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Alpha and Omega

Dan Jacobson, 5 February 1981

Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation 
by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Mara Kalnins.
Cambridge, 249 pp., £12.50, October 1980, 0 521 22407 1
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... Lawrence on the Revelation which was vouchsafed to the biblical John of Patmos? Those who know both writers can only fear the worst. Woozy metaphysics. Wild history. Blood-stained theology. Vituperation galore. Promises of chaos to come. Even more dismaying glimpses of redemption to follow. Well, one does find something of these in Lawrence’s Apocalypse ...

Paralysing posterity

Dan Jacobson, 20 June 1985

Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England 
by Louis Crompton.
Faber, 419 pp., £17.50, May 1985, 0 571 13597 8
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... Times change. If, at the beginning of the 19th century, you wanted to suggest that the pillory and the gallows were inappropriate punishments to inflict on those found guilty of committing homosexual acts, you had to make it clear that you did so in spite of your horror at the moral abominations you were speaking of. Nowadays, if you want to express misgivings at the news that the Modern Languages Association of America has a Division of Gay Studies, you have to be at pains to insist that your misgivings are purely literary and intellectual in character ...

The Circuit

Dan Jacobson, 6 February 1986

... This is how it happens. A door opens. Lights blaze up. An impenetrable blackness is hurled somewhere behind them. Voices of unseen creatures are raised in a hoarse cry. Life streams through me once again, and with it, terror. I run. It is all I can do. The sequence is always the same; yet it is not so much a sequence as an instantaneity. There is only one direction I can take ...

Negative Capability

Dan Jacobson, 24 November 1988

T.S. Eliot and Prejudice 
by Christopher Ricks.
Faber, 290 pp., £15, November 1988, 0 571 15254 6
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... T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. Keats and Embarrassment. The parallel between the title of Christopher Ricks’s new book and that of his earlier study of Keats is not accidental. In each case he takes a state of mind which is usually held to be disadvantageous, humanly and artistically speaking, and offers a critical re-examination of its presence in the work of his chosen author ...

What is to be done?

Dan Jacobson: Death and memory in Russia, 4 January 2001

Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia 
by Catherine Merridale.
Granta, 506 pp., £25, October 2000, 1 86207 374 0
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... In her introduction to Night of Stone Catherine Merridale tells us that she began the book with the intention of writing about ‘the disruption and reinvention of ritual’: I had been intrigued by the idea that a modern revolution could try to create an entirely new kind of person. As I began to collect material about the Bolsheviks’ first efforts, about the League of the Militant Godless and the Society for the Dissemination of Scientific Cremation, the history I thought I was writing was a study of ideology, propaganda and mentalities ...

The Light Waters of Amnion

Dan Jacobson: Bruno Schulz, 1 July 1999

The Collected Works of Bruno Schulz 
edited by Jerzy Ficowski.
Picador, 582 pp., £50, December 1998, 0 330 34783 7
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... It is not necessarily a disadvantage for a writer to be childish and shameless. In his writing, I mean. Dante was a great genius and the master of a highly elaborated theology and cosmogony. Among the tasks to which he put his gifts was that of inventing an inferno in which he inflicted hideous punishments on persons who had thwarted and oppressed him in earlier years ...

You want Orient?

Dan Jacobson: Leo Nussimbaum’s self-creation, 18 August 2005

The Orientalist: In Search of a Man Caught between East and West 
by Tom Reiss.
Chatto, 433 pp., £17.99, July 2005, 9780701178857
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... Lev or Leo Nussimbaum (aka Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said) was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in 1905. As a young man he claimed to be the son of an immensely wealthy Persian-Turkic prince. In his first published book, Blood and Oil in the Orient, Nussimbaum wrote that his supposed father had ‘the facial expression, imperturbable, weary and yet eager for activity, of an Oriental who has transferred the old traditions of command to the social life of a young oil city ...

