Study Guide

Dan Jacobson

Dan Jacobson Essay - Critical Essays

Jacobson, Dan (Vol. 14)

Introduction

Jacobson, Dan 1929–

An English novelist, short story writer, and essayist, Jacobson was born in Johannesburg. His skillful fiction explores problems of identity and environment in South Africa. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The Trap is a skilfull short story padded out to look a great deal longer than it is. In fact, Mr. Jacobson … has worked up an anecdote of life on a small veld farm suggestively enough to make the reader interested in what he may write next. The Trap probably should have formed part of a book of short stories rather than a volume on its own, for it offers not much more than a tale, in the Conrad manner, of a white man being influenced against a trustworthy black servant by an untrustworthy one. The setting is vividly and economically created, and Mr. Jacobson handles his stolid baas and his unfortunate employees very professionally. Patently, he is a writer of considerable promise, whose ability to write ironic dialogue is matched by a telling restraint in the use of descriptive prose. He has style; when he has more to do with it than embellish a familiar and basic plot with a slick twist it will be possible to see how deep his talent runs.

"Mingled Shades," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1955; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2793, September 9, 1955, p. 521.∗

Simon Raven

Mr. Jacobson [in The Price of Diamonds] presents his people with subtlety and intelligence, carefully sets them down in an unappetising South African township, and then, with the reader's interest fully and skilfully aroused, sets them ticking at a nicely calculated pace. But alas, the nicely calculated pace can apparently neither be varied nor halted, and one can only pray for the breakdown which Mr. Jacobson is much too efficient to allow…. After a promising and almost striking start, and with the evident talent at Mr. Jacobson's disposal, it is a pity the total performance should be so utterly futile.

Simon Raven, "Upstairs, Downstairs …," in The Spectator (©...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

A. Alvarez

Violence makes a strange ending for a love story, even if the setting is South Africa. But because Dan Jacobson has the ability to create sensitive, intelligent people and make them act sensitively and intelligently despite the background of guilt and shock, The Evidence of Love is neither propaganda nor sensationalism. It is, instead, a considerable artistic achievement, all the more impressive because it was written calmly out of the same tensions as created the South African explosion.

It is the story of a love-affair between a Cape Coloured boy and a white girl….

The Evidence of Love might have been just another case-history. But since Jacobson is a novelist, not...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Granville Hicks

I have had a feeling all along that some day Jacobson would write a "big" novel, big in scope. Some fiction writers do better with small canvases, and that's fine, but others need room to move around in. The diversity of Jacobson's experiences has seemed to demand the development of a large and complicated pattern. This is what he has worked out in The Beginners, which portrays several generations in several countries….

[The] prologue, beautifully told, gives us the character of Avrom, the strange blending of true generosity with sentimental self-indulgence. None of the other characters in the book is made like Avrom, but we come to see the mixed motives out of which they act. (p. 37)...

(The entire section is 261 words.)

Douglas Dunn

Childhood is frequently thought of as the staple source of the short story writer's inspiration. Standard themes of short stories are the conversion of childhood into adolescence, adolescence into adulthood, and the contrast of an innocent world with one not so innocent. Dan Jacobson's stories [in Inklings: Selected Stories] fit, like an illustration, into this pattern. His setting is, of course, South Africa….

The peculiar and vicious social arrangements in South Africa are, to a writer, as much interesting as something to flee from or be hurt by. Stories like Mr Jacobson's thrive on subdued tensions and recognitions. His Jewish background makes these more than a simple black-white...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Tom Paulin

[The] Republic of Sarmeda is located somewhere outside the geography of history. It is the setting of Dan Jacobson's The Confessions of Josef Baisz, an account of a systematic traitor and police-spy whose confession of "my days as a petty functionary" is, at least partly, an allegory of the artist as political Judas. Like Judas, Josef Baisz "can love only through betrayal", and his justification of his sins contains occasional insights into the psychology of disloyalty. Baisz is disloyal to the bureaucrats who employ him, and his autobiography is offered as a translation…. It's a witty parody of the standard academic preface, and as Dan Jacobson lectures at an English university there are sound reasons for...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Katha Pollitt

For all the grimness of its subject, Dan Jacobson's facility of invention makes [The Confessions of Josef Baisz] a surprisingly lighthearted book. He obviously had a lot of fun inventing Sarmeda…. As a political fantasy it is at once playful and provocative, and as a study of the psychology of betrayal—that complex tangle of love, pity, self-hatred, and power-seeking—it is compelling. While a certain off-handedness makes me wonder if Jacobson was bringing all his considerable energies to bear on his subject, he has brought enough of them to make this a supremely amusing fable for our time.

Katha Pollitt, "Books in Brief: 'The Confessions of Josef Baisz'," in...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

Dean Flower

Jacobson's austere narrative [The Confessions of Josef Baisz] follows out with the clarity of a syllogism its chilling logic. As a newly-conscripted soldier, Josef Baisz finds himself through a series of absurd chances and petty enmities in a position to betray a friend. When he does so, the effect stuns him:

Everyone had got Judas wrong! That was my great discovery. When he pressed his lips to the master's, he did it passionately, with a breaking heart and expectant eye, full of excitement and curiosity, trembling with pity…. He was one of those who loved only what he betrayed; who could love only through betrayal.

And Baisz is another....

(The entire section is 217 words.)