Janet TAY reviews J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading
J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading:
Literature in the Event
By Derek Attridge
(The University of Chicago Press, 2005, 240pp)
By JANET TAY
WHEN J.M. COETZEE was asked whether Lucy, a character from his Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace (1999) was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ bearing the sins of the Lord, he replied icily (according to an article in theage.com.au of March 3, 2004), “I have never thought of that. It seems just a little far-fetched to me,” and ceased the discussion there. The same article also stated that “Coetzee seems ill at ease with people, as if fearing he will be tricked into falseness by a casual remark or exchange” and is “reluctant to tolerate the overwrought meanings others might seek to find in his work.” With the hurdle of overcoming the apparent taciturnity of the author himself, undertaking an academic study of Coetzee’s novels may be seem to be an unaided and daunting prospect. At the same time, however, it appears that academics are then free to chart their own course in the exploration of Coetzee’s work. This is not to say that the lack of input by Coetzee necessarily invites the academic to wildly read something which is clearly not present in his work, and undoubtedly such a reading displaces the literal reading of the text and, according to Derek Attridge, would do damage to the work as a work of literature. On the contrary, Coetzee’s thriftiness in response to questions on his novels (which parallels his usage of words in his work) allows academics (and readers) to trek their own journeys towards the interpretation of his work, to find the answers within the literature and not from the author. Coetzee himself explains why he does not feel that it is vital for him to answer questions on his novels, in interviews from Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992): “Whatever the truth, I feel that questions of influence upon my novel-writing are not for me to answer: they entail a variety of self-awareness that does me no good as a storyteller, as a site where fantasy should not be hampered by unnecessary introversions and doubts” and “... what I am doing when I am writing a novel either isn’t me or is me in a deeper sense than the words I am now speaking are me.”
It is then most apt that Attridge, the author of The Singularity of Literature (2004)—the book that discusses the existence of literary work as a peculiar nexus within the culture that is perceived as resisting or exceeding all pre-existing general determinations—would also have written J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, an astute and comprehensive collection of essays on Coetzee’s novels from Dusklands (1974) to Elizabeth Costello (2003). Divided into seven chapters and an epilogue, each novel is studied by Attridge in chronological order with a specific theme but also connects with the overall question of the ethics and responsibilities of reading a text and nuances of the idea of reading the singularity of the text. A Professor of English and Head of Department at the University of York, Attridge’s contribution to the research of Coetzee’s works is a welcome addition to the study of one of the most widely taught yet equally elusive writers in the 20th century.
Attridge’s first chapter deals with the novels, Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country (1977). Entitled “Modernist Form and the Ethics of Otherness,” Attridge discusses the modernist technique used by Coetzee to not only illustrate brutality and exploitation in the themes of his novel but also the way in which “otherness is engaged, staged, distanced, embraced” and “the simultaneous exhibiting and doubting of the novelist’s authority.” The title of this chapter may well include the novels in his subsequent chapter on Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), both of which have protagonists that lack an affinity with the society in which they live. The theme of otherness is inseparable in Coetzee’s novels, perhaps, as is shown in Boyhood, due to his own feelings of being socially marginalised while growing up in South Africa. Attridge rightly perceives the thematic focus of Coetzee’s novels as “the solitary individual in a hostile human and physical environment.” Attridge also discusses the issue of the Other and Otherness in the chapters on Foe (1986) and Age of Iron (1990), crediting Coetzee for work which may not only self-question its status in the canon, but also give the Other its rightful place in literature—to provide an awareness of the existence of marginalisation and silences caused by political and social displacements.
Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters in Attridge’s book is the second, entitled “Against Allegory.” One might surmise that Coetzee would approve of this essay indeed. With the exception of Age of Iron and Disgrace, the enigmatic characters, lack of authorial presence and bare plots “all encourage the reader to look for meanings beyond the literal.” Although the interpretation of Coetzee’s novels can as a result point towards moral and political implications in South Africa, it is equally important for readers to have valued the experience for itself, not just because they reveal some truths about the world in general or South Africa. Attridge uses the example of Michael K’s harelip, which could just as easily be construed as an “allegorical indicator of the handicaps suffered by certain sectors of the South African population” or perhaps, just simply, part of what makes him who he is. Coetzee’s tendency to put his characters “in situations of peculiar intensity, stripped of the often distracting detail of historical reference” is not to be condemned, but accepted as a unique feature of the story or novel. The focus on primary engagement with the literary work shifts, Attridge says, as our critical tools become more sophisticated.
