Tag Archives: J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee reads from ‘Summertime’

J.M. Coetzee, novelist, reads from his novel, Summertime, which I haven’t read yet, but this excerpt would do a good job of encouraging me to do so.

http://podbay.fm/show/284527588/e/1250049600

Advertisements

William H. Gass’ ‘The Tunnel’ and the Sad Man Monologue

William H. Gass’ novel The Tunnel strikes me, in one way, by its similarity to a particular kind of fiction written by a particular kind of novelist of a particular age and gender, a sub-genre I call ‘The Sad Man Monologue.’ This form was, I would argue, pioneered by Samuel Beckett in his Trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt and L’innomable, though I am open to being corrected on that, (damienrants at https://iscriptorblog.wordpress.com/ suggests Goethe, Heinrich Von Kleist and Fyodor Dostoevsky as plausible pre-modernist progenitors) and is practiced nowadays by the aforementioned Gass, occasionally by Paul Auster and exclusively by John Banville.

Below are some key features of the genre, for your perusal and edification:

The narrator is a middle-aged man – This is a fairly consistent feature of the genre, as these texts generally depict the narrator as writing the account as we read it, hopping back and forth in time, from a bathetic present to a Kodak-distant youth in which feelings were felt intensely. The neither/nor in-between space of middle age is crucial for bringing together the pathos of departed days with the anxiety of a more proximate death.

The writing is of an extremely heightened sort – More so, I think than any other invented sub-genre today, the authors of sad man monologues embroider with densely worded baroqueries. The reason behind this linguistically charged and seductive register is that the sad men are, generally speaking, shits, and often unrepentant shits at that, probably necessitating its glossy surfaces and (sometimes) exquisite proliferation of sub-clauses.

The narrator complains about the unattractiveness of their spouse – A bugbear I have as regards this genre is that each sad man finds time, ample time in fact, to denigrate the attractiveness of their wife and log their resentment over how little gratifying sex they get. I find it so bizarre that in the works of these writers, time and time again, half the novel is devoted to the fundamental pain of the human condition, epistemological, phenomenological uncertainty, the unreliability of memory, the indignity of having an infinite intellect yoked to a decaying body, yet the narrator still finds time to harp on his petty domestics chauvinistically, as if this had some sort of universal significance. This annoys me because 1) I suspect the narrator is no spring chicken, 2) I have no idea what they expect, holing themselves away authoring the story of their life and being so angst ridden all the time, 3) it comes across like a male author getting a dig in at their wife.

The narrator is an erudite and studious sort, well up on contemporary thought – These novels are shot through with flirtations of references to The Jacques. This is fun, but wears quickly, especially when one reads Gass, who makes the effort to traduce this theoretical terminology into his own inimitably mad register, then returns to these other authors, who make use of phrases like ‘unconscious,’ ‘meaninglessness,’ ‘fracture,’ or god help us, that familiar clattering of the undergraduate, ‘signifier.’

Scanning my bookshelves for a gender counterpoint, the sad woman monologue, (again, examples please), I come away with J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Both bring productive knottiness into the formulae above, Enright’s Veronica moves back before her own birth, introducing impossible pre-natal perspectives, just as Coetzee’s Magda, allows others to speak their own pieces in dialogue, committing a cardinal sin against the genre. This is complicated by the fact that both narrators inflect what they see or narrate to suit their own interests; their supposed capacity to deal in heteroglossia in fact points towards a more insidious variant of monomania.

The Gathering is class. Read The Gathering.

Augustus Young’s ‘Light Years’ and the anti-bildungsroman

I’ve already written about the sub-genre of bildungsroman, but just as there are antiromana, capricious responses to the bristling and audacious baggy monsters, there will be anti­bildungsromana. Categories, as they always are in order for the endless conversation about literature to continue, are difficult and the lines that separate one from the other are fraught.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is fraught with indeterminacy, we can be fairly sure we’re not meant to take this Dedalus all that seriously, but are we right to dismiss him totally when his life seems to mirror that of Joyce’s? Could we rightly envision him growing up into becoming the kind of writer who was capable of writing Ulysses?

