Sunday, January 06, 2008

Janet TAY looks at the works of J.M. Coetzee

Real life on a page

The latest book by Nobel and Booker Prize winner J.M. Coetzee fascinates and confounds with an experimental style that is difficult to access but that rewards a little effort.

Review by JANET TAY

I DISCOVERED J.M. Coetzee at a book warehouse sale a few years ago. Vaguely remembering him as “that South African Nobel Prize winner” (for literature in 2003), I picked up In the Heart of the Country (1977) mainly because of the RM9 price tag. Then the book sat forgotten in my unread pile until I grabbed it before I left for the airport one day—and ended up being totally mesmerised.

I’d discovered Coetzee rather late, considering his first book, Dusklands, had been published in 1974. But after that day at the airport, I went on a determined search and have since read most of his novels. My favourites, in order of preference, are the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace (1999), Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Life and Times of Michael K (which also won the Booker Prize in 1983).

I have a particular fondness for Disgrace, which is about a university lecturer who, disgraced after his seduction of a student is discovered, goes to live down the furore on his daughter’s farm and experiences life-changing events.

I would also highly recommend Waiting for the Barbarians; by setting this story in an imaginary, nameless Empire, Coetzee approaches South Africa’s racial issues from a fresh perspective and offers a vivid allegory of what it is to live with oppression. I have often thought that Waiting for the Barbarians should have won the Booker Prize instead of Life and Times of Michael K, but then, these things are often a matter of timing.

I found his last book, Slow Man (2005), a little disappointing. It starts promisingly enough with the familiar, concise Coetzee narrative, this time about a solitary man who is incapacitated after a biking accident and falls in love with his carer. Unfortunately, into the middle of this narrative saunters the character Elizabeth Costello, who is the protagonist of Coetzee’s previous book, Elizabeth Costello (2003) and who is often said to be Coetzee’s alter ego. She traipses incongruously through Slow Man and muddles what I thought could have otherwise been an effective story.

Coetzee, a professor of English literature, has always been bold in experimenting with style; while this might not always make for fun reading, it proffers a wealth of material for literary study and research! And, if you make the effort, food for thought for the lay lover of fiction, too.

Imagine, for instance, a novel in which each page is divided into three parts:

The top third of each page contains the intellectual pondering of a 72-year-old protagonist who remains mostly nameless and undefined—we know only that he is Australian, his initials are J.C. and that his first name might be Juan. J.C. writes about current affairs, philosophy, music, politics, a wide range of subjects, that form the manuscript of his forthcoming book entitled Strong Opinions.

In the middle of each page are J.C.’s emotive outpourings, mainly private thoughts about Anya, a young woman with whom he is infatuated.

And at the bottom are Anya’s thoughts and her view of conversations with J.C. and her boyfriend, Alan.

As J.C. trudges through what he feels are his last years, he finds solace in Anya and convinces her to help him type his manuscript in a bid to become closer to her. Meanwhile, Anya develops some feelings for J.C. while Alan, an investment consultant, walks a tightrope between cold logic and morality.

This is Coetzee’s latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year (2007).

Sir Howard Davies, chair of the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, called Diary of a Bad Year a “strange construct” that does not “come off as a novel” and claimed that it was “treated with exaggerated deference by many reviewers, perhaps most notably in The Times Literary Supplement.”

I cannot deny that it’s tempting to laud every book Coetzee writes because of the esteem in which I hold his previous novels. When you find an author that you like, who truly touches you with universal truths, you cannot help but be biased. Is Davies’s comment fair, then? I think it’s too much of a sweeping statement to be a well-informed judgment on Diary of a Bad Year (and just as unsubstantial as the debate on whether Ian McEwan’s shortlisted 2007 book, On Chesil Beach, is too short to be a novel).

