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The only real thing that exists at this moment on earth is our being here together...

José Saramago

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Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

'Unnecessary complication? I don't think so. An expansion. Like breathing. Breathe in, breathe out. Expand, contract. The rhythm of life. You have it in you to be a fuller person, Paul, larger and more expansive, but you won't allow it. I urge you: don't cut short these thought-trains of yours. Follow them through to their end. Your thoughts and your feelings. Follow them through and you will grow with them. What was it that the American poet fellow said? There weaves always a fictive covering from something to something. My memory is going. I become vaguer with each passing day. A pity. Hence this little lesson I am trying to teach you. He finds her by the riverside, sitting on a bench, clustered around by ducks that she seems to be feeding – it may be simple, as an account, its simplicity may even beguile one, but it is not good enough. It does not bring me to life. Bringing me to life may not be important to you, but it has the drawback of not bringing you to life either. Or the ducks, for that matter, if you prefer not to have me at the centre of the picture. Bring these humble ducks to life and they will bring you to life, I promise. Bring Marijana to life, if it must be Marijana, and she will bring you to life. It is as elementary as that. But please, as a favour to me, please stop dithering. I do not know how much longer I can support my present mode of existence.'
Slow Man is a much, much weirder book than Elizabeth Costello. I found it just spell-binding to watch the growth of intimacy between her and her character, after her shocking introduction midway through. The first half of the book had a couple of faults I thought in terms of pacing and tone; but they were more than made up for by the latter half. Indeed the second half made those missteps part of the story.

Coetzee's books about Costello are as much about the craft of writing, I think, as about anything else. Here Costello, midway through a story that is threatening not to go anywhere interesting, inserts herself into the story's reality and tries to involve her characters in creating themselves and their stories; she is not ultimately successful*, she cannot woo Paul out of his shell, the story of his recuperation will just be the story of him living out his days, slow, uneventful. It makes for about as weird a bit of metafiction as I can imagine, and a fascinating read.

*(And it occurs to me here that what I said about Goldberg: Variations absolutely does not apply to this book.)

posted evening of July 18th, 2012: Respond
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Monday, July 16th, 2012

🦋 Elizabeth Costello and the White King

‘Answer me, Paul. Say something.’

It is like a sea beating against his skull. Indeed, for all he knows he could already be lost overboard, tugged to and fro by the currents of the deep. The slap of water that will in time strip his bones of the last sliver of flesh. Pearls of his eyes; coral of his bones.

Elizabeth Costello is my hero for the way she transforms Slow Man with her entrance. That is all I have to say about it right now because I just read that bit not two hours ago, still no idea quite where Coetzee is headed with this, but that chapter was an absolute masterpiece, a revelation. (Thanks Jorge for the recommendation -- it is a good first sentence.)

posted evening of July 16th, 2012: Respond
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Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

🦋 First, Second, Third

In his case, would you say that the habit you describe, of treating feelings as provisional, of not committing himself emotionally, extended beyond relations with the land of his birth into personal relations too?

I don't know. You are the biographer. If you find that train of thought worth following up, follow it.

This passage illustrates what I think the best thing is about Summertime -- Coetzee is talking about a third person, a fictional entity named Coetzee; and I have a constant undertone to my reading that well, he could very well be talking about himself you know; and in moments like this it hits me that he could just as well be talking about me. Leaving aside any therapeutic benefits this kind of introspection may have, it's just a lovely sensation to feel yourself inside the book looking out, inhabiting the roles of speaker, person being addressed, and subject of discussion.

posted evening of February 23rd, 2010: Respond
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Sunday, February 21st, 2010

🦋 Narrative Layers

I'm in awe:

One morning... John appeared at the front door. 'I won't stay,' he said, 'but I thought you might like this.' He was holding a book. On the cover: Dusklands, by J M Coetzee.

I was completely taken aback. 'You wrote this?' I said. ...

'I didn't know your father was a historian,' I remarked the next time we met. I was referring to the preface to his book, in which the author, the writer, this man in front of me, claimed that his father, the little man who went off every morning to his bookkeeping job in the city, was also an historian who haunted the archives and turned up old documents.

'You mean the preface?' he said. 'Oh, that's all made up.'

So J.M. Coetzee is writing a story with a fictional character named J.M. Coetzee who writes a book with a fictional character named Coetzee -- which book was also coincidentally written by the primary Coetzee...

I have got to read Dusklands now...

posted afternoon of February 21st, 2010: 4 responses

🦋 Spoiler?

...Not really, I think... But if you want to read Coetzee's Summertime with no foreknowledge, skip this post. Otherwise, look below the fold.

read the rest...

posted morning of February 21st, 2010: Respond

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

🦋 Summertime

...A nice title to pick up when the weather outside is so cold... But it does not look from the first few pages like it is intended as a low-key beach read.

How to escape the filth: not a new question. An old rat-question that will not let go, that leaves its nasty, suppurating wound. Agenbite of inwit*.

