September 2007

Arts & Letters

A masochistic scalpel

By Barry Hill
JM Coetzee’s ‘Diary of a Bad Year’

JM Coetzee’s ability to cut to the bone is terrifyingly impressive. He exposes the ribcage, with the heart beating inside it. There it is, you might say, that simple thing before us. But in novel after novel over the past 30 years, including at least four masterpieces from South Africa as well as a work set in nineteenth-century St Petersburg, based on the life of Dostoyevsky, the heart which he puts before us, and of which he speaks with deceptively Christian weightings, is never simple.

His fictions are fundamentally political, although Coetzee is on record as eschewing anything as ideological as the political novel in favour of a more instinctive stance of personal resistance. His vision is dystopian, and closely observed. Vietnam, South Africa, Russia: whatever the site, Coetzee renders it so graphically that the smell of napalm, the dust of the veldt or the filthy dankness of a St Petersburg cellar informs the horrors. Vivid particulars ground each novel, enabling Coetzee to explore a compulsive and enduring interest: the reality - the skin and the bone, right to the marrow - of the nature of cruelty.

‘Cruelty’ may sound reductive, and insufficient to cover the slaughter which is the subject matter of his first novel, Dusklands (1974), and the incarcerations central to Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and The Master of Petersburg (1994). As novels that pit the individual against a suppressive State, the latter are as good as anything by Koestler and Orwell. They pivot on a deadly play of ideas regarding the collective, the sanctity of the self, privacy, conscience - the holy grail, if you like, of liberal European thought. They are also narratives of lives that might be lived with moral conviction of the kind that possessed Tolstoy towards the end of his life. Might. The truths of cruelty unite them, just as, inversely, the potential for compassion in the world presses in on Coetzee’s other great narratives of human suffering, Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Age of Iron (1990).

Much of Coetzee’s power springs from the way he makes liberal-humanist sympathies vulnerable. His narrators, sometimes writers ambivalent about their craft and vocation, are there to speak the truth about terror, atrocities and lies, including lies and evil of their own. The dialogue they must have with the terrorising State is meant to alarm us, and it does. It’s as if Coetzee delights in the interrogation scene, where the reason of the State is given the best of hearings, and where the dialectic of master and slave is on full show. He affirms the ultimate value of the “citadel of the self” (as Isaiah Berlin called it in his essays on liberty), yet is a genius at making us experience the thinness of the membrane between the self and nothingness. At any moment, we feel in the intimate Dostoyevskian dance Coetzee has mastered, the individual might surrender absolutely or agree to take up the whip and indulge perversities.

In The Master of Petersburg there is an unforgettable moment - a supreme shudder - when a moral abyss looms. It is not when Dostoyevsky takes realistic stock of his interrogator, or of the nihilistic bravado of the revolutionary Nechaev, but when, in a kind of swoon, he leans into the body of the little girl, his lover’s daughter. Dostoyevsky, the character in this novel, pulls back from the brink. But Coetzee leaves our emotional sympathies in the air.

Like Nadine Gordimer, Coetzee long delivered reports from the front of the apartheid system on the eve of revolution. But unlike Gordimer, whose smouldering, sensual narratives took us to the brink of events with ambivalent hope, pausing in the way that Turgenev did at the prospect of what was to come in Russia, Coetzee is colder, less personal, more tragic. He is the Aeschylus of personal politics. Relationships exist in his world, but on mountaintops, where an icy wind blows between people. Even if events take a turn for the better - the end of apartheid, for instance - the vultures descend to pick away at the shame of it all, the ‘disgrace’, to name the 1999 novel that preceded his Nobel Prize in 2003, after which he moved to Australia.

