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Jeremy's journal

Liberty is not a woman walking the streets, she is not sitting on a bench waiting for an invitation to dinner, to come sleep in our bed for the rest of her life.

José Saramago


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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
➳ More posts about J.M. Coetzee

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
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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

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