Tag Archives: books

Classic choice: David Herman celebrates Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint

Philip Roth (left) and Primo Levi in Turin during the interview in Shop Talk, 1986.

“Why are you so nasty?” Brenda asks Neil in Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus. Nasty? Neil was tame stuff compared to some of Roth’s later heroes and no one comes nastier than Alex Portnoy. If Goodbye, Columbus launched Roth at the end of the 1950s, it was Portnoy’s Complaint, published ten years later, that made him a household name. It is when he found his voice as a writer: fast, furious, funny and very, very Jewish.

Portnoy was a book of its time, one of the best Jewish American novels of the Sixties. Published at the height of the 1960s, it was about sex, race and letting go. The whole novel is one long monologue by Alex Portnoy, lying on his analyst’s couch, trying to find out where it all went wrong.

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Interview: Playwright Simon Bent and actor Elliot Levey talk life in Manchester and bringing Howard Jacobson’s comic novel The Mighty Walzer to the stage

01RET Rehearsal The Might Walzer Elliot Levey (Oliver Walzer) photo Jonathan Keenan

© Jonathan Keenan

“It became a very exotic place for me.” Simon Bent is talking about the Manchester of the 1950s, the setting of Howard Jacobson’s mighty tale of table tennis, teenage angst and Jewish family life. “What attracted me to the book is that it’s about a particular culture at a particular time which is gone. Part of the book is about the loss of that Manchester. It was Howard’s attempt to ‘get down’ that world before it got lost.”

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Review: Shylock is My Name – Howard Jacobson’s gift for comedy glisters pure gold

Shylock Is My Name book jacket, by Howard Jacobson 2015

Howard Jacobson was writing J, a novel about a dystopic (non-) Jewish future, when publisher Hogarth invited him to join a relay team retelling Shakespeare in contemporary settings. He was assigned The Merchant of Venice – an inspired choice that allowed him to tell the story from Shylock’s perspective. But Jacobson’s blinder, proving again his extraordinary inventiveness, is to have Shylock slip into present-day Cheshire to share the narrative with his 21st-century counterpart Simon Strulovitch, and chew over his own story as told by Shakespeare.
Shylock arrives without fanfare as the story opens, not in Venice but in a bleak Jewish cemetery in Manchester, the city where Jacobson was raised. He is communing with his long-dead wife Leah, “buried deep beneath the snow”. So Shylock engages the reader’s sympathy: within this take on the play is a meditation on loss, as well as scabrous satire on the materialistic celebrity denizens of Cheshire’s ‘Golden Triangle’.

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