As such, we already have a complicating factor in one of the foundational examples of the genre, Portrait is both for and against the emergence of self through the muddy waters of abstract thought and the wholemeal bread of life experience; the mechanisms are deployed in conjunction and opposition with one another.

I have already mentioned that J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood’s tendency is more oppositional than not, Coetzee’s flight from the experience of life, choosing hermetic seclusion, repudiating the bildung aspect is firstly, the kind of choice that befits his chilly aesthetic and secondly, probably more realistic, bearing in mind the amount of solitude that is required to commit a novel to paper. Augustus Young’s work Light Years could also be viewed as existing in this contrarian tradition.

Young emigrates from his native Cork to London, to begin pursuing his career as a poet, an avant-garde, modernist one no less. This, predictably enough, is more difficult than he thought. Young’s nationality, coupled with the sometimes obscure nature of his poetry, makes him prone to being pigeon-holed; his readers seem prone to detecting a Celtic note, much to Young’s chagrin, anticipating some of the vitriol in Storytime, a memoir detailing Young’s touring with Light Years.

Growing tired of this and the disappointments that arise from carousing with literary narcissists, motivates Young’s exile from exile and to declare his utilitarian manifesto for his life: “I see myself as a socially useful human being but with a harmless secret. When I die some poems will be discovered. If any are good enough, they will survive. If not, so be it.” This is not only a long way off Dedalus’ plan to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” it is its exact opposite.

Contributing further to this sense of Young’s writing against the bildungsroman tradition, is in its structure, which begins with a number of childhood and adolescent memories, continues with the adolescent flight from home and then, in its third section, enacts a regression back into childhood and early adolescence, almost as if the embracing of ‘life’ in London repels the book on a structural level, forcing it to move backwards into its earlier stages.

This third part is a short memoir of Young’s childhood. Siblings, parents, childhood friends and ancestral memory, handed down in the form of anecdotes and oral history loom large, much in keeping with Young’s attitude to memory and the genre in which he writes in general (“Memories aren’t true. But you can be true to them”). It equally expresses Young’s wish to be ‘useful,’ immersed in the idiosyncrasies of lived lives, rather than a shallow and solipsistic urban bohemia.

J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Boyhood’ and the childhood bildungsroman

The bildungsroman is straightforward enough to define, despite the intimidating length of the word itself. In fact, I’d hazard to estimate that a substantial chunk of the novelistic canon of the twentieth century probably falls into the category. The bildungsroman translates literally from the German to ‘novel of formation/education/culture,’ and as such generally narrates a sequence of key events in the life of the narrator, specifically those that turn out to be foundational in shaping the kind of self-consciousness that a writer of literary art seems to require. There are some works which chart this development of an artistic consciousness from the perspective of the author as a child and J.M. Coetzee’s fictionalised memoir Boyhood is one such example.

While it is not a novel, William Wordsworth’s epic poem The Prelude is definitely of this ilk. It describes how the young Wordsworth came to appreciate the revealed religion in nature and how it shaped his awareness of the world around him. One thinks of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s stance on child rearing, i.e. allowing them to run free in nature, rollicking through fields, smelling the daisies, what-have-you and begins to feel a bit uneasy about this iambic tract extolling the virtues of natural freedom, given what an atrocious job Coleridge did in raising his son, Hartley Coleridge.

From our contemporary perspective, it can seem as though twentieth-century examples of the genre are less extravagantly irresponsible and more realistic to boot. This is possibly due to the rise of the Viennese School which, whatever one’s opinion on its more outlying ideas, at least began to make mainstream some elementary form of developmental psychology and stressed the importance of the child’s inner world.

