The Man Booker award-winning British author gives The Merchant of Venice a new twist. And no, he doesn’t think Shakespeare was an anti-Semite.
by Liam Hoare
“I’ll put it bluntly,” I tell Howard Jacobson. “Why do you write about Jews?”
“I’ll put it bluntly back,” he replies. “Why shouldn’t I?”
And what does one say to that? Why shouldn’t he, indeed? While remaining something of an outsider both to the British Jewish community and the public at large—“the last of the Jewish misfits,” as he once referred to himself—Jacobson is England’s premier chronicler and examiner of the postwar Jewish experience in fictional form. In novels that blend comedy and tragedy, darkness and light, such as Coming from Behind, The Mighty Walzer and Kalooki Nights, Jacobson has aired the community’s dirty laundry, unpacking the psyche of the Jewish male and what it means to be an English Jew. Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2010 for The Finkler Question, which in part gave life to what he termed the ashamed Jew, or what others have called the “Asajew,” whose home terrain is the contentious letters page of The Guardian newspaper. (“As a Jew, let me say how much I disagree with what Israel is doing…” and so on.)
Who better to write about Jews than he?
We meet late in the afternoon at London’s Groucho Club, a private members-only establishment for art and media types on Dean Street in Soho. It is getting on toward Christmas, and many of the rooms in the labyrinthine building are booked for seasonal soirées, so we take tea in a corner of the dining room. Jacobson has a loft apartment around the corner from the club that he shares with the television producer Jenny de Yong, his “third and final” wife, as he has described her. Having visited Jacobson there previously, I can attest that its air and light, its book-lined walls—an oasis amid a warren of restaurants and music venues, sex shops and gay bars—could not feel further removed from the swath of greater Jewish north London where many of his loyal readers can be found.
Now age 73 and walking with the “stoop of a prophet,” as an interview once noted, Jacobson has for his latest project reanimated perhaps the most infamous Jew in all of English literature: Shylock. Shylock Is My Name—Jacobson’s contemporary spin on The Merchant of Venice, the problem play to end all problem plays—is one of a series of novelistic retellings of Shakespeare plays being published by Hogarth (the famous press founded by Virginia Woolf) to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Contributors include noted authors Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood, but it is Jacobson and the blend of author, material and character that’ll grab much of the attention.
“For him to write about and inside of The Merchant of Venice seems to me a marriage made in heaven,” says Stephen Greenblatt, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University.
For those who haven’t read The Merchant of Venice since high school, a quick refresher: Antonio and his friend Bassanio—in need of funds to woo Portia—approach Shylock for a loan. Shylock agrees, with a pound of Antonio’s flesh as the guarantee. Shylock frets over this debt and his daughter Jessica, whom he raised alone following the death of his wife, Leah. Jessica has run away with another friend of Antonio’s, Lorenzo. The usual Shakespearean antics follow, after which, at a trial, Shylock is sentenced to convert to Christianity for conspiring to take the life of a Venetian citizen. Antonio, Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica live happily ever after—everyone, that is, except Shylock.
“I said, ‘I’d love to do Hamlet,’” Jacobson says when I ask how this project came about. But the publishers didn’t seem interested, nor in his taking on King Lear, either. “I went through every play until I thought, ‘Ah, they want me to do The Merchant of Venice.’” They just didn’t want to give it to him. “Should I not have known? I discussed it with my wife, and I said, ‘Is this not just plunging me back into familiar territory?’ and we both agreed, ‘What’s wrong with familiar territory?’”
“And anyway, it’s a cause that goes on,” he says. “Jewishness is the gift that goes on giving—the cross that goes on bearing.”
Shylock Is My Name opens in a graveyard, on “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 letter box of squeezed lights, the sky itself unfathomably banal.” (“I seem to need to begin and end novels in cemeteries these days,” Jacobson tells me between sips of tea. “Don’t ask.”) Here we find Simon Strulovitch, “a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist,” owner of “a distinguished collection of twentieth-century Anglo-Jewish art and old Bibles” and single father to a daughter who’s gone off the rails.
