Tenants of the House
The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales
It may be, as Henry James once remarked, a complex fate to be an American, but Mr. Jacobson’s new novel suggests that it’s a great deal more complex to be a South African Jew. The Beginners deals with the fortunes of the Glickmans, the descendents of Avrom Glickman who settled in South Africa at the end of the last century; his two sons Benjamin and Meyer prosper and become respected pillars of Johannesburg society. But this is not, happily, an extended family chronicle: After an initial anecdote about Avrom, Mr. Jacobson skips over the intervening years to 1945, when Joel, Benjamin’s eldest son, returns home from service with the South African Army in Italy. The middle section of The Beginners is the longest and, as it were, the fattest, where we are given a panoramic study of Johannesburg Jewish society in the 1940s and 50s, centered on the Glickmans and the Talmons, the family of Benjamin’s wife, Sarah. Outside the two families are the many friends of the Glickman children, and there are some vivid scenes of life at Witwatersrand University in the late Forties (when there was more freedom of expression in South Africa than there is today), where the rival ideologies of Zionism and Communism were ardently canvassed.
In its account of Jewish life, The Beginners offers an interesting contrast with the characteristic American Jewish novel; the Glickmans and their friends are all well off; they are generally assimilated into South African society, though many of them are keen Zionists. The Glickmans, and particularly Joel, who soon emerges as the novel’s most favored consciousness, are acutely aware of their divided loyalties: to South Africa, which in spite of its many disagreeable aspects, still appears as a country of enormous promise; to Israel, where Joel goes to work for a time on a kibbutz, and to which Benjamin retires at the end of his life; and, for the young and intellectual, to England, as the source of a world culture which offers an escape from the philistinism and provinciality of the official South African mind. And for the Jews there is an additional feeling of guilt about the fate of their relations left behind in Europe to face the Final Solution. Among the White South Africans the Jews are one element in a tripartite community which includes the Afrikaaners and the British South Africans as the other partners. Mr. Jacobson is brilliantly penetrating in his analysis of this strange society; there is a memorable account, for instance, of a group of poor, bohemian Afrikaaner students to which a young man of British stock attaches himself in a spirit of wilful cultural slumming. Underlying all these local tensions there is the vast, silent world of the black Africans, who play little part in Mr. Jacobson’s story, save as servants, but the implications of their presence are always felt.
Towards the end of the novel the interest narrows down as we follow Joel, after his …