BORN JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA, MARCH 7, 1929. DIED LONDON, JUNE 12, 2014, AGED 85
AWRITER who evaded literary analysis, Dan Jacobson presented many styles to fit the current artistic mood. His childhood in South Africa developed his creative insight, but after his first five novels subsequent themes dealt with moral and ethical issues. His non-fiction work grappled with his complex relationship with his Judaism.
Heshel’s Kingdom (1998) was a memoir of his visit to Lithuania, birthplace of his rabbinical maternal grandfather Heshel Melamed, who had returned to Lithuania from the USA disappointed at the secularism of American Jews. After he died in 1920, Dan’s mother Liebe Melamed left for South Africa in a bid to escape both her autocratic heritage and the oncoming Nazi era.
Dan was one of four children born to Liebe and Hymann Michael Jacobson, a Latvian. When he was four years old his family left Johannesburg for Kimberly a declining diamond mining town which welcomed Jews.
Dan’s background was liberal and at school he saw black men mowing the cricket grounds and whitewashing the boundary markers, which struck him as bizarre, even satirical. Issues of race, religion, economic and social status filtered through his autobiography, Time and Again. At the age of 11 he was ostracised by his classmates – simply for having dirt on the back of his legs after helping another boy rescue his bag from a bin. The incident – not the bullying but the mob mentality – affected him for the rest of his life.
He later discovered that his Jewish acquaintances were more inclined to empathize with South African blacks than non-Jews. It may have reflected the strength of the Jewish community in Kimberley with its larger influx of Lithuanian Jews in the early 20th Century than from anywhere else, discounting the USA. Many hoped to make their fortunes in the diamond mines. But with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, stronger links were forged with Jewish communities elsewhere. The young Dan attended synagogue and studied Hebrew, something alien to his non-religious family, but his father, concerned about antisemitism, thought it treacherous, to ignore his heritage. No biblical scholar as a child, Jacobson’s interest in the Old Testament expressed itself through suchbooks as The Rape of Tamar, and The Story of Stories: The Chosen People and its God, although this latter infuriated many Jews for its references to God as an “imaginative creation”.
Jacobson won the top degree in English at the University of Witwatersrand, followed by several months on an Israeli kibbutz, and then a year in London where he worked in a Jewish boys school. While attuned to the spirit of London and its eccentricities, he also experienced loneliness, elements of which appear in his novel The Wonderworker, published in 1973.
Controversy followed when he innocently told his students at the Jewish boys school, reared on a diet of Genesis, that the universe was millions of years old. He was sacked.
Returning to Johannesburg in 1951 he worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and became a journalist. He began publishing short stories in American literary magazines and married Margaret Pye, a teacher and children’s writer from former Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in 1954 which heralded his return to London. In addition to Margaret’s son Julian, they had three more children, Simon Orde, Matthew Lindsay and Jessica Liebe. His first novel, The Trap was published in 1955. followed by A Dance in the Sun.
Jacobson became writer in residence at California’s Stanford University, during South Africa’s political upheavals in the 1950s. A lighter comedy mystery, The Price of Diamonds appeared at this time, set in South Africa. The theme of these first three books was racism.
In 1977 he won the JC Award for The Confessions of Josef Baisz, the John Llewelyn Rhys Award for a short story collection, A Long Way from London, in 1959, and the Somerset Maugham Prize for a collection of essays entitled Time of Arrival in 1964. One short story, The Zulu and the Zeide became a Broadway musical. Further literary acclaim followed the publication of his comprehensive novel The Beginners, dealing with Jewish emigration to South Africa.
Jacobson accepted several international visiting professorships and fellowships,including the vice chairmanship of the British Arts Council’s Literature Panel in 1974 and a professorship in London University’s English department. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2007.
Some of his Jewish themes are satirical. In his 1992 novel The God Fearer, Jews are the majority religion and persecute the Christers (sic). In the mid 1990s he turned to non-fiction, publishing The Electronic Elephant: A South African Journey which considers the changes in the culture of his homeland. A recur- ring metaphor in Jacobson’s writing is the abyss, a dark, post-modern image partly deriving from the black holes left by the Kimberley diamond excavations. Seared into his sub-conscious, they mark him out as a writer never far from his roots.He is survived by Margaret, his children Jessica, Simon and Matthew and five grandchildren.