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J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

We have been here before, albeit in different forms. Almost without exception, Coetzee’s work from Elizabeth Costello on has been concerned with the role of authors and authorship, not only of fiction but of memoirs and essays. He has repeatedly presented fictional characters giving speeches, opinions, or recollections that have repeatedly been confused as the opinions of the real Coetzee. Richard Crary’s piece on Diary of a Bad Year is one of the best attempts to read these polemics and opinions with respect to their fictional context, but most critics seem to still be taking Coetzee’s books at face value.

Summertime is in many ways the culmination of this project of Coetzee’s, and the most explicit depiction of the ambiguities and metafictional techniques he is using. It also makes clear that the series extends back before Elizabeth Costello to the two “memoirs” preceding it. In light of that, there is an apparent progression (links are to my earlier reviews):

  1. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997): Third-person “memoir” of a child with history similar to Coetzee’s, filed as “Coetzee biography” by the Library of Congress.
  2. Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002): Third-person “memoir” of a young adult with history similar to Coetzee’s, not classified as any sort of biography.
  3. Elizabeth Costello (2003): Fictional writer Costello presents opinions that share some similarity to what is known of Coetzee (e.g., both are vegetarians).
  4. Slow Man (2005): Costello invades life of injured photographer Paul Rayment, who shares some characteristics with Coetzee (e.g., biker, Australian resident). Costello claims she is his author.
  5. Diary of a Bad Year (2007): Coetzee doppelganger “J.C.” writes many political opinions while involved in a soap operaish plot with his amanuensis.
  6. Summertime (2009): Biographer interviews five people for a book he is writing about the recently deceased John Coetzee, who has written all the books of the real Coetzee up until his death.

[I am withholding judgment on whether Disgrace (1999) fits into this sequence. It is problematic. I will say that I prefer Summertime to it, evidently putting me into a small minority, though I suspect that many, many others will enjoy Summertime more, as I did.]

Coetzee does not append any description to the first two books (my US copy of Boyhood has “A Memoir” on the cover but nowhere else, so I am not taking it as canon), while he explicitly declares the subsequent books to be “Fiction.” The first hint of something wrong occurs in Youth, which omits all mention of the real Coetzee’s marriage during the time it covers. From there on, no double for Coetzee appears until Diary, but the host of variations from the real Coetzee (different birth year, never married, no children) made the distinction apparent. Likewise in Summertime: unmarried, childless. There is little to suggest that any of the people in Summertime are real or, in the case of his family, that they correlate to their real-life counterparts.

So the Coetzee of Summertime matches up with J.C. in Bad Year, and his childhood bears some resemblance to that described in the first two “memoirs,” but with small, notable differences, the most obvious being that cousin Agnes in Youth has become Margot in Summertime, though both have the Coetzee-surrogate falling in love with her as a child. Coetzee would never make such a name-change spuriously, and so I must assume that there is no strict continuity here between the Coetzee surrogate across books.

Here the distinctions are even more explicit, as during the 1970s, the fictional Coetzee is unmarried and has several love affairs recounted by the interviewees. And he’s now dead. So at once we have the most evident coincidence with Coetzee’s public life with the greatest variation from his private life. Call him “Bizarro Coetzee.” And we have five people talking about this Bizarro Coetzee to our unnamed biographer, bookended by oblique fragments from Bizarro Coetzee’s notebooks that date (mostly, at least) from the 1970s (though annotated by Bizarro Coetzee at some later date). The opening fragments are in the possession of the biographer, as he references them; the ending fragments, possibly not.

The biographer is looking for the man behind the books. None of the five people are particularly interested in how the Bizarro Coetzee (from here on out, just “Coetzee”) they knew relates to his books, and they express varying degrees of irritation at what they perceive to be the irrelevance of the biographer’s intentions. Each of them has their own agenda:

  1. Julia: A rather self-centered and self-willed free spirit who cheated on her husband with the hapless and dispassionate Coetzee in the early 70s when she was still a naive housewife, and since then has thought little of Coetzee (in both senses of the word).
  2. Margot: The aforementioned cousin who had a very close relationship with Coetzee while growing up, maybe enough to call love.
  3. Adriana: A Brazilian immigrant and dance instructor whose daughter was taught by Coetzee in high school the mid-70s. Coetzee falls in love with her and does not let go. Awkwardness ensues. Adriana detests him.
  4. Martin: A supercilious and trite colleague of Coetzee’s from his university teaching days.
  5. Sophie: An archetypal self-righteous postcolonial academic who co-taught and had a brief affair with Coetzee at the university and thinks him not radical enough.