He is not alone. For “tenderly addressing the occupant of a grave whose headstone is worn to nothing” is Shylock. Yes, the Shylock, about whom “no two people feel the same” and “even those who unreservedly despise him, despise him with different degrees of unreservation.” Of his daughter, “the least said the better.” One might be surprised to see Shylock here, alive and well in a Jacobson novel—such meta-fictional turns are unusual for him—but as Strulovitch thinks to himself, “Of course Shylock is here, among the dead. When hasn’t he been?”
In a critique of then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, novelist Amos Oz observed the leader’s tendency to “resurrect Hitler from the dead just so that you may kill him over and over again each day.” In Shylock Is My Name, Strulovitch remembers a moment when he was 11 years old, “shopping with his mother in a department store when she saw Hitler buying aftershave.” The Jewish imagination, he deduced, “sets no limits to chronology or topography”; it “cannot over trust the past to the past.” In the case of Begin, Hitler was ever present—ever dead, then alive, then dead once more—because of the pain of the Holocaust that had destroyed a third of the Jewish people, including his mother, father and older brother. “One of the reasons Shylock is here in the cemetery, among the dead but not buried himself, is that he remains part of English culture as both noun and adjective. He has seeped into the English Jewish consciousness just as he has the English popular imagination. Shylock does not die in the play; he is very much still among us.
“I think it’s a Jewish thing to remember as acutely as we do,” Jacobson says. “Ours is a culture that is fixated upon memory. We are who we are because of our past. Sometimes it is said against, and sometimes it is said for us, that we live more in the past than in the present, but the past is an inescapable thing for us, and so is Shylock. Although Shylock comes from the mind of someone who isn’t Jewish, he has entered the Jewish imagination. He’s entered the literature, not just about Jews, but also of Jews. He is one of the ways that we see ourselves. He won’t go away—he’s always there. So it’s only a slight linguistic shift that makes him not just there in our imagination, but as a physical presence.”
Beyond that, having Shylock there in the room also serves an important dramatic purpose. It enables Jacobson to explore further, through Shylock’s relationship with Jessica, the theme of fathers and daughters. The moment in The Merchant of Venice when it is revealed that Jessica has sold her dead mother’s ring for a monkey is “when the whole play opens up,” he believes. There is a poignant simplicity in the revelation: “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”
The use of monkeys here is a “wonderfully Hebraic touch,” Jacobson says. “I think only a Jew can understand the depth of the insult, that you’re a Jew precisely because you had to say good-bye to the monkeys. For her to buy a monkey, it’s right back into the pre-ethical world of unbridled appetite and lawlessness and no mind. Everything a Jew most values you will not find in a monkey.” (The novel was originally titled A Wilderness of Monkeys, but the publisher didn’t like it.)
More than that, Shylock’s presence is a means by which Jacobson can wrangle with the problem play itself, and give Shylock the Act V he never had. “This [is] not me saving him, saving the play—this is me wanting to hear more. I liked that idea more and more, that there he is, he’s a real man, and he’s Shylock. It’s a liberty with reality but people take those liberties, but there [he] is with thoughts about his life, thoughts about those characters.”
Anthony Julius, in his magisterial 2010 study of English anti-Semitism, Trials of the Diaspora, is quite clear where he stands on The Merchant of Venice: it is a “blood libel narrative” in which Shylock, “a representative Jew,” sets a murderous trap for Antonio, a bloody bond, and is in the fourth act punished for his malevolent plan, humiliated and shuffled off the stage. “Shylock is an Englishman’s Jew,” Julius writes, “wicked, malignant, but ultimately conquerable.” It is also a play of contrasts, of Jewish fidelity to the law, a “felonious adherence” to it, against Christian bonds of friendship and love.
I put Julius’s interpretation to Jacobson: that The Merchant of Venice “shows a bad Jew; it encourages us to think badly of him; it encourages us to regard him as broadly representative of all Jews; it encourages us therefore to think badly of all Jews; further, it encourages us to think badly of Judaism; it has been staged many times for this express purpose.”
