About ‘The God-Fearer’

Dan Jacobson discusses his forthcoming novel

It is always difficult to admit to oneself, let alone convey to others, the peculiar combinations of indolence and energy, chance and obsession, which go into the making of any piece of fiction. To say that inattention and vacancy of mind are as important to it as concentration and purposefulness sounds like a mere piece of mystification: but I fear it is the truth.

The story that eventually became The God-Fearer began for me at about two o’clock one morning. Unwillingly awake, I had found myself lying in bed, in a fashion familiar to us all, half-watching and half-participating in a random parade of words and images which wheeled, shuffled and slid interminably across my mind. Among these there suddenly appeared a phrase used by the French historian, Ernest Renan, in speaking about the history of the Jews during the early years of the Roman Empire. Somewhere I had once read an observation by him to the effect that those years had presented Judaism, then in one of its rare proselytising phases, with its great historical ‘chance’. It could have become the religion of the Empire, and thus the religion of the entire Western world – and beyond.

Where had I read this? I could not recall. Was there any sense to such a speculation? Not very much, it seemed. All the same, by the time I fell asleep I had decided that if Renan’s impossibility had come to pass, Judaism would probably have developed in directions as remote from the Jewish religion of today as contemporary Roman Catholicism, say, is from the earliest forms of Christianity. Such an imaginary, triumphant, imperial variety of Judaism would have remained monotheistic, of that I was sure: but nothing else could have been predicted about it.

Waking the next morning, I recalled at once where I had read that phrase of Renan’s. It had been in one of the volumes of Salo Baron’s A Social and Religious History of the Jews. At virtually the same moment I thought of how challenging it would be to try to write a story set in a Europe in which just this utterly implausible development had taken place. Since I had no plot in mind for the story, no people, and no notion of what this revised and reconstructed Europe would look like, the idea hardly looked like one I could pursue further. However, my curiosity was sufficiently aroused to send me, some time later, to Baron’s history; I wanted to make sure that my memory was not playing me false.

There the passage was, more or less as I had remembered it:

The world situation was propitious indeed. The spread of Hellenism had torn down many barriers separating peoples from one another and had corroded all traditional beliefs and modes of life … In these widespread currents, in which popular religious philosophies mingled with one another, Judaism found a great opportunity. It appealed strongly to generations in which the craving for the supernatural was coupled with a wish for a rational understanding of life, and dominated by a desire for moral rules which, while simple and easily grasped, were firmly rooted in the realm of the infinite … The inhabitants of the ever-growing metropolitan centres, in particular, the more readily succumbed to the Jewish example as their uprootedness from ancestral soils had rendered meaningless their old shrines and territorially bound forms of worship … Conversion of the royal house of Adiabene, the closest successor to the ancient Assyrian conquerors, was more than a symbol … [The Jews] could flatter themselves with the hope that soon this feat would be duplicated, and that Roman imperialism would likewise succumb to the spirit of Judah … This undeniably was the great ‘chance’ of the Jewish people, as Renan has suggested.

Reading this, something else occurred to me. If Judaism had seized the ‘chance’ Renan had belatedly espied for it, then in all likelihood Christianity would have remained what it was at the time he was speaking of: the religion of a feared and despised minority. And if the Christians had subsequently stuck as stubbornly to their beliefs as the actual, historical Jews were to stick to theirs? Would something like the tragedies that befell the Jews of Europe have been their lot too?

I confess that in asking these terrible, hypothetical questions I felt something like a kind of glee. The emotion was so unexpected and inappropriate that it served as a warning to me: if a story with such a background were ever to be written, it was likely to be a grim one indeed. However, the chances of my writing it did not seem to be any greater than before. Novels – even anti-novels, even fantastical novels – are written about people, actions, places, exchanges of words, moments of intensity: not out of ‘ideas’ as such. So there was nothing I could do but wait to see if this idea had the power to draw to itself materials – memories, images, notions, wishes, manias – which might initially have appeared to have nothing to do with it, or with each other. That is the truest test, I think, of whether or not any fictional possibility has a genuine life to it. In fact, the more disparate the elements which begin to find and speak to one another through the fiction, or in it, the more encouraged one is entitled to feel.

In this case, it was a short story I had several times tried and failed to write and then forgotten about which eventually, and crucially, came to my assistance. (Of its own volition, it seemed.) The story had originally been intended to be a contemporary, naturalistic tale about a solitary old man who comes back to his flat from hospital, after suffering a stroke, only to find the place occupied by two young people, a man and a woman, strangers to him (or so he believes), who take no notice of him whatever (or so he maintains).

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in