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Dan Jacobson on the story of stories

Dan Jacobson, 19 May 1988

The Short Story: Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen 
by John Bayley.
Harvester, 197 pp., £35, January 1988, 0 7108 0662 0
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... In a recent issue of Index on Censorship, Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright and essayist who has spent long periods in prison, tells the following tale: A friend of mine who is heavily asthmatic was sentenced, for political reasons, to several years in prison where he suffered a great deal because his cellmates smoked and he could scarcely breathe ...

Naked and glistening

Dan Jacobson, 3 April 1980

The Diamond Underworld 
by Fred Kamil.
Allen Lane, 244 pp., £6.50, November 1979, 0 7139 1086 0
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... There is an ‘Africa’ one revisits every time they show certain kinds of old movie on television: the Tarzan films, for example. It is a rather strange part of the world, inhabited for the most part by white men in jodhpurs and pith helmets, with revolvers strapped around their waists, who are followed about by hordes of half naked porters carrying bundles on their heads ...

Ars Brevis, Vita Longa

Dan Jacobson, 16 July 1981

The Oxford Book of Short Stories 
by V.S. Pritchett.
Oxford, 547 pp., £9.50, June 1981, 0 19 214116 3
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The Short Story in English 
by Walter Allen.
Oxford, 413 pp., £9.50, February 1981, 0 19 812666 2
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... Poetic intensity, concentration upon a single incident or event – these seem to be the defining characteristics of the short story for both V.S. Pritchett, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories, and Walter Allen, in his critical survey, The Short Story in English. ‘The short story,’ writes Allen, is ‘rooted in a single incident or perception’; its effect ‘is nearer to that of lyric poetry than the novel ...


Dan Jacobson, 10 December 1987

... Dear God, What is the purpose of it all? Why do you make such contradictory demands of us? Why do you punish us for doing what you compel us to do? Why have you put us here, in this labyrinthine place, with all its manifold temptations and opportunities for error, its blind alleys and paths to pain, which we are bound sooner or later to follow? Nothing could be clearer than the taste of fresh water in our mouths, or more direct than the light that strikes at our eyes from so many angles; why then should your ways and motives and the expectations you ultimately have of us be left in such obscurity? I know, I know, there are those among us who say that the mystery I complain about is itself a central part of the scheme you have painstakingly worked out on our behalf ...


Dan Jacobson, 15 September 1983

Final Judgment: My Life as a Soviet Defence Lawyer 
by Dina Kaminskaya, translated by Michael Glenny.
Harvill, 364 pp., £12.95, August 1983, 0 00 262811 2
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by Petro Grigorenko, translated by Thomas Whitney.
Harvill, 462 pp., £15, April 1983, 0 00 272276 3
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Notes of a Revolutionary 
by Andrei Amalrik.
Weidenfeld, 343 pp., £12.50, July 1983, 0 297 77905 2
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... Three autobiographical books by three Soviet dissidents who are as unlike one another in character, background and way of life as it is possible to be. The first of the authors is a solemn, Jewish lady-lawyer; the second an irascible Red Army general; the third (until his death recently in a car crash) was a contumacious bohemian of vagrant habits and wide-ranging intellectual interests ...

Probably, Perhaps

Dan Jacobson: Wilhelm von Habsburg, 14 August 2008

The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe 
by Timothy Snyder.
Bodley Head, 344 pp., £20, June 2008, 978 0 224 08152 8
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... Readers with a taste for misfortune and ineffectiveness are more likely than others to enjoy this extended study of Wilhelm von Habsburg, the eponymous ‘Red Prince’. To begin with, Habsburg though he undoubtedly was, and an archduke to boot, Wilhelm hardly cut much of a figure among those closest to the throne occupied by Karl, the wartime successor to the aged Franz Josef and the last of the emperors to rule over Austria ...