But it’s not a surprising statement. Coetzee himself may have anticipated such negative reactions and attempted a response when he has Anya ask J.C., “Why do you write this stuff? Why don’t you write another novel instead? Isn’t that what you are good at, novels?” J.C. replies tellingly, “A novel? No. I don’t have the endurance any more. To write a novel you have to be like Atlas, holding up a whole world on your shoulders and supporting it there for months and years while its affairs work themselves out. It is too much for me as I am today.”

Derek Attridge (who teaches at York University’s Department of English and Related Literature in Britain) says in his book, J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, that Coeztee is fascinated with the idea of confession but his confessions are never simple or direct; they are what French philosopher Jacques Derrida calls a “circumfession, an avoidance as well as an admission, a staging of confession as well as a confessing.”

Coeztee’s tendency not to impose an authorial presence often arouses interest the moment there is any hint of confession in his novels that implies he is sharing his own thoughts. Perhaps this is why Coetzee famously dislikes interviews or questions about his novels—he probably figures that his answers are there to be found if you look hard enough at his work and require no further elaboration.

This is precisely what draws me to Coetzee’s latest novel, which I feel is a “confessional” one of sorts. To love his work, you must know the man, or what little you can know of him through his earlier novels and his “autrebiographies.”

It may seem a little distracting at first to read three seemingly separate narratives on each page, but these narratives do converge, albeit in a very subtle manner. One could argue that in real life, facts, fiction, figures and images are thrown at us in no particular order or form, yet we accept these interactions naturally and make sense of them. Why then should a novel be criticised for imitating life this closely or for not sticking to a safe, conventional and easily accessible form?

I’ll admit that Diary of a Bad Year is no Disgrace or Barbarians, or even a Michael K. But it is another fascinating novel that contains the philosophical and emotional insights of a sensitive intellect. And, poignantly, it has a melancholic tone of finality, as if the novel were a farewell performance.

However, I’d be disappointed if Diary of a Bad Year turns out to be Coeztee’s last novel for it does not possess the balance and the significance that should sum up such an illustrious literary career. The perfect coda, I think, still remains within him.

Review first published in The Sunday Star, January 6, 2008


Anonymous Nigel Beale said...

Thanks for the review Janet. I found the observations about confession particularly interesting, in light of Harold Pinter's Nobel prize acceptance direct and passionate as Coetzee's was indirect and staged.

Interesting how Coetzee's novels are becoming more cerebral...less viceral and experiential. I agree with your ranking of his works...although I'd add two at the top of the list...Youth and In the Heart of the Country. Both put the reader into lives of loneliness with such fidelity that memories of them are as powerful as those from ones own life.

Sunday, January 06, 2008 8:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Janet said...

Hi Nigel,

Thanks for your comments. I only realised that I'd left out his memoirs when I read the review in the papers! I really enjoyed Boyhood and Youth as well so I was sort of kicking myself afterwards for having left them out. As I said in the review, In the Heart of the Country was the first book by Coetzee that I'd read--it was an excellent book, "too" vivid I feel because the scenes were rather disturbing but I suppose my omission of it was more because of the subject matter rather than the quality of writing.

Sunday, January 06, 2008 9:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, specially for me as I have discovered Coetzee only two days back. Well, I always knew about him as being the only author to win Booker twice, but somehow never happened to read anything by him.

In one of my regular trips to the bookshop, I started browsing any and every book published by Vintage and reading the description at the back. And at the same time I could not resist picking up not one but two of his novels: "The Master of Petersburg" and "Youth".

Have already finished the earlier and will start Youth tonight. I am only amazed why I never picked him up before. In the Master... he has constructed Dostoevsky with amazing clarity and authenticity. I am only imagine how much work it must have involved! More than anything, the fact that one can write so confidently and succinctly about a character so transparently based on like a legend like Dostoevsky amazed me. I have never understood what criteria do the jury for the Booker or the Noble look for. But after reading this book I only know that the Noble came a little late. I cannot wait to read more of him!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008 5:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Coetzee's completely overrated and Howard Davis is correct.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008 4:30:00 PM  

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