Dan Jacobson

Dan Jacobson’s novels include All for Love and The Confessions of Joseph Baisz.

Probably, Perhaps: Wilhelm von Habsburg

Dan Jacobson, 14 August 2008

Readers with a taste for misfortune and ineffectiveness are more likely than others to enjoy this extended study of Wilhelm von Habsburg, the eponymous ‘Red Prince’. To begin with, Habsburg though he undoubtedly was, and an archduke to boot, Wilhelm hardly cut much of a figure among those closest to the throne occupied by Karl, the wartime successor to the aged Franz Josef and the...

As a novelist Giorgio Bassani is both allusive and elusive. Allusive, because he makes a habit of writing as if all the objects of his attention, from the topography of Ferrara, his hometown in northern Italy, to the names of minor characters in his tales, are bound to be as resonant to his readers as they are to himself. Elusive, because the sober, distancing tone of his prose seems to be at...

The first piece of verse by Rudyard Kipling I committed to memory – without even knowing I was doing so – was incised in large Roman capitals on a wall of the Honoured Dead Memorial in Kimberley, South Africa. During the Anglo-Boer War, Kimberley was besieged for some months by forces from the two Boer republics, the Transvaal (De Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) and the Orange Free...

In one of the ruminative, generalising passages interspersed among the domestic and public scenes in War and Peace (battles, a formal ball, the burning of Moscow and so forth), Tolstoy grapples with the question of what degree of free will a human being of any social class might be supposed to have. The paradoxical conclusion he comes to is that the higher the position an individual occupies...

Lev or Leo Nussimbaum (aka Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said) was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in 1905. As a young man he claimed to be the son of an immensely wealthy Persian-Turkic prince. In his first published book, Blood and Oil in the Orient, Nussimbaum wrote that his supposed father had the facial expression, imperturbable, weary and yet eager for activity, of an Oriental...

Ei kan nog vlieg: Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiw!

Dan Jacobson, 2 January 2003

Almost five years ago the Cape Town publishing company David Philip brought out Way Up Way Out, a novel by Harold Strachan. Some time later I was sent a copy of the book by a friend of Strachan’s in KwaZulu-Natal, where the author himself has lived much of his life. His name on the cover meant nothing to me – though if I had been more quick-witted I might have connected it to his...

The force and originality of Leonid Tsypkin’s writing can be conveyed only by way of sustained quotation. Thus:

I was on a train, travelling by day, but it was winter-time – late December, the very depths – and to add to it the train was heading north – to Leningrad – so it was quickly darkening on the other side of the windows – bright lights of Moscow...

This is the second part of a two-part interview. Part 2: ‘The Price’.

I want to ask you about Robert Lowell: as an influence on your work, that is, and only then as what he later became – a ‘Life’, the subject of your first full-length biography. You did and do admire him greatly as a poet, yet in his poetic practice didn’t he trample all over the...

This is the first part of a two-part interview. Part 2: ‘The Price’.

Ian Hamilton died of cancer on 27 December 2001, aged 63. It was a death that the ‘LRB’ has especial cause to lament. He was a great support to this paper, helping to get it going in 1979, serving ever since on its editorial board, and above all contributing many exact, unsparing and funny pieces on...

In her introduction to Night of Stone Catherine Merridale tells us that she began the book with the intention of writing about ‘the disruption and reinvention of ritual’:

I had been intrigued by the idea that a modern revolution could try to create an entirely new kind of person. As I began to collect material about the Bolsheviks’ first efforts, about the League of the...

The recipient of the following letter was Sir James Hayes-Sadler, Governor of the East African Protectorate (soon to become known as the Colony of Kenya). Its author was a British settler writing from Nyeri, in the colony’s newly established ‘white highlands’. The year was 1908.‘

It is not necessarily a disadvantage for a writer to be childish and shameless. In his writing, I mean. Dante was a great genius and the master of a highly elaborated theology and cosmogony. Among the tasks to which he put his gifts was that of inventing an inferno in which he inflicted hideous punishments on persons who had thwarted and oppressed him in earlier years. If an adult sense of embarrassment or compunction had inhibited him as he went about this agreeable duty, the poem would have been much diminished. Or, to put the point the other way around, the poem would have suffered irreparably if everything elevated in it had not been mingled with its baser, more primitive elements.