Fyodor, Anna, Leonid

Dan Jacobson: Leonid Tsypkin, 9 May 2002

Summer in Baden-Baden 
by Leonid Tsypkin, translated by Roger Keys and Angela Keys.
New Directions, 146 pp., $23.95, November 2001, 0 8112 1484 2
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... The force and originality of Leonid Tsypkin’s writing can be conveyed only by way of sustained quotation. Thus: I was on a train, travelling by day, but it was winter-time – late December, the very depths – and to add to it the train was heading north – to Leningrad – so it was quickly darkening on the other side of the windows – bright lights of Moscow stations flashing into view and vanishing again behind me like the scattering of some invisible hand – each snow-veiled suburban platform with its fleeting row of lamps melting into one fiery ribbon – the dull drone of a station rushing past, as if the train were roaring over a bridge – the sound muffled by the double-glazed windows with frames not quite hermetically sealed into fogged-up, half-frozen panes of glass – pierced even so by the station-lights forcefully etching their line of fire – and beyond, the sense of boundless snowy wastes – and the violent sway of the carriage from side to side – pitching and rolling – especially in the end corridor – and outside, once complete darkness had fallen and only the hazy whiteness of snow was visible and the suburban dachas had come to an end and in the window along with me was the reflection of the carriage with its ceiling-lights and seated passengers, I took from the suitcase in the rack above me a book I had already started to read in Moscow and which I had brought especially for the journey ...

The Beautiful Micòl

Dan Jacobson: Giorgio Bassani, 22 May 2008

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis 
by Giorgio Bassani, translated by Jamie McKendrick.
Penguin, 256 pp., £9.99, February 2007, 978 0 14 118836 2
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... As a novelist Giorgio Bassani is both allusive and elusive. Allusive, because he makes a habit of writing as if all the objects of his attention, from the topography of Ferrara, his hometown in northern Italy, to the names of minor characters in his tales, are bound to be as resonant to his readers as they are to himself. Elusive, because the sober, distancing tone of his prose seems to be at pains to avoid intimacy both with his readers and the characters whose lives he is recording ...

Less a Wheel than a Wave

Dan Jacobson: Irène Némirovsky’s War, 11 May 2006

Suite Française 
by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith.
Chatto, 403 pp., £16.99, March 2006, 0 7011 7896 5
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... In one of the ruminative, generalising passages interspersed among the domestic and public scenes in War and Peace (battles, a formal ball, the burning of Moscow and so forth), Tolstoy grapples with the question of what degree of free will a human being of any social class might be supposed to have. The paradoxical conclusion he comes to is that the higher the position an individual occupies in his society, the less free he is to act as he wishes ...

The Boer-Lover

Dan Jacobson, 16 February 1984

... Like all the older people among my mother’s family connections, M. was an immigrant to South Africa from Eastern Europe. He had arrived in the country as a boy and had grown up in Johannesburg. Unlike virtually every other Jewish immigrant, however, he had chosen to identify himself not with the urban, prosperous, relatively sophisticated English-speaking section of the population, but with the Boers, the Afrikaners ...


Dan Jacobson, 17 February 1983

... The house surgeon was a blonde, tender-skinned young woman, with irises of so pale a blue, set in such wide, weary whites, they looked almost grey. Her hair was drawn back, but wisps of it escaped at her temples and forehead, and formed a kind of soft, irregular frame for her face. It gave a certain pathos to the earnestness of her expression. Fatigue had flattened the skin against her cheekbones and left bruises under her eyes; her voice sounded effortful and distant ...
... The last time I had visited the Newtown Market in Johannesburg was during my final year at the local university. I went to the market as a member of a group collecting food for the families of African strikers; others in the party included a man who is now a professor of sociology at an English university (he was the one of us who had a motor-car), and a girl with a wonderfully clear, fine brow for whose sake I had become involved in the whole undertaking ...

Lawrence Festival

Dan Jacobson, 18 September 1980

... One of the functions that took place during the recent D. H. Lawrence Festival in Santa Fe was a procession to the shrine on the Lawrence ranch, outside Taos. A few hundred people must have taken part in the ceremony. After listening to a string quartet play Schubert everyone formed up in a line. A drum was beaten somewhere ahead, girls in white robes scattered flowers, and we all went zig-zagging up a path to the little concrete structure in which Lawrence’s ashes are reputedly incorporated ...


Dan Jacobson: King Leopold II, 1 April 1999

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Central Africa 
by Adam Hochschild.
Macmillan, 366 pp., £22.50, April 1999, 0 333 66126 5
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... Leopold II is best known as the founder and owner of the ill-famed Congo Free State. To most English-speaking readers his name evokes ‘Red Rubber’ and a world of plunder and atrocity: the Congo Reform Association which campaigned against his ruthless exploitation of the Free State has left behind it a notion of an aged, snow-bearded Satan who used black slavery to get money, and money to buy the favours of young girls ...

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