Tuesday, February second, 2010
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."
Wednesday, February third, 2010
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.
Saturday, February 6th, 2010
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.
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