With the exception of Margot, none of the subjects come off particularly well (there are hints that some of them, especially Adriana, are not telling the whole truth), but neither does Coetzee, who is ridiculed by them as a bore, a nerd, a pervert, and a prig at various times. Yet the most ridiculous figure in all of the sections is the biographer himself (for it must be a man). He is manipulative and ignorant. He gets simple facts about South African history wrong, misquotes Beckett, puts words into the mouths of his interviewees, and is indifferent to anything outside of the quarry he is chasing. That quarry is the romantic image he has of Coetzee as a solitary pedant more interested in books than in people. It is not that there is no truth to this image or that it is not compelling, but it is a wild distortion, and the biographer is rather bad at his job.

The keystone is the section with Coetzee’s cousin Margot, which is not a straight interview, but a transcript of the biographer reading his draft back to Margot with Margot’s interruptions. Margot’s reaction is one of horror as she hears what the biographer has embellished, invented, and distorted of what she told him earlier; it’s no wonder she wants to go back over it again at the end of the transcript. And the draft itself is the most sustained piece of intentionally bad writing Coetzee has ever done. His account of Margot’s story is filled with cliched eroticism (see page 137 for a cringeworthy example), purple passages clumsily reaching to the sublime, and tacky interpolations of native Afrikaans words to give a sense of local color. For example, this passage about Margot and her lover:

Skat: an endearment she disliked until the day she heard it from his lips. Now, when he whispers the word, she melts. This man’s treasure, into which he may dip whenever it pleases him.

They lie in each other’s arms. The bed creaks, but she could not care less, they are at home, they can make the bed creak as much as they like.

Excruciating. Other cheap biographical tropes are present by the dozen, and by the end the biographer has replaced the selfish, would-be bohemian Julia as the most loathsome character in the book. The link between the two is their single-minded exploitation of others. Julia uses Coetzee in her story of finding herself just as cravenly as the biographer is using his subjects to “find” the Coetzee he already has decided exists.

There are some recurrent themes, however, the dominant one of Coetzee being ill at ease and repressed around most everyone. Julia is too narcissistic to link this repression to Apartheid, while Sophie is too eager to do so, but the fictional Coetzee is no doubt as uncomfortable revealing himself as our real Coetzee appears to be in writing these books, though obviously for different reasons (only one is a famous writer who has won the Nobel prize). And he does show himself in his solitary studies: Schubert, Plato, the Hottentot language. In the unreliable words of the biographer, he claims to have learned Hottentot to “speak with the dead. Who otherwise are cast out into everlasting silence.” This is, of course, exactly what the biographer is not doing; the voices of the living, including his own, drown out those of the dead throughout the book.

So we are left only with the notebooks at the beginning and end. They do not bolster the biographer’s image of Coetzee. They show engagement: with history, with politics, with his family and particularly his father. (These are subjects the biographer has mostly avoided in favor of more tawdry gossip and neat conclusions.) Coetzee in the notebooks is far more aware than the interviewees have depicted him, though no less tentative. The last entry is an agonizing depiction of Coetzee’s father and his cancerous illness, and it ends with a question mark, a moment of decision that cuts off before the decision is made. Since this notebook is still buried in layers of fictionality, there is no truth as to what happened next, only a fragment. The way I read it, Coetzee speaks to the living as one might try to speak to the dead, or perhaps to an alien species: assuming nothing, drawing no unwarranted conclusions.

(And even in the notebooks, the elisions and distortions are obvious, particularly in the latter notebooks, where the high-minded prose sits uneasily next to the meek and clumsy Coetzee of the interviews, and the events recounted by the subjects are only alluded to.)

This is not a charitable interpretation, for the whole book has shown the pitfalls of his way, and he deserves no credit for an approach that seems to have been instilled in him long before he had a choice in the matter. But the mixture of raw (albeit untrustworthy) emotion with delicate confusion and indeterminacy has an accumulating impact, as you’re challenged to pull the tatters of Real Life from the mess of disingenuous versions proffered by the book’s characters, you fail to do so, and you are left with a shifting moire of relationships and human weaknesses that resists authentication. And yet there is great feeling in this ambiguous moire, even if it can’t be determined how valid or real any of it is. Unlike so much of Coetzee’s controlled work, Summertime exudes passion and warmth even when the characters themselves do not. It is his sunniest book, as though the layers of uncertainty have set free an expressive emotive power that would have been too manipulative to use in his earlier fiction.

