Dan Jacobson

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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

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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 (© 1957 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 199, No. 6756, December 20, 1957, p. 879.∗

A. Alvarez

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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 a politician, he knows none of the answers in advance. Despite the ending, I'm not even sure he knows them in retrospect. He has only an artist's answer—people. It is a matter not of dogma, but of the moral intelligence. And even that is an uneasy, unwilling affair, with conscience instead of theories, feelings instead of principles, and insights which are unpredictable, fluctuating, not to be controlled. Jacobson, in fact, is political against the grain. His book is less a tirade against the South African set-up—though all that is implied—than a drama of the profound difficulty of being South African…. There is an answer to all this, but it is an implicit, an artist's answer. It lies in what gives Jacobson's work its distinction: the witty, compassionate writing which creates a dimension of detachment, honesty...

(This entire section contains 747 words.)

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and judgment in which his characters take on their full significance….

His lovers are neither isolated at heart and battering against their isolation, nor are they romantically afloat in a warm continuum of passion. Instead, they are rooted in a world made solid and alive by the precision of Jacobson's observation. There is a certain sharpness about his writing which draws everyone and everything—major figures and minor scene and mood—into a tight circle of mutual commitment and mutual illumination…. Jacobson has a great reputation as a stylist. He does write beautifully, but never in the show-off manner of the professional littérateur. His style is a function of his meaning, a sign of his intelligence and control. It gives a hardness and density to the world he creates. It imposes values without preaching….

His subject is not class and snobbery, it is race. And race is not so much a theme as a dimension of the world he creates. In this he has the edge on William Faulkner who, for all his genius, is forever slipping out of the racial issue: he either treats it as though it were class, or uses it as a cipher for good and evil…. [Where] Faulkner excuses the moral issues or shuffles them out of the way, Jacobson faces them squarely. (p. 827)

[Jacobson] is not only South African, he is also Jewish. It is this, I think, that gives him his extraordinary awareness of racial tensions; they are deeply part of his sensibility, as rich in creative possibilities as ever class was to Trilling's European tradition…. For race, from the inside, is not a separate problem with a separate answer. It is not a cause or a 'larger issue' in which to submerge one's identity. It is one's identity, and the answers, Jacobson shows, are in the complexities of life itself.

This is both the strength and the weakness of the book. He has transposed on to a Coloured boy the difficulties of being Jewish, and then geared them up until they seem appropriately more extreme. It doesn't altogether work. Jacobson commands great eloquence and he uses it to raise the necessary intensity. But eloquence is a tricksy gift; handled wrongly it topples into rhetoric…. Granted the subject hardly encourages detachment, but the whole of Jacobson's power depends on his tone. The more he strains, the less effective he seems. In a way, Kenneth [the protagonist] is less convincing than the figures who surround him and matter less.

But strain or no strain, I can think of no other novelist with the range and compassion and insight to tackle the theme at all. The Evidence of Love may not be such an assured artistic success as Jacobson's earlier novels, but it is considerably more ambitious, more important, and promises heaven knows what to come. (pp. 827-28)

A. Alvarez, "The Difficulty of Being South African," in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIX, No. 1525, June 4, 1960, pp. 827-28.

Granville Hicks

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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 cast is large, and not every character can be fully developed, but each one is alive, even if he is on stage for only a few minutes. One also has a strong sense of the vitality of groups of people, whether they are gathered for a family conference or are watching a political demonstration. These people live, and they live in our times, the troubled years since World War II. They are truly beginners, whether they are immigrants to South Africa or descendants of those pioneers, searching for a new life in Israel or England or America. Jacobson lets his novel sprawl a little, but it is hard to do anything else when one works on so ambitious a scale. (p. 38)

Granville Hicks, "No End to Beginnings," in Saturday Review (© 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), Vol. XLIX, No. 8, February 19, 1966, pp. 37-8.

