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.