Commentary Magazine


The Beginners, by Dan Jacobson

A Long Story

The Beginners.
by Dan Jacobson.
Macmillan. 469 pp. $6.95.

A strange incongruity runs through Dan Jacobson's ambitious new novel. The Beginners is clearly informed by the kind of pained historical consciousness, the peculiar mixture of moral hesitancy and stubborn resolution, that are characteristic components of a serious response to the unsettling perplexities of life in the 60's. The fictional procedures, on the other hand, that Jacobson follows are not remarkably different from those that were in vogue in the English novel some time around the turn of the century. This nearly continuous disparity between moral intelligence and novelistic imagination is never disastrous, but the results are often unhappy.

The technique of The Beginners is, I suppose, dictated by its subject, but the ultimate difficulty may be that the subject it sets for itself is no longer an imaginable one. Sixty years ago, Arnold Bennett could presume to entitle the last section of his Old Wives' Tale, “What Life Is,” and then actually present an extraordinary revelation of the meaning of life in time, the eternal pathos of growing old and dying. In The Beginners Jacobson has not selected for his subject a particular personage, a particular moral situation, or, say, a particular neurosis, as novelists nowadays generally do; he has tried instead to write a book about What Life Is. This is the force of his title, which alludes to the general human impulse constantly to seek renewal, individually and collectively, against the craziest odds, after all the defeats, humiliations, confusions, and blunders that experience inflicts upon us or leads us to perpetrate. Jacobson states this large theme eloquently in reflecting upon one of his minor characters, a survivor of Nazi persecution: “The human capacity to lose and suffer seemed to be equaled only by the capacity to begin all over again the search for what had been lost in suffering, torn away, turned to smoke and ashes.”

The largeness of Jacobson's subject suggests why his novel covers so much time and space, so many characters. He attempts to resuscitate the family-saga novel in order to explore a full range of possible lives, showing how the alternatives of an individual life are elaborately implicated in the surrounding group and in history. There is a special appropriateness, therefore, in the fact that the family whose progress he traces through three generations, from early in the century to the present, is a Jewish family, for the Jews, by virtue of their troubled sense of identity and often marginal location in modern societies, have been uniquely exposed to the movement of history, uniquely conscious of the choices history offers both to individuals and groups. The Glickman family of Johannesburg, in all its ramification of brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, in-laws, and friends, constitutes a kind of map of the various paths and byways that a life in the 20th century can take. The alternatives we see followed out by the various characters involve geography—South Africa, England, Israel; ideology—Zionism, Marxism, liberalism, South African nationalism; and a vivid assortment of life-styles, from high bourgeois to ragged intellectual.

The trouble with all this is that it is just too much to probe into—it can only be deployed spatially, worked into solid, artfully finished surfaces (for Jacobson is a fine craftsman) with little thematic or psychological depth. In terms of characterization, the weakening effect of this overextension is especially clear in the case of the third-generation Glickman, Joel, who is more or less the protagonist of the novel, and his brother and sister, David and Rachel. As the chapters flip rapidly from one sibling to the next, and to their lovers, friends, and enemies, none, not even Joel, gets the opportunity to be much more than the bold sketch of a possible life. David, for instance, eventually turns to religion, and though we are offered a couple of interesting paragraphs on the nature of his religious experiences, he has just enough room in the book to be only the embodiment of an alternative. Similarly, Rachel, after erotic adventure and domestic disappointment, becomes a kind of shorthand notation for the life of bourgeois comfort combined with charitable action. Joel, who is more fully imagined, is shown in greater detail at his South African university, on a kibbutz, and finally in London, but with all the shifts to other characters, in other places, he seems rather like a good minor character set to do a major character's job.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe him as a very serviceable protagonist for a shorter work of fiction who begins to seem thin in the expanses of this big novel. For Jacobson's real distinction in his previous books has been as a superbly controlled writer of short fiction. Even some of his novels—notably, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun—are in effect brilliantly elaborated short stories, drawing much of their artistic strength from the virtues of taut, dramatic concentration, stylistic conciseness, sharp focusing of view, that are generically associated with the short story. His new novel, then, looks a little like the attempt by a Hemingway or a Conrad (the Conrad of the Tales) to write a Middle-march.

