Shylock Must Die

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Shylock Must Die by Clive Sinclair. 192 pp. Halban, 2018.

Clive Sinclair seems to have taken to heart the hot tip Isaac Bashevis Singer gave him in the seventies: “Never begin a story until you are convinced that you are the only person who can write it.” Here was not just permission but an imperative to write about one’s idiosyncratic obsessions. In Sinclair’s case, a Jewish Londoner born in 1948, those included such things as John Wayne and Israel, Kafka and Tintin, anal sex and football. Sinclair’s seemingly incongruous lifelong enthusiasms proved to be a sustaining source of plots–many of his stories are the fictionalised travelogues of a far-seeking pilgrim–and also of enlightening metaphors. His unmistakable voice delivered all the necessary coherence, the singular vision.

When I interviewed him at his home in Chelsea in early 2011, I was surprised by the contrast between the cosmopolitan elegance of his prose–both in his fiction and in his emails–and unpretentious Clive in the flesh, who seemed already significantly older than his early sixties, evidently worn down by the grief and kidney disease of his middle-age. Yet his “soap opera from hell,” as he had memorably put it, had not ruined him. He remained kind, funny, and generous. He was still eagerly engaged with literature and politics as a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. He’d pushed through into a long and fruitful second act despite the decline of the literary fame he’d achieved in the 1980s. The stories, I think, had become richer.

Clive died on March 5 but has left his readers with a final book, Shylock Must Die. As he had used the western genre in True Tales of the Wild West (2008), he latterly turned to Shakespeare’s Shylock as the spark for six occasionally interconnected comic stories that explore his classic themes of Jewishness and antisemitism, fathers and sons, illness and death. He freely ranges across the centuries and the map. There are fewer cowboys and less eroticism than usual. Several stories are populated by members of two twentieth century Anglo-Jewish families whose fishy names–Carp and Salmon–are courtesy of a facetious Prussian bureaucracy in long-abandoned Warsaw. The Salmons closely resemble the Sinclairs of Hendon in London, which means the ridiculously-named son Calman is Clive’s alter-ego.

This collection’s eponymous novella was first published in Death & Texas (2014) and reappears as the anchoring tale of the new book. As Wide Sargasso Sea challenged the Victorian trope of the Mad Woman in the Attic by giving us her point of view, ‘Shylock Must Die’ provides a rather more comic retelling of The Merchant of Venice through another set of Venetian blinds — those of Tubal, Jewish P. I. (“two hundred ducats a day, plus expenses.”) It turns out that Shakespeare’s dramatisation of the unusual legal squabble between Shylock and Antonio was highly selective and misleading. Antonio and Bassanio are, in fact, ruthless murderers of a Jewish boy and Shylock is a mensch, the pound of flesh a clause intended to fulfill “divine justice.” Meanwhile, Shylock’s disloyal daughter Jessica is the silly dupe of Lorenzo, who sells her to white-slavers bound for the Americas. Tubal is given the thankless job of rescuing her from a ship in Genoa. Jessica finally wises up and turns femme fatale.

‘Tears of the Giraffe’ is another tale of the generation gap. Two teenage Swedish Hitler enthusiasts will discover the inconvenient fact they have a Jewish mother during the Nazi era. The story is bookended by stage productions that suggest the mutability of Shakespeare. A German-language Hamlet at Elsinore itself in 1940 presents Claudius as a Shylock-type with “lank greasy hair, and a nose that could cut a path through the north-west passage.” When Claudius virtually confesses his murderous crime during the play-within-the-play, the audience/mob cries spontaneously “Kill the Jew!” Yet four horrible years later, when The Merchant is staged at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, Shylock is a sympathetic Swedish-accented victim.

Clive sometimes mentioned his plans to write a lucrative novel about a detective to whom he would lend his own failed kidneys. It would be preceded by a prequel set in the detective’s dialysis-free childhood and inspired by the Tintin adventure The Castafiore Emerald (1962). He never seems to have found a worthy villain for his detective novel, but the prequel was achieved here as ‘A Wilderness of Monkeys.’ Calman Salmon is the detective-to-be. In 1961 the Salmons holiday in Venice’s Hotel Belmont, which has only recently re-opened its doors to a quota of Jews. Mr. Salmon buys a ruby necklace for his wife, which leads to an accusation of cat-burglary by an antisemitic Contessa, a trial, and a payoff that reaches into the present day.

The other stories take place mostly in our own era and fictionalise several Shylock-inspired peregrinations. One incorporates a 2012 performance of The Merchant in Hebrew by Jerusalem’s Habima Theatre at the Globe amid heavy security and persistent heckles. Clive told me how fascinated he’d been by the strange situation of Jews attacked for attempting to stage and watch an antisemitic play. Although not without sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Clive resented the self-righteousness of the English protesters, many of whom he identified as antisemites, and “the unspoken assertion that if you were not with the hecklers, then you were a latter-day Shylock yourself, demanding your pound of Palestinian flesh.”

Other stories arose from his attendance at Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mock trial of Shylock in the Venetian Ghetto in 2016 and a visit to the Venetian Resort Hotel in Las Vegas. In the Vegas story, a fast-moving political fantasy of the American West, his fictional hotel mogul Shy Lokshen — descending, of course, from Jessica and Lorenzo — creates a golem who becomes a Trump-like President. Incidentally, Clive emailed me in late 2016 to describe how much he had enjoyed taking a swing at a Trump piñata in Santa Cruz. Finally, ‘Shylock’s Ghost’ takes an ageing Calman to the Hendon film set of his son’s “reboot” of Merchant. He slips through a time portal and briefly visits his long-dead parents in the company of the 18th century actor Charles Macklin (in the guise of Shylock). Our narrator returns to the present but on the final page is fading away, appearing to his son “as insubstantial as a kodachrome.”

With a prefatory tribute to the late Israeli painter Yosl Bergner and a epigraph from Hamlet on the death of fathers, this is an unavoidably death-haunted book. And yet Clive did not allow the unappealing coming attraction to strip out the zest, humour, and searing intelligence he brought to all of his inimitable, individual, profoundly human stories.

 

[Image: Orson Welles as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1969)]

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