Douglas Dunn

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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 antithesis. And in order to convey the complex realities of racial and national oddities, Jacobson has devised a plain, natural prose, from which the engaging humanity of his concerns is imparted to the reader with beautiful, almost poetic, balance….

An immense human sadness is common to … Jacobson's stories. Within a bewildering range of imperfections and dissatisfactions, [his] characters find self-knowledge and the future dispiriting…. Adding up these stories, one gets the impression that Mr Jacobson's achievement is at least on the same level as Winesburg Ohio, with an apt burden of 'characters', events, detections, and a convincing portrait of 'how it is.'

Douglas Dunn, "Disturbing Stories," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 230, No. 7560, May 19, 1973, p. 623.∗

Tom Paulin

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[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 thinking that The Confessions of Josef Baisz is on one level an account both of the situation of a writer employed by an academic institution and of the spirit that now pervades many such institutions—a spirit of complacent irrelevance, bland scholarly courtesies, and outmoded, autocratic habits of thought.

What is remarkable about this story is the clammy, stifling atmosphere of the one-party state that is the Republic of Sarmeda…. It might be somewhere in the Balkans or an oblique vision of South Africa. The whole country seems "to lie in that trance-like state which so often precedes a great change." Everywhere "the pathos of inexpectancy, the fragile stillness that precedes a violent disruption" can be sensed. And on the afternoon of a coup by "the Armed Forces Purification Grouping" there is a sudden feeling of "attentive stillness … glittering silence and vacancy" which is the atmosphere of a state or institution which is about to be forcibly reconnected to the historical process…. (pp. 70-1)

Jacobson designs a mysterious political landscape of clandestine meetings in misty parks where alleyways open out "into circular, apse-like spaces where statues and metal benches faced one another."… [Baisz's dream of unconditioned freedom] is impossible, and he can only confess his wish to escape being a servile functionary…. [He] is the rebellious victim of a process of cultural conditioning, though Jacobson (since he has invented a whole culture) has a much surer sense of the workings of such a process, and so is able to explore Baisz's wish to understand and transcend it. However, it's also possible to view Baisz's longing for the unconditioned as one side of Jacobson's private dialogue with himself—another part of his mind seems to be screaming to be released from the pure freedom, the unconditioned territory, of this fiction. Baisz's demand for complete irresponsibility is in fact Jacobson's way of reminding himself that the extremities of dreams can be the beginnings of responsibilities. (pp. 71-2)

Tom Paulin, "Books & Writers: 'The Confessions of Josef Baisz'," in Encounter (© 1978 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. L, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 70-2.

Katha Pollitt

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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 Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 6, No. 3, February 3, 1979, p. 44.

Josef Baisz, citizen of an imaginary totalitarian state, recounts every detail of his adventures as an informer and duplicitous bodyguard [in "The Confessions of Josef Baisz"]…. Josef's meticulous descriptions of the world around him—the people, the machines, and the land itself seem ugly and hostile—suggest that the habit of cynicism has narrowed the range of his emotions; it is his notion that the thrill he feels at the moment of betrayal must be love. When he declares, in the final pages, that he plans to take his own life and thereby outwit his superiors, his bone-headed self-satisfaction is at once pitiable and repellent. A chilling portrait but an enthralling one, because Dan Jacobson lets this lucid and deluded creature betray his folly with his own—for once, candid—words. (pp. 144-45)

"Books: 'The Confessions of Josef Baisz'," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 4, March 12, 1979, pp. 144-45.

Dean Flower

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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. We follow his appalling career with fascination because its psychology and politics ring so true.

There is never any question about Jacobson endorsing his hero or using him as a stand-in. Baisz reveals himself with terrifyingly flat honesty…. The book suffers from predictability of character types, outside of the narrator, and situations; the cost, it would seem, of Baisz's violent and reductive temperament appears in his contemptuously narrowed vision. Yet his fate too turns out to lie in the despised past. (pp. 303-04)

Dean Flower, "Picking Up the Pieces," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1979. pp. 293-307.∗


Jacobson, Dan (Vol. 4)