Arch-Appropriator: King Leopold II

Dan Jacobson, 1 April 1999

Leopold II is best known as the founder and owner of the ill-famed Congo Free State. To most English-speaking readers his name evokes ‘Red Rubber’ and a world of plunder and atrocity: the Congo Reform Association which campaigned against his ruthless exploitation of the Free State has left behind it a notion of an aged, snow-bearded Satan who used black slavery to get money, and money to buy the favours of young girls.‘

On Display

Dan Jacobson, 20 August 1998

Botswana is a landlocked country bordered by South Africa to the south and east, Namibia to the west, Angola to the north and Zimbabwe to the north-east. Though considerably larger than France (with Wales and the Benelux countries thrown in), it supports a population of only 1.5 million, almost all of whom belong to one or another grouping of the Tswana-speaking people. There are also a residual number of the aboriginal inhabitants of the region: the Sarwa (Bushmen) and Kgalagadi. The latter were always treated as little more than serfs by the dominant Tswana; to this day they are generally confined by their masters to herding and domestic labour.

About ‘The God-Fearer’

Dan Jacobson, 9 July 1992

It is always difficult to admit to oneself, let alone convey to others, the peculiar combinations of indolence and energy, chance and obsession, which go into the making of any piece of fiction. To say that inattention and vacancy of mind are as important to it as concentration and purposefulness sounds like a mere piece of mystification: but I fear it is the truth.

Negative Capability

Dan Jacobson, 24 November 1988

T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. Keats and Embarrassment. The parallel between the title of Christopher Ricks’s new book and that of his earlier study of Keats is not accidental. In each case he takes a state of mind which is usually held to be disadvantageous, humanly and artistically speaking, and offers a critical reexamination of its presence in the work of his chosen author. One sees the polemical point clearly enough. Who would wish to read a book called T.S. Eliot and Piety? Or Keats and Enthusiasm?

In a recent issue of Index on Censorship, Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright and essayist who has spent long periods in prison, tells the following tale:

Story: ‘Amazed’

Dan Jacobson, 10 December 1987

Dear God,

What is the purpose of it all? Why do you make such contradictory demands of us? Why do you punish us for doing what you compel us to do? Why have you put us here, in this labyrinthine place, with all its manifold temptations and opportunities for error, its blind alleys and paths to pain, which we are bound sooner or later to follow? Nothing could be clearer than the taste of fresh...

Story: ‘The Circuit’

Dan Jacobson, 6 February 1986

This is how it happens. A door opens. Lights blaze up. An impenetrable blackness is hurled somewhere behind them. Voices of unseen creatures are raised in a hoarse cry. Life streams through me once again, and with it, terror. I run.

What the Boers looked like

Dan Jacobson, 3 October 1985

Now that Dr Lee has produced a pictorial history of the Anglo-Boer War, one wonders why no one had thought of doing so before. This, of course, is how we are always inclined to greet an unusually good idea. The text accompanying the photographs informs us that the war coincided almost precisely with the birth of photography as a popular hobby. Hostilities between Britain and the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State broke out just two years after George Eastman of Rochester, New York, had produced the Folding Pocket Kodak, the first camera to use ‘cartridge film’. In 1900 East-man brought out the Brownie, which had originally been intended for the children’s market. By the end of the war more than two hundred thousand of these two cameras had been sold to markets outside the United States. Of the almost half-million British and Colonial troops who served in South Africa, Dr Lee estimates that several thousand must have brought a camera with them. In addition, numbers of professional photographers, following in the footsteps of those who had taken their cameras to the battlefields of the Crimea and the American Civil War, got to work.

Paralysing posterity

Dan Jacobson, 20 June 1985

Times change. If, at the beginning of the 19th century, you wanted to suggest that the pillory and the gallows were inappropriate punishments to inflict on those found guilty of committing homosexual acts, you had to make it clear that you did so in spite of your horror at the moral abominations you were speaking of. Nowadays, if you want to express misgivings at the news that the Modern Languages Association of America has a Division of Gay Studies, you have to be at pains to insist that your misgivings are purely literary and intellectual in character.

Angela and Son

Dan Jacobson, 2 August 1984

The most interesting parts of the lives of writers often enough take place before they become writers. In Colin MacInnes’s case, one might say that some of the most interesting parts of his life took place before he was born. He was the great-grandchild of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones, and was thus connected with both the Kipling and the Baldwin families; he was the grandson of an Oxford Professor of Poetry (of no great distinction, it must be admitted); and the son of Angela Thirkell, the novelist of upper-class English life, and James Campbell McInnes, a man of working-class origins who became the foremost British lieder-singer of his generation. Unfortunately for this marriage of the muses and the classes, Campbell McInnes was also drunken, violent, and (though he succeeded in fathering three children by Angela Thirkell, and then in raping the children’s nursemaid) inveterately homosexual.

