Stories from South Africa
The Zulu and the Zeide.
by Dan Jacobson.
Atlantic-Little Brown. 247 pp. $3.75.
This collection of Dan Jacobson’s short stories provides a valuable and illuminating addition to the three novels he has already published. A number of these stories are excellent in them selves, written with the same suppleness, economy, and intelligence as The Price of Diamonds, the last and best of Mr. Jacobson’s novels. Because they rehearse in its barest form and with almost obsessive persistence the central theme of the novels, they permit a clearer understanding of what the uncertainty and the Gothic detail of A Dance in the Sun and the comedy of The Price of Diamonds may have hidden. Finally, the very density of effort to be seen in these stories lends a new impressiveness to the whole of Mr. Jacobson’s work.
Readers of COMMENTARY, where some of these stories have appeared,1 are no doubt already familiar with the technical virtues of Mr. Jacobson’s writing: his clear, easy, and firm prose, his deft control of tone, his variety and inventiveness, his refusal to linger over a passage for the sake of making merely local effect. Mr. Jacobson is a master of the ironic style, but he is no mere craftsman and his ironies never presume to become answers. Although Mr. Jacobson’s ironic style is not yet a vision of life, it is nevertheless addressed, in a surprising way, to the contemporary problem of liberal’s guilt. I say “surprising” because, at first glance, Mr. Jacobson’s might easily be mistaken for that nervous, pitiful, and modish irony that undertakes to lay bare the half-lies, compromises of principle, and guilt involved in being a man of good will—only to end by approving, rigidifying, sentimentalizing this very guilt. Mr. Jacobson’s irony, and frequently his subject-matter, does spring from the equivocal position of liberal and humane Jews who must take (and even make) their place in the South African pecking order, but its goal is, precisely, the exorcism of guilt: an exorcism which is to be brought about not by expiation and sacrifice but by lucidity and generosity of mind. For, his stories would seem to argue, guilt blinds and distorts the guilty man; he can properly help neither the suffering nor himself.
All this may perhaps be most clearly seen in the ironic reversals and discoveries which inevitably form the climax of Mr. Jacobson’s stories and novels. These have, almost without exception, a common content: the victim is seen to be more powerful than his master, or (what comes to the same thing) has purposes of his own beyond what the master’s brutality or guilt can imagine. This vision takes its simplest form in what might be called the mute victim, the man whose passivity, defenselessness, inertness binds the violent and the guilty to him: the unconscious Fink of The Price of Diamonds, the inert drunk who is the hero of “The Burden,” the passively resisting secretary of “The Boss,” the hunted stembuck of “The Game,” the captured, trembling, young Kaffir thief of “Stop, Thief!,” the gentle, unspeaking Zulu of the title story of this volume, the profoundly apathetic hero of “The Stranger.”
In the more complex form the victim is active and some recognition of his power is made within the story. The Kaffir Joseph of A Dance in the Sun plays for his own ends on the guilt and idealism of the two white youths; the masochist of “The Antipodes” announces to her brutal lover that he has been the mere instrument of her masochism; the Jewish hotelkeeper of “Droit de Seigneur” informs the anti-Semitic Polish Counts that he has been giving them preferred treatment at his fifth-rate hotel only in order to mock them. And so on.
In “The Antipodes” and “The Boss,” a figure appears who manages the unfolding relations between victim and predator. In “The Antipodes,” the Australian, Sturgess, seems to be the Jacobson ironic hero: removed but engaged, softly childish and yet wise, passive but powerful, victorious because he seems to lose. Unfortunately, though perhaps significantly, Mr. Jacobson’s ironic art seems to have deserted him in both these stories. “The Boss” is a rather predictable morality, and “The Antipodes” tends to soap-opera—its recognitions are far too pat, and the dialogue floats above the action as the balloons do above a comic-strip.
It ought to be clear, now, that the novel The Price of Diamonds is a comic version of this theme. For here, the figure of the unconscious Fink moves Gottlieb, his partner, to wish to confess having deceived him, a deception which Gottlieb thinks has led to a nearly-fatal attack on Fink. But, it turns out, that attack had no connection with Gottlieb’s deception, and Fink moreover has himself been deceiving Gottlieb. The partners are thus mutually deceiving, self-deceiving, and mutually deceived in their guilt. In all Mr. Jacobson’s comic jugglery of the plot, the guilt has been made away with.
These little summaries may suggest not only the stubbornness with which Mr. Jacobson wrestles with the demon of guilt but also the therapeutic quality of his irony. For his irony is a method of interrupting the vicious cycle that leads from helpless idealism to guilt to an exaggerated awareness of the victim and, finally, to a more profound helplessness. He insists on showing how the victim, in the very midst of his suffering, does not become the puppet of either his misery or his master but remains something more—a human being. And the fineness of Mr. Jacobson’s art, of his moral sense, lies in his refusal to allow his preoccupation with attitudes toward the victim to harden into an indifference to the victim himself. In his work, brutality, guilt, sentimentality are seen to be equally stultifications of the spirit.
One does, however, leave Mr. Jacobson’s work with the lingering feeling that he has yet to exhaust the possibilities of his subject. These stories show him to be tenaciously working its center, but the peripheries remain untouched. I have in mind the two things that seem to haunt the edges of his work and which he treats only partially or elliptically: the violence that glares from South African society and the South African landscape, and the Negro victim himself. It may seem too Dostoyevskian a program, but by undertaking full-scale “inward” studies of these subjects he might (finally be able to lay the ghost of guilt.
If the seriousness with which I hope I have discussed Mr. Jacobson’s themes and intentions is not tribute enough, let me only add that while reading some of these stories I sometimes had the wish they would not end. And that experience is rare.
1 “After the Riot,” July 1958; “The Thief,” June 1956 (“Stop, Thief!” in the present volume); and “The Box,” June 1953.