In a Coetzee novel human predicaments are so circumscribed that there is hardly a way out. Two options present themselves. One is an individual resolving to be absolutely himself by embracing isolation. In Foe (1986) Coetzee explored Robinson Crusoe. Like Defoe, he skilfully employed the castaway narrative, with the genre’s dependence on the deathbed scene and the spiritual autobiography. From the confessional tradition Coetzee sometimes posits another way out for his entrapped protagonists: a renunciatory penance. We bear witness to the self reduced to its fundamentals - of the kind you might see in the gutter of a city street, or in a hospital ward or a nursing home, or in the slums populated by the wretched of the Earth. Someone in flight, one exposed to the elements, the derelict, the tramp: these are central figures for Coetzee, whose plots do not deliver justice so much as proffer some ecstasy of release or dissolution into native ground, some confirmation of the fact that the price of being on Earth is death.

It’s hard to read these relentless tales without seeking some kind of explanation for the solitary confinement which inhabits the author’s imagination. There is an interest in love, in warmth, but some refusal or inability to affirm an Everyman who is not on an island like his Crusoe, “living a life of isolation under the scrutiny of God”. Somehow the screws always turn in the direction of shame and disgrace. From what origins, we wonder, comes such a grim sense of self?

With characteristic lucidity Coetzee anticipated these questions in his memoir Boyhood (1997). One key lies in what he calls his “complicated” relationship with his mother. An image of brutal ambivalence is delivered to us on the first page, when she has to go out into the backyard and deal with a poultry run of diseased hens:

So one after another his mother takes the hens between her knees, presses on their jowls until they open their beaks, and with the point of a paring knife, picks at their tongues. The hens shriek and struggle, their eyes bulging. He shudders and turns away. He thinks of his mother slapping stewing steak down on the kitchen counter and cutting it into cubes: he thinks of her bloody fingers.

From the start the source of unqualified love is smeared in cruelty. This is an elemental complication: a traumatic detail against which a constitution can never argue. The other complications involve the psychological traps of family life, into which the boy plays. His mother’s love is absolute, smotheringly so. The nervy, clever boy recoils; yet so profound is his need of her love that he cannot bear to show it, least of all in the presence of his rivalrous father, the black sheep of the family. So he throws tantrums, and hardens his heart against his mother; against a love that might devour him he cultivates a self in reserve. Of this essential secrecy he is guilty and ashamed, even more so when he discovers how cruel he can be towards his younger brother. He fears disgrace: “He subtracts himself from everything.” And he thinks: “Nothing can touch you, there is nothing you are not capable of.”

“His only excuse”, he thinks, “is that he is merciless towards himself too. He lies, but does not lie to himself.”

This is a crude summary. But it makes the link between Coetzee’s fictions and his own constituent structure of feeling, that zone of paranoid interdependence that so beset Kafka. This self - reticent, competitive, ungenerous, a misery guts with a mother complex - we meet again in Youth (2002), his sequel to Boyhood. Coetzee recounts the life of a young man in Cape Town and then London, where he yearns to be a poet and to live the erotic life of a free artist: the sex and the art vitally nourishing each other. Instead, John - the third-person narrative helped the book be marketed as a novel, placing Coetzee at a tricky remove from himself - lurches from one humiliating experience to another. John yearns for the woman who will be his destiny, the one who will embrace him with full understanding, know his need for privacy, tend to him always, even though he would never marry. His cold heart, his timidity, gets him nowhere; his diary gets him into trouble when a girlfriend reads what he has been writing about her. He is sorry, he tells her as she packs her bags. There follows a mine shaft of dark questions:

What was his motive for writing what he wrote? ... What are his true thoughts anyway? ... The question of what should be permitted to go into his diary and what kept forever shrouded goes to the heart of all his writing. If he is to censor himself from expressing ignoble emotions ... how will those emotions even be transfigured and turned into poetry? ... Who is to say that at each moment while the pen moves he is truly himself? At one moment he might truly be himself, at another he might simply be making things up. How can he know for sure? Why should he even want to know for sure?

The questions are Beckettian in their thoroughness - Watt without the laughs that rose up out of him when he discovered that novel (possibly the only release of laughter to be found in a Coetzee work). Youth gets its comic effects from Coetzee’s ironic distance, the mastery of which makes it a wonderful bildungsroman of an artist in quest of his vocation. Towards the end it strikes two notes, one undercutting the other. John is so disenchanted with his life that he is “locked into an attenuating endgame, playing himself, with each move, further into a corner of and into defeat”. Yet at the same time he has come to the realisation that for all his fearful primness, his “lack of heat, lack of heart”, one ethical thing is clear: “All that matters is doing the right thing, whether for the right reason or the wrong reason or no reason at all ... Working out the right thing is not difficult.”