The Boer-Lover

Dan Jacobson, 16 February 1984

Like all the older people among my mother’s family connections, M. was an immigrant to South Africa from Eastern Europe. He had arrived in the country as a boy and had grown up in Johannesburg. Unlike virtually every other Jewish immigrant, however, he had chosen to identify himself not with the urban, prosperous, relatively sophisticated English-speaking section of the population, but with the Boers, the Afrikaners. As a group they may have had the reputation, at least among outsiders, of being provincial, unwelcoming, defiantly illiberal and racialistic, isolated from the rest of the world as much by their attitudes and language as by their geographical situation. Indeed, when my two older brothers and I lived briefly under M.’s roof, more than forty years ago, a substantial number of the Afrikaners sided more or less openly with the Nazis in Germany. Yet it was with them that he sought to associate himself; it was with their fortunes that he had tied his own. Tied it to the extent of marrying an Afrikaner woman and bringing up his children to speak Afrikaans. For years his mother had refused to see him, as a result.


Dan Jacobson, 15 September 1983

Three autobiographical books by three Soviet dissidents who are as unlike one another in character, background and way of life as it is possible to be. The first of the authors is a solemn, Jewish lady-lawyer; the second an irascible Red Army general; the third (until his death recently in a car crash) was a contumacious bohemian of vagrant habits and wide-ranging intellectual interests. One of the many things that make their books so depressing to read, however, is that the same incidents and people recur in all three of them: indeed, each of the authors appears in the others’ books, though not always by name. Thus, quite unintentionally and inadvertently, they reveal just how small was the society of dissidents, and how limited in number were the protests they managed to mount, even in the great days of the ‘Movement’, in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Story: ‘My Life’

Dan Jacobson, 1 September 1983

There are people, birds and mice, other cats, cars. There are trees, flowerbeds, the lawn, paths, fences. There are rooms, stairs, radiators.

Dippy-dippy-dation, my operation: How many stitches did you have?

Children’s Counting Song

Six weeks after being taken to hospital during a severe attack of pancreatitis, I returned there to have my gall-bladder removed. This is of course a routine surgical procedure (routine for the surgeons, if not for the patients): indeed, a timely newspaper article had informed me that it was...

Story: ‘Patient’

Dan Jacobson, 17 February 1983

The house surgeon was a blonde, tender-skinned young woman, with irises of so pale a blue, set in such wide, weary whites, they looked almost grey. Her hair was drawn back, but wisps of it escaped at her temples and forehead, and formed a kind of soft, irregular frame for her face. It gave a certain pathos to the earnestness of her expression. Fatigue had flattened the skin against her cheek-bones and left bruises under her eyes; her voice sounded effortful and distant. She told me she had been up all night. Now, at 7.30 a.m., there I lay, in a cubicle just off the casualty ward, having been turned out of the ambulance onto a high, hard wheeled stretcher. More work.

Happy Valleys

Dan Jacobson, 18 November 1982

The story goes something like this. A ruthless aristocratic seducer of other people’s wives begins an affair with the bride (of a couple of months’ standing) of an acquaintance. The husband, who is 18 years older than the seducer, and no less than thirty years older than his wife, is alternately furious and complaisant, morose and ‘understanding’, vengeful and jocular. Everybody drinks a great deal, and everybody exchanges confidences, or what pass for confidences. A series of taunting, anonymous letters is delivered to the husband. He tells his servants and the police that a housebreaker has stolen a couple of revolvers from him. A few days later he agrees to let his wife go: indeed, at a last dinner together with her and her lover, he raises a formal toast to them and wishes them every happiness and the birth of an heir. In the early hours of the next morning, two miles from the marital home, the lover is found dead in his car. He has been shot through the ear at close range. Later that day the husband lights a bonfire near the house: in this bonfire he tries to burn, among other things, a pair of gym shoes and a blood-stained golf-stocking. He is arrested, charged with murder, and stands trial for his life. An inept prosecution and a brilliant defence result in his being acquitted. Eighteen months after the acquittal, having in the meantime been systematically ostracised by most of those who had previously been his friends, he commits suicide.

