Dan Jacobson

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Jacobson, Dan (Vol. 4)

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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 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...

(This entire section contains 3657 words.)

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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 reward) with the Damned Thing: you can never get a straight answer out of it.

Clive Jordan, in Encounter, February, 1974, pp. 61, 65.

The Wonder-Worker is a Double Diamond of a book in that it claims to work wonders but fails to live up to its claim. Dan Jacobson writes economically and vividly, but what he is creating is a fantasy so contrived and in the worst sense 'literary' that I felt his considerable skill and sensitivity were in this instance almost wholly wasted…. The book has a flavour of stale Nabokov. I shall go back to Jacobson's short stories to be reassured of his talents.

John Mellors, in London Magazine, February/March, 1974, p. 136.

Dan Jacobson built a small but solid reputation dealing with what he knew best: the politics and heartbreak of apartheid, the sour loneliness of race supremacy, and love shattered by cultural collision, and the moral and intellectual conflicts of exile…. Three years ago after the tread on these original themes had begun to wear a little thin, Jacobson seemed to take a fresh fictional start and produced his best novel. Called The Rape of Tamar, it was an ironic retelling of the Old Testament scandal about King David's daughter whose half brother assaults her and dies for the offense. The links between Tamar and The Wonder-Worker are stronger than they at first appear to be. Sexual obsession, the disintegration of a family, the linkage between love and hate are evident in both. But where the biblical background of Tamar lent grief and madness some heroic grandeur, Jacobson's new book is furnished with the banalities and trivia of contemporary life….

The Wonder-Worker seems to be yet another modern parable of total cultural disintegration. The crazed narrator's inability to write down his novel is actually a failure of language, which is man's unique gift and the carrier of his common humanity. Both the narrator and his character Fogel are isolated shards laboring under the illusion that they are wholly formed vessels. But what could well have been an academic exercise is redeemed by compassion and craft. It makes for a pathetic but telling tale.

R. Z. Sheppard, "Deep Cleavage," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), March 25, 1974, pp. K-13, 90.

[The Wonder-Worker] is like a knot, admirable for both its serene deceptiveness and its faithful service to that hoary literary genre in which a madman tells his tale, pleading, justifying and embellishing his life. Dan Jacobson is crowding Vladimir Nabokov on his home court here, and does it with finesse: he warns us what he is up to and still tricks us; what we learn at the end forces us to reconsider every stage of what preceded it. And when we have done, we have assisted at something more than a game, for Jacobson is concerned with freedom, with what happens when a man attempts to transform his own life into a work of art.

Peter S. Prescott, "Diary of a Madman," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), April 1, 1974, pp. 75-6.

In a healthy cultural atmosphere, it would mean a great deal to say that Dan Jacobson upholds the tradition of craft in writing with this small but impeccably ordered and paced study of madness ["The Wonder-Worker"]. As things stand, however, which is crassly, I hesitate to tell the truth about Jacobson's 10th book; for to say that it is complex, not easily summarized, cannot be imagined as a movie, will certainly not appeal to people looking for a good read, those unencumbered with respect for subtle weavings of perception in fictional form—to say this is to consign this fine novel to quick if honorable obscurity….

[Jacobson] has written a psychological detective novel that poses the question "Did the narrator murder a woman just as Timothy murdered Susie?" But that is a minor question, a secondary aspect of the book. We are witnessing more than an attempt to pass off the events of a possibly real crime on an imaginary character. The narrator is transmuting his own madness and ultimate breakdown into another person's style of mental turbulence.

Jacobson, in other words, employs one of his characters, his narrator, to create the other. And we can truly marvel at the painter's skill that he uses to make each man real.

Raymond A. Sokolov, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 21, 1974, pp. 4-5.

In [The Wonder-Worker] Mr. Jacobson takes as many liberties with point of view as his schizophrenic protagonist does, but no matter: Timothy Fogel is an endearing schizophrenic and, moreover, an interesting man. The novel lacks the force and momentum of that experience which shapes the life of a whole character; writing about madness from the inside has always had its pitfalls in that regard, and Mr. Jacobson's work is no exception. All of which makes it more remarkable that his novel should be such a pleasure to read anyway, so rewarding is Mr. Jacobson's prose, so deeply rooted is the wit in every cadence and observation here. There are few writers in English who can capture a scene, an ambience, in three or four relaxed and authoritative sentences in the way that he does, for example, in a description of the Thames embankment at the end of the working day. The vitality of his prose is such that it informs with its own intelligence everything it lights upon. That is why it is possible to have no deep concern for Mr. Jacobson's protagonist, Timothy Fogel, and yet to read everything that happens in the novel with voracious interest.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 18, 1974, pp. 27-8.

