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Dan Jacobson Biography

Dan Jacobson comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Johannesburg, South Africa, 1929. Education: The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1946-49, B.A. 1949. Career: Public relations assistant, South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Johannesburg, 1951-52; correspondence secretary, Mills and Feeds Ltd., Kimberley, South Africa, 1952-54. Fellow in Creative Writing, Stanford University, California, 1956-57; visiting professor, Syracuse University, New York, 1965-66; visiting fellow, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1971, and Australian National University, Canberra, 1980; lecturer, 1976-80, reader, 1980-88, professor of English, 1988-94, University College, London. Since 1994, professor emeritus, University College, London. Vice-chair of the Literature Panel, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974-76. Awards: Rhys Memorial prize, 1959; Maugham award, 1964; H.H. Wingate award (Jewish Chronicle, London), 1978; Society of Authors traveling scholarship, 1986; J.R. Ackerley award, for autobiography, 1986. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1974. D. Litt., University of Witwatersrand, 1997. Agent: A.M. Heath, 79 St. Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4AA, England; or, Russell and Volkening Inc., 50 West 29th Street, New York, New York 10001, U.S.A.



The Trap. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Harcourt Brace, 1955.

A Dance in the Sun. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Harcourt Brace, 1956.

The Price of Diamonds. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1957; New York, Knopf, 1958.

The Evidence of Love. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and Boston, Little Brown, 1960.

The Beginners. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Macmillan, 1966.

The Rape of Tamar. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Macmillan, 1970.

The Wonder-Worker. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973; Boston, Little Brown, 1974.

The Confessions of Josef Baisz. London, Secker and Warburg, 1977; New York, Harper, 1979.

Her Story. London, Deutsch, 1987.

Hidden in the Heart. London, Bloomsbury, 1991.

The God-Fearer. London, Bloomsbury, 1992; New York, Scribner, 1993.

Short Stories

A Long Way from London. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1958.

The Zulu and the Zeide. Boston, Little Brown, 1959.

Beggar My Neighbour. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964.

Through the Wilderness. New York, Macmillan, 1968.

Penguin Modern Stories 6, with others. London, Penguin, 1970.

A Way of Life and Other Stories, edited by Alix Pirani. London, Longman, 1971.

Inklings: Selected Stories. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973; as Through the Wilderness, London, Penguin, 1977.


Radio Plays:

The Caves of Adullan, 1972.


No Further West: California Visited. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959; New York, Macmillan, 1961.

Time of Arrival and Other Essays. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Macmillan, 1963.

The Story of the Stories: The Chosen People and Its God. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Harper, 1982.

Time and Time Again: Autobiographies. London, Deutsch, andBoston, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985.

Adult Pleasures: Essays on Writers and Readers. London, Deutsch, 1988.

The Electronic Elephant: A Southern Africa Journey. London, Hamilton, 1994.

Heshel's Kingdom (memoir). Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1999.

Editor, with Daniel Bar-Tal and Aharon Klieman, Security Concerns: Insights from the Israeli Experience. Stamford, Connecticut, JAI Press, 1998.



Dan Jacobson: A Bibliography by Myra Yudelman, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, 1967.

Manuscript Collections:

National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa; University of Texas, Austin.

Critical Studies:

"The Novels of Dan Jacobson" by Renee Winegarten, in Midstream (New York), May 1966; "Novelist of South Africa," in The Liberated Woman and Other Americans by Midge Decter, New York, Coward McCann, 1971; "The Gift of Metamorphosis" by Pearl K. Bell, in New Leader (New York), April 1974; "Apollo, Dionysus, and Other Performers in Dan Jacobson's Circus," in World Literature Written in English (Arlington, Texas), April 1974, and "Jacobson's Realism Revisited," in Southern African Review of Books, October 1988, both by Michael Wade; "A Somewhere Place" by C.J. Driver, in New Review (London), October 1977; Dan Jacobson by Sheila Roberts, Boston, Twayne, 1984; "Stories" by John Bayley, in London Review of Books, October 1987; "Intolerance" by Julian Symons, in London Review of Books, October 1992; "The Mother's Space" by Sheila Roberts, in Current Writing (South Africa) 5(1), 1993; "Weapons of Vicissitude" by Richard Lansdown, in The Critical Review (Australia) 34, 1994.

