Dan Jacobson: A ‘demi-alien’ who shed many skins


Dan Jacobson (1929 – 2014)

Dan Jacobson, who has died aged 85, should rank as one the leading novelists of his time. That he was never regarded as such was the result of a combination of factors.

He was unusually hard to “place” as an author. He was born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, but the greater part of his life was spent in Britain. His fiction evolved faster than those who most admired him could always keep up with. He shed authorial skins like a snake, each time allowing a new Jacobson to emerge – but one that sometimes disappointed those fondly attached to the old Jacobson.

And in his later years he moved, powerfully, into nonfictional literary territories: autobiography, travel writing and even theology.

His relationship with his inherited Judaism was intense, but complicated. “How to make sense of it all?” he wondered.

He was born in Johannesburg, one of four children of a Latvian father, Hyman, and a Lithuanian mother, Liebe (nee Melamed), both of whom had fled their homelands. Jacobson was brought up in Kimberley. It was a dull town – diamonds went down with everything else in the Great Depression of the 1930s – but one of the places on the globe where Jews were safe to enjoy a dull life.

His late-life memoir Heshel’s Kingdom (1998) was inspired by a visit to Lithuania. Heshel Melamed, a stern rabbinical paterfamilias, was his maternal grandfather. On the old man’s death, in 1920, Jacobson’s mother fled to South Africa. She was escaping her father as much as the Pale of Settlement, the term given to a region of Russia where Jews had been allowed to settle. Had Heshel lived longer, Dan Jacobson would never have happened. The Nazi extermination of Jews in Lithuania (aided enthusiastically by local Lithuanians) was virtually total.

Jacobson’s father ran Kimberley’s butter factory. The Jacobson home was well-off, liberal in politics and noncoercive in matters of religion. Jacobson went to a faux English grammar school, Kimberley Boys’ High, where, like the rest, he bellowed out his daily wish that God save his king. Meanwhile, outside, squads of barefoot black men mowed the cricket grounds and whitewashed the boundary markers. It struck him, even as a boy, as somehow crazy.

After getting a top degree in English at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1949, and suffering a few awkward months at a kibbutz in Israel, Jacobson spent a year in London. He worked in a Jewish boys’ school, lived in lodgings, and was very lonely. A “demi-alien”, he began, in his solitude, to write a novel. The Wonder Worker (1973) allegorises this London loneliness. It was, nonetheless, a happy time. He loved the way the English so expertly “imitated” being English. It was on this trip, aged 21, that he committed to the place. But he would not settle there yet.

He was dismissed from his teaching post for thoughtlessly informing his boys that the universe was (contra Genesis) millions of years old. He returned to South Africa and did a number of desk jobs. More importantly, he was already publishing short fiction in American magazines, including the New Yorker.

In 1954 he married a teacher, Margaret Pye, from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and moved with her to London. He was already highly regarded as a promising author in the United States, and in 1956-1957 spent a year as writer in residence at Stanford University, California. The 1950s was a period when Afrikaner resistance to the changing order in Africa was front-page news across the world.

In exile, Jacobson built a substantial corpus of fiction dealing with his native country. It climaxed with The Beginners (1966). His longest work (Jacobson was never one to squander words), it was his equivalent of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, ­telling the story of a dynasty of Lithuanian Jews “beginning” over again in South Africa.

The Beginners was a valediction. After a longish interval he produced the biblical fantasia The Rape of Tamar (1970). It was, he later surmised, the novel of his most qualified to have won the newly established Booker prize. A laudatory review was lost in one of the regular printers’ strikes of the time: it might, he felt, have swung things his way.

He shifted from South African subjects, only returning to the territory as a cold-eyed tourist in his travel writing. Kafka, not Mann, was now the star he followed. The Confessions of Josef Baisz (1977), a fable set in an imaginary country, is the most successfully experimental novel in this phase of his career.

Cash prizes, arts council bursaries, royalties and journalism kept Jacobson going through the 1960s. But the life of a writer with a growing family was a tightrope walk. When Karl Miller was appointed to the Northcliffe chair at University College London in the mid-1970s, he brought Jacobson into his entourage as a lecturer.

It was a happy change of direction. There was an inner pedagogue in Jacobson, only too glad to be released. As an academic, he was stern – particularly on bad writing and jargon, for which he had an Orwellian distaste. Colleagues beguiled by his smiling bonhomie into asking him to look at their work in progress would recoil at the brutality of the Jacobson blue pencil.

A follower of FR Leavis by intellectual affiliation, he had little time for “theory”. However experimental his fiction, his literary criticism was traditional and pragmatic. A selection, Adult Pleasures, was published in 1988. He believed passionately that scholarship mattered in the real world.

His last PhD student was the lawyer Anthony Julius and it was (as Julius acknowledges) largely through Jacobson’s tireless campaigning that Julius’s TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995), one of the most controversial critical books of the 1990s, saw print.

At the University College London Jacobson was for some years a colleague of AS Byatt. As she recalls, the two of them would discuss whether the academic life was good for their fiction. She eventually left. He stayed, becoming professor in 1986 and retiring as professor emeritus in 1994. His later fiction was carefully wrought and continued the lines of narrative exploration he had opened in the 1970s.

The University College London, which had been set up, in large part, as a home for the spiritually uncomfortable, fitted Jacobson like a glove. Its open-mindedness encouraged monographs such as The Story of the Stories: The Chosen People and Its God (1982) – the Bible was, Jacobson always thought, the best novel ever written. In his travel writing and memoirs, he settled his personal account with the country in which he was born (whose accent his speech never lost) and with Nazi-occupied Europe.

“They would have killed us, if they could have got to South Africa,” he mused, contemplating the exterminations in Vilnius and Heshel’s fortuitous death.

There was always a rueful melancholy, stiffened by irony and leavened by humour, about him. He chose, on being appointed professor, to give his inaugural lecture on Thomas Hardy’s poetry – and, as always, contrived to extract a laugh or two from this gloomiest of authors. One of the images that recurs in his writing is the pit, or abyss. Sometimes it materialises into the vast black holes left by the Kimberley diamond excavations of his childhood. At other, more metaphorical, moments, it takes shape as Conrad’s heart of darkness.

“The pit of the future,” he once wrote, “is quite as deep as the pit of the past. Through it, too, all things fall endlessly.”

And yet, paradoxically, he was revered by his colleagues for his cheerfulness. He was the best raconteur and joke teller in the department and good company to the end.

He is survived by Margaret, his children Jessica, Simon and Matthew, three granddaughters and two grandsons. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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