Most of Jacobson's stories are about South Africans, particularly South African Jews, who live in such a troubled, ambiguous relation to the larger society that their visceral apprehension of danger is too overwhelming to be articulated. Toward the blacks, whom they guiltily employ and exploit, Jacobson's characters feel a truculent, helpless shame; toward the Dutch Afrikaaners, they feel a wary, frightened disdain; and toward the English South Africans—the part of the population with whom they are most closely associated—they seem envious, eager to be liked, and eager to be like them. It is in each case a hopeless proposition, as Jacobson's stories demonstrate. Immigrants from the shtetlach of Russia and Lithuania, Jacobson's "beginners" brought with them the sad baggage of superstition and legitimate fear, and their remarkable, unexpected success in a raw, threatening unsettled land only reinforced the terrible, familiar conviction that the known may be bad enough, but it is at least known. Of course, South Africa is hardly a place where intimations of dread can be thought of as paranoid; still, the rules and conventions accepted by the Jewish middle class represented here seem exceptionally rigid, the possibilities correspondingly limited, and the punishments disproportionately dire.

Such a sense of harshness and constriction is in great contrast both to the feeling that Jacobson conveys of the land itself—vast, open, and surprisingly beautiful—and his tone as a storyteller. His manner is direct, casual, and deceptively simple. It's as if Jacobson were taking the reader out for a pleasant, ambling narrative stroll, and he is so deft that it often seems as if he were merely the medium, the vessel for the story being recounted. Still, these are largely stories of youth, of reminiscence, of a time and place to which the author-narrator cannot or will not return. Probably no writer can go on endlessly using the material of his youth, but it is bound to become a sharper, more immediate dilemma for someone cut off from the ongoing life of the country where he grew up….

[The] genuinely difficult, perhaps mystically puzzling phenomenon—how is something—an event, a life, a world—created, re-created, actually imagined, emerges as Jacobson's real concern in The Wonder-Worker. It is what the novel is about, and it is, in the highest sense, terrifying….

If the characters often seem somewhat attenuated, it is because they are really secondary to Jacobson's purpose. The substance of the novel is the working out of the creative process itself, and in order to achieve his end, Jacobson has relied on language. The voice is spare, hard, brilliant, and though it is often exquisitely lyrical, it is never lush. It is always precise, and precisely dizzying: Jacobson is leading us, forcing us into that peculiar, unsafe region of the mind where out of memories, dreams, simple fragments of observation and inexplicable distortion, something new, something other than ordinarily recalled or observed reality, is born as a separate entity, achieving its own necessarily mysterious integrity. It is true that both art and psychosis transform experience, but as this book succeeds in demonstrating, only one endures.

Johanna Kaplan, "Re-Creation" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, June, 1974, pp. 94-6.

Alternating with the narrative [in The Wonder-Worker] about the life of Timothy, wonderworker, the journal of the narrator himself shows us a young man who is confined, evidently for nerves, in an elegant sanitarium definitely in "Magic Mountain" country. Timothy's history from drably comic beginning to young manhood is indulged in rather than told; the author takes a particularly sadistic interest in his hero's pain….

Timothy's dreams erupt finally in a psychotic episode in which he kills Susie, and at this point the narrator, whose surroundings have been getting increasingly shabby and sounding more and more like Bellevue, merges with him….

Jacobson's twinned plan derives from "Pale Fire," but instead of the wonderfully interlocked narrative puzzle of Nabokov's masterpiece, it is arranged like a "V"—two separated lines nosediving finally into a frightful and confused moment of failure. Thus Jacobson makes his dramatic crux out of what has most meaning for the psychotic mind—not reality but the fact that the conflicts which caused the dangerous split are masked. But however awful the crushing moment is for the psychotic who can no longer hide from himself, this is not what represents reality for everybody else.

In a sense, without making saints of them, Nabokov's perversely illuminated characters endure the consequences of near psychotic vision because it happens that by putting on their doomed masks they see more of reality than they would otherwise. Timothy and his narrator show us less than reality by taking the masks of psychotic vision at face value. Jacobson has undershot a great tradition and his story of drastic human collapse remains incomplete because its roots are hidden from our understanding.

Martin Washburn, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), June 13, 1974, pp. 35-6.

One must admire a writer like Dan Jacobson who suddenly decides in mid-career to move in a new direction and to set new creative problems for himself. One must admire him even more when his efforts result in successful, striking work. After producing for years extremely well written and penetrating "traditional" stories and novels dealing with his native South Africa (A Dance in the Sun, Evidence of Love, The Beginners), Jacobson wrote The Rape of Tamar (1970) which retold, in a subtle, elliptical manner, the story of the attack upon King David's daughter, Tamar, by her brother Amnon….

In The Wonder-Worker, Jacobson's fascinating new novel, the reader must again [as with The Rape of Tamar] work to separate fact from fiction, though here his task is much more difficult, and he can only hope to achieve partial success at best….

The narrator's real life remains vague, as does that of a novelist, a wonder-worker, who has transformed his life into art. Jacobson's book … can be read on two levels—as an account of a mental patient trying to come to terms with his troubled life by placing it at a safe distance, in the form of a fictionalized memoir, and as an account of the creative process through which fiction is produced.