Jacobson leans forward and ponders for a moment. “I think that’s wrong, and part of the way [Julius’s] account works is that we have the law—the Jew and his indomitable, inflexible law—and then here are the other characters, showing us how they play with the idea of love. But if they are representatives of everything Shylock is not, that only works in Anthony’s terms if Shakespeare renders them sympathetically. And he doesn’t,” Jacobson proffers. “He offers them unsympathetically. They are disgusting. They are probably the most disgusting people in a Shakespeare play. They’re repugnant. They don’t stand for love.”
Naturally, Jacobson sees Shylock slightly differently. He is, to Jacobson, “so much more sympathetic” than the other characters. “At once, immediately, he plays with them, he’s funny, he’s quick on his feet, he plays the Jew and then doesn’t play the Jew, he plays them at their own game, he’s saucy, he’s rude. The bond at the beginning is almost homoerotic; he’s teasing about choosing the flesh from whichever part of your body pleaseth me.
“Did Shakespeare hate Jews? Clearly, he didn’t, because there was so much amusement and vitality and pity to Shylock,” he continues, “including the famous, Hath not a Jew eyes? That’s standard for Shakespeare—you humanize the foreign, you humanize the alien.”
But does Jacobson’s sympathetic understanding of Shylock square with how Shylock is recalled in popular imagination, where he is part of the traveling company of pantomime Jews from English literature who are remembered for the base stereotypes they perpetuate? Who is Fagin? Fagin is a criminal, a launderer of stolen goods who leads a gang of pickpockets. Who is Shylock? Shylock is a bloodthirsty moneylender who demands his pound of flesh.
“The historical consequences of the play are a problem,” Jacobson concedes, “but that’s not my job. I can only deal with what [the written play sounds] like to my ears, and that’s already complex enough because I’ve spoken to enough Jews who feel differently about it. Some Jews are appalled by Shylock, that a wonderful work of genius played a near-fatal role in the way that Jews are perceived, and other Jews don’t see it like that at all. The ear of the listener determines what’s there.”
It is obligatory, when writing a profile of Howard Jacobson, to mention at a certain point that he is the English Philip Roth. (Just Google “Howard Jacobson Philip Roth,” if you don’t believe me.) It’s a meme that’s been around ever since the publication of his debut novel, Coming from Behind. A campus novel in the spirit of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, it chronicles the pathetic failings and mishaps of Sefton Goldberg—an “overtly Jewish” anti-hero with “an undistinguished schlemiel’s name”—a teacher of English in his mid-thirties at Wrottesley Polytechnic in the West Midlands.
Published in 1983 when Jacobson was 40, Coming from Behind was never a novel he intended to write. Born in Manchester in 1942 and educated at Downing College, Cambridge, where he studied English, Jacobson at first self-consciously aped the style of his heroes: D.H. Lawrence, George Eliot and Henry James: “a world of country houses and gentiles of the sort I’d never, ever met, and nothing ever got produced. I marched through my twenties with no novel.” Coming from Behind was born out of desperation, a need to write something, at a time when Jacobson was himself lecturing at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, an institution for which the adjective “mediocre” was surely invented.
The novel captures the humiliation Jacobson felt teaching at a small-scale college, and the happiness one can’t help but feel at the misfortune of others when one’s own life is a bit of a mess. In order for the book to work, however, he found he had to capture a specific “Jewish humiliation,” the double alienation of being Jewish and teaching English at an academic institution—and not even doing it well. “The self-parody, the self-denigration and the cruelty” in the comedy of the novel was, to Jacobson, “a Jewish self-cruelty,” but it was what he needed to write.
“I didn’t have a voice to write until I realized what I should have known: that I have a Jewish voice.”
In his review of the novel, Malcolm Bradbury—author of one of the great English campus novels, The History Man—said that he could hear in Jacobson’s writing “the bellow of Roth.” “There hadn’t been many novels in English with Jewish comedy in it,” Jacobson says, so “I’m not surprised [critics] were reminded of Roth. They saw similarities: being funny about being Jewish; being funny about Jewish sexual appetites.” Indeed, Coming from Behind opens with Goldberg “on all fours above” a female student, “his knees and elbows glued with the perspiration of effort and anxiety to the polytechnic linoleum, as naked as Noah but for the academic gown and hood” she was wearing on graduation day.
