J.M. Coetzee: Diary of a Bad Year

This is the third book in a series that began with Elizabeth Costello and continued with Slow Man. These books are fundamentally about being a writer who has won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps Coetzee keeps writing them because some people haven’t yet figured out that his fictional characters’ opinions are not his own; perhaps, as a writer already drowning in consciousness of tradition and context, he feels that these are the only sorts of books he can now write. I tell people when they read these books: remember that Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize, and think about what that means to him and what it means to people’s opinions of him. In having this title thrust on him, he is no longer any old author, but a certain sort of elder statesman. And being the sort of writer he is, he cannot let that stand unquestioned. And since academics are still using the animal rights sections in Elizabeth Costello as though they were freestanding philosophical essays, Coetzee takes further steps in Diary of a Bad Year to make it clear that the “philosophy” in the book is hardly meant to be taken seriously as philosophy. Out goes Elizabeth Costello; in comes J.C., a Nobel Prize winning South African novelist now living in Australia, just like Coetzee, except dumber.

The structure of the novel, in brief: several voices, those of a writer, J.C.; his amanuensis and crush, a cosmopolitan Filipina named Anya; Anya’s financier/scammer husband Alan; and most of all, the writings of J.C. as typed up by Anya. The writings are divided into two sections, one called “Strong Opinions,” written for some sort of German literary publication, and later on, “Soft Opinions,” written for Anya. Since these sections co-exist on each page, the book resists reading in an easy rhythm, as any attempt to read the three sections in parallel, especially early on, results in continual jarring shifts as the highfaluting tone of the “Strong Opinions” is undercut by J.C.’s earnest and vaguely creepy obsession with Anya and Anya’s own sardonic detachment. In some ways it comes as a respite, as the “Strong Opinions”–on the War on Terror, on torture, on intelligent design, and on other urgent political issues of the day–quickly become unbearably pompous, banal, and irritating. They are filled with cliched homilies familiar to anyone who has read the New York Review of Books in the last seven years and dilettantish excursions into areas that J.C. knows nothing about. I winced when reading his “opinion” on Guantanamo Bay that begins:

Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo! A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and desperate…In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs.

Had I read these opinions in a Philip Roth or John Updike book, I would take them at face value and discount the author accordingly. But Coetzee is too smart, and any comparison of the “Strong Opinions” to his real opinions in his thoughtful, careful essays makes the difference blindingly apparent. (It does take something approaching guts for a Nobel Laureate to write something so profoundly trite and irritating and attribute it to his own ostensible fictional proxy.) As with many literary intellectuals, J.C.’s excursions into math and science are particularly stupid. By the time J.C. writes, “I continue to find evolution by random mutation and natural selection not just unconvincing but preposterous as an account of how complex organisms come into being” and invokes Heisenberg without knowing what uncertainty even is, it’s obvious that Coetzee has no wish even to defend thes opinions; he is making them transparently foolish so that readers examine the rhetoric rather than the opinions. Underneath the sanctimonious white male liberal pablum, including defenses of pornography, Adorno-esque cultural snobbery in indictments of rock music, latent sexism (captured especially well, complete with tired attack on Catherine MacKinnon), and sympathy with enemies of whom he knows nothing, there bleeds the personality that is revealed in J.C.’s internal voice lower on the page. With most would-be political commentators in the literati, it is not quite so obvious, but in J.C., Coetzee gives us tools for easily making the connection.

For it is Anya who carries the voice objecting to the “Strong Opinions.” Alan picks up this critique later in a less sympathetic fashion, but it is Anya who connects J.C.’s emotional life with what he writes on the page. I felt great relief to hear her articulate my thoughts (and no doubt those of many other readers) when she politely tells J.C.:

OK. This may sound brutal, but it isn’t meant that way. There is a tone–I don’t know the best word to describe it–a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone. Everything is cut and dried: I am the one with all the answers, here is how it is, don’t argue, it won’t get you anywhere. I know that isn’t how you are in real life, but that is how you come across, and it is not what you want. I wish you would cut it out. If you positively have to write about the world and how you see it, I wish you could find a better way.

So we lead to the real problem, which is J.C.’s impotence in the face of the current world horrors and the disastrous results of the obligation he feels to be relevant. As the book continues on and reveals J.C.’s ignorance of the world in several ways, Coetzee spares him little criticism, but does ultimately make a case for his real art in the form of the lovely, impressionistic “Soft Opinions,” short lyrical reflections in the last half of the book that mercifully replace the “Strong Opinions.” These vignettes are written with Anya in mind and with no attempt to be politically incisive. J.C. describes his dreams, his doubts, his age, his friends, and his passions, as antiquated and pedantic as they may be. Most of all, he makes no attempt to suppress the “I” out of the fear that he must pretend to be something he is not in order to address the world with urgency. There is some resignation in this shift, but also great relief; J.C.’s mask has fallen and he returns to himself. It puts him in correct proportion to the thoughtful but non-bookish Anya and her powerful but cowardly husband Alan, and the shift in tone allows him to have a visible, evident effect on Anya, one (it is implied) far greater than that of telling a bunch of would-be intellectual liberals what they already know and having them feel good about it because it’s coming from a Nobel Prize winner.

