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).

Slowly, after many false starts, the young man and woman of this story were transformed into two ghostly children, a boy and a girl, brother and sister. They now belonged to the despised sect of the Christer (as I had decided to call them). The old man, Kobus by name, still a solitary, was a sceptic and yet a God-Fearer: i.e. a member of the majority group, who claimed to trace their system of beliefs back to what they called ‘the Yehudim of ancient times’. (The term ‘God-Fearer’ I had picked up from a newspaper report about a Baptist sect in the Southern United States which had suddenly decided to reject the notion of Christ as the Saviour and had promptly given themselves this new name. Or old name. The term is in fact taken from the intertestamental period, when it was used about outsiders who adopted certain Jewish beliefs and practices but did not seek formally to become converted to the faith.) The story was no longer contemporary; it was set instead, somewhere in Europe, in a past kept deliberately indeterminate. It now turned on persecution, guilt, betrayal and self-betrayal, and on innocence too: the innocence of the children, and of a girl Kobus had briefly hankered after and then turned his back on, in desperate circumstances, during his adolescence. By this time the story had revealed itself to be, at a remove, about the Holocaust, as I had always known it would.

Among other elements which appeared in it – those I am conscious of, at any rate – are memories of a childhood holiday near East London, South Africa; of two of the servants in my parents’ household in Kimberley; of a vivid, tormented dream I had had many years before; of a journey by car I had once made with my wife along the Rhine; of observations of my father and of my parents-in-law in extreme old age; of what I had felt when my youngest child had finally left home; and much else besides. Not to speak of the childish pleasure of inventing whole countries, histories, and systems of government, and of finding names for all of them.

It took me some time to decide, through the usual process of trial and error, whether the tale was to be written in the first or third person. The same process eventually settled the question of how long it was to be. Originally I had felt that a reconstruction of the entire history of Europe demanded that the novel be a long one. It was only after I had twice given it up in despair, and had let it lie untouched in a drawer for about eighteen months, that I decided to follow the urging of Macbeth. If it was to be done at all, then ’twere well it were done quickly. The extracts below are taken from the opening chapter.

Somewhere within his mind, as if at the very corners of his brain, Kobus had become aware of movements and shifts, changes of pressure, flurries, cracks, creaks, small but decisive liftings and sinkings, as of animals stirring, or of tiles or timbers settling. What made all these nudges and tamperings more disturbing to him was precisely the fact that they seemed to be taking place not only inside his head, but also outside him, in the very fabric of the house he lived in.

Everyone who lives in solitude knows the feeling that a. he is not alone; and b. whatever is keeping him company is determined for its own reasons to elude him. Or rather determined both to elude him and to let him know that it is there.

So it was with him, or with that which was now intruding on him. Just when he wasn’t looking, just when he wasn’t listening, when his attention was diverted – it was then that apprehensions of this kind came to him. Quite sharp and clear, they were; and yet for all his vigilance, they always took him by surprise; he was always too late to catch the exact moment when they occurred.

Something or someone had been watching him, and he had not known it was doing so until it was gone. A noise he had not been aware of was no longer audible; its cessation alone told him that he had missed it. Had not that door been closed when he had last looked at it? Surely that shutter or drape now hanging so still, so demurely still, had swelled forward and fallen back just a moment before. Hadn’t it?

That’s how it was.

Until, on an evening indistinguishable to his senses from any other, the source of the unease he had been feeling chose to make itself known.

There they were at last, made visible in front of him: the secret co-tenants of his living-space.

A more innocent spectacle it would have been difficult to imagine.

It was a puzzle to Kobus, later, that he should never have doubted for a moment the connection between his visitors and all the starts and stirrings that had gone before. It was as if, from deep within a turmoil of fear and dismay, he wanted to say, ‘Oh, so it was you all the time. Now I know.’

In the middle of the downstairs room, kneeling on the floor, their heads together, apparently engrossed in a game they were playing and which Kobus could not see, were two children, a boy and a girl. The girl was a year or two older, he would have guessed, than the boy. She must have been about nine years old. She was wearing a long, velvety dress, spotted with white flowers. The hem of it was spread copiously on the floor around her. The boy wore trousers and a sleeveless red jerkin; of wool, Kobus supposed. There was nothing misty or unclear about them. Kobus could see the freckles on the boy’s ingenuous, chubby face; he could see the tips of the girl’s little ears peeping through her hair, which hung down almost to her shoulders. She wore a small, white, close-fitting embroidered cap which was tied with ribbons beneath her chin; and her hair, which was straight and dark, seemed to spring out below the cap, as if to escape from the constraint of it. The boy’s head was bare.