Bradbury’s label stuck: the English Philip Roth. “To be compared to him is fantastic,” Jacobson tells me, “though I wish people would say that Roth is the American Howard Jacobson.” How well this comparison holds up, however, is questionable. After all, campus novels from Lucky Jim onward, as well as a lot of modern confessional novels, have been about sexual frustration and sexually frustrated heroes. “The only difference between gentile frustration and Jewish frustration is Jews have more fun with it,” Jacobson says.
“I don’t think their two bodies of work are even remotely similar,” the English Jewish novelist Linda Grant, author most recently of Upstairs at the Party, tells me. “Roth’s later work is very interested in American history, like The Plot Against America or I Married a Communist, whereas Howard’s not interested in British history at all. The only similarity is that they’re male, they’re Jewish and they’re funny, and there are a number of American Jewish voices like that. It’s a tenuous connection, but I understand why people make it.”
There have been other labels: the Jewish Kingsley Amis and the Jewish Evelyn Waugh, to name but two. One Jacobson came up with himself, on the spur of the moment in response to the question once more, “How do you feel about being the English Philip Roth?” was that he was the Jewish Jane Austen. “It had a meaning that my antecedence is not the American Jewish novel. I’m not trying to write like Philip Roth or Saul Bellow—I’m trying to write like Jane Austen.”
Acritical and significant distinction between Roth and Jacobson is that the latter writes with two pens. While both men are dedicated to fiction, since 1998 Jacobson has written a weekly column for The Independent, a left-of-center newspaper of some repute. In 2011, the best of his work was collected into Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It, a title whose playful yet provocative querulousness says much about the columns Jacobson writes. Jacobson questions whether he should write a column at all—“ The novelist should not have an opinion,” he tells me—but Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It garnered much praise. “He is one of the great guardians of language and culture—all of it,” the critic Nicholas Lezard expounded ebulliently. “Long may he flourish.”
Jacobson is not the author of a political column, even if politics can be his subject. (Of the anti-Semitic Labour politician Tam Dalyell, who said in 2003 that Tony Blair was influenced by a “cabal of Jewish advisors,” Jacobson asked, “Must a Jew empty his pockets of all traces of his Jewishness before the influence police deem him to be clean?”) Rather, the variety of his columns reflects the learnedness and curiosity of its author: Australian hairdressers, melancholia, darts, homesickness, and the difficulties of dealing with your bank have been among his subjects. In a humorous swipe at Richard Dawkins’s rewriting of the seventh Commandment from “Thou shalt not commit adultery” to “Enjoy your sex life,” Jacobson said it “makes sex sound like a good breakfast. A thing necessary to our well-being but uncomplicated and soon forgotten, like Dawkins-man himself.”
Musing on certain topics, his columns sometimes take on a novelistic form with seemingly fictionalized conversations, calling on the reader to question whether these things really happened at all. In “Gay in the Judy Garland Sense,” on an anti-gay phase he claims he went through in his late 20s, a female friend cruelly cuts him down to size. “I just thought homosexuality—and I blush now to recall it—was unnatural,” Jacobson writes, to which the unnamed woman replies:
“So who are you to be a champion of nature and naturalness all of the sudden? You don’t have a natural bone in your body. You have never wanted to propagate. You have never wanted a family life. When you were presented with a child by your first wife—and you marry the way other people get on and off the bus—you ran screaming from the house the minute you saw a nappy. You will not go on a date with anyone who has less than three inches of make-up on her face, you invite the women you love to whisper depravities in your ear, you dress them like street prostitutes, you suggest sexual variations that would make a strumpet blush…—natural, you? Don’t make me laugh.”
In spite of his column displaying the lacerating, self-undermining humor of his novels, Jacobson tends to see his fiction and column as separate entities. The relationship between the two forms, however, became more closely interlinked during the writing of The Finkler Question, which coincided with Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and all that entailed for British Jewry and manifestations of new anti-Semitism. “I felt it was my job, particularly in a paper like The Independent, to be Daniel in the lion’s den and say the opposite of what everyone else was saying because I felt the opposite,” Jacobson says.