The affirmation ends in a paean to Dostoevsky. It is one of the most straightforward passages in any of Coetzee’s books, so heartfelt and elegant that it shames the “Strong Opinions” even further. Having achieved some rapprochement with Anya, J.C. stands in relation to Dostoevsky and his books and not to the world, leaving those connections to those more qualified to make them. And with this it becomes clear that those who will best appreciate these unpolitical, abstract thoughts are the ones who will read Diary of a Bad Year, and understand it, in the first place. William H. Gass came to a similar conclusion:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be done for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.

William H. Gass

The theme of the writer’s relation to the world has dominated Coetzee’s post-Disgrace work, and many critics seem downright annoyed that he hasn’t produced another easily digestible and Important book like Disgrace. It would be too easy for Coetzee to do so. The narrowing of his territory may be starting to produce diminishing returns–this book is not nearly as eerie and vertiginous as Elizabeth Costello, though it is more consequential than Slow Man–but the earnestness with which Coetzee crawls over it and avoids easy answers is exemplary.

7 thoughts on “J.M. Coetzee: Diary of a Bad Year

  1. Thanks for this review. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

    Wasn’t Elizabeth Costello published just prior to the announcement that he’d won the Nobel Prize? I think it was. In any event, it was close to it, which tells me that it’s not self-consciously the work of a Nobel-winner. But I think your general assessment of what he’s after in these books holds. I suspect that he was dissatisfied with the responses his books were getting. Or perhaps he was dissatisfied with the works themselves, and wanted to shake things up.

  2. Mr. Waggish, yours is thew first review I have read of the latest Coetzee book that seems to see through the “Strong Opinions”, which “…quickly become unbearably pompous, banal, and irritating…filled with cliched homilies familiar to anyone who has read the New York Review of Books in the last seven years and dilettantish excursions into areas that J.C. knows nothing about” And you have summed up perfectly my own reaction to the novel and the “Strong Opinions”. Every other review I have read seems to take the “Strong Opinions” at face value and to presume that they represent Coetzee’s own considered opinions on the issues the fictional “J.C.” writes about. It seems to me as if Coetzee were having a laugh at the critics’ expense, exposing their shallowness by knowing – as he must have – that so many of them would take J. C.‘s “Strong Opinions” as his own, laud them as supposedly brilliant, incisive, intellectually serious explorations of the state of the world, and treat them as if they were ordinary “essays” fit to stand alone outside the context of the novel.

  3. Richard: you may be right on the timeline, though I’d defend myself by saying it could just as easily be a response to the fawning reception of Disgrace. Coetzee has never been one to stay in one place for very long at all; in fact, these last three books are probably the most similar set of works he’s ever produced. He’s extremely well-versed and self-conscious (unlike J.C.!), so he never lets anything lie.

    Dennis: yeah, I would think that people would have picked up on the trick by now, but evidently famous authors do get tremendous latitude to produce half-assed opinions. I’m still puzzled as to Coetzee’s response to this. He does not seem like a trickster, nor someone who would enjoy a laugh at others’ expense, but he had to know that this would happen. It’s baffling.

    Coetzee’s own essays are incisive and meticulous; I think he’s one of the best literature critics around. He also happens to be rather well-versed in math and science, unlike J.C. So even those saying that the Strong Opinions are crap (and I’ve seen some who have) haven’t bothered to do their research.

  4. I love your posts/essays! I’ve read other J.M. Coetzee books (the one that comes to mind is “youth”) and seem to remember the feeling of that “tone” you mentioned/quoted above:“There is a tone—I don’t know the best word to describe it—a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone.”
    It’s been a few years since I read it though.

    Anyway, I enjoy your writing.

  5. I think you overstate the case against the ‘Strong Opinions’. Some of the pieces are genuinely illuminating: the piece on pain, on counting, and on the unintelligibility of quantitive comparisons of evil (from memory — I haven’t got the book to hand). My sense is that, as in Elizabeth Costello, what are often genuine insights are taken into an irrational key; they become obscene or unwieldy — properly whispered into a hole in the wall. I think Coetzee is genuinely interested in this movement of thought. I don’t think it would be interesting if the pieces were simply stupid.

    It is true that Coetzee has courage (homour too) in authoring views that collapse and gape in the ways you point out. But I agree with Ian Hacking (NYRB review of the Lives of Animals and Disgrace): I think Coetzee feels the force of all the voices in his thoroughly dialogical books — if not always the content, then the impulse to them. What would be pompous would be to play a metafictional game with the critics — to laugh when they didn’t catch on to his whole-sale disparagement of what they take to be his views. (At least, this can’t be all there is to it). — That is to put the emphasis differently I think.

  6. Nandi: yes, I am guilty of overstatement, but all in the service of illuminating the flaws that so many overlook! (But the counting essay really is rather bad.) Nonetheless, it is the tone over all else that indicts the Strong Opinions, and ultimately the book wants to investigate that tone rather than the facile content of the opinions.

    I don’t think he’s laughing, but I don’t think he’s writing for people who don’t pick up on the nuance either.

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