The worth of Summertime is in portraying that moire of partial voices without the typically clinical, scientific condescension that accompanies it in, for instance, the myriad works of relativism and anti-foundationalism that wave away all certainties with a flourish and discount any meaning to them. Instead there is great feeling, albeit feeling which must be questioned and which is neither definitely true nor definitely false. Summertime leaves the door open.

Jean Eustache: Mes petites amoureuses

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny-rabbits or at the hearthside absorbed in a storybook. It is a vision of childhood utterly alien to him. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.

J.M. Coetzee, Boyhood

There have been many movies portraying various childhood hells with different degrees of sentimentality and relief, but I can’t think of one that competes with Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses in portraying childhood as so sheerly joyless, so gray and unappealing. The world is not as brutal to Daniel, its young teen protagonist, as it is to anyone in a Dardenne film or Francois in Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance Nue, nor is Daniel a delinquent on the order of Francois. But nor does Daniel experience much of the momentary fun that those characters get. So the movie is of a piece with Eustache’s earlier work, The Mother and the Whore, in its portrayal of the denial of pleasure in what for most people might be called the pursuit of happiness. Not torment, just jadedness.

Daniel leaves the countryside to move in with his mother and her rather lame lover. They treat him with indifference and contempt, though not quite outright abuse. He hangs out with locals, eventually learns how to pick up girls, gets a lousy job at a bike shop where he watches his employer rip off the customers. He provides suitably numbed voiceovers to some of his experiences, flatly detailing his feelings (“I was scared”). In contrast to Jean-Pierre Leaud’s charisma in The Mother and the Whore, the actor playing Daniel is reticent and a bit stiff; you can’t really get close to him, not that anyone in the movie ever tries. His most animated moments are when he is learning to pretend, as when simulating a circus sword-swallower’s act by lying on (carefully placed) broken glass, or when he is feeling up a girl in the movie theater by dutifully imitating a boy a few rows down.

There is one exceptional moment, and I don’t know whether to call it a slip on Eustache’s part or the final nail in the coffin of Daniel’s dreams. Daniel speaks to the only student he knows, in one single close-up, in his only extended monologue in the whole movie:

DANIEL: I read a book about this guy’s high school years. He said his French professor really made him sick when he lectured about passion in the works of Racine and Corneille. He said the same things year after year. Finally the words had no sense, no heart. That professor had no business talking about passion. He knew the plays inside-out, but he’d never lived them. Whereas the student felt he would live those passions later on…. Any opinion?

STUDENT: That you run off at the mouth. Coming to the cafe?

And that’s that. He goes off with some boys to make out with girls and gives up on school. When a girl says she can’t sleep with a boy until they get married, he thinks, “It seemed to me I’d heard it all, that I knew the whole thing by heart.” Eustache committed suicide seven years after this film.

Faulkner’s Light in August and Coetzee’s Disgrace

Light in August is Faulkner’s longest book and certainly the most plainspoken of the early works, even more so than As I Lay Dying. I don’t think of Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness techniques as being integral to his work in the way that experimental prose stylings are to Joyce or even Woolf, for they are always in the service of a a story–perhaps scrambled–that takes its expression in various ways. I see and feel less purely linguistic focus, and contrariwise, overwhelmingly strong thematic content that subordinates style and plot to its boundaries. That is to say, Faulkner is concertedly experimental in the same way that Melville is.

So because Light in August is about mostly sane and often simple people, it is very rare for any character save Joe Christmas to slip into Quentin Compson-ish mental chaos. Joe is rather crazy, and so his demons mix their words up:

thinking I dont even know that what they are saying to her is something that men do not say to a passing child believing I do not know yet that in the instant of sleep the eyelid closing prisons within the eye’s self her face demure, pensive; tragic, sad, and young; waiting, colored with all the vague and formless magic of young desire. That already there is something for love to feed upon: that sleeping I know now why I struck refraining that negro girl three years ago and that she must know it too and be proud, with waiting and pride

And for all this talk of Joe as Christ, it’s not particularly convincing. He continually runs away from himself and others. When he meets Joanna, who was brought up by abolitionists to feel damned by being white, he runs from her attempts to draw him into her own play of guilt and fatalism, but he fails and in turn rapes, lives with, and finally kills her.