Jew d’Esprit

Dan Jacobson, 6 May 1982

If you want to get ahead in the world, you cannot afford to be contemptuous of or ironic about your own fantasies. It is indeed important to be able, as Wordsworth puts it,

Möbius Strip

Dan Jacobson, 3 December 1981

The Möbius strip is well-known to topologists and to those fond of performing simple party tricks. By twisting a strip of paper through 180° before pasting its ends together, you can produce a hollow shape with only one surface and one edge. To convince the on-lookers that the shape has only one side, you can start drawing a line down the middle of it at any point and continue the line without lifting the pencil from the paper, until you return to your starting-point. You will then have shown that the single line has passed through what were, before the strip was pasted together, the two sides of the original strip of paper. The trick is both elementary and confusing: obvious and yet an irresolvable affront to one’s sense of order and logic.

Ars Brevis, Vita Longa

Dan Jacobson, 16 July 1981

Poetic intensity, concentration upon a single incident or event – these seem to be the defining characteristics of the short story for both V.S. Pritchett, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories, and Walter Allen, in his critical survey, The Short Story in English. ‘The short story,’ writes Allen, is ‘rooted in a single incident or perception’; its effect ‘is nearer to that of lyric poetry than the novel’. And Pritchett: ‘The novel tends to tell us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely … the short story springs from a spontaneously poetic as distinct from a prosaic impulse.’

Alpha and Omega

Dan Jacobson, 5 February 1981

Lawrence on the Revelation which was vouchsafed to the Biblical John of Patmos? Those who know both writers can only fear the worst. Woozy metaphysics. Wild history. Blood-stained theology. Vituperation galore. Promises of chaos to come. Even more dismaying glimpses of redemption to follow.

Lawrence Festival

Dan Jacobson, 18 September 1980

One of the functions that took place during the recent D. H. Lawrence Festival in Santa Fe was a procession to the shrine on the Lawrence ranch, outside Taos. A few hundred people must have taken part in the ceremony. After listening to a string quartet play Schubert everyone formed up in a line. A drum was beaten somewhere ahead, girls in white robes scattered flowers, and we all went zig-zagging up a path to the little concrete structure in which Lawrence’s ashes are reputedly incorporated. In front of it is the tombstone of Frieda Lawrence, and of her third husband, Angelo Ravagli; above it is the phoenix symbol, in stone or cement, which Lawrence had adopted as his own.

The last time I had visited the Newtown Market in Johannesburg was during my final year at the local university. I went to the market as a member of a group collecting food for the families of African strikers: others in the party included a man who is now a professor of sociology at an English university (he was the one of us who had a motor-car), and a girl with a wonderfully clear, fine brow for whose sake I had become involved in the whole undertaking. Amid the usual disorder of porters, hawkers and shoppers, of crates and wood-shavings from crates, of spoiled fruit and the smell of spoiled fruit, we went from stall to stall, soliciting contributions. Many of the stallholders were Indians; they were not noticeably more responsive to our requests than their white competitors. We managed to get together a few bags of potatoes, a sack of oranges and a basket or two of cabbages, which we carried back to the car. Later, we delivered the stuff to a piece of wasteland behind a corrugated-iron fence, grandlosely entitled the Bantu Athletic Club, where some sporting and educational activities, and much illegal drinking, used to take place.

Naked and glistening

Dan Jacobson, 3 April 1980

There is an ‘Africa’ one revisits every time they show certain kinds of old movie on television: the Tarzan films, for example. It is a rather strange part of the world, inhabited for the most part by white men in jodhpurs and pith helmets, with revolvers strapped around their waists, who are followed about by hordes of half naked porters carrying bundles on their heads. These bundles seem to be used for one purpose only: they are to be thrown down on the ground whenever the porters fall into a panic and run off jabbering into the jungle. By the look of it, the jungle consists chiefly of a few square yards of rhododendrons, but it can give way suddenly to vast tracts of sand under a blazing arclamp, or to high mountains of paster-of-paris, some of which conceal lost cities, or prehistoric creatures, or other revolver-toting, pith-helmeted whites. From the way they frown and scowl and talk English with a foreign accent, the latter can clearly be seen to be up to no good.

