Jacob begins his autobiography with images of decay and death: an old war friend slowly deteriorating, his once-vibrant grandmother turning senile, then dying. He opens with this problem, with his frustration at the slow rotting of human life, with ceaseless decay. After this rather downbeat note, he goes back to his childhood and begins his story: scattered childhood memories, his education, his political confusion, his rejection of religion. Then, faced with the death of his mother and the invasion of France by Adolf Hitler’s Germany, he joins the military, at last developing a strong sense of purpose. Yet with the war’s end and Jacob’s return to France, he again finds himself aimless, decaying, unsure of what to do with himself. He obtains a medical degree but is reluctant to practice medicine. At last, upon joining Paris’ Pasteur Institute, he finds in scientific research a great purpose and activity. In subsequent chapters, Jacob never directly mentions, only implies, that he has married, so concerned is he with scientific research.
Yet the book concerns itself more with psychology and philosophy than with biology. The experiments described are not as important for what they explain as in how the results affect the man behind them. Even the narration, almost stream of consciousness in style, emphasizes the thoughts of the child, the adolescent, the young soldier, and the mature scientist rather than merely relating the events.
Happily, the book ends on a note of hope and purpose. In searching for knowledge, in discovering an undeniable fact, one that will live on forever, Jacob comes to reject his own despair at death and decay.
Sources for Further Study
American Scientist. LXXVI, May/June, 1988, p. 328.
Kirkus Reviews. LVI, February 1, 1988, p. 180.
Los Angeles Times. March 25, 1988, V, p. 8.
The New York Review of Books. XXXV, May 12, 1988, p. 10.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, March 27, 1988, p. 31.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, January 29, 1988, p. 41.
Science. CCXXXIX, March 25, 1988, p. 1545.
Science News. CXXXIII, April 30, 1988, p. 274.
The Times Literary Supplement. January 1, 1988, p. 6.