Their lips moved, the kneeling boy sat back on his heels, gazing downwards, the girl crouched lower over the floor, and not a sound came from them. Neither of them took the slightest notice of Kobus. He stood in the doorway, transfixed, unable to speak or to advance on them, or even to shut his eyes and so hide them from his gaze, or himself from them. All he could do was to stare. And to feel his heart banging away, as if it hung inside some empty space much larger than his breast.

Later they were gone. He did not know how much later. He did not know where they went, or how they went. He simply discovered that they were no longer there. He could move again.

His first thought was to go to the window, to see if they had somehow emerged into the street. Half of it was in sunlight, half in shadow. The vacancy of early afternoon held it in thrall. There was a tabby cat on a doorstep. A woman came out from one of the houses down the road; her face and gait were familiar to Kobus though he did not know her name. The wooden tray in which the baker’s boy took around his wares every morning lay on the ground, with its heavy leather strap coiled on it.

This familiar scene was uncanny too: uncanny in its ordinariness, its ignorance of the encounter he had just been through.

Then Kobus said out aloud, ‘What’s the matter with you, you old fool? Why shouldn’t your grandchildren come to play here? Their mother must have left them. Little Braam and … what’s her name? … Thirza?’

But he heard in his own voice the falsity of what he was saying. Braam and Thirza, indeed! The children he had seen did not look like his recollection of Braam and Thirza. That he was certain of. Also that his grandchildren were older than these. And there was something else about them which was even stranger to him than their faces and figures.

Since when, he had to ask himself, did his grandchildren wear the clothes of the Christer – of the followers of Yeshua, Jesus, the Christus, the Natzerit, whatever they liked to call him? The one who had supposedly lived and died and lived again a thousand years before; or perhaps even more than that, for all bewildered Kobus could tell. The girl’s cap; the boy’ s bare head; his red sleeveless jerkin: these were unmistakable signs. So were their little boots. For some reason, sunk beyond recall in an immemorial tradition or superstition, only they, the Christer, wore boots with buttons down the side; the God-Fearers never did. In his childhood Kobus and his friends had believed devoutly that the Christers’ boots had to be buttoned in that style because of some quality peculiar to pig-leather.

Even then it surprised him that he should have remembered such a thing so clearly – the buttons, that is, and the childish tale about them – when he recollected how long it was since he had last actually seen any of the Christer in the flesh. When the Shalit Yotam had driven them away he had told the people that he was also driving away all their troubles. Famines, plagues, poverty, even their own stupidity.

The first sight of the children was inevitably etched with its own particular sharpness in Kobus’s mind. But the other visits they made eventually ran together indistinguishably. Having come once, the children came before him again and again. Soon they had come so many times it was impossible for him even to estimate how often he had seen them. There were single days when he found himself sharing moments of their lives on perhaps half-a-dozen separate occasions. There were also days, and days following on days, when he saw them not at all, and began to assume or to hope that they had gone for good.

They never behaved in a manner that was at all out of the ordinary – apart, of course, from the inexplicability of their very presence, of their mode of manifesting themselves and then vanishing. The apparent ordinariness of their demeanour was itself one of the strangest things about them. It might have been (to judge from the way they looked and acted) that they had just returned from a walk, or had just eaten a meal, or were waiting for their mother to finish a task before taking them out of the house. The gestures of the girl’s slender hands and the quiver of her lively brown eyes became familiar to Kobus; so did the boy’s slouching or dragging walk, which had worn down the outer sides of the heels of his wooden-soled boots. More than that: as in some ineluctable dream, Kobus felt that everything about them had always been familiar to him; he had an intimacy with them which it was impossible for him to explain. In the presence of the children there was no need to explain it: he simply knew them, and had always known them, and that was all.

Yet this too was a source of fear and bewilderment. From where did this conviction come? Where had he met them before? How was it that he knew the slender column of the girl’s upright, unlined neck, every pale curve and hollow of it; that he was sure he would recognise her voice if only she would speak to him; that her dresses and the stockings that went with them were to his eyes just as they should have been? And the red scratch that suddenly appeared on the back of the boy’s hand – that too was known to him. The next time he came Kobus looked for it; and yes, it was still there; only it had darkened slightly, as it had begun to heal.

Yet of him, their watcher, their knower, their host, they took not the slightest notice. They looked at him and beyond him; they walked towards him and through him; he saw them in front of him and turned to find them behind him. Never a word did they say to him. Then they were gone. He saw them wear expressions angry, playful, absorbed, thoughtful; they talked to each other (inaudibly), smiled (at he knew not what), held hands, gazed out of his window, looked (as uncomprehendingly as Elisabet herself) at the backs of the books on his shelves. Not a sound from them ever managed to reach his ears; and not a sound from his full breast and contracted throat and dry mouth apparently reached theirs.