Venus de Silo by

Dan Jacobson, 7 February 1980

There are several reasons why it is possible, or perhaps even desirable, to disapprove of Tom Wolfe’s writing. It is sometimes verbose; occasionally it is too pleased with its own effects; it is bespattered with arch capital letters and exclamation-marks, in a manner that reminds one of Winnie the Pooh; despite the last comparison, its cadences and vocabulary are deplorably un-English. However, there are also many reasons (of a far more compelling kind, in my view) why it is possible greatly to admire his writing. It can be quick, vivid, high-spirited, resourceful, full of surprise, extremely funny; because the author delights so much in what he detests, and because he has such an uncontrollably mischievous impulse to debunk what he most esteems, every sharply observed detail is carried on an exhilarating surge and backwash of feeling. Furthermore, his prose style is capable of building up to certain big moments, and then sustaining them eloquently over many pages.

The Secret of Bishop’s Stortford

Dan Jacobson, 22 November 1979

It was not a pilgrimage that took us to Bishop’s Stortford, but simply a search for lunch. Once in the little town, however, we were reminded of what we had known and then forgotten: that it was the birthplace of Cecil John Rhodes. Moreover, we were told that the house in which Rhodes was born had been turned into a museum. Since my wife had been born in Rhodesia, and I had grown up in Kimberley, we felt we had no choice in the matter: we had to go and visit it.

Lawrence and the Mince-Pies

Dan Jacobson, 25 October 1979

In 1932, Aldous Huxley published The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, a large brown volume, printed in a curiously elaborate type, which has no doubt become something of a special item in booksellers’ catalogues. It contained 889 pages. Exactly 30 years later Harry T. Moore edited The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence. This consisted of two volumes totalling 1,307 pages. Both before and subsequently several smaller, independent collections of letters appeared; one, for example, contained the correspondence Lawrence had with Bertrand Russell during the First World War, another, entitled Lawrence in Love, presented the letters he wrote during his abortive engagement to Louie Burrows, one of the many girls who seem to have fallen irrevocably in love with him when he was an unknown youth. Now, it seems, those of us who live long enough will eventually be able to peruse The Letters of D.H. Lawrence in no less than eight volumes, of which the one under review is the first. It contains 579 pages. Since the last volume of the series will, we are told, be an index volume, and will presumably be shorter than the others, one can calculate that when the publication of the series is concluded, it will consist of approximately 4,500 pages.

Dan Jacobson writes: Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman are included in the curriculum of the English Department, University College; Catullus, too, has been studied in a course entitled ‘The Classical Background of English Literature’. The notion that it would occur to me or to any of my colleagues to try to exclude them from the study of ‘English’ is sheer fantasy on Simon Watney’s...

Uninfatuated: Dan Jacobson

Tessa Hadley, 20 October 2005

‘If anthropology is obsessed with anything,’ Clifford Geertz says, ‘it is with how much difference difference makes.’ The same could be said of the novel. And...

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Both these books are about recovering and redeeming a past: the past of Dan Jacobson’s grandfather, Heshel Melamed, the rabbi of a community of Jews in the obscure Lithuanian village of...

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Pale Ghosts

Jeremy Harding, 12 January 1995

Dan Jacobson grew up in the diamond town of Kimberley, South Africa. England was one of the places he looked to for inspiration. As it turned out, his interest in English literature and his habit...

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Julian Symons, 8 October 1992

A parable, an allegory, a moral fable, must convince us first on the literal level to have full effect in its symbolic message. In ‘The Metamorphosis’ and The Trial our attention is...

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Stephen Wall, 12 September 1991

There have always been novels with a highly developed sense of their own means of production. When, at the end of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen said she’d let other pens dwell on guilt and...

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Stephen Wall, 16 March 1989

Novelists on the novel – or, at any rate, good novelists on the novel – often write with a vigour and a commitment to the form that shames more academic approaches. Such...

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Patrick Hamilton is remembered today, if at all, for the short pre-war novel Hangover Square, and the stage thrillers Rope and Gaslight. They are good of their kind, but they lack the feel of...

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Dan’s Fate

Craig Raine, 3 October 1985

In Speak, Memory, the five-year-old Nabokov is led down from the nursery in 1904 to meet a friend of the family, General Kuropatkin. To amuse me, he spread out a handful of matches on the divan...

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The Bible as Fiction

George Caird, 4 November 1982

When three distinguished literary figures are impelled to write about the Bible, it is clear that this strange library of books has lost nothing of its perennial fascination. All three grapple...

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