- Eat or Be Eaten:Ernest Gébler's Self-Fashioning as Jewish Monster in Shall I Eat You Now?
Trilobite, Dinosaur, Man and Fish Fingers, is the whole of Evolution.Ernest Gébler, Hoffman
Salerio: Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh. What's that good for?
Shylock: To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Ernest Gébler's 1968 novel, Shall I Eat You Now?, published as Hoffman in the United States in 1969, is, on the face of it, a misogynistic revenge fantasy. Written shortly after Gébler's divorce from the Irish novelist Edna O'Brien, and just as her career was taking off with The County Girls trilogy, Gébler's novel tells the story of a rejected middle-aged man, Benjamin Hoffman, who blackmails a young woman by the name of Janet into a week of sex with him as partial revenge for his wife's desertion. The wife, Maureen Dingle Murphy, is a crude caricature of O'Brien, and is portrayed as a woman who leaves Hoffman for gin, psychoanalysis, feminism and fame. The novel was originally an Emmy award-winning 1968 screenplay, Call Me Daddy, and was successful enough to have been adapted as a film (1970's Hoffman) starring Peter Sellers and Sinead Cusack, but is long out of print and forgotten. In this article, I want to revisit Shall I Eat You Now? and its film adaptation, Hoffman, because it is a rare narrative engagement by an Irish writer who "may or may not have been" Jewish1 with Jewishness and, I argue, the protagonist's monstrosity is a deliberate attempt to explore and subvert anti-Semitic stereotyping through an excessive representation of "anti-Semitic iconography,"2 namely those monsters associated with Jewishness: Shylock, Dracula, Bluebeard and E.T.A. Hofmann's Coppelius.3
Ernest Gébler appears as something of a monster himself in his son's memoir of their relationship, Father and I; he is portrayed as a bitter, disillusioned writer who took out his anger on his wife and two sons, a man who was in his [End Page 77] son's words "a phony."4 Carlo Gébler argues his father was a "phony" in terms of writing, but he was also a "phony" in terms of identity; the son of a Czech immigrant to Ireland and an Irish mother, Gébler spent some of his childhood working in England and did not seem at home in a concrete Irish identity. His son was unable to discover whether his grandfather's family was actually Jewish, but it is likely that his Central European grandfather, Adolf Gébler, immigrating to Ireland in 1910 after a small spike in East European Jewish immigration to Ireland, would have been regarded as Jewish.5 Certainly, Ernest Gébler was seen by O'Brien's community as a "libertine infidel" and "heinous pagan,"6 and was fictionalized by O'Brien in her Country Girls trilogy as a foreigner, whom the Irish suppose, in negative and racist terms, to be a Jew.7 Whether or not Gébler was Jewish, it seems he was perceived to be so, and in Shall I Eat You Now? he presents a protagonist, Benjamin Hoffman, with a similarly unarticulated cultural background who is never explicitly identified as Jewish, but who, implicitly, is seen as Jewish by the young woman, Janet. At work, in the novel, is an exploration of the monstering of Hoffman, by himself and by Janet, pointing to a novelistic representation of the internalization and externalization of anti-Semitic discourse.
Hoffman's stated aim in the novel is to "eat" Janet, a cannibalistic trope through the novel that is intimately connected with his apparent desire to rape her, but also with a desire to ingest her youth and her English blood. Hoffman's transgressive articulation of his sexual needs and his new-found power through his blackmail of the young Janet plays into age-old anti-Semitic fears of cannibalism, child-eating, incest and ritual murder, acts associated with Jews since the...