Jacobson, Dan 1929–

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Jacobson, Dan 1929–


Born March 7, 1929, in Johannesburg, South Africa; son of Hyman Michael and Liebe Jacobson; married Margaret Pye (a teacher), February, 1954; children: Simon Orde, Matthew Lindsay, Jessica Liebe. Education: University of the Witwatersrand, B.A., 1949.


South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Johannesburg, public relations assistant, 1951-52; Mills & Feeds Ltd., Kimberley, South Africa, correspondence secretary, 1952-54; writer, 1954—. Visiting professor, Syracuse University, 1965-66; University College, University of London, lecturer, 1974-79, reader in English, 1979-87, professor of English, 1988-94, professor emeritus, 1994—. Fellow of Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, 1981. Vice chair of Literature Panel, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974-76.


Royal Society of Literature (fellow).


Fellowship in creative writing, Stanford University, 1956-57; John Llewelyn Rhys award for fiction, National Book League, 1959; W. Somerset Maugham award, Society of Authors, 1964; visiting fellow, State University of New York at Buffalo, summer, 1971; Wingate-Jewish Chronicle Award, 1977; J.R. Ackerley Award, English PEN Centre, 1985; fellowship from Society of Authors, 1986; J.R. Ackerley Award for autobiography, PEN Club of Great Britain, 1986; Mary Elinore Smith Poetry Prize, 1986; D.Litt., University of the Witwatersrand, 1997.



The Trap, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1955.

A Dance in the Sun, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1956.

The Price of Diamonds, Knopf (New York, NY), 1958.

The Zulu and the Zeide, Atlantic/Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1959.

The Evidence of Love, Atlantic/Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1960.

No Further West, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1961.

Time of Arrival (essays), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1963.

Beggar My Neighbor (short stories), Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1964.

The Beginners, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1966.

Through the Wilderness and Other Stories, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1968.

The Trap; and, A Dance in the Sun, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1968.

The Rape of Tamar, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1970.

A Way of Life and Other Stories, with a Specially Written Postscript by the Author, selected and edited by Alix Pirani, Longman (London, England), 1971.

Inklings (short stories), Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1973.

The Wonder-Worker, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1973, Atlantic/Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1974.

The Confessions of Josef Baisz, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.

The Story of Stories: The Chosen People and Its God (nonfiction), Harper (New York, NY), 1982.

Time and Time Again: Autobiographies (nonfiction), Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1985.

The Price of Diamonds, Ad. Donker (Craighall, South Africa), 1986.

Her Story, Deutsch (New York, NY), 1987.

Adult Pleasures: Essays on Writers and Readers, David & Charles (London, England), 1989.

Hidden in the Heart, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1991.

The God-Fearer, Scribner (New York, NY), 1992.

The Electronic Elephant, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1994.

Heshel's Kingdom, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1998.

(Translator) Henk van Woerden, The Assassin: A Story of Race and Rage in the Land of Apartheid, Metropolitan Books (New York, NY), 2001.

All for Love, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 2005, Metropolitan Books (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to magazines.


A musical adaptation of The Zulu and the Zeide, with book by Howard da Silva and Felix Leon, and music and lyrics by Harold Rome, was produced on Broadway in 1965 and published by Dramatists Play Service in 1966; A Dance in the Sun was produced as a play titled "Day of the Lion" in Cleveland, OH, in 1968. The Rape of Tamar was adapted into a play called "Yonadab," and was produced in London, England, in 1985.


Race relations, class consciousness, and other themes of morality characterize the writings of Dan Jacobson. A white, Jewish native of South Africa, Jacobson uses many of his novels to relate his country's ongoing struggles with apartheid from different points of view. The Trap, Jacobson's first novel, draws on the author's boyhood experiences at the two farms his father owned and reflects, according to Anne Fisher in a Dictionary of Literary Biography article, "his firsthand familiarity with relations between the white ruling class and black serving class." "The themes of the novel are corruption, violence, and betrayal" as they are given a particularly South African cast, Fisher added.

Jacobson creates an effective allegory in telling the story of how the white man Van Schoor, a ranch owner, is forced to question his trust in the black servant Willem who is blamed for a crime he did not commit. According to Fisher: "The ranch can be seen as all of South Africa, the [conflict] between Van Schoor and his servant epitomizes the country's racial problems. The worst part about the situation, as described by the novel, is that everyone involved is hurt by what is happening. The ‘trap’ encompasses all the characters."