The one problem with Jacobson's novel is that the shadowy Timothy, though a haunting figure, is almost as much a mystery at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, and we are left with two abstractions, the creator and his creation. Still, The Wonder-Worker is a superbly written novel by an author of exceptional talent and taste. Unlike the host of other writers who flood the market each year with self-indulgent accounts of breakdown and madness, Dan Jacobson has aimed higher and has produced a thoughtful, stimulating, and quietly frightening work.

Ronald De Feo, "The Act of Transformation," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June 21, 1974, pp. 711-12.

Now on the verge of middle age, the transplanted South African Dan Jacobson has produced eleven books; in his latest, "The Wonder-Worker" …, he has again advanced his mastery of craft, and created in fewer than two hundred pages a kind of miniature masterpiece, all the more powerful for its brevity, for its pregnant pauses and silences, for the extraneities that are left out. "The Wonder-Worker" is—in part because of its compression—not an easy book. I have read it twice—both times in rapt admiration for the author's gift of language, amounting to perfect pitch, and for his fierce imagination—and I am still not sure I have penetrated all his artful ambiguities. Nonetheless, I feel rewarded: in this book Jacobson has anatomized schizophrenia and brought it to frightening life.

L. E. Sissman, in The New Yorker, June 24, 1974, p. 101.

What would one say of a writer who has transformed every daily occurrence, every common sight, by an imaginative inversion, into words which make one gasp at one's previous complacency of acceptance of the world-as-we-think-it-is? The world made anew—this is the writer's dream, and in The Wonder-Worker, Dan Jacobson has achieved it.

This taut, telling, stylistic advance is a very exciting development in a writer who used a beautiful descriptive prose from the first, but who now brings an originality of vision and a philosophic confidence to his masterly grip of words….

The plot itself is appropriately faceted, presented with great subtlety, and not easy to understand completely….

This novel about Timothy the miracle-worker has [an] unresolved dream-like quality. If a writer's purpose seems obscure, one can "accuse" him of the fault of lack of clarity, or one can humbly admit that the fullness of his intentions escapes one. I will take the latter course, and say too, that this is no criticism of this breathtaking book.

Margot Lester, "Unresolved Obsession," in The Jewish Quarterly, Spring-Summer, 1974, p. 64.

Dan Jacobson's [The Wonder-Worker] depends upon detection, while not being a detective story, and … it asks to be considered in the light of the Gothic tradition.

That in itself may be a surprise. Jacobson's earlier fiction, which I greatly admire, was not such as to lead people back to, or persuade them to persist with, an attention to the Gothic modes. Together with his critical writings, it might be thought to inculcate a respect for stories that are straightforwardly told and rationally pondered, and a distrust of those authors, Gothic and otherwise, who believe that fiction should continuously reflect on the manner of its telling and should interrogate and explore the author's relationship to his subject matter, of those authors who believe in making a mystery or a multiplicity of the consciousness that informs the tale. His earlier works—I am thinking of certain short stories, of the marvelous novella A Dance in the Sun, and of his enjoyable comedy about the ploys of two dealers in a South African mining town, The Price of Diamonds—were, in this sense, unsophisticated.

His last novel but one, however, The Rape of Tamar, brought a change of tune. Here was a work with a Biblical theme and a narrator who used a modern idiom and seemed keenly attentive to the presuppositions of an audience centuries-remote from the events recounted; there appeared to be two levels of experience—that represented by his Biblical persons and that represented by the ironic retrospect which invested them—and the narrator's complex relationship to his theme appeared to be a main source of interest. It was some time since Mr. Jacobson had left South Africa for London, thereby losing touch with the people and places of his first fictions, and there may be those of his readers who suppose that the change I am discussing was produced by habituation to a new environment, that of the Anglo-American big city, and to the sophistication and artifice that were esteemed there. This seems too sweeping a view, but it is not one which would immediately be canceled by an acquaintance with his new novel, The Wonder-Worker.

Here, too, he is more metropolitan than "simple." The novel is equipped with facets, like one of the precious stones to which he is drawn, and is cut so as to gleam with a light which might seem to call for spectroscopy as well as criticism….

Those who do not take to doubles and detective work may not respond to the excellence of each of [the] twin narratives [in The Wonder-Worker], and they may refuse to see in its equivocations a gifted contribution to a sometimes preposterous genre [Gothic fiction] which has also spoken movingly about delusions of grandeur.

Karl Miller, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), July 18, 1974, pp. 14-15.

In the tradition of refined gothicism, [The Wonder-Worker] is full of ambiguity and odd, unspecified connections between narrator and subjects….

Like James's [The Turn of the Screw], The Wonder-Worker relies on the reader's deepening curiosity about not only the subject but also certain mysteries arising from the narrator's perceptions—that sort of thing rather than the special effects of popular gothicism. The strangeness in the tale arises not from a rotating head or a super-charged vomit scene, as in The Exorcist, but from the truer darkness of the mind in conflict with itself.

Speer Morgan, "The Turn of the Screw," in Rolling Stone (© 1974 by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1974, p. 105.


Jacobson, Dan (Vol. 14)