My novels and stories up to and including The Beginners were naturalistic in manner and were written almost entirely about life in South Africa. This is not true of the novels I have written subsequently.

* * *

Dan Jacobson's first two novels, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun, marked him as a writer of considerable ability, with an interest in typically South African "problems." Since then, he has developed rapidly to become one of South Africa's best known and most interesting novelists.

The two early novels are both concerned with the tensions inherent in the extremely close, almost familial, relationships between white employer and black employee, which tend to develop in the particular kind of farm community Jacobson describes. Both embody what might be described as allegorical statements about the South African situation. Jacobson implies that the inhabitants of the country are trapped in their own environment and condemned to perform a ritualistic "dance in the sun." To an outsider this can only appear to be a form of insanity. This vision of South Africa leaves out of account, or, at best, finds irrelevant, the group (English speaking, liberal, white) to which Jacobson himself belongs, and it is, therefore, not surprising that he should have chosen to live and work abroad.

For some years, however, his novels continued to deal with South African subjects. The Evidence of Love tells the story of a black man and a white woman who fall in love and attempt to defy South African law and custom by living together. The novel treats the theme of interracial love in a more relaxed and naturalistic way than is usual in South African fiction, and also highlights aspects of the individual struggle for freedom and the achievement of self-identity. The Price of Diamonds focuses on shady dealings and financial corruption in a small town in South Africa, and reveals Jacobson's quite considerable gift for comedy.

The Beginners, which, together with the collection of stories A Long Way from London, established Jacobson's position as a writer of stature, is an ambitious and substantial novel. The story of three generations of an immigrant Jewish family, it offers a penetrating, subtle, and complex analysis of what it means to be a "demi-European at the foot of Africa" and a "demi-Jew" in the modern world. The novels which follow The Beginners are not concerned with South Africa directly, nor are they naturalistic in manner. But two of the three later novels deal with political tensions and power struggles, and in so doing appear to have deliberate parallels with the contemporary situation in South Africa. Jacobson's continuing interest in South Africa is also reflected in his collection of autobiographical pieces, Time and Time Again, in which he reflects, among other things, on the way in which his perceptions of the country have changed since the days when he could see it only as a place from which he had to escape.

The Rape of Tamar is a witty and sophisticated reconstruction of an episode at the court of the biblical King David, focusing on a power struggle between the aging king and his politically ambitious sons. The Wonder-Worker, set in contemporary London, explores the world of a sensitive and lonely character whose inability to establish meaningful relationships leads inevitably to his complete alienation from the world around him, but, paradoxically, also to his ability to understand people completely. Jacobson's novel, The Confessions of Joseph Baisz, is a brilliantly inventive and deeply disturbing fantasy: the "extraordinary autobiography" of an emotionally stunted individual who discovers very early in his bleak life that he is capable of loving only those people whom he has first betrayed. Set in an imaginary country with a nightmarish but distinctly recognizable resemblance to South Africa, the novel is wholly convincing in its portrayal of a society whose members illustrate what Baisz calls "the iron law: the wider their horizons, the narrower their minds."

Like other contemporary South African novelists, Jacobson has written some excellent short stories. Many of them probe the guilts and fears of white South Africans living in the midst of what they regard as an alien and hostile black culture. Two stories that are among the best things he has done are "The Zulu and the Zeide" and "Beggar My Neighbour." The former contrasts the small-minded meanness of a wealthy Jewish businessman with the unaffected humanity of the black servant he employs to care for his ailing father; while "Beggar My Neighbour" movingly evokes the world of a young white boy forced to come to terms with the cruel realities of a racist society through his chance meeting with two black children. In these stories, as in all his work, Jacobson's special skills are displayed: detailed observation, economic presentation, and a compassionate but objective analysis of the varieties of human behavior.

Jacobson showed his imaginative talent to good advantage in The God-Fearer, a novel that takes place in a sort of alternate reality. Set in an indeterminate period that might well be medieval times, the novel gradually unfolds its secret: in this world, Jews are the culturally dominant group in Western civilization, and the "Christers" are a persecuted minority. It is a challenging vision, deftly executed.

—Ursula Edmands

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - Personal