Dan Jacobson (March 7, 1929 to June 12, 2014) born in Johannesburg and based in London, was a leading writer of the last century. The Rape of Tamar (1970) is perhaps his best-known book. We rely on his Guardian obituary for this sketch of the interesting life of an interesting writer.
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 slump – 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, Dan'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 were 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.
Dan's father ran Kimberley's butter factory. The Jacobson home was well off, liberal in politics and non-coercive in matters of religion. ....
After getting a top degree in English at the University of Witwatersrand in 1949, and suffering a few awkward months at a kibbutz in Israel, Jacobson spent a year in London. He worked for 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 Commentary and 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 coming author in the US, and in 1956-57 spent a year as writer in residence at Stanford. The 1950s was a period when South Africa – and its Afrikaner resistance ...– was front-page news across the world. In exile, Jacobson built up 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 to Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, telling the story of a dynasty of Lithuanian Jews "beginning" over again in South Africa.
Cash prizes, Arts Council bursaries, royalties and journalism kept Jacobson going through the 60s. 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-70s, 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 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 90s, saw print.
At UCL, 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 decided not, and 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 70s.
UCL, the godless place in Gower Street, 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.
It was on Jacobson's first trip to London, in February, 1950 that he wrote down his impressions of the post war landscape of the victorious country. This quote is actually David Kynaston quoting Jacobson from Kynaston's Austerity Britain 1945-1951 (2010):
...bus tickets and torn newspapers blew down the streets or lay in white heaps in the parks; cats bred in the bomb-sites, where people flung old shoes, tin cans, and cardboard boxes...
The excellent obituary we began with mentions lastly that Dan Jacobson was:
..... paradoxically... revered by his colleagues for his cheerfulness. He was the best raconteur and joke-teller in the department and good company to the very end.
The obituary fails here, for outward cheerfulness contrasted with a stern inner gaze at reality, is not paradoxical, to students of human nature.