Another notable Jacobson work, The Evidence of Love, involves an interracial love affair—a particularly controversial topic in 1960 when the novel was published. The Evidence of Love presents a character, Kenneth Makeer, who is officially classified by the South African government as "colored," but whose skin is light enough for him to pass as white. Kenneth courts and marries a white woman who is not troubled by his racial makeup. The result is a prison term for the couple.

"Jacobson's most autobiographical novel" to date is the way Fisher described The Beginners, a book about a Jewish South African family. "[T]he main theme of the book [is] the idea of human consciousness, which sets humankind above other forms of life," wrote Fisher. "Jacobson shows, by tracing the individual lives of the [family members], that the most important ideal to follow in life is one's own human individuality."

The Beginners focuses on Joel Glickman, a young man questioning the values of his life. Like the author, the character lives for a while in England and Israel, where he works on a kibbutz (communal farm). "Like Joel, [Jacobson] decided not to give his life to Zionism; like Joel, his father owned a butter factory. Joel's University of Witwatersrand is Jacobson's also," noted Fisher.

Departing from South African themes, Jacobson produced The Rape of Tamar in 1970, a modern retelling of the Old Testament story of the rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon, the brother of Absalom, made famous by his abortive rebellion against his father. The novel's main character, however, is the narrator, Yonadab, Amnon's best friend. In the Biblical story, Tamar seeks help following her incestual rape, not from her father David, but from her brother Absalom. David, in fact, refuses to subject his son Amnon to the law—thus incurring the wrath of both Tamar and Absalom. For Jacobson, David is a key figure in the story in several ways. "It was only when The Rape of Tamar was done," Paul Gready quoted Jacobson as saying in a Research in African Literatures study, "that I realised it was not only as a Jew but also as a South African that I had presumed to feel a special affinity with some aspects of the story of David." "Why as a South African?" Jacobson continued. "Well, in relation to the empires and metropolitan powers of his time, he was a provincial, a man on the margins. Yet, thirty centuries later, it was his life, not that of any of the greater kings contemporary with him, which was still feeding my own fantasies."

"The links between [The Rape of Tamar] and [Jacobson's 1973 novel] The Wonder-Worker are stronger than they at first appear to be," wrote Time reviewer R.Z. Sheppard, reviewing the latter. "Sexual obsession, the disintegration of a family, the linkage between love and hate are evident in both. But where the biblical background of [The Rape of Tamar] lent grief and madness some heroic grandeur, Jacobson's new book is furnished with the banalities and trivia of contemporary life." The unlikely protagonist of The Wonder-Worker, Timothy Fogel, is an ambiguity—a schizophrenic personality who may or may not be merely the figment of another's imagination. Whatever the case, Jacobson examines Timothy's life and his creeping obsession with an unsuspecting woman. The character's other obsession constitutes the title of the novel: Timothy believes he can work wonders, changing himself into inanimate objects.

Since the publication of Time and Time Again: Autobiographies, Jacobson has written both novels and works of nonfiction. Her Story is set in England and tells the story of Celia Dinan, who "was born in London almost three centuries ago, in 2007." While the novel contains some science fiction elements, it is nonetheless a retelling of, or homage to, various Bible stories, namely those concerning mothers and their sons. Hidden in the Heart, is a novel on the theme of living in the past. The unnamed narrator is a middle-aged woman writing about the late great love of her life, an Afrikaner named Adrian. The narrator was not, however, Adrian's great love, and the story she tells concerns his pursuit of the wife of a great poet who is twenty years his senior.

In The God-Fearer, Jacobson returns to Biblical subject matter for a novel about narration and the constructedness of the past. Here, Jacobson imagines a medieval world in which Jews outnumber Christians. Set some time after the invention of printing, the novel is narrated by Kobus the bookbinder and represents his attempt to preserve and learn about his past just as he is losing his memory. In this world where Jews are the majority and Christians the perpetually scapegoated and oppressed minority, Kobus, faced with visions of two "Christer" children, must remember and come to terms with his troubling past.

