Howard Jacobson’s novelistic riff on The Merchant of Venice for the Hogarth Shakespeare project turns, unsurprisingly, on what makes some people (in Jonathan Miller’s memorable self-describing formulation) Jew-ish. Is it the gentile’s anti-Semitism, with its manifestations varying from relatively polite social snubs to persecutions down the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, that defines Jew-ishness? Or is it the self-identifying Jew’s own attitude or beliefs that make him part of a clan? (The idea that Jews are a ‘race’ is too silly to consider. My own DNA profile shows that 97 per cent of my genes were probably shared by Jews of Biblical times, though my family has been blond and blue-eyed for at least the five generations I’ve met.)
The winner of the Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question pulls off a neat trick in this almost perversely serious comic novel, creating a parallel world to Shakespeare’s Venice in the wealthy, cultured Golden Triangle of Cheshire, and peopling it with parallel-ish characters. He matches the bereaved Shylock with the second-generation wealthy philanthropist Simon Strulovitch, the daughter Jessica with ‘Strulo’s’ wannabe performance artist child, Beatrice. He pairs Portia with ‘Plury’ — in full, Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine — and Belmont with her Old Belfry.
Plury collects celebrities, and wangles them to appear on her television programme, The Kitchen Counsellor. Plury has discarded the provision of her father’s will that enjoins three tests for suitors, substituting luxury cars for the gold and silver and a VW Beetle for the leaden cask, and chooses the pretty, feckless Barnaby, who, masquerading as a mechanic, chooses to work on the VW. He’s been tipped off to do this by D’Anton (Antonio), a rich, handsome man of taste and unsettled sexuality, born in Guinea.