“Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist.”

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“Chaste, exact, ashen prose” drawn to “passionate extremity.” (Photo: Creative Commons)

A dispiriting Saturday sifting through bins of unsorted papers from the garage, deciding whether I really need the proofs of books published long ago, wondering how long I should keep old Christmas cards from friends, trying to decipher the signatures on yellowed letters, and asking myself whatever will I ever do with all the photos of nieces and nephews at one year old, then two years old, then three…

So why was I holding on to a Christmas issue of The New Yorker from almost a full decade ago? Ah yes. “Squall Lines: J.M. Coetzee‘s ‘Diary of a Bad Year'” – a review written by a literary critic who maintains that “the novel exists to be affecting…to shake us profoundly. When we’re rigorous about feeling, we’re honoring that.” His essays make me weep with envy.

I can do no better on a slow Saturday night than to quote from James Wood‘s 2007 review on the Nobel Prizewinning South African writer Coetzee, a novelist who, also, makes me weep with envy.

Diary of a Bad Year’s protagonist is a novelist who is, in some ways, an alter ego, who laments that his art is “not great-souled,” that it lacks “generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.” But what a soul he has – as Wood comments, if not great-souled, than deep-souled:

Yet this is the cold air just beyond the reach of a fire. Coetzee’s chaste, exact, ashen prose may look like the very embers of restraint, but it is drawn, again and again, to passionate extremity: an uneducated gardener forced to live like an animal off the South African earth (“Life & Times of Michael K”); a white woman dying of cancer while a black township burns, and writing, in her last days, a letter of brutal truths to her daughter (“Age of Iron”); a white woman raped on her farm by a gang of black men, and impregnated (“Disgrace”); a recent amputee, the victim of a road accident that mangled a leg, helpless in his Adelaide apartment, and awkwardly in love with his Croatian nurse (“Slow Man”). Coetzee seems compelled to test his celebrated restraint against subjects and ideas whose extremity challenges novelistic representation.

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James Wood

Coetzee is devoted to Dostoyevsky, and “Elizabeth Costello” made clear that part of that devotion has to do with what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called the “dialogic” nature of Dostoyevsky’s arguments. Bakhtin noted that it is impossible to infer from the novels what Dostoyevsky believed, because no single idea ever gains authorial dominance. Instead, ideas, like the characters themselves, are in constant circulation and mutual qualification. It is how Dostoyevsky the ardent Christian was able to argue against himself, awarding Ivan Karamazov the most devastating petition against conventional Christian belief ever mounted in a novel. Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones? Imagine a fervent Christian, who has always believed in the afterlife. One night, waking in terror, he realizes, for only a second, but absolutely, that there is no afterlife. The terror passes, and the next morning he reaffirms his public vows. He does not succumb to doubt. Still, the question remains: what has happened to his orthodoxy? If it has not been cancelled or refuted by the nightmarish doubt, does it now contain, like a trapped smell, the ghost of its opposite?

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Devotion

Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name for this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces reason. Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist, and in recent years the religious coloration of his metaphysics has become more pronounced.

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It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books makes all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.

Here’s the good news: I can throw the 2007 New Yorker away! The article is all online! Read the whole thing here.


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