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time may be the archetypal bildungsroman, if only for the monumental task that reading it represents for most people, the edition that I own runs to some 3500 pages. This is not said in order to attenuate our sense of Proust’s achievement; he succeeded in marking the genre indelibly and it is rare that one finds the memoirs of an artist that is not conducted relative to Proust’s foundations. The young Marcel is an acutely sensitive young man, the vividness of his impressions of the world, the intensity of his attachment to those who populate it and the pull that art exerts on him from a young age is difficult to shake once one has put down The Way by Swann’s, the first part of this sprawling six volume arc.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a far more withdrawn work, a tone that suits Joyce’s languorous and easy irony. It depends on a deceptively straightforward system of symbolic patterning, anchored in Catholic iconography which in equal measure oppresses and enlivens Stephen Dedalus’ (a Joyce analogue) creativity. There’s no quote that can demonstrate this process taking place in its totality, but I really like this one from the first chapter: “The Vances lived in number seven. They had a different father and mother. They were Eileen’s father and mother. When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:

—O, Stephen will apologise.

Dante said:

—O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.—

Pull out his eyes,

Apologise,

Apologise,

Pull out his eyes.

Apologise,

Pull out his eyes,

Pull out his eyes,

Apologise.”

J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood is in a similar tradition of childhood memoir, but with a key difference. As he was born in South Africa, racial politics are to the fore and as such, violence is never far from the domestic space. The brutal oppression of the land and its native people spills over into the young, unnamed boy’s awareness and from his perspective, his family is a stage of primal anger and barely suppressed, unrefined and unarticulated feelings. In one scene, the boy memorably compares himself to a spider, one of the most abject of creatures, but fittingly, one that is often seen in the home: “Always, it seems, there is something that goes wrong. Whatever he wants, whatever he likes, has sooner or later to be turned into a secret. He begins to think of himself as one of those spiders that live in a hole in the ground with a trapdoor. Always the spider has to be scuttling back into its hole, closing the trapdoor behind it, shutting out the world, hiding.” It is one of the only instances in the genre of bildungsroman where seclusion, a self-imposed exile from experience is represented as beneficial to the subject. It is an image that befits the development of a consciousness as cerebral and distant as Coetzee’s.

J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ and one-word titles

When discussing J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, one should probably start with its title. As you may have already noticed, it is one word long. It is striking in the promise that it implicitly makes in exploring the nature of the abstract concept of disgrace in itself. Reading the novel for the second time I was keen to figure out exactly what it is that Coetzee is saying about disgrace, more on that later, but is also set me off on the collecting of one-word abstract titles.

When I first learned about the novel as an undergrad, it was mostly through Ian Watt’s interesting but flawed study, The Rise of the Novel. For Watt, the novel was the first form that took account of the specific nature of the world. Social milieux, individualism and consumerism were the driving forces behind the emergence of the genre; abstraction was not within its repertoire. This is what makes the grand statements that underpin these one-word titles so captivating, it takes what is supposedly the most modern literary genre while pledging a return to medieval morality plays, when ‘human nature’ was not something we placed in quotation marks.

My bookshelves were as good a place to start in pursuit of this genre-within-a-genre as anywhere else and as such I submit the few that I have that do qualify, some that don’t and the few that are marginal or limit cases.

Yes

Martin Amis’ novel Success is one such example, but in terms of its exploration of the theme is sets for itself I’m uncertain how successful it is. It details two brothers, one of whom is more successful than the other in sexual, financial terms. At roughly the halfway point, the less successful, ‘nicer’ brother begins to overtake the other, only for the reader to find that the initially more successful brother’s success may have been a meta-fictional game all along. Success is moderately diverting as a narrative, but makes no grand statements in the way that one might wish. I own a copy of his novel Money and I’m hoping that it turns out to be more successful in that regard.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is not strictly a novel, but from the parts that I have read (thin ice), it arguably anticipates the methodology of the maximalist novelists, such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace with its encyclopaedic knowledge of classical myth and the scope of its ambition. Since Ovid’s subject matter is change, it stands to reason (and also idle speculation, I suppose), that he is articulating a vision of a world based primarily in change. That said, this figuration of Ovid as a poet who is aware of the mutability of all things is a very modern understanding.

Another example is Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, a deft and fun examination of how our supposed free society offers more in the way of paralysis and frustration than fulfilment. His more recently published novel Purity, presumably qualifies too, but I haven’t read it yet. So.

