Friday, January 29, 2016

Covenant: Shylock Is My Name a novel by Howard Jacobson

Shylock is My Name is a novel that describes people who covenant at many levels, deep and shallow. As in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a Jewish character who is complex, a contemporary term for a man capable of maintaining multiple often contradictory ideas. Strulovich, a Jewish contemporary of Shylock, is more of a purist, absolute about his covenant of religion. Shylock, the reformer in Howard Jacobson’s novel, attempts to influence the thinking of Strulovich about the exclusivity of the traditionalist’s theology. For Shylock, it does not seem to be a matter of accumulated tradition and strictly observed custom that can make the Jewish people resilient and capable of a strong cultural identity. This commitment has caused the purists to incite rebellion against parents by the younger generation, thin-skinned sensitivity to the thousand little daily insults of the older generation, and poorly defined acts of revenge by the survivors of outsider anti-Semitic atrocities. Shylock points out to Strulovich indirectly and directly the consequences of his rigidity of beliefs. The Jew has to maintain a morality in the present age that is more flexible, forgiving, and intelligent or subtle and violent conflicts will be perpetuated against the people’s all-encompassing covenant.

The drama plays out in the novel in a story similar to that of one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays. The structure of the action reminds me of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann in respect to the interaction of Shylock and Strulovich. It is similar in many ways, in my mind, to the lengthy discussions in Mann’s novel between the secular humanist Lodovico Settembrini and the former purist Jew (now Jesuit) Leo Naphta. I imagined sitting out on a balcony of a hotel in the Alps wrapped in a warm blanket contemplating both novels, oddly wishing I belonged to group with an ideology that is all-encompassing at both mundane and devine levels, enjoying the harmony and dissonance.

I enjoyed reading Howard Jacobson’s novel as much as I did reading an earlier novel by the author, The Finkler Question. I give it my highest rating.


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