In Adult Pleasures: Essays on Writers and Readers, Jacobson's main theme in these pieces is modern "philistinism," or the ways in which contemporary criticism has lost sight of the real substance of literature, which essentially reduces literature to the currency of fashionable intellectual commerce, is closely aligned with kitsch, the flattering illusions we all (to some degree) incorporate into our views of the world and ourselves. Like Time and Time Again, Heshel's Kingdom is also based on Jacobson's family history. In this case, however, the protagonist is his grandfather Heshel Melamed, a rabbi living in early twentieth century Lithuania. Heshel had determined to leave Lithuania in favor of life in America but, after a brief trip to New York in 1912, he decided to remain in his homeland with his family. "This could have been a catastrophic decision, given the subsequent history of Lithuania," declared a reviewer for A from L, "but once again chance intervenes, and Heshel Melamed dies suddenly of a heart attack in 1919." The result was a sudden need for the family to emigrate to South Africa, one of the few options available to them at the time. Heshel's Kingdom is partly the story of how Jacobson's family ended up in South Africa, but it is also the story of Jacobson's search for his Eastern European roots. "In the end," wrote a contributor to New Criterion, "Jacobson is content to let Heshel go, to allow him to rest in peace in his rightful kingdom, ‘that region where shadows give way to unchanging darkness.’ He does not come very much closer to understanding his grandfather, or even himself or the horrors of this sad century. What he does do, and brilliantly, is pay Heshel the honor of this act of compassionate remembrance—of naming his grave, as it were."

All for Love is Jacobson's take on the historical romance genre. It centers on the love life of Princess Louise of Belgium, daughter of Leopold II—the man made infamous for his decades-long rape of the Congo in the name of religion and profit. Louise is no storybook romantic heroine: she is, in the words of Digby Durrant, writing in the Spectator, "conspicuously overweight … prey to various stomach complaints and giving off an aura of tainted food." Caught in a loveless marriage with an uncaring husband, Louise falls for a young cavalry officer named Geza Mattachich. The two escape, first to Vienna (from which they are banished for being too indiscreet in their affair) and then to the south of France. Running out of money, Mattachich forges the name of Louise's sister on a promissory note and is caught. He eventually is pardoned (thanks to the intervention of a peasant girl with a crush on him) and he, Louise, and the peasant girl Maria escape to France to live out their days. "In the end," Durrant stated, "their love has moved on to a higher plane—a devotion of quasi-mystical dimensions on her side and on his, a creed hammered out in a foul cell where he renewed his vow to make Louise his lifelong duty whatever the consequences." "This completely absorbing novel is at once serious and humorous," declared reviewer Brad Hooper in Booklist; "it is realistic but at the same time entertainingly melodramatic." A Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded by calling the novel "an eccentric, engaging mix of melodrama and erudition."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1975, Volume 14, 1980.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

Jacobson, Dan, Time and Time Again: Autobiographies, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1985.

Roberts, Sheila, Dan Jacobson, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1984.

Yudelman, Myra, Dan Jacobson: A Bibliography, University of Witwatersrand (Witwatersrand, South Africa), 1967.


Booklist, May 15, 2001, Vernon Ford, review of The Assassin: A Story of Race and Rage in the Land of Apartheid, p. 1724; July 1, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of All for Love, p. 31.

Contemporary Review, April, 1999, review of Heshel's Kingdom, p. 220.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2006, review of All for Love, p. 649.

London Review of Books, October 20, 2005, "Uninfatuated," p. 20.

New Criterion, June, 1999, review of Heshel's Kingdom, p. 88.

New Statesman, January 25, 1980, "A Dance in the Sun," p. 137; January 31, 2005, "The Idle Rich," p. 55.

New York Review of Books, April 12, 2007, "A Scandal at the Villa Paradiso," p. 64.

New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2001, Rob Nixon, "The Worm Did It."

Publishers Weekly, June 18, 2001, "Henk Van Woerden," p. 61; July 10, 2006, review of All for Love, p. 53.

Research in African Literatures, winter, 1994, Paul Gready, "Dan Jacobson as Expatriate Writer: South Africa as Private Resource and Half-code and the Literature of Multiple Exposure."

Spectator, March 21, 1998, Carole Angier, review of Heshel's Kingdom, p. 36; February 5, 2005, Digby Durrant, "Love on the Run," p. 42.

Third World Quarterly, June, 2005, "Travel and Transgression: Dan Jacobson's Southern African Journey," p. 461.

Time, March 25, 1974, R.Z. Sheppard, review of The Wonder-Worker.

Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 1998, review of Heshel's Kingdom, p. 9; December 4, 1998, review of Heshel's Kingdom, p. 13; February 11, 2005, "Affairs of the Heart," p. 22.


A from L,http://afroml.blogspot.com/ (December 7, 2007), review of Heshel's Kingdom.

Contemporary Writers,http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (December 7, 2007), author biography.

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