I’m reliably informed that Milan Kundera’s Ignorance counts too, aswell as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. William S. Burroughs’ Junky may well also, it all depends on whether or not Burroughs acts the social diagnostician in it and says something in the way of all people being, in some way, junkies. Michel de Houellebecq’s Submission also springs to mind.

No

As fun as it would be to discuss in this regard, Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey don’t qualify, simply because of the presence of the definite article, bringing their total word counts to two and two respectively. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, John McGahern’s The Barracks and many, many others don’t qualify for the same reason.

Paul Auster’s Invisible doesn’t count, the title is a bit too specific, but if it was called Invisibility, it could have, seeing as much of it is concerned with the general flightiness of the phenomenal world and the fundamental unknowability of all human beings, how their inner lives are rendered invisible to us.

The less said about John Williams’ Stoner and Philip Roth’s Everyman the better, they were two novels that I had been looking forward to reading for a long time and as such read them back-to-back. They turned out to be so disappointing I tapped out in the last fifty to seventy pages. That was a bad week. However, Roth deserves an honourable mention for engaging in the kind of thematising that these titles should encourage; the title is pilfered from a morality play about exactly these same kind of Big Questions about The Human Condition. However, it provides interesting takes of none of these and depicts instead the life of a highly successful businessman who realises that he should have stayed with his first, gently aged but of course still quite attractive wife Phoebe, rather than the supermodel that he ended up with. In both we’re supposed to be gently swept along in the unearned melancholic nostalgia and believe that they hold some kind of significance for the ‘everyman.’ Bilge.

Will Self’s Umbrella and Emma Donoghue’s Room are unfortunately not included for their quite literal object titles. Though one could no doubt mount an argument to the contrary James Joyce’s Dubliners, Ulysses must be disallowed also, again because of specificity.

War and Peace is a near miss, Tolstoy should have chosen one or the other.

Maybe/Haven’t Read Yet

I haven’t read A.S. Byatt’s doorstopper Possession yet, so I am unsure whether is qualifies. If the novel says Something Important about how the human mind can be overtaken or become obsessed with something outside of itself, it might well do. Updates when they become available. Ditto John Banville’s Athena (though I’m dubious, if the novel is concerned with any of the things that the goddess Athena supposedly embodies, wisdom, courage, etc, it could get through on a technicality), Paul Auster’s Leviathan and John McGahern’s Memoir (if it deals with the nature of Memoiring, yes, if it’s an Irish misery narrative, no).

So what does Coetzee’s novel say about the nature of disgrace? Even after two readings, I’m not quite sure. Reading the book always makes me look up the defintion of disgrace and internally flit between the book and The Compact OED. A disgrace is the disfavour of one in a powerful and an exalted position, “with the withdrawal of honour…which accompanies it.” Archaic definitions also involve deformities, this will be important later.

The novel depicts David Lurie, a lecturer in romantic poetry in a South African university. He begins an affair with one of his students and when this is found out, he becomes a shamed public figure. Lurie refuses the mandatory media narrative of public apology, contrition and rehabilitation and maintains that he was only being true to himself. His stubborn commitment Nietzschean ethics ultimately loses him his job and he retreats to his daughter’s farm.

While Lurie is staying at the smallholding, helping out with various menial tasks, the farm is attacked. Lucy is raped and Lurie is disfigured. To Lurie’s horror, Lucy keeps her farm, intends to keep the child that she has conceived and marry Petrus, a man who is implicated in the attack. Lucy explains that she intends to live this life ‘with no cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity,’ and Lurie’s gloss on her decision is as follows: “Like a dog.” “Yes,” she replies. “Like a dog.”

One can see why it is difficult to know what to make of this, when the only recourse against the trials that life submits one to is to abandon one’s dignity altogether. Lurie casting himself as a Byronic hero, as a “servant of eros” is unconvincing at best, self-indulgent at worst, a lecturer on poetry hopped up on his own iambs, ignoring the very real power relations present in his affair with his student Melanie. It is also his luxury to do so, and to plead the cause of his own individuality. In order to Lucy to continue to eke out an existence on her farm, she has no other choice.

