Dan Jacobson

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Dan Jacobson, a South African expatriate who moved to London, is one of his country’s finest writers and social critics. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to Liebe and Michael Jacobson, Jewish immigrants to South Africa from Latvia and Lithuania. His fiction, which tends to examine the position of the outsider, derives from both his Jewish heritage and the immigration of his parents. When he was four years old his family moved to Kimberly (“Lyndhurst” in his fiction) in the Cape Province, where he attended school and experienced the environment he later described in his South African writing. After receiving his B.A. degree in English from the University of Witwatersrand in 1948, he lived in a kibbutz in Israel for nine months. After teaching in a private Jewish school in London for a year, he returned in 1951 to South Africa, where he worked briefly for a press digest before returning to Kimberly and the family business. He began writing essays and stories about the South African situation and then, after marrying Margaret Pye, returned in 1954 to England to become a freelance writer. His first novels, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun, were set in South Africa, the subject of his fiction until 1970, when he published The Rape of Tamar, an experimental novel about biblical times. He also began teaching English at the University of London in 1974, remaining there until his retirement in 1994. Jacobson continued to experiment with the novel form, but he also published collections of essays and travel books. He frequently visited the United States, Israel, and South Africa.

Jacobson’s early short stories and first five novels are set in South African rural communities, where apartheid, the separation of blacks and whites, is portrayed as emotional, psychological, and geographical isolation. In A Dance in the Sun the village and the main house are separated by a dry riverbed; “The Zulu and the Zeide” probes the complex relationships between an old Jew and his servant; and The Evidence of Love, Jacobson’s miscegenation novel, documents a young couple’s problems before they are united. This last work, which records the effect of time on character development, looks ahead to The Beginners, his longest novel, one that draws on his own life and experiences as it follows three generations of a Jewish immigrant family in South Africa. The Glickmans never become acclimated but instead remain outsiders alienated from their chosen land by its pervasive bigotry.

With The Rape of Tamar Jacobson abandoned his relatively straightforward narrative and adopted instead a nonlinear narrative and an unreliable narrator whose interpretation of events must be reinterpreted by the reader. Jacobson’s subsequent novels became more complex in structure and reflexive in content and style as Jacobson increasingly focused on writing itself. The Wonder-Worker, a novel within a novel, concerns a narrator/creator who seems to enter the fictional world he has himself created and then to become his own protagonist; at the end of the novel the reader is not sure about what has been fictionalized. Though Jacobson returns to a South African setting in The Confessions of Josef Baisz, there too he focuses on the narrator. In The Confessions of Josef Baisz the reader must reorder a jumbled time sequence and assess the reliability of a biased autobiography, which has itself been translated by another hand. Her Story seems a compilation of past themes, subjects, and techniques; a lost manuscript, ostensibly written in the early part of the twentieth century, is recovered and published three centuries later; the manuscript is “introduced” by an...

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amateur historian whose introduction consumes a third of the novel. The novel within the novel is a biblical allegory, further obscuring the narrative line.

Hidden in the Heart is the story of a woman writing about the love of her life, for whom, unfortunately, she is not the love of his life; she tells the story of his pursuit of another man’s wife. The God-Fearer is placed in a medieval Europe in which the “God-fearers” (Jews) are the majority and the “Christers” (Christians) the persecuted minority. Rather than a wish-fulfillment world in which Jews triumph over a history of anti-Semitism, however, the novel tells the story of an old man who must confront his complicity in the death of a young Christer woman—his first lover—whom his best friend accuses of witchcraft.

In emigrating from South Africa and living an expatriate life abroad, Jacobson was following a precedent set earlier by Olive Schreiner, the first important South African novelist, and Doris Lessing, a Rhodesian writer. Though he emigrated, he returned to South Africa in visits and through his writing; the South African experience, joined irrevocably to the alienation associated with his Jewish heritage, is a landscape he cannot escape. Jacobson’s focus on personal and national identity, his analysis of cultural conflict, and his depiction of alienation are particularly twentieth century concerns, and his reflexive novels, concerned with writing as subject, make him an apt subject for criticism. Jacobson’s political novels about South Africa established him as a South African novelist, but his later experimental fiction made him, like Vladimir Nabokov, an international writer. Jacobson uses South African themes and settings as a means to a more universal end, not as an end in themselves.

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