Confessional novels are also explored by Attridge in the postscript of his analysis of The Master of Petersburg (1994). Like Dostoevsky, Coetzee is fascinated with the idea of confession, hence much of his fiction present characters feel the need to confess their “thoughts, feelings and desires, however private and shameful.” Coetzee’s “confessions” are never simple or direct, what Derrida calls a “circumfession, an avoidance as well as an admission, a staging of confession as well as a confessing.” The idea of confession in Coetzee’s novels is discussed at length in the dedication of the sixth chapter, “Confessing in the Third Person” to this subject. Attridge reminds us that Coeztee has a tendency not have personal authorial presence in his novels and as such any hint of confession in his novels would undoubtedly arouse interest. To fill the gaps where Coetzee’s sentiments would be, Attridge frequently refers to his interviews with David Attwell in Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews where Coetzee’s responses are nonetheless neither simple nor direct, like the staged confessions in his novels: “... in a larger sense all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.”
From his discussion of confessions, Attridge segues to an analysis of autobiographies or ‘autrebiographies,’ a term coined appropriately for Coetzee’s novels Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), both narrated in the third person. In typical Coetzee fashion, the two novels reveal the lack of interest on the part of the author to either avoid responsibility, seek forgiveness or to show remorse—Boyhood “enacts the truth of confession, and writing as confession, without transgression, repentance, or absolution.” The book ends with an epilogue—an analysis of the last of Coetzee’s novels at the time of publication, Elizabeth Costello—on a protagonist of the same name who is often said to be Coetzee’s alter ego. And possibly like Coetzee, Costello opines that “as a writer of fiction, she cannot have beliefs; she has to be entirely open to those who speak through her,” once again depicting Coetzee’s reluctance in advocating any kind of authorial identity in his novels.
In the preface to his book, Attridge extols the virtues of Coetzee’s novels on their ability to “grip the reader in proceeding from sentence to sentence and from page to page” and also the way “they raise and illuminate questions of immense practical importance to all of us.” Attridge’s appreciation of Coetzee’s economical style is unmistakable, describing it as writing “which invites the reader to savor it, sentence by sentence, word by word, for its economy and efficiency; and although the style of each novel has its own unmistakable character, the reader receives the consistent impression in all of them that words have been chosen with extraordinary care.”
The book does serve as an introduction to Coetzee’s writing for those just starting to get acquainted with it and is a valuable resource for researchers and Coetzee enthusiasts alike. Each chapter explores the issues that are relevant to readers of literature, reminding us of the “responsibility to the other,” “trust and betrayal,” “creativity and artistic commitment,” “confession” and “truth to the self,” and although they are self-contained to discuss the specific texts, Attridge does constantly make allusions to other novels in Coetzee’s bibliography, making it an elliptical and holistic understanding of Coetzee’s work.
COETZEE J.M. [1940-] Novelist, literary critic; winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature. Born John Maxwell Coetzee in Cape Town, South Africa. Novels Summertime (2009); Diary of a Bad Year (2007: shortlisted for the 2008 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award/Christina Stead Prize for Fiction); Slow Man (2005: shortlisted for the 2006 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award/Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award); Elizabeth Costello (2003: winner of the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction; shortlisted for the 2004 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award/Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the 2004 Miles Franklin Literary Award); The Lives of Animals (2001); Disgrace (1999: winner of the 1999 Booker Prize for Fiction); The Master of Petersburg (1994: winner of The Irish Times International Fiction Prize for 1995); Age of Iron (1990); Foe (1986); Life & Times of Michael K (1983: winner of the 1983 Booker Prize for Fiction and the Prix Étranger Femina); Waiting for the Barbarians (1980: winner of the the CNA Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize); In the Heart of the Country (1977: winner of the CNA Prize); Dusklands (1974) Nonfiction Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (2007); Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 (2000); The Novel in Africa (1999); Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1996); Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992); White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988) Memoirs Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002); Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) Translation Landscape With Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands (trans. from the Dutch) (2004)
JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.