Lurie’s own rationalisation is that: “It was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.” We must submit ourselves, Coetzee seems to be saying, if not strictly to disgrace and hopefully, not to what Lucy undergoes, but to the ways in which life humbles us. what life humbles us with. It’s not a consolation, but anyone who’s read the ending will know that isn’t what this book is for.

J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Diary of a Bad Year,’ and the professionalisation of literature

It’s never been strictly easy to make a living solely through income generated through the smithing of words, but to judge from the increase in New Statesman and Guardian articles about how the average income for a writer today runs somewhere between £10,000 – £12,000 per annum it would seem as though this is somehow a new phenomenon. While these figures are some £4000 above the median wage made world-wide, it is certainly not a large amount of money. Economic figures in the tens of billions are so frequently deemed newsworthy that we are positively jaded by quantities. Even if we are not more economically literate as a result, we are more conscious of the salary sizes that the voguish professions are capable of pulling down.

‘Grub Street’ got its name from those literary hopefuls who turned to hack work in order to not starve to death and literary prizes, laureateships, while doing more for the publishing industry than the writers themselves, exist at least partially in order to boost the often quite meagre incomes of the worthy sentence architects. Even poets aren’t immune, T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk and Wallace Stevens held a job as an accountant his entire life.

One safety net that deserves mention in this context is the one provided by English departments in universities. One would think that teaching hours in American colleges are more filled by ex-pat Irish writers than not, reflecting the amounts of money these venerable institutions have to throw around, even in a milieu when the humanities are valued less and less. These posts provide writers with the kind of leisured existence, exposure to ideas that they need to create great art. Long may the practice continue.

This has all been well documented, alongside the consequent rise of the genre known as the university novel, definitions of which need not detain us here, its name probably being explanation enough. J.M. Coetzee attended university in the sixties, a time of activism and social change of which he was a part. He was in fact unsuccessful in attaining permanent residence in the United States due to his involvement with protests against the Vietnam War. This was, admittedly, before the culture wars of the seventies, when deconstruction and French literary criticism in general were still scandalising Anglophone university departments, but it nevertheless reflects a point in time when political readings of texts were increasingly to the fore and previously held assumptions about things such as the canon of great literary works were subject to interrogation, due to it being composed mostly of books by white men about white men for the consumption of white men. Coetzee’s engagement with this politicisation of literary artworks can perhaps be seen in his characterisation in his 2007 novel Diary of a Bad Year.

What is most notable about the text is its playing of meta-fictional games. At the outset of the novel, each page is divided into two parts. The first section is a sequence of brief essays around particular talking points, such as the free market, neoliberalism and the so-called ‘war on terror,’ an essay supposedly written by one of the narrators of the novel, Señor C. The second section is narrated by Señor C in a more spontaneous, less academic style and details his rather bland personal life. Most importantly, his interactions with a young woman named Anya. This being a Coetzee novel, I had expected a relationship between a young woman and an older man to occur at some point. The difference here, Anya is provided with a space to articulate herself and on page twenty-six, becomes the narrator of the third section.

I was initially annoyed by Anya, or Coetzee’s representation of Anya. Her narrative voice is Molly Bloom-esque, in that she is very invested in her own physicality and her words are interspersed with onomatopoeic tics and joyful anti-intellectualism rather than the pared-back, quite un-joyful sentences that one expects from Coetzee: “I picked it up from the ducks, I think: a shake of the tail so quick it is almost a shiver. Quick-quack. Why should we be too high and mighty to learn from ducks?” I wondered how Coetzee could be so tone-deaf in committing to writing such a transparent and shallow female character.

Ultimately however, Anya defies our expectations. I was anticipating that her resistance to Señor C’s learning and intellectualism would eventually fall by the wayside and that she would leave her chauvinistic mansplaining Australian boyfriend to be with Señor C. Fortuantely, she does not. Instead, she makes a choice on her own terms and gets the last, and arguably best, words in the text (excluding the parodic academic notes at the end):

“I will fly to Sydney. I will do that. I will hold his hand. I can’t go with you, I will say to him, it is against our rules. I can’t go with you but what I will do is hold your hand as far as the gate. At the gate you can let go and give me a smile to show you are a brave boy and get on the boat or whatever it is you have to do. As far as the gate I will hold your hand, I would be proud to do that.”