'I see the Defense Force is up to its old tricks again,' he remarks to his father. 'In Botswana this time.' But his father is too wary to rise to the bait. When his father picks up the newspaper, he takes care to skip straight to the sports pages, missing out the politics -- the politics and the killings.

His father has nothing but disdain for the continent to the north of them. Buffoons is the word he uses to dismiss the leaders of African states: petty tyrants who can barely spell their own names, chauffeured from one banquet to another in their Rolls-Royces, wearing Ruritanian uniforms festooned with medals they have awarded themselves. Africa: a place of starving masses with homicidal buffoons lording it over them.

'They broke into a house in Francistown** and killed everyone,' he presses on nonetheless. 'Executed them. Including the children. Look. Read the report. It's on the front page.'

His father shrugs. His father can find no form of words spacious enough to cover his distaste for, on the one hand, thugs who slaughter defenceless women and children and, on the other, terrorists who wage war from havens across the border. He resolves the problem by immersing himself in the cricket scores. As a response to a moral dilemma it is feeble; yet is his own response -- fits of rage and despair -- any better?

This is the first of Coetzee's books that I've read to address directly the question of living in South Africa under Apartheid. Interesting -- this passage in particular sounded to me like it could apply very well to our own times as well:

Their talk of saving civilization, he now tends to think, has never been anything but a bluff. Behind a smokescreen of patriotism they are at this very moment sitting and calculating how long they can keep the show running (the mines, the factories) before they will need to pack their bags, shred any incriminating documents, and fly off to Zürich or Monaco or San Diego, where under the name of holding companies with names like Algro Trading or Handfast Securities they years ago bought themselves villas and apartments as insurance against the day of reckoning (dies iræ, dies illa).
You can read the beginning of Summertime at The NY Review of Books website.

* Interesting: ayenbite of inwyt is mediæval Kentish dialect for "prick of conscience" -- it is the title of a 1340 translation (which Clara Thomson described as the work of "a very incompetent translator") of a French treatise on Christian morality; full text here.

** I don't know if Coetzee is referring to particular historical incident here.

posted morning of February 20th, 2010: Respond

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

🦋 Pilgrimage

A couple of passages from Diary of a Bad Year, having to do with the relationship between reader and writer. From Chapter 28, "On Tourism":

A decade ago, following in the tracks of Pound and his poets, I cycled some of those same roads, in particular (several times) the road between Foix and Lavelanet past Roquefixade. What I achieved by doing so I am not sure. I am not even sure what my illustrious predecessor expected to achieve. Both of us set out on the basis that writers who were important to us (to Pound, the troubadours; to me, Pound) had actually been where we were , in flesh and blood; but neither of us seemed or seem able to demonstrate in our writing why or how that mattered.
From Chapter 30, "On Authority in Fiction" (this essay is very much worth reading in full; I will quote it below the fold):
During his later years, Tolstoy was treated not only as a great author but as an authority on life, a wise man, a sage. His contemporary Walt Whitman endured a similar fate. But neither had much wisdom to offer: wisdom was not what they dealt in. They were poets above all; otherwise they were ordinary men with ordinary fallible opinions. The disciples who swarmed to them in quest of enlightenment look sadly foolish in retrospect.
From Chapter 2 of part II, "On Fan Mail":
Usually the writers... claim that they write to me because my books speak directly to them; but it soon emerges that the books speak only in the way that strangers whispering together might seem to be whispering about one. That is to say, there is an element of the delusional in the claim, and of the paranoid in the mode of reading.

read the rest...

posted morning of February 6th, 2010: Respond
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Wednesday, February third, 2010

🦋 Political essays again

I'm spending a lot of time going back and forth, as I read Diary of a Bad Year, trying to figure out what Coetzee gains and what he loses, in presenting his essays as part of a novel. The thoughts are being presented as the thoughts of a fictional character -- though the fictional character is clearly the same person as Coetzee the author -- does that give the author less of a stake in the "Strong Opinions"? One of the essays (Chapter 26) makes mention of Harold Pinter's Nobel lecture, and says,

When one speaks in one's own person -- that is, not through one's art -- to denounce some politician or other, using the rhetoric of the agora, one embarks on a contest which one is likely to lose because it takes place on ground where one's opponent is far more practised and adept. "Of course Mr Pinter is entitled to his point of view," it will be replied. "After all, he enjoys the freedoms of a democratic society, freedoms which we are this moment endeavouring to protect against extremists."

