock and Strulovitch thought provoking. Despite not having read or seen the play, I could feel Jacobson unpicking its structure and meaning, fitting its 16th century sensibilities to the concerns of 21st century Jews, exploring Shylock’s hard line against the behaviour of English Jews who marry Englishness to Jewishness in their avoidance of causing a fuss. It was a clever and engaging book.
I found that the topics under discussion made me think, for all that they were framed in a farcical/satirical situation. I enjoyed the allusions made to modern life and modern celebrity. The non-Jewish characters were vile in their antisemitism, but I assume their exaggeration is a comment on the Christians in The Merchant of Venice. I don’t know the play at all, but as Tudor England was an antisemitic place, I’d hazard a guess that the play was conceived in antisemitic terms. The world moves on, and is still antisemitic, it’s true, but antisemitism is no longer the declared cultural norm in England, and I hope that the play is used today to explore antisemitism and refute it. My feeling about Jacobson’s retelling is that he is exploring the nature of antisemitism and trying to shine a light on how ridiculous it is to hold such mediaeval views. If Jacobson wasn’t Jewish, though, I might think differently about his motivations as an author.
The hardcover edition I read was also a beautiful book. I enjoyed the weight of the typeface, and the design of the end papers was a delight.
I’m quite tempted to read Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest as a result of reading this one. That’s not out until 11 October 2016, though.