Although, now I’m reading back over this section, it doesn’t seem to be as much of a turn-around as I recalled. The idea of Anya taking a break from her life in order to make Señor C’s more comfortable is probably the antithesis of a turn-around, which is not to mention the unfortunate overtones in the phrase “brave boy,” ostensibly mothering him on his way to the grave. Well that’s unfortunate, not sure what to think now.

A perhaps better reversal of expectations occurs in Paul Murray’s novel Skippy Dies, specifically as regards the character Lori. The narrator is perhaps complicit in allowing us to dismiss her as a cosseted South Dublin princess, we encounter her first from Skippy’s point of view and it is obvious that she has been projected upon beyond all recognition. The reader is invited to think that she probably lacks substance, seeing as she is a teenager and that we are mostly in the heads of the male characters. Her inner life remains mostly obscured from us.

However, sentimentalist that I am, I would say that she definitely does get the best, if not the last word in the book: “Maybe instead of strings it’s stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, that’s why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a lie is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people’s we know, until you’ve got something that to God or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole word…”

J.M. Coetzee’s ‘In The Heart of the Country’ and Authorial Sadism

There is some PhD perhaps yet to be written on the nature of the cruelty that authors tend to visit upon their characters. I am thinking here of Thomas Hardy’s treatment of Jude Fawley in Jude the Obscure. The reason for the trials that the generally well-intentioned and benign Jude is put through by Hardy can be difficult to conceive of and if one didn’t have enough reason to do so already, would make one sympathise with Hardy’s wife. One thinks also James Joyce’s decision to grant his Dubliners the kind of autumnal vision that allows one to perceive one’s ridiculous tininess in the face of an apparently apathetic universe.

Samuel Beckett always speaks of his characters as ‘creatures’ in his letters and seems to have some fondness for them, calling Molloy ‘poor old Molloy’ on more than one occasion. Of course, this general fellow feeling is never enough for Beckett to allow Molloy to figure out who he is or where he is going or why, but then I suppose that would defeat the purpose of having written a novel about him.

Another relevant text in this context is J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country. Coetzee wrote his masters thesis on a stylostatistical analysis of Samuel Beckett (great minds and all that) and his novels bear his influence. However, Coetzee makes an important departure.

It may be controversial to state this unequivocally, but it is fairly clear that Beckett’s characters exist for the most part in an Irish milieu, their language and sense of cultural norms bear the mark of this, at least in English translation. While Coetzee’s characters in In the Heart of the Country are definitely South African, they lack the kind of enabling sense of identity that this more secure national framework can sometimes provide. However, they still exist in South Africa, it is just the mythic arc that allows existence to in some way make sense that has been removed, leaving his characters to float in a yawning vacuity of nationlessness, in a domestic sphere that really is in need of something else beyond it.  This forces the protagonist, Magda to take action. As she says: “I make it all up in order that it shall make me up.”

Magda is a woman living with her father on the frontier of the veld. She is most likely, simply bored with her life and begins committing her rage-induced fantasies of murder and sex to paper, though she may equally be the murderer that she describes herself as being. The only problem with this is that one has to choose one among five of the differing accounts she gives of murdering her father and, occasionally, his lover, who may or may not exist.

Most of the novel is concerned with Magda’s profound inability to relate, to understand others, to adequately situate herself in relation to alterity. Her relationship with her father seems to cause her the most amount of angst, as was mentioned before, she spends an awful lot of time mulling his demise, but she is equally distressed by her inability to understand the native South African servants living in her home, Hendrik and Klein-Anna. They barely converse with one another, lacking an individuality to justify their nature as individuals. They are, to adapt a phrase from James Wood, neurasthenic clown actors in history’s ambien influenced nightmare without their scripts.