To put this effect in other terms, one could say that the whole spatial extension of the novel results in an unnatural, not quite credible, clarity. On the one hand, Jacobson, like most contemporaries, finds experience to be frequently intractable, resistant to intelligence; as Joel comes to feel by the end of the novel, life is “so inconclusive, so muddled, so wide in range, so limited in certitude, so sensitive to pain and so indifferent to it, so utterly lacking in meanings, intellectual assuagements, moral commensurations.” Yet Jacobson does not attempt, as modern novelists typically have done, to create equivalents in narrative technique for this sense of muddle and incommensurateness, for in so doing, he would have to surrender much of that network of detailed circumstance—historical, cultural, familial—which he wants to use to define the lives of his characters.

_____________

He proceeds, then, to give us people and events from a steadily omniscient narrative viewpoint, with uniform visual lucidity, as though we all still believed that a moral world could be inferred from precisely reported physical facts. Each of the personages is introduced, in the time-honored tradition of the English novel, through a formal “character,” a thumbnail portrait in which salient features—the jut of a chin, the cast of an eye, an inflection of speech or habitual gesture—are presented as adumbrations of the character's essential nature. The point is not that the technique is old-fashioned, but that it seems a little unreal, because the writer is considerably less certain about the intelligibility of human nature than his method would imply. Milieu is similarly presented in careful catalogues of sharply-outlined, typifying details. Jacobson does manage, in establishing the South African setting, to communicate a distinctive—and interesting—feel of the place, with its “huge, bare, achingly open landscape,” probably because he knows it best of all his locations, perhaps also because of the fascination of the unknown that this particular place is bound to have for most of us. Direct description of milieu seems less efficient and effective in the English and Israeli sections of the novel; and even in Africa, when, for example, we get a three-page account of the mechanical operations of a creamery owned by Papa Glickman, we begin to wonder whether the novel as a genre hasn't in fact gone on to better things.

Jacobson has enough literary intelligence to keep at least two steps away from a cliché but this expansive novel of vivid sensory detail has been written before so often and so thoroughly that it is sometimes hard for him to avoid being barely a step away from the novelistic déjà vu. The tenseness of a young secretary is focused through a pulsing nerve in her neck. The frustration of a younger sister at a party has to find its outlet in a retreat to the bathroom, where she can sob, perched on the edge of the tub. Still another young woman, after an attractive man has shown interest in her for the first time, concludes her day, and her chapter, in the following fashion: “When she closed her eyes it was as if she saw again all the stars in the sky; they wheeled slowly under the dark arch of her lids. ‘I'm not so lonely,’ she said aloud, savoring the denial.” These last sentences illustrate the strength as well as the weakness of the writing in The Beginners. Jacobson's prose throughout is vigorous, firmly controlled, quietly inventive—all of which virtues are mirrored in the small but genuine verbal splendor of “they wheeled slowly under the dark arch of her lids.” And yet the invocation of the stars at such a moment is a dangerously familiar one, and the girl's voiced declaration, as a chapter-ending, has just the suspicion of an echo from the sound-studios of MGM.

The Beginners is certainly a miscarried novel but it is not really a bad one. Although the general conception precludes the most persuasive kinds of character development, individual scenes are forcefully rendered, and the novel, however intermittently, can manage to be moving. It is obviously a left-handed compliment to say of a novelist that he reports history well, but this is one reason why Jacobson's narrative continues to hold our attention even when we are conscious that we have run into the novelistic shallows of his representative types. His prosperous South African Jews, his Afrikaners, his sabras, his London entertainment people making the new Scene, are thoughtfully observed figures, seen in a context of serious moral concern with the large cultural and historical forces that have produced them. The attitudes toward people, ideas, ideologies, public events in the novel suggest that Jacobson is a man who has lived attentively, reflectively, with a kind of intellectual humility; what he lacks in The Beginners is an adequate fictional form to body forth his sense of life in its full subtlety.

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