“I was getting up every morning, going to my computer, and looking up what they were saying: what the anti-Semities were saying, and then, the people I respected,” like The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, The Times’ David Aaronovitch, and Nick Cohen of The Spectator and The Observer. “Every morning, early, my head was full of all of this and I wanted to write a column every day on this subject, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of this.’ Fictionalizing is my way of being mentally healthier so I put it in a novel.” Thus, The Finkler Question—a novel in part about how English Jews identify with Israel—was born.
In recent years, Jacobson has felt more obligated to write about Israel and anti-Semitism. “I feel what needs to be said is so rarely said in this country, that the opposite is what’s being said all the time endlessly. I feel that there is an illness in this country when it comes to Israel. It’s a neuroticism, it’s a pathology, and I am convinced that behind it all is the very stuff that fed Shylock, that there is still medieval stuff going around. The blood libel is alive and well. The Jew is doing what he always did, only now he’s doing it in Israel.
“I have to stop myself every week and try to find another subject,” Jacobson says. Though, as the columnist and author of What’s Left?: How the Left Lost Its Way Nick Cohen pointed out to me, Jacobson’s subject is not really Israel per se, or anti-Semitism, but ourselves in terms of how we relate to these subjects. While Jacobson does have a broadly liberal Zionist outlook, his columns examine how the English talk about Israel, how we react to it, and what we’re doing—or not doing—when faced with anti-Semitism.
“He’s a very funny, serious writer, and therefore he’s a massive antidote to the pious and the politically correct, who can never be funny,” Cohen tells me. “He writes about sex with far greater poignancy than someone who just follows modern etiquette and modern rules. He’s not frightened of spurious topicality. He writes what he has to write. And he’s a very elegant writer. I’ve never stopped in the middle of one of his sentences and thought, ‘He’s hackneyed. He’s clichéd.’”
One of the main characteristics of Jacobson as a columnist is his playfulness and use of irony. His most recent column prior to our meeting had caught fire online, when he asked, “If we doubt the power of literature and art to civilize, how come no one has ever been mugged by a person carrying a well-thumbed copy of Middlemarch in his back pocket?” Anyone who knows Jacobson’s work, or can read with a considered eye, can detect humor and seriousness at work, but perhaps it is the case that Jacobson’s style, his playful expressiveness, isn’t suited to the overly direct, literal and unforgiving age in which we find ourselves.
“In England, I don’t have a reader under 95,” he says, adding that he’s given up on trying to get his ideas, in fiction or otherwise, across to the young. “I’ll never get through to the young in this country—not a chance. They tweet, and that’s a form that’s anti-literature, it’s anti-creative, anti-argument, anti-subtlety, anti-nuance. It’s a statement. I wrote a novel parodying all that, Zoo Time, and they didn’t read that either.
“We live in a non-ironic age,” he continues. Twitter is “an absolutely non-ironic medium, and it’ll be the death of us because you can’t have a non-ironic civilization. A non-ironic civilization is ISIS. I’m not saying we will look like ISIS but there’s a brutality in the air at the moment.-.”
“The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils,” Lorenzo tells Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. “Let no such man be trusted.”
The opening of The Merchant of Venice is most unusual. “In sooth I know not why I am so sad, it wearies me: you say it wearies you,” Antonio, the merchant in question, tells his friends Salarino and Solanio. “But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, what stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn: and such a want-wit sadness makes of me, that I have much ado to know myself.” To Gratiano, Antonio says, “I hold the word but as the world, a stage, where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one.”
No wonder Jacobson was intrigued, for such melancholy is the territory upon which he treads. “What a bizarre beginning it’s got, with Antonio talking about his sadness,” something Jacobson had forgotten all about from when he had read the play as a schoolchild. Antonio’s band of brothers “seem to me such well-drawn pictures of a particular kind of self-interestedness: the melancholy, the sadness, the way they are drawn around [Antonio] as minister to that sadness.” As for Shylock, he has his own inner life, his own wound: a widower struggling to bring up his daughter outside of the Jewish world.