Clearly Coetzee is thinking about what he's doing in this book as he writes this paragraph. Speaking as Pinter did "takes some gumption," he says -- does it take less gumption to put such words in the mouth of your main character? I sort of think it must not -- at least not in this case, where everything is so clearly delineated to point out that this is Coetzee speaking out against violations of decency by Western (and specifically American) governments. There comes a time, he says, "when the outrage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act" -- and possibly he is couching that action in the form of a novel just because that is what he does well, that is how he knows to get his message across.

posted evening of February third, 2010: 4 responses

Tuesday, February second, 2010

🦋 Political essays

I started reading Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year last night and am already ready to recommend it -- a bit like Elizabeth Costello but I think much more engaging and immediate; and the funny structure of the book is a real treat to read. A couple of different stories are being interwoven/superimposed on the page -- the top half of the page is the book of political essays that the main character is writing (under the title "Strong Opinions"), the bottom half is his first-person narrative of his life at the time he is writing the book; in some chapters the page is divided into thirds, with the bottom third being the first-person narrative of his neighbor, whom he has hired to type up the manuscript and on whom he has vain designs of seduction. This sounds kind of strange I guess, and like it would be really difficult to maintain; but Coetzee does a fantastic job of keeping the multiple threads running.

It seems pretty clear that the essays are Coetzee's voice; does this make the main character (who is after all the author of the essays) Coetzee? It kind of should, but I think he is intended rather as a fictional character. I'm not sure if this is as complicated semantically as it is seeming right now.* Anyway, the essays frequently tread dangerously close to cynicism; but (so far) they are not falling into the chasm.

As during the time of kings it would have been naïve to think that the king's firstborn son would be the fittest to rule, so in our time it is naïve to think that the democratically elected ruler will be the fittest. The rule of succession is not a formula for identifying the best ruler, it is a formula for conferring legitimacy on someone or other and thus forestalling civil conflict. The electorate -- the demos -- believes that its task is to choose the best man, but in truth its task is much simpler: to anoint a man (vox populi vox dei), it does not matter whom. Counting ballots may seem to be a means of finding which is the true (that is, the loudest) vox populi; but the power of the ballot-count formula, like the power of the formula of the firstborn male, lies in the fact that it is objective, unambiguous, outside the field of political contestation. The toss of a coin would be equally objective, equally unambiguous, equally incontestable, and could therefore equally well be claimed (as it has been claimed) to represent vox dei. We do not choose our rulers by the toss of a coin -- tossing coins is associated with the low-status activity of gambling -- but who would dare to claim that the world would be in a worse state than it is if rulers had from the beginning of time been chosen by the method of the coin?

* As of Chapter 10, it is becoming more clear that the main character is indeed intended to be Coetzee -- the country he is living in is identified as Australia, he refers to himself as a white South African, the neighbor calls him "Señor C."

posted evening of February second, 2010: Respond
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Sunday, June 21st, 2009

🦋 Pitch-perfect

My initial reaction to part 2 of Life and Times of Michael K was to feel kind of let down at the change in narrative perspective -- it seemed kind of like if the the next section after Benjy's narrative in The Sound and the Fury had been told a clinician attempting to diagnose Benjy... But I warmed to it pretty quickly. It is not Michael's story, this section of the novel is the doctor's story; I could express it as a criticism of Coetzee, that he is only telling one person's story at a time, not allowing his characters to interact -- but I think this sort of solitude is part of the fabric of the universe he has built here.

As the section goes on, Coetzee seems more and more comfortable in the doctor's consciousness. This passage, from just after they've found that Michael has absconded, is full of rigor and insight and beauty:

It occurred to me that if I followed after him, proceeding down the avenue in a straight line, I could be at the beach by two o'clock. Was there any reason, I asked myself, why order and discipline should not crumble today rather than tomorrow or next month or next year? What would yield the greater benefit to mankind: if I spent the afternoon taking stock in my dispensary, or if I went to the beach and took off my clothes and lay in my underpants absorbing the benign spring sun, watching the children frolic in the water, later buying an ice-cream from the kiosk on the parking lot, if the kiosk is still there? What did Noël ultimately achieve labouring at his desk to balance the bodies out against the bodies in? Would he not be better off taking a nap? Maybe the universal sum of happiness would be increased if we declared this afternoon a holiday and went down to the beach, commandant, doctor, chaplain, PT instructors, guards, dog-handlers all together with the six hard cases from the detention block, leaving behind the concussion case to look after things. Perhaps we might meet some girls. For what reason were we waging the war, after all, but to augment the sum of happiness in the universe? Or was I misremembering, was that another war I was thinking of?

Also in this section we get (from Noël) the first mention of any concrete dates -- he is 60 years old, and he was a child "in the 1930's" -- this seems to confirm my idea that the novel is set around 1980. And again from Noël, the first mention of race in the novel, in a context that I am having a lot of trouble making any sense of: In response to the doctor's question of why they are fighting the war, he says "We are fighting this war so that minorities will have a say in their destinies." So first off, does "minorities" mean "non-white people" in South African usage? I had figured that was an American idiom -- it certainly doesn't make sense in South Africa where Boers are less than 10% of the population. And what would it mean for someone working for the South African army in 1980 to say that? I'm just confused here.

posted afternoon of June 21st, 2009: 5 responses
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