Reading this again, I made a connection that I had never made before to Coetzee’s Disgrace. I often disagree with James Wood, but I think he was right in criticizing the novel for its historically overdetermined allegory:

Lucy’s “disgrace,” of course, is not one that she earned or deserved; but in pairing the two forms of penitence, the novel comes unpleasantly close to suggesting a formal parallel of disgrace, in which both characters enact “necessary” falls.

This is a significant weakness, and it returns us to Coetzee’s limitations, which are the limitations of allegory. Disgrace is so firmly plotted and shaped, so clearly blocked out, that it seems to request a kind of clarity of reading which is ultimately simplifying and harmful to the novel, in which “issues” are shared out between the generations, and split into willing binarisms: young and old, liberal and conservative, man and woman, straight and gay. Around this, the novel’s architecture attempts to fuse these binarisms, by arguing for a kind of parallelism. It as if the form of the book tells us that despite the oppositions of Lucy and her father, both characters share more than they divide, for here are two people undergoing their different-but-similar forms of disgrace.

And Lucy seems awfully close to Faulkner’s Joanna; she too takes the brunt of punishment directed at her historically and not personally, and Lucy too goes further in raising the child from her own rape.

Where I think Faulkner is stronger and does not fall into Coetzee’s hole is that he negates this inevitability, not with Lena’s child at the end, but with Joe himself, who is not black nor white, but takes on various identities over the course of the book at others’ insistence, only to be crushed by them over and over. The conclusive indication of this blank slateness is towards the end, before Joe is caught and lynched:

It is just dawn, daylight: that gray and lonely suspension filled with the peaceful and tentative waking of birds. The air, inbreathed, is like spring water. He breathes deep and slow, feeling with each breath himself diffuse in the neutral grayness, becoming one with loneliness and quiet that has never known fury or despair. ‘That was all I wanted,’ he thinks, in a quiet and slow amazement. ‘That was all, for thirty years. That didn’t seem to be a whole lot to ask in thirty years.’

Note: (1) the emphasis on “neutral grayness” and its non-racial implications; (2) organized thoughts presented as words rather than as italicized stream of consciousness; (3) the continuous emphasis of calm and peace, of nature in the absence of society; (4) the absence of any inner conflicting force. Joe’s demons are externally given by dint of situation, and in the brief moment that he feels left alone by all people and society, he gains peace. This is not to say that it is Joanna herself that assigns him his identity, but that Joanna is sewn in a determinate way into the social fabric in the way that Joe is not. People argue over whether Joe has “Negro blood” in him or not, but the whole point is that it doesn’t matter. Joe is put into situations where he purportedly does and doesn’t have it and it’s always for the worse. And the investigation of Joe’s situation and its indeterminacy (if I were being trendy, I would call it an aporia) is where Faulkner transcends Coetzee’s novel.

[I would say the same for Ralph Ellison, who extends this uncertainty into far greater territory in Invisible Man.]

Coetzee on Beckett

This isn’t really connected to the review below, other than that it came from my desire to read some intelligent opinions of Coetzee’s own, which sent me back to his excellent collection Doubling the Point, the only place I know where Coetzee drops the veil to speak personally about himself as himself.

Beckett’s later short fictions have never really held my attention. They are, quite literally, disembodied. Molloy was still a very embodied work. Beckett’s first after-death book was The Unnameable. But the after-death voice there still has body, and in that sense was only halfway to what he must have been feeling his way toward. The late pieces speak in post-mortem voices. I am not there yet. I am still interested in how the voice moves the body, moves in the body.

Coetzee’s loss of interest in Beckett is only slightly behind mine (for me it is after How It Is). But where Coetzee sees a loss of body, I see a loss of narrative. It makes me wonder: does Beckett’s post-60’s work lose the same thing that can be referred to in two ways, as narrative or as body? I’m surprised that Coetzee didn’t include How It Is as an embodied work, because it appears to me to be his ultimate embodied work, the entire book centering around two bodily movements of Pim and the smaller movements in the mud of the narrator. (On the other hand, The Unnameable is embodied, though static, precisely in its perceptible distance from any sort of mobile body.) When body gives way to pure words or images, Beckett loses some ability to have something happen, and so is left with half a voice speaking.

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.

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