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New Penguin Modern Classic: The Keep by Jillian Becker

The Keep“Jillian Becker’s first novel is quite different from anything that has appeared in the category of South African fiction in English.”
– Lionel Abrahams (1968)

“It takes a bad climate to produce a good literature. It was too hot, too bright, too wide a world this for the doings of people to seem worth recording.”

But here, well worth the superb record, on the cusp of World War Two, is the family saga of the Leytons of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, with their delinquent adolescent son Simon and their moody daughter, the aspirant writer Josephine.

A swingeing satire, it is perfectly focused on their cross purposes, dreamy ideals and brutal realities, with even a guest appearance by George Bernard Shaw.

“The general tension between imaginative and literary poise can only be the work of a striking talent.”
– Stephen Wall in The Observer (1967)

About the author

Jillian Becker was born in Johannesburg in 1932. Her father was Bernard Friedman, who became a founder of the Progressive Party and a biographer of Jan Smuts; her mother, Florence Louie Friedman, was the noted versifier, translator and one of the publishers of Silver Leaf Books (which published Nadine Gordimer’s first collection of short stories).

Becker became known as one of the Johannesburg group of writers, including Rose Rappoport Moss, Barney Simon and Rose Zwi, who contributed, from the mid-1960s, to the literary review The Purple Renoster (edited by Lionel Abrahams). She has written many short stories, one of which, “The Stench”, won a Pushcart Prize in the USA.

With two of her three daughters, she left for London in 1960, where she began work on what would become The Keep and its successor, The Union. The Keep was first published by Chatto & Windus in 1967, and created a press furore that caused the South African Publications Control Board to embargo it. The Union appeared in 1971 unscathed, but her next work, a short novel called The Virgins, was banned in 1976.

In 1977 she published her factual account of the West German Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang, Hitler’s Children, which sold over a million copies in various languages. Her most recent works are Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath (2002) and L: A Novel History (2005). She currently lives in Palo Alto, California.

The National English Literary Museum (NELM) in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, houses a substantial Jillian Becker Collection of her life and works. Included is an early typescript of the work which would become The Keep: entitled Viviary, it carries the following definition in its preliminary pages: “An enclosure, often of glass, specially adapted or prepared for the keeping of animals under their normal conditions, either as objects of interest or for purposes of scientific study”.

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