After his previous novel, J, about anti-semitic massacres in a near-future Britain, Howard Jacobson returns to his usual comic mode by rewriting The Merchant of Venice as part of a series in which authors from Jeanette Winterson to Jo Nesbø base new novels on Shakespeare plays.
Jacobson transplants 16th-century Venice to a flashy Manchester suburb with a cast including an airhead footballer and a spoiled reality star ripe for the sort of grumpy-old-man satire on show in his 2012 novel Zoo Time. The persecuted and vengeful moneylender Shylock finds his modern analogue in Strulovitch, an art collector in crisis after his daughter falls for a Christian who refuses to be circumcised. Shylock himself turns up to offer Strulovitch advice and explain matters from the original play, such as whether he intended to take a pound of flesh from Antonio’s heart or from his penis.
The action can be long-winded and you get a flavour of the humour on offer from Jacobson’s decision to call his brattish Portia “Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine.” The book most sustains attention as an unusually engaged form of literary criticism. Jacobson treats Shylock less as a product of Shakespeare’s culture and imagination than as a real historical figure emblematic of Jewish experience—an approach that gives the novel peculiar vigour in spite of its flaws.