Diary of a Bad Year (Text, 192pp; $35) is Coetzee’s third book since settling in Australia, since when his work has taken an increasingly ironic turn with regard to his characters and, it seems, his utterly sceptical self. The simplest thing to say about Diary is that it might serve as a kind of memoir of Coetzee’s old age, albeit one as pessimistically prophetic as the youthful John had wanted it to be before his life as a fiction writer began. The protagonist, JC, is an ageing and famous writer who lives alone in a tower block in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. He is writing a set of essays called ‘Strong Opinions’, destined for translation into German, which he is having typed by Anya, a sexy youngish woman who lives in the flat below with Alan, her stud of a partner, an investment consultant who would sound good talking up the predations of a Macquarie Bank.

JC’s themes are those we have come to know from Coetzee’s oeuvre: the State, democracy, anarchism, Machiavelli, terrorism, with updates that include Al Qaeda, Guantanamo, Tony Blair, Harold Pinter. There is a Hobbesian line through the political items, and a flirtatiously nihilistic one as we move from ‘On the Curse’ to ‘On Paedophilia’ and ‘On the Body’ - this before ‘The Slaughter of Animals’. Some entries are written with verve. Mostly they are philosophical conceits, rather in the manner of John Fowles when he took the dubious step of putting his thrilling fiction aside to write The Aristos. Why don’t you write another novel? Anya asks JC. “I don’t have the endurance any more,” he says, “it is too much for me as I am today.” And in JC’s essay on the writing life, he confesses that he has come to agree with the critics who say that “at heart he is no novelist after all, but a pedant who dabbles in fiction.”

When JC first sets eyes on Anya, in the laundry, she is wearing a startlingly brief “tomato-red shift”. The next time she is in white slacks “that show off a derriere so near to perfect as to be angelic”. JC tells us, “As I watched her an ache, a metaphysical ache, crept over me that I did nothing to stem. And in an intuitive way she knew about it, knew that in the old man in the plastic chair in the corner there was something personal going on, something to do with age and regret and the tears of things.”

Thus Diary makes its weary, albeit droll, beginning: we look to Anya for some narrative hope. But no. “As I pass him,” she begins by telling us, “I make sure I waggle my behind, my delicious behind, sheathed in tight denim. If I were a man I would not be able to keep my eyes off me.” Many readers will instantly ask: Would a woman like Anya speak like this? Later JC will confess that a female reader once wrote to him saying that he does not understand women and should stop trying to write about them. The higher irony does not rescue the skit. JC, with his humourless ideas, makes Anya yawn: “I try to tell him give it up, people have had it up to here with politics.”

To make matters worse (for the reader who is unamused so far), JC’s strong opinions about his new country - by reference to “Howard’s Australia” and Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay - feel boned up, an attempt to intellectualise an Australia that is hostile to ideas and, at the present time, morally diseased. Coetzee seems untuned - consciously or unconsciously - to the deeper idioms of Australian debate. “In his mind,” Alan says of JC, “he can’t get away from Africa.” When we read that Alan thinks JC’s ideas about Australia are too personal, lacking a structural understanding of the modernity of a country that has settled all “the big issues”, reducing politics to a “sideshow”, we get the feeling that Coetzee thinks Alan has a point. Indeed, throughout Diary we come to a host of critical thoughts - expressed either by Alan or Anya or JC himself - which are fundamentally self-subversive: that reason cannot be potent in such dark times, that life’s struggle cannot admit too many moral qualms, that any attempt to find the foundations of logic produces pompous mysticism. Add to this Anya’s remark that JC’s “know-all tone” and “cut and dried style” is alienating, and you have a list that flaunts Coetzee’s/JC’s compulsive cruelty towards himself. JC becomes an effigy into which pins can be shoved endlessly, each jab confirming his impotence. “I call them your soft opinions,” Anya tells him. “I hope you don’t mind.”

