Professor Dan Jacobson was born on 7 March 1929 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was educated at Kimberley Boys' High School and the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. After the publication of his first two novels, The Trap (1955) and A Dance in the Sun (1956), he was awarded a one-year Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford University (1956-7). From 1965-6 he was Visiting Professor at Syracuse University, New York, and he was Reader in English at University College London between 1979 and 1986, and Professor of English until 1994 (Professor Emeritus since 1994).
A Long Way from London, a collection of short stories published in 1958, won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and his collection Time of Arrival and Other Essays (1963) won a Somerset Maugham Award. His novels include The Evidence of Love (1960), The Beginners (1966), The Rape of Tamar (1970), The Confessions of Joseph Baisz (1977), which won the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction, Hidden in the Heart (1991), and The God-Fearer (1992).
His volume of autobiography, Time and Time Again: Autobiographies (1985), won the J. R. Ackerley Prize. His books The Electronic Elephant: A Southern African Journey (1994) and Heshel's Kingdom (1998) are eclectic in form, combining public history, private memoir and accounts of journeys made in southern Africa and Lithuania respectively.
His last two books were All For Love (2005) and Literary Genius (2007). He died on 12 June 2014.
Dan Jacobson has spent most of his adult life in the UK, but he grew up in South Africa in a Jewish immigrant family - his father’s family came from Latvia and his mother’s family from Lithuania.
Consequently, he has always been acutely aware of racial, social, cultural and religious diversity and conflict, and this is something that pervades his fiction, particularly his understanding of group consciousness, alienation and power struggles of various different kinds. His first five novels, up to and including The Beginners (1966), are naturalistic, set mainly in South Africa, and explore predominantly South African issues. Later works broaden the territory beyond South Africa, though there are still various thematic links between the earlier and later works.
The Trap (1955) and A Dance in the Sun (1956) are set in South African farming communities and explore particularly the complex relationships between white employers and black employees. These two novels are based on Jacobson’s own personal experiences of his father’s farms. The Price of Diamonds (1958) makes skilful use of humour in its depiction of corruption and morally questionable business dealings, while The Evidence of Love (1960) features a black man and a white woman who fall in love and are determined to assert their right to be together, even though this means breaking South African law. All these early novels are set during the early years of South African apartheid, and Jacobson’s fiction makes clear its unequivocal and vigorous opposition to this system of segregation. He seems to be particularly fascinated by the way in which people come to accept unjust political systems, and thus he explores the subtleties and complexities of political and ideological manipulation, and the way in which racial and social oppression can be made to seem natural and justified.
Jacobson’s early works were immediately acclaimed by critics, but his reputation became more fully established with his fifth novel, The Beginners (1966), which explores three generations of a Jewish immigrant family living in South Africa, much like the author’s own family. It is much longer and more sophisticated than its predecessors and displays Jacobson’s talent for acutely perceptive insight into both human psychology and the workings of South African politics and society. He explores particularly the difficulties of self-definition for immigrants, especially for Jewish people in the diaspora.
There is a marked change in Jacobson’s fiction after The Beginners. Starting with his next novel, The Rape of Tamar (1970), discussed below, Jacobson no longer uses South Africa as his setting. Instead, these later works are set in various locations including London and several fictionalised countries. He also begins to experiment stylistically, often producing metafiction in which he can explore more fully the subjectivity of ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’. Yet the links with the earlier works are clear - in his South African novels Jacobson explores and examines human nature and psychology, power struggles, social and political tensions, and the construction of ‘truth’, in relation to the South African situation. His later works have similar concerns, but move beyond the specifics of Jacobson’s native country to consider these issues in other contexts.
The Wonder-Worker (1973) and The Confessions of Joseph Baisz (1977) both explore the isolation of emotionally damaged individuals who struggle to form relationships. The first of these is set in modern-day London and features a lonely and withdrawn man who is unable to connect with others, socially and emotionally, yet, strangely, possesses a perceptive understanding of those around him. The Confessions of Joseph Baisz is set in a hellish imaginary country that resembles South Africa. Its protagonist is a deeply disturbed man who is able to love only those whom he has betrayed. In both these novels, Jacobson offers a sharp and probing yet compassionate exploration of the human mind, particularly its potential for obsessive behaviour.
Some of Jacobson’s novels are re-tellings of Biblical stories, though the themes and issues often parallel the situation in contemporary South Africa. The Rape of Tamar (1970) explores the power struggle between King David and his power-hungry sons. Jacobson once again explores the human capacity for dark, obsessive behaviour - the desire for power and control manifests not only as political ambition, but also as Amnon’s disturbing obsession with his half-sister Tamar, resulting in the rape of the title. Her Story (1987) explores the story of the Virgin Mary, though in a futuristic setting, as Jacobson himself comments: ‘I sketched out an England a century or two hence, transformed into a more or less Islamic country’ (‘Playing God’ by Jacobson, The Observer, 13 August 2005). One critic refers to Her Story as ‘an elaborate, extended parable’ and ‘the most subtle and enigmatic of Jacobson’s fictional works’ (entry in The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Literature in English, 1996). The God-Fearer (1992) is another parable with an imaginary setting, though this time in the past, in a fictionalised version of medieval Europe. Jacobson again examines power struggles, persecution and the nature of oppression, this time through depicting a society in which Jews are the majority and the ‘Christers’ are the oppressed minority.
More than a decade passed before Jacobson’s next novel, All For Love (2005) (though he wrote several non-fiction works during the 1990s - discussed below). All For Love is a historical novel, set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, based on the true story of Princess Louise, daughter of King Leopold II of Belgium. Louise was a controversial figure whose adulterous affair and reckless indulgence with Geza Mattachich (a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army) caused a scandal that resulted in Mattachich’s imprisonment and Louise’s confinement in an asylum. All For Love skilfully combines fact and fiction, and includes footnotes that reference historical sources, such as the actual memoirs of Louise and her lover. Jacobson, as always, presents his characters and their lives with a balance of both compassion and detachment - he thus explores human nature and society with perceptiveness and understanding, while avoiding sentimental over-involvement.
Jacobson has also written acclaimed short stories and non-fiction works. In the 1950s, his literary career had begun with the publication of short stories in magazines such as the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar. His stories explore similar themes to his early novels - racial tensions in South Africa - and collections include A Long Way from London (1958), The Zulu and the Zeide (1959), Beggar My Neighbour: Short Stories (1964) and Inklings: Selected Stories (1973). Alongside his fictional writing, Jacobson has published various essay collections. Through this work he has continued to address South African issues throughout his career, even while expanding the range of his fiction beyond South African settings. Collections include Time of Arrival and Other Essays (1963), Time and Time Again: Autobiographies (1985), and the acclaimed The Electronic Elephant: A Southern African Journey (1994). Heshel’s Kingdom (1998) explores the history of Jacobson’s Lithuanian ancestors.
Elizabeth O’Reilly, 2009