Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Bookplanet: Critics on Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee is one of my favorite contemporary writers. In fact, he's the only contemporary novelist of whom I've read more than two books (I think I've read five). Being a fellow South African, and a fellow Afrikaans speaker to boot, and having met him, I obviously cannot ignore the man. But I say here and now that he is probably the one novelist in recent years who fully deserves his Nobel Prize, and I'm very proud of our little S.A. nation that we've now produced two Nobel Prize winners (though I'm not sure Nadine Gordimer deserves hers: a better S.A. choice would've been Athol Fugard). Coetzee is of course a favorite of academia, because he writes enigmatic Beckett-like, allegory-infused, postmodern meta-novels, whose concentrated and very readable particulars always reflect a much wider context, and go off like little handgrenades in the mind that rapidly expand into atomic explosions. If you haven't read "Waiting for the Barbarians" yet, please do so. It is far and away the greatest novel I know of in English since, well, Lolita. Anyway, here's some recent good writing about Coetzee, about the new direction he has taken since introducing a stand-in author, Elizabeth Costello, into his last two books.

1. From Conversational Reading: A Fine Week for Coetzee Essays

This piece by Pankaj Mishra must be the best criticism of Slow Man I've yet read.
More acutely than any other contemporary novelist, Coetzee has been aware of the aesthetic difficulty and moral conceit of turning man-made suffering into art. Certainly, his confession of inadequacy is far from the bold assumption Naipaul and Rushdie share even as they argue about what literary form is likely to capture best a vital and diverse human world: the assumption that the individual author has the intellectual and spiritual resources to describe a human condition larger than his own, and indeed to convey it, in either fictional or nonfictional forms, to his easily distracted middle-class audience. Increasingly, Coetzee seems to lack the egotism necessary to play the role of the wise, omniscient narrator. Much of his fictional energy is now devoted to revealing how writers struggle no less anxiously than their characters with a human self increasingly fragmented and diminished by the pressures of modern life.

The French-Romanian essayist E.M. Cioran once wrote that although "we know a great deal about ourselves," "we are nothing"; as a result, "the material of literature...grows thinner every day, and that of the novel, more limited." The only novels worthy of attention today, Cioran asserted, are "precisely those novels in which...nothing happens, and which are a research without points of reference, an experiment pursued within an unfailing vacuity, a vacuity experienced through sensation, as well as a dialectic paradoxically frozen." Cioran was writing about his friend Samuel Beckett, and he looked forward to the "last novelist" bringing down the shutters on the "epic of the bourgeois era." But his words increasingly seem apt for Coetzee, an admirer of Beckett, whose recent novels play out a dialectic between bodily pain and intellectual uncertainty while casting doubt on almost every grand claim made in the past fifty years for storytelling and storytellers.

Slow Man shows Coetzee writing himself deeper into silence.
And this new NYRB essay is good as well.
As Coetzee's subsequent books have made clear, his moral vision is increasingly concerned with man's attitudes toward animals, and with the ideas about the primacy of reason and humanity which underlie those attitudes. . . .

This is the thread that runs through Coetzee's recent work. It is close to being a mystical idea, about the primacy of feeling, of our basic impulses of empathy and sympathy and solidarity and, in Costello's sense, kindness, over reason. And it is this which gives his recent books a particular tension. Coetzee's work has always had an unusual quality of passionate coldness. His books are intensely thought and felt, while also being, in their affect, cool, detached, held back, and distanced. We see the characters struggle and writhe, and we might at times feel for them, but we would no more identify with them than we would with the characters in the works of, say, Sade. We see their pain but we are not supposed to feel it. It is not just the affect of the books that is distancing but their techniques, too: witness the masterly ethical misdirection of Disgrace I have referred to, or the use of fictional devices to frame the memoir Youth and the polemics in Elizabeth Costello. These chilly books are about the primacy, the all-consuming importance, of suffering, and what we should learn from it. This is the energizing tension of Coetzee's recent writings, and it is both described and acted out in his new novel, Slow Man.

2. From Maud Newton: Coetzee, and suffering in fiction

In the current New York Review of Books, John Lanchester tracks some of the concerns that have increasingly preoccupied J.M. Coetzee since Disgrace, and considers the function the author character, Elizabeth Costello, serves in the latest novel.
When a writer turns up in his own fiction it is often to pose questions about the arbitrariness and artificiality of narrative. That doesn’t seem to be the main focus of Coetzee’s interest here. It is more, perhaps, a question of ethics, touching on the morality of making people up, and then devising trials and torments for them, designed to expose and test their deficiencies. Is there anything of ethical content to be said about the fortunes of these imaginary people? Does making things up have an effect on the maker, and on the reader? At one point in Elizabeth Costello, she speaks of the terrible effects books can have on their writers. ("Certain books are not good to read or to write.")

This seems to be the concern Coetzee is continuing to investigate in Slow Man, which is a novel about the difficulty of writing novels, and especially about the peculiar sense in which the creatures in novels can be said to exist. A cartoon version of this would be to say that Coetzee has moved from a concern about human beings to a concern about animal beings to a concern about fictional beings. A reader who has followed Coetzee’s books since Disgrace, and followed the thread of ethical inquiry that runs through them, might pose Slow Man’s central question differently: Why should we care about fictional characters when the world is so full of real suffering?

I'M GOING to read both pieces quoted from, and will report back if there's anything else interesting from them.
Four figures have haunted my art-mind lately: Ingmar Bergman, J.M. Coetzee, Celan, and Bob Dylan. They're very much master/mentors to me: maybe I'll one day write a book about them, and ponder about what links them together in my mind, besides the fact they mean much to me. One thing they share is depth, and grappling with the eternals of pain and despair: maybe that's it.


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