Meanwhile, there is a lot of bouncy sex going on downstairs (compared to the quiet whimpering upstairs, if Anya is right about JC having nicked a pair of her panties from the laundry, in that opening scene). Alan resents Anya’s tolerance of the gaze of the old man, whom he condemns as an “old-fashioned free-love, free-speech sentimental hippy socialist” (JC writes of his own “anarchist quietistic pessimism”). This raging arouses Alan in all ways, as does a brilliantly deceptive scheme to rob JC of his dividends, if only Anya will let him. When Anya refuses she becomes, ever so slightly, an agent of moral interest. It turns out that her sexual history contains an event of which she might well be ashamed. When JC foxes this confession out of her their connection founders, until Anya returns on a different, caring note: she has split from Alan after his drunken face-to-face verbal assault on the old man, a display of ocker oafishness to rival that of an Afrikaner (whose brutal masculinities have always disgusted and terrified Coetzee). Finally, pathetically, JC gets the girl, or at least her warmth and solicitude, for what that is worth to a body and soul in exile and decline - a dream intimated by John in Youth. A lifetime too late, his angel arrives.

So it goes, almost as fable, a spiralling wry tale, a waxworks of ideas scored with irony. The structure of the text, set out like a parergon, invites but does not deliver a deep reflection on the relationship between thoughts and a life, and both helps and hinders the reader in gauging the emotional pitch. Across the page are three narratives: the opinions on top, Anya’s story along the bottom, JC’s private diary bedded in between. Page by page you can experience the levels together, which, on my first reading of the book, I found confusing. Reading the levels separately, the second time around, raised a smile or two and pointed me towards the sporadic symbiosis between the strata of ideas and the sweet/sour tale.

Still, I was left wondering about the layers of irony we should peel from the confessional onion. “For an old man,” JC tells Anya, “what is there left in the world but wicked thoughts?” Anya is dubious about one area of his strong opinions: “It is about sex with children. He doesn’t exactly come out in favour of it, but he doesn’t come out against it. I ask myself, Is this his way of saying his appetites run in that direction? Because why would he write about it otherwise.” JC has a friend, a libertine Hungarian, who tells us that he would be locked up if the public had access to his sexual fantasies. JC keeps mum about his own. Coetzee leaves JC on his rock, a kind of castaway far from Friday (and even further from the young woman in Foe who gives an old and ailing Crusoe sexual succour).

I suppose Coetzee’s option here might have been to plunge into the kind of kinky furies to which Philip Roth’s narrators confess. Or he might have taken a huge breath and put sexual licence on the operating table, in the manner of Michel Houellebecq. In earlier works Coetzee is contemptuous of men who merely talk and do not act. What we finally have, I suppose, is the satisfaction of not telling lies to oneself, along with the suggestion, articulated in the essay ‘On Authority in Fiction’, that true authorial authority might only be attained by “opening the poet-self to some higher force, by ceasing to be oneself and beginning to speak vatically”. Alas for JC, a “celebrity writer” waning in the bright, secular lights of Sydney. It is well, perhaps, that he thinks that the music of JS Bach is “the best proof we have that life is good”.

In this strange, sad transplant of a book, a surrogate novel perhaps, a limp comedy, a valedictory ensemble of ironies, a proud, stern act of masochism, Coetzee may want to summon an Australian audience to take him in at the imagined end of his powers - as we do refugees, when we are kind enough. Maybe this is his sly needle into our body politic: that we might kid ourselves that we have decent hearts, such generosity of spirit. But, of course, the joke may well be on me, a writer in awe of Coetzee’s middle-period novels who is baffled by these tenaciously frozen self-imprisonments, the work of a man who always wanted to be a poet but whose fiction has run down to endgames of irony. “As for ruthless honesty,” Coetzee wrote in Youth, “ruthless honesty is not a hard trick to learn.”

Barry Hill
Barry Hill is a poet and historian. His book Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucian Freud was short-listed for the UK’s 2012 Forward Prize.

September 2007

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