Möbius Strip

Dan Jacobson, 3 December 1981

K: A Biography of Kafka 
by Ronald Hayman.
Weidenfeld, 349 pp., £16.50, October 1981, 0 297 77996 6
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Stories 1904-1924 
by Franz Kafka, translated by J.A. Underwood.
Macdonald, 271 pp., £7.50, November 1981, 9780354046398
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... The Möbius strip is well-known to topologists and to those fond of performing simple party tricks. By twisting a strip of paper through 180° before pasting its ends together, you can produce a hollow shape with only one surface and one edge. To convince the onlookers that the shape has only one side, you can start drawing a line down the middle of it at any point and continue the line without lifting the pencil from the paper, until you return to your starting-point ...

What the Boers looked like

Dan Jacobson, 3 October 1985

To the Bitter End: A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899-1902 
by Emanoel Lee.
Viking, 226 pp., £12.95, September 1985, 0 670 80143 7
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... Now that Dr Lee has produced a pictorial history of the Anglo-Boer War, one wonders why no one had thought of doing so before. This, of course, is how we are always inclined to greet an unusually good idea. The text accompanying the photographs informs us that the war coincided almost precisely with the birth of photography as a popular hobby. Hostilities between Britain and the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State broke out just two years after George Eastman of Rochester, New York, had produced the Folding Pocket Kodak, the first camera to use ‘cartridge film ...

The Secret of Bishop’s Stortford

Dan Jacobson, 22 November 1979

... It was not a pilgrimage that took us to Bishop’s Stortford, but simply a search for lunch. Once in the little town, however, we were reminded of what we had known and then forgotten: that it was the birthplace of Cecil John Rhodes. Moreover, we were told that the house in which Rhodes was born had been turned into a museum. Since my wife had been born in Rhodesia, and I had grown up in Kimberley, we felt we had no choice in the matter: we had to go and visit it ...

Lawrence and the Mince-Pies

Dan Jacobson, 25 October 1979

The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol I: September 1901 – May 1913 
edited by James Boulton.
Cambridge, 579 pp., £15
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... In 1932,​ Aldous Huxley published The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, a large brown volume, printed in a curiously elaborate type, which has no doubt become something of a special item in booksellers’ catalogues. It contained 889 pages. Exactly 30 years later Harry T. Moore edited The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence. This consisted of two volumes totalling 1,307 pages ...

Venus de Silo by

Dan Jacobson, 7 February 1980

The Right Stuff 
by Tom Wolfe.
Cape, 436 pp., £6.95, November 1980, 0 224 01443 9
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... There are several reasons why it is possible, or perhaps even desirable, to disapprove of Tom Wolfe’s writing. It is sometimes verbose; occasionally it is too pleased with its own effects; it is bespattered with arch capital letters and exclamation-marks, in a manner that reminds one of Winnie the Pooh; despite the last comparison, its cadences and vocabulary are deplorably un-English ...

Ei kan nog vlieg

Dan Jacobson: Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiw!, 2 January 2003

Way Up Way Out 
by Harold Strachan.
David Philip, 176 pp., £6.99, July 2002, 0 86486 355 1
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... Almost five years ago the Cape Town publishing company David Philip brought out Way Up Way Out, a novel by Harold Strachan. Some time later I was sent a copy of the book by a friend of Strachan’s in KwaZulu-Natal, where the author himself has lived much of his life. His name on the cover meant nothing to me – though if I had been more quick-witted I might have connected it to his second trial and period of imprisonment during the apartheid years ...

Angela and Son

Dan Jacobson, 2 August 1984

Inside Outsider: The Life and Times of Colin MacInnes 
by Tony Gould.
Chatto, 261 pp., £12.50, September 1983, 0 7011 2678 7
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... The most interesting parts of the lives of writers often enough take place before they become writers. In Colin MacInnes’s case, one might say that some of the most interesting parts of his life took place before he was born. He was the great-grandchild of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones, and was thus connected with both the Kipling and the Baldwin families; he was the grandson of an Oxford Professor of Poetry (of no great distinction, it must be admitted); and the son of Angela Thirkell, the novelist of upper-class English life, and James Campbell McInnes, a man of working-class origins who became the foremost British lieder-singer of his generation ...

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 ...

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 ...

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