Time and Time Again
Time and Time Again: Autobiographies is Dan Jacobson’s fourteenth book. Jacobson, born and reared in South Africa but an emigrant to England in his mid-twenties, is best known for his novels and stories; he has also published essays, an earlier memoir, and—Time and Time Again’s immediate predecessor—The Story of the Stories: The Chosen People and Its God (1982), a critical account of the Bible (in both Jewish and Christian traditions) as fiction, in Jacobson’s view clearly and fatefully untrue yet awesomely testifying to the power of stories “to help men shape their experience into patterns comprehensible to them, and thus to help sustain them, as individuals and in communities, in the face of the adversities which time never fails to bring.”
This sense of the power of stories to give shape to the flux of experience also informs Time and Time Again, as Jacobson notes in a brief foreword which satisfies the reader’s curiosity concerning the unusual subtitle (why “autobiographies” plural?) and in other ways illuminates what follows. Jacobson begins by avowing his fidelity, as autobiographer, to the truth; at the same time, he acknowledges that he has sought “to produce tales, real stories.” Clearly, he observes, “there is a certain tension or even a contradiction between these two sets of aims,” yet it can be a fruitful tension:What I was trying to do was to turn to advantage, as a story-teller, the surprise we all feel at discovering how difficult it is to remember some aspects of our past, and how difficult it is not to remember others, and how little either of these kinds of difficulty has to do with our wills or wishes or even with our sense of what has been important in our lives.
In short, while the recollections that make up this volume impose a degree of “narrative shapeliness” on the events of Jacobson’s life, they also, by their episodic nature, “preserve or even dramatise something of the erratic or fitful nature of memory, and hence something of its intensity, too.” Thus the subtitle “Autobiographies,” plural and discontinuous, not autobiography, singular and seamless.
As a method for autobiography, Jacobson’s approach has both strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, his submission to the caprices of memory, coupled with his scrupulous resolve to tell the unvarnished truth, has produced a book that is almost pugnaciously undramatic—at times, simply boring. On the other hand, many readers will be attracted by the integrity of Jacobson’s unemphatic recollecting voice, which gains in authority as one begins to appreciate the subtlety that complements his immediately evident decency and freedom from cant.
Time and Time Again is divided into two parts: The six chapters, or “autobiographies,” that make up part 1 are set in South Africa, while the seven pieces that compose part 2 are set in England. The brief opening narrative, “Kimberley,” sketches the landscape, the people, and the culture of that South African city, to which Jacobson’s family moved when he was four years old. Kimberley had grown haphazardly, snaking around abandoned quarries, and Jacobson vividly evokes the essential strangeness of the place (and its charm for a young boy). The city’s physical strangeness was matched by its human aspect. Kimberley at that time was dominated by the English-speaking segment of the populace, later (as Jacobson notes, ranging ahead in time) to be superseded by the Afrikaners. Both these groups simply took for granted the servitude and degradation of the native Africans and the so-called Cape Coloureds, people of mixed blood. In addition, there were in Kimberley smaller contingents of Indians and Chinese, Greeks and Jews; Jacobson’s Latvian-born father and Lithuanian-born mother had come to South Africa separately many years before, in what he describes as a “freakish movement among Lithuanian Jewry, around the turn of the century: when more Jews from that corner of the...
(The entire section is 1,448 words.)