Jacobson’s 2014 novel, J—shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—was perhaps his most obviously dark and overcast, even apocalyptic—Jacobson as Jeremiah, “Woe is me for my hurt! My wound is grievous.” J is noteworthy for what it is missing: Jews. It is set in an identifiably northern European society, a not-quite-England, in the years following a catastrophe known only as What Happened, If It Happened. This holocaust removed Jews, the other, from society, and life is now dedicated to erasing this moment from memory. “The past exists in order that we forget it.” What Happened, If It Happened took with it the things Jacobson holds dear: music, improvisation, humor, irony and playfulness.
Playfulness and humor are all over Shylock Is My Name, even or especially in the gloom. I read Jacobson back a line I admired: “We arrive, lucky to be alive, carrying our belongings on a stick, and immediately look for somewhere to bury the children who betray us.” Is this how you see the Jewish experience? I ask. “I do a bit,” he says. “I can remember it dawning on me how obsessed we are, for good reasons, with strict burial rituals.
“I was in Toronto and someone was driving me out to the interview in a Jewish area and I saw about three signs for Jewish cemeteries, and I suddenly saw the Jews turning up in Toronto, carrying their bits of crap over their shoulder on a stick, looking for somewhere—‘Where are we going to bury? First of all, let’s find out where we’ll bury ourselves, then we’ll settle down and do what Jews do.’
“And then of course the further joke is that we’re always burying our children,” he continued. “Half the fathers of the kids I went to school with were doing it all the time: Boys were marrying out and the father would say, ‘I bury you. You’re dead to me.’ And Shylock does it. He’s so wonderfully Jewish; he’s always burying Jessica in his mind.”
Shylock Is My Name is Jacobson’s 14th novel. Since Who’s Sorry Now? in 2002, he has had a new work of fiction out on the shelves every other year, in addition to writing his weekly column. Even winning the Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, oftentimes a curse for writers, hasn’t slowed him down. Rather, it seems to have acted as something of a fillip. “It freed me from the oppression of not having won. It was fantastic—a huge feeling of relief,” he told me.
“When I read The Finkler Question, I remember saying, ‘I think only five people will understand it, and I’m one of them,’” the novelist Grant says. “I thought it was incredibly funny and the targets he was taking aim at I found completely recognizable. I knew whom he was talking about,” although she says she doesn’t quite know how other people read it. His great contributions to the English novel are that he’s “been very good at talking about men in late middle age” and “fantastic at describing being an outsider in British society, an already formed culture,” she concludes.
Indeed, Jacobson’s tremendous insight into the fate of the outsider is that he has lived it himself, whether as a Jewish English lecturer at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, a Mancunian in London, or a columnist writing in defense of Israel in The Independent. Still, he lives and writes against the stream. A new generation of British Jewish writers has emerged who aren’t writing the kind of rich and dark tragicomic novels with which Jacobson made his name. Especially since The Finkler Question, he has become a fixture of Jewish communal life, including Jewish Book Week, and something of a source of pride, but remains on the periphery of the community itself, living in goyische Soho, writing his outsider novels.
Do you spend much time mulling over the question of legacy? I ask before we part. For one could argue that today, British Jews and especially young British Jews being more confident in expressing themselves in public about who they are is in part a consequence of your fiction. “Well, wouldn’t that be nice if it were true?” Jacobson says with a smile. “If I could persuade myself that that were even one percent true, I’d like to, but I’ve got no idea.
“I used to think about legacy since I’m a collector of old books and I always thought a book lives forever, but I now don’t think that books will live forever. I used to think I’m doing something for eternity. Now I don’t know. They might all go when I go,” he says troublingly, going so far as to say even as he writes, he sees his backlist fading out of existence.
So what keeps you writing the next book? “The need to do it and the fact that I don’t feel good unless I’m writing a book,” he concludes, and, of course, “the hope that [I’m] wrong.”