J.M. Coetzee: Diary of a Bad Year

When in the space of four years, you’ve become the first writer to win the Booker Prize twice (1999) and won the Nobel Prize for Literature (2003), where do you go from there? Judging by J.M. Coetzee’s example – and I imagine we’ll wait some time for another one – you quietly give up on fiction without telling anyone. After all, in the words of Bobby Charlton in 1966, what is there to win now?

His first novel since the Booker-winning Disgrace contained essays in a fictional surround: Elizabeth Costello even used some ‘lectures’ Coetzee had previously published. Now he goes further with Diary of a Bad Year, where the vast majority of the text is in the form of essays written by a South African novelist with the initials JC…

Many of the early essays, on subjects like the birth of the state, anarchy, and terrorism, are rigorous and interesting, but also lucid and accessible.

Every account of the origins of the state starts from the premise that “we” – not we the readers but some generic we so wide as to exclude no one – participate in its coming into being.  But the fact is that the only “we” we know – ourselves and the people close to us – are born into the state; and our forebears too were born into the state as far back as we can trace.  The state is always there before we are.

If the essays have an overall theme it is of power and powerlessness: citizens subject to politicians; animals subject to humans.  But Coetzee spreads his net wider as the book goes on and veers into topics such as music and narrative fiction; it’s when he goes further, into numbers and probability, that the strain begins to show, and some of the final pieces (“On ageing,” “On children”) hardly do their subjects justice at only a few lines long.

Meanwhile each page is divided in three.  The essay takes up the first part, then we have the narrative of the ‘author,’ JC, describing his growing infatuation with a beautiful young girl called Anya who lives in his block of flats.  He employs her as his secretary for the essays, to try to get closer to her.  His accounts are frank if not always edifying:

A week passed before I saw her again – in a well-designed apartment block like this, tracking one’s neighbours is not easy – and then only fleetingly as she passed through the front door in a pair of white slacks that showed off a derriere so near to perfect as to be angelic.  God, grant me one wish before I die, I whispered; but then was overtaken with shame at the specificity of the wish, and withdrew it.

The third section of each page describes Anya’s thoughts, and her conversations with her ruthless financier partner, Alan, who becomes suspicious of JC’s interest in Anya and plans a curious revenge.

The fictional narrative of JC and Anya takes up perhaps a quarter of the word-count of the book.  The story is well told but not enthralling, and when the character JC mentions at one point that at his age, “sketching stories seems to have become a substitute for writing them,” we know what he means.

And be warned if, like me, you still haven’t got around to watching that DVD of The Seven Samurai that you’ve had for years.  Coetzee gives away the entire plot on page 6.


  1. Once I got to grips with the style of ‘Elizabeth Costello’ I really liked it, but this one sounds a step too far. I think I need to go back with Coetzee and read some of his more straightforward novels.

  2. Ouch. I take it you are underwhelmed?! I have my copy waiting for all the furore to die down and then I’ll read it. He is one of my favourite writers, but then I grew up in South Africa with him writing the world around me in the only sane way possible. Must be his move to Australia that’s caused the new style!

  3. To quote some movie or other, Equiano, I wouldn’t say I’m underwhelmed… but is it possible to be just whelmed?

    Certainly Disgrace is one of the great Booker winners – and one of the great books. But this isn’t in the same league. I admit I haven’t read much of his other stuff, so if either of you, jem or Equiano, have any recommendations, I’d welcome them.

  4. No help from me I’m afraid, I’ve only read ‘Disgrace’ and ‘Elizabeth Costello’ – I’m tempted by ‘Slow Man’ as apparently Elizabeth reappears in it – but Amazon reviews seemed wildly mixed, and also fancy trying ‘Life and Time of Michael K’ as it was his other Booker winner.

  5. Thanks for this JS. I gave up on Elizabeth Coetzee as I couldn’t stand the preaching. I thought I was being hypersensitive but feel vindicated with the snippet that those were real speeches.

  6. Either LIFE & TIMES OF MICHAEL K or WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS should give you a really good flavour for what he was producing in the ’80s. I’d start with those, both still in print so easily available. I look forward to hearing what you think of them.