So vivid they were, full-fleshed, space-occupying, light-blocking, at one instant; nothing at all the next. Each time they had gone, he remained staring at an emptiness which now contained not the faintest remembrance of their presence. No rug or pillow was disarranged, there was no scent in the air, nothing they might have touched was ever out of place.

A conversation.

Kobus: Elisabet, do you know if any of the Christer have come to live around here?

Elisabet: Ekh, pah, puh!

Kobus: Talk like a human being, for heaven’s sake! Answer my question! Have you seen any Christer people wandering about town lately?

Elisabet (turning her head aside and miming the act of spitting): God forbid.

Kobus: No? None at all? No children running about?

Elisabet (with another mimed gob floorwards, and an indescribable puckering of her face, intended to combine disgust with religious fervour): He will preserve us.

Kobus: Would you know what they look like? How they dress?

Elisabet: Once when we went to Kraaifels, we saw some of the Christer – whole families of them. My cousins in Kraaifels told me that when they pass you in the street you have to look at them like this (sliding her eyes into their muddy corners and lowering her head) or they’ll put a curse on you. Then you swell out here (pointing under her arms) and here (at her shrivelled groin) and afterwards you die.

Kobus: Really?

Elisabet: Master, everyone knows that.

Kobus: And everyone knows you’re a stupid old woman.

Elisabet: Oh, master! Why stupid? It’s not right to say such a thing to poor Elisabet …

Many years before, in his youth, Kobus had once read a Yavanit legend about a man who was pursued by hideous, stinking creatures called the Eumenides, or the Furies. They were ghosts from his past, tormentors of his conscience. He constantly fled in terror from them and they as constantly followed him. Then there came a day when he stopped running, acknowledged to others their presence in his life, and confessed to the crime that had impelled the Furies to follow him. Once this confession was made, lo and behold, the creatures transformed themselves into his helpers, his understanders; their name was changed too, and they became the Friendly Ones. They actually helped him (if Kobus’s recollection of the tale was correct) to start building a great new city, in which justice would reign.

Kobus would have hesitated on all sorts of grounds to compare himself with one of the ancient heroes of Yavan. And he would have hesitated even longer to compare his diminutive visitants with the terrifying, journeying creatures of the legend.

And yet …

What, he wondered, was the source of the power such stories had over us, if not in the chance they gave us to recognise ourselves in them, however feeble we might be, and however remote our lives might be in time and circumstances from the figures in the legends?

Yavan? Yavanit? Could that be right?

It hardly looked it. And what had been the hero’s name? And his crime?

All he could remember was that he had been a prince of some kind.

Night now. Kobus stands at the window. The walls and roofs out there, touched fleetingly with starlight, hooded in shadow, tell him nothing; the moonless sky likewise. Every now and again a gust of wind comes and heaves clumsily at the branches of trees which rise above the roofs of the houses nearby, the wind bumps against the corner of the house, tries to get a grip on it, fails, goes off in a huff. (Precisely.) Kobus asks himself why someone as ordinary as himself should have the distinction of being haunted conferred on him. He had never been anyone of consequence. Even in the ‘prime of life’, what had he been? No prince, certainly. Just another man with a wife and a few children (one had died in infancy, poor thing, a little girl named Mariamme); and a printing and bookbinding shop, employing a few journeymen and an apprentice or two; and a house on the outskirts of town, with a long expanse of grass and some orchard trees in front of it. What else had ever been special to him? A few unseemly, secret habits of an entirely trivial kind; and a friend or two; and an underlying sense of … futility, he supposed, or even of shame, at not having made more of himself.

In short, he had been like any other man of his age and condition in that futile little town, with its view to the east of hills with raggedly wooded summits and their lower slopes neatly combed into vineyards, and flat plains (farms, grazing cattle, scrub) stretching to the big river in the west. If you went north along the muddy roads you would find other towns just like Niedering, with plenty of people just like Kobus in them, until you came to the biggest of them, Klaggasdorf. It was there, in Klaggasdorf, a long time before, that he had served his apprenticeship under Hiram the Bookbinder.

So much for the grand vicissitudes of his life. Who was he, a person with such a history, to be haunted by ghosts special to him? Let him assume that those little creatures were not hallucinations but really were messengers of some kind, nothing less than divine breaths or possibilities composed of some unthinkable substance, coming from some unknowable realm, having less understanding, perhaps, of their own mission or of who it was that gazed on them than a newborn baby does of its parents; assume also that they took human shape – even with Christer clothes on! – only so that they could be seen by him; and then let him go about the business of explaining to them who he was and what he was and the nature of his inconsequential circumstances … Making clear, as he did so, that these circumstances, for all their triviality, had always been more important in his life than his character. (Or could that in itself be a definition of his character?) Then let him go on to ask them humbly, in a language he had no reason to suppose they understood, what it was that they wanted of him.