Dan Jacobson Jacobson, Dan (Vol. 4)

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Jacobson, Dan (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

It is difficult to refrain from expressing awe and some genuine admiration for a panoramic novel of the intricacy and scope of Dan Jacobson's The Beginners, even though admiration must be heavily qualified. Beginning with the journey of Avrom Glickman from Lithuania to Cape Town and concluding with the birth of his great-granddaughter in a London hospital more than fifty years later, the novel embraces the growing pains, the cultural and religious anxieties, and the destinies of three generations; hence Mr. Jacobson is obliged to deal not only with the baffling subject of South African politics during the first half of this century, but with Naziism, Zionism, technological innovation, mass communications, and cultural dislocation in all its multitudinous forms….

[The] best moments in a novel of this prolixity only reinforce the feeling that the whole is distressingly less than the sum of its multitudinous parts….

There is, unhappily, no … formal cohesion in The Beginners, though Jacobson's efforts to achieve dramatic unity are clearly apparent. First, he has assigned Joel Glickman the appropriate leading role in the Glickman theatricals: his insecurity, restlessness, questioning, and peripatetic youth do establish some sense of continuity in the novel's labyrinthine progression, but Joel himself is too weak a character (though strong enough as a man) to carry the entire production. Jacobson stands apart from the novel in an anonymous role undoubtedly necessary if he is to manage a book of such encyclopedic scope, but as a result his characters never achieve the vividness they deserve, and feeling is repeatedly drowned by chronology and history….

Mr. Jacobson … has given an abundance of insight, compassion, architecture, chronology, and faultless prose—everything, indeed, but the compelling and unifying vision which might have made The Beginners a novel worthy of his talents.

David Galloway, in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1968, pp. 850-52.

Novels, taken individually, are all right. You can get them in your sights and pick them off one by one. What worries me is that quite different collective monster, the Novel. Every novel that appears should, under examination, make clearer the nature of the whole massive, tentacular growth. What it actually does is to show a structure constantly changing and re-arranging itself, as far from being a containable entity as the inchoate, invisible mass that destroyed Hugh Morgan in Ambrose Bierce's classic—and aptly-named—horror story, "The Damned Thing."…

The Wonder Worker [uses a deliberately fragmented narrative]. Having been comically conceived and delivered, Timothy Fogel is allowed to remain partially a concept, the vehicle for a parable about the Novelist as creative artist, whose freedom, for which Joyce worked, is still a point of discussion today. In this ironic structure the novelist creating Timothy Fogel becomes a mental patient, his writing dismissed as "graphomania." It adds up to a kind of commentary on the Novel, a mental block to be flushed out of the author's imagination, rather than a novel in its own right. Underlining that this is a work of theory, in the closing paragraph the patient goes Time Traveling: "I know what I'm doing. Writing down descriptions of places I have never visited, people I have never met, deeds I have never done. I am a free man."

Must freedom and sickness go together in the Novel, writing become graphomania, structure the obsessive dot-joining of paranoia, the private exploration destroy the public novel? Or will the cloudier shades of [Pynchon's] Gravity's Rainbow one day seem as clear and universal as the struggle between good and evil in Tolkien's hobbit world? That's the rub (and the...

(The entire section is 3,657 words.)