  7. My favourite Coetzee is “Youth”; after reading that one I bought three copies and sent them to my my three best friends. My girlfiend swears by “Boyhood”.

  8. As you know, with Coetzee the distinction between fact/fiction is not always clear. ‘Youth’ is a novel, but I remember reading somewhere that you can read a lot of Coetzee biography in it, if you wish so (for me these things don’t matter). ‘Boyhood’ is subtitled ‘A Memoir’ and I guess it’s the same thing here.

    I also remember reading ‘The Master of Sint-Petersburg’ (or more accuratley: I don’t remember reading it, it’s the kind of novel I sailed through and forgot about as soon as I finished … must be a construction fault in me 🙂 I’ll certainly give the new Coetzee a try, as I’m quite interested in this kind of formal experiments in novel writing (currently reading B.S. Johnson …)

  9. This must be the most playful book Coetzee’s written. He seems to have had a lot of fun teasing the reader, almost inviting us to conclude that the narrator (or at least the writer of the book’s Strong Opinions) and the author are the same, but then throwing in some dud phrases – ‘it’s like déjà vu all over again’, ‘couldn’t write for toffee’ – that he (Coetzee) would clearly never commit to print as words out of his own mouth. I also found it quite funny (wryly amusing?): all the surefootedness and clarity of thought on display in the top half of the page, but a mind being brought to his knees when we read below the line.

    The notion of shame and dishonour seems to hang darkly over Coetzee’s mind (cf. ‘Disgrace’), and the parts of the book I was engaged by the most were those where the essays on shame (collective (religious) vs. individual (secular), and how it lives on (Germans) or dies (British Empire)) fed into the narrative between JC and Anya.

    I enjoyed the essays (thrilling, provocative, daring) more than the diary entries, particularly the early pieces; the later ones were shorter and less well-argued, an indication of the effect Anya is having on him, I suppose, but that was too heavy a burden to ask a character as thinly drawn as Anya to bear.

    I did enjoy this novel, though I’m wary of saying how much as mixed in with the enjoyment is not an inconsiderable amount of relief that after abandoning six novels in a row, I’ve finally finished one again. I knew I could rely on Coetzee to get me to the end of a book, which may or may not be praise.

    (I think John was asking for recommendations: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ is just as good as ‘Disgrace’. Searing stuff.)

  10. Thanks Sam.

    relief that after abandoning six novels in a row, I’ve finally finished one again

    Boy do I know how that feels! I’ve been having it recently, and curiously, was in the middle of a ‘difficult’ patch in day-to-day life when I read this book last year – so the blog entries from September 07 could well be considered my own Diary of a Bad Month. For that reason I take my own views on this book as posted above with a pinch of salt.

    It’s extraordinary how preoccupation with extra-literary concerns can so annihilate one’s ability to concentrate on a book and simply read. Roth reports something similar in Patrimony, when he’s so distracted by his father’s illness that he can’t read, can’t write, can’t think. (I can’t locate the passage as I’ve been varnishing floors this weekend and so my books are all stacked away at the minute. More extra-literary activity!) It’s comforting, I suppose, to know that such things attack all minds, great and … not so great.

  11. Yeah, I know. There was a survey undertaken in one of newspapers a while ago that asked, ‘Which book do you turn to in a crisis?’ The one propping up the valium, obviously.

    ‘It’s comforting, I suppose, to know that such things attack all minds, great and … not so great.’

    Thanks, John! That’s really kind of you to say but really I don’t think I’ve got a remotely great – I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d like to think I’m reasonably intelligent – above average, say – maybe even with one half of a foot in the upper quartile – but great is so, so, you know, difficult a term to define and – of course, it’s very flattering and I can see why you might think so and I don’t completely disagree and even if I did who am I to argue if you think… Oh. I see. You meant Roth.

  12. As for novels that get you to read an author’s entire catalog, “Diary of a Bad Year” was it for me. Oh! but the fact that the second part of the book is less structured, loose, and shorter is the mastery of the writing. By the end of it, it is hard not to find yourself crying (that is, if you in some way have experienced something like Bach or Dostoevsky). Some things don’t need paragraphs to be said about them. They just are, and we know about them. It is however the novelists responsibility to suggest, and Coetzee is the master of suggestion/allusion.

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