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 period in Israel, to London, where he embarks on an academic career. He has an affair with an expartriate South African girl, then meets and finally marries another, a girl whom he had known long before at home, and who has in the meantime made a disastrous marriage. Mr. Jacobson’s book has many virtues: its intelligence, its ability to convey the various facets of an intricate, assertive, and yet unstable community, its unflinching sense of history; above all, its power to show us—as opposed to simply telling us—something new about the world. It also has its faults, which are scarcely minor ones: In attempting a large-scale panorama it seems to me that Mr. Jacobson has gone beyond his literary resources; he shows signs of strain in handling such an abundance of characters, who are flung into the arena of the novel’s action before they are yet alive; there is too much random dramatization of peripheral events. Mr. Jacobson seems most at home with Joel, an archetype of the contemporary worried, ineffectual liberal, and whose private story runs counter to the larger concerns of the book; most of us know, or perhaps even are, Joel, and for this reason he is not the most interesting character on the scene. Yet this novel shows that Jacobson can write better, and about more, than most of his contemporaries in the English-speaking world.
IN TENANTS OF THE HOUSE, a second novel by the highly talented Heather Ross Miller, we turn from Mr. Jacobson’s large, untidy canvas to a collection of exquisite miniatures. Nevertheless, there are affinities between the two books: Both are centered on a particular community where the past weights heavily upon the present. Mrs. Miller’s first novel, The Edge of the Woods (1964), was a wonderfully intense and lyrical first-person narrative about a child growing up in a remote rural area of North Carolina; it was genuinely poetic, and without a trace of the obfuscations of Spanish moss and other growth that frequently cloud the style of Southern writers. In her new book Mrs. Miller moves away from the purely personal and focuses on a community: Johnsboro, a small unlovely town in North Carolina, dominated by an aluminum-smelting plant. The time is the Second World War, but within that present the Civil War is very much alive (it is remembered in reality by a nonagenarian Negro woman). Mrs. Miller’s book, which is very short, has no plot in the conventional sense, and not much story, but it does have a strong and tangible movement, a clear trajectory of feeling. The characters are poor and white, and their servants are black; the men work in the smelting plant, then go off to the war; some come back, others do not. One need not attempt more paraphrase than this, for paraphrase can convey nothing of the way in which Mrs. Miller writes. Like its predecessor, this novel is poetic as much in its fine economy of style as in its powers of evocation and expression. The whole novel does, in fact, resemble a poem, and a symbolist poem at that. Much of its distinction comes from the way in which the centripetal movement typical of symbolist fiction is countered by the outward pull of history and the actual world.
GALWAY KINNELL’S Black Light is also poetic, though in a more ordinary way. It is set in Persia, a real country of course, and every so often there are hints that Mr. Kinnell is writing about it as it currently exists, where the remains of an antique civilization have been invaded by the motor car and Pepsi-Cola. Yet the total impression is rather of “Persia,” that romantic never-never land, compounded of bits of Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam and vague memories of oriental art, that persists in the western imagination. To put it more simply: Although Mr. Kinnell may have been to Persia, most of his novel reads as if he hadn’t (though I am willing to be convinced that this is just what Persia is like). Black Light is a brief moral fable about a carpet-maker called Jamshid who one day murders a man—in an acte very nearly gratuite—who has insulted his daughter: He flees into the desert, where he has a number of adventures, then ends up in hiding in the brothel quarter of Teheran. Jamshid grows in spiritual stature as a result of all this, but I’m still uncertain what it was all about, or why, having been disinclined to put on my explicator’s mask and gloves. Let me simply say that the story is tautly and persuasively written, and that it reminded me at moments of Camus’s L’Etranger (or, more exactly, of my memories of that book).
MORAL FABLES would also loosely describe William Maxwell’s short stories; the author calls them “tales,” which is a better word, since these pieces have more in common with the world of legend and fairy tale than with the sophisticated art of the modern short story as it is generally practiced. Not that Mr. Maxwell is unmodern; many of his seemingly artless pieces effectively turn on the problem of identity and other hot contemporary issues: The total effect is of something midway between the Brothers Grimm and Kafka, with perhaps a touch of Zen. I found the whole collection odd, charming, repetitious, and with rather too calculated an air of uplift and inspiration.