About Dan Jacobson
An Interview with Dan Jacobson
More About Dan Jacobson
Dan Jacobson was born in South Africa. He is the author of novels, collections of short stories, critical works and volumes of travel-writing and autobiography, including the acclaimed Heshel’s Kingdom. His short stories, reviews and critical essays have appeared in a variety of journals in Britain and the United States. His books have won him several major literary prizes, including the John Llewellyn Rhys Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, the H. H. Wingate Award and the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography.
Dan Jacobson lives and writes in London. He retired a few years ago from a professorship in English Literature at University College London.
All for Love is based on a true story which Dan Jacobson read about in a biography on the monstrous King Leopold II of Belgium - he of the Congo massacres. Jacobson became interested in the King's younger daughter, Louise, who - though married to a Hapsburg prince and with two children - conducted an outrageous affair with a soldier who claimed to be a Croatian count. The improbable lovers ran away together, abandoning court, husband and children, defying the aged Emperor, and spending millions of pounds around Europe before being locked up in a prison and a madhouse on spurious charges. (And that's just for starters...) Jacobson found that both Louise and the Count wrote their memoirs in the 1920s - she in French, he in German. He tracked the books down in the British Library and read them. His resulting novel is a revelation, and utterly irresistible. We resolved to find out more.
All for Love is based on true-life events, its characters have been elevated from 'the footnotes of history'. What inspired you to mix fact and fiction? What's the challenge and where does the interest lie for you as an author?
All for Love is a novel about two indubitably real historical figures, Princess Louise of Belgium and Lieutenant Mattachich whose elopement from Vienna caused a great scandal at the end of the 19th century. Each of them subsequently published an account of their runaway love affair. Their aim was to justify themselves in their own eyes and everyone else's, and they did so by mixing truth and untruth in virtually every other sentence they wrote. My aim, as a novelist, was to weave my own fictional version of the story into and out of their supposed truths.
What relevance do you feel the novel has today? Is it as valid and as interesting a form as the non-fiction narrative?
Just a few days ago I guiltily confessed to The Scotsman on Sunday that novels have for some time been at the bottom of the heap, as far as my own choice of reading was concerned. Obviously this was not always the case and I don't expect it to remain so. But it might go some way to explaining why I so much enjoyed all the 'straight' acquisition of historical facts (about places, people and the period as a whole) that the writing of this novel demanded.
History is a pervading theme in your work, of central concern despite your registering its impenetrability, the impossibility of getting a true perspective on the past. In Heshel's Kingdom you confront the horror of the Holocaust and the past is described as 'a darkness that gives nothing back'. What inspired you to return to writing about history - albeit through fiction?
Our perspective on the past - our past as individuals, let alone on historical events - is always subject to change. Since we can never know what lies ahead, we can never tell how events in the future will compel us to re-think the past. Does this mean that all history is bunk, as Henry Ford said? Not at all. The past is always with us, and the wish to understand it, in whatever terms we are capable of doing so, is as natural as breathing. What's more, our sense of dismay and incredulity about certain terrible passages of history - like the Holocaust - is itself a kind of 'interpretation' of them: it is an admission of how deeply they affect our sense of everything that went before them and that has happened since.
Have your feelings towards history and the past changed? In All for Love your concern is with themes of time and memory, but there is a lightness and stylistic playfulness in your approach. You relish your freedom as omnipotent author, and in the novel's Afterword explain that 'the events drawn on have been condensed, extended, omitted, reordered in whatever ways seemed to me dramatically appropriate.' What gives you the confidence to play with the past and be so creative with history? What kind of truth do you feel you owe your readers?
All stories begin with the same childish urge: 'Let's pretend.' So I am delighted you've responded so strongly to the 'playfulness' of the novel. The writer's responsibility, ultimately, is to discover and to set free his imaginative energies. Having finally come upon the form that this novel should take - with its shuttling between recorded history and my own invention - I was exhilarated by the challenge of re-creating aspects of late 19th century Vienna - which had always fascinated me - as well as the various other settings the characters lived in or passed through. I also enjoyed temporarily becoming the leading characters: that is, entering as wholeheartedly as I could into the pain, pathos and unwitting comedy of the situations they created around themselves. As we do in dreams, in this way I learnt things about myself I would not otherwise have known. I hope that readers will find something of the same sort happening to them too.
In your book The Electronic Elephant you write about your travels along the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert, 'a barely inhabited region so close to where I lived and yet so dreamlike in its remoteness'. It's an area that 'had dropped completely out of everyone's awareness'. In All For Love you are once again writing about a 'foreign country' (the past), somewhere that has dropped off our radar. Is it a part of your job as writer to rescue these forgotten stories, these lost places?
Your questions seem to hint at the idea of writer as a kind of social worker, driven by a need to 'rescue forgotten stories, these lost places'. Forgotten stories and lost places do have a powerful appeal; of course, but what really fires a writer - this writer, anyway - is not a sense of duty to the past but the excitement that parts of it sometimes rouse.
In All for Love we learn how the story ends before it has started to unfold. The moment when the Princess and her lover first speak is described as 'fateful for them both'. What part does fate have to play in events? Do you regard fate as being a force in real life, or is it simply something written about in fiction?
Yes, I do believe that in all lives there are moments which are fateful - or can be seen retrospectively to have been fateful. One such moment certainly befell Mattachich when his eyes met Louise's in the Prater gardens in Vienna. But if Louise had made it plain to him that his attentions were unwelcome, or if she had gone over his head to complain about his behaviour to his military superiors - what then? Then the 'fate' that he went to so much trouble to bring about would have misfired; and he and Louise he would have lived different lives. I am sure, however, that he would have remained an ambitious trouble-seeker, and she a discontented married woman looking for distraction. But both of them would have had to cope with other people and quite other sets of consequences.
Connected to the idea of fate is the theme of romanticism. All for Love is a splendidly epic, scarcely believable true romance. But how much does romanticism rely on an author's act of fabrication, and on the readers' interpretation / imagination?
See the answer above. Both the lovers (and Maria Stoger too, their ultimate rescuer) believed in romantic love. So they acted accordingly when circumstances encouraged them to do so. Like novelists writing about fictional characters, we all go in for 'fabricating' our lives in terms of what we imagine ourselves to be. Which doesn't preclude us from sometimes surprising ourselves!
What's next for Dan Jacobson?
I have no idea. That is not a coy answer to the question, just the simple truth.
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