Coetzee J.M.

J.M. Coetzee: The Childhood of Jesus

How much of our experience of a book comes from expectations? High hopes can either offer artificial buoyancy – at least initially – or make disappointment all the more acute. The human desire for loyalty and continuity must be relevant also: if we liked the author’s other books, we will want to like this one; it streamlines and simplifies things for us. (By us, of course, I mean me.) So it is with J.M. Coetzee, he of the Booker double and the Nobel, a reliable source of reading pleasure if any living author is. His new book seems to plough a pretty familiar furrow, to begin with, and I wondered if I would have dismissed the story as derivative if not for my faith in this man.

J.M. Coetzee: The Childhood of Jesus

The Childhood of Jesus appears to fit into that category of novels where a man arrives in a strange land and struggles to make himself understood. The lack of understanding may be literal and linguistic (Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole) or emotional and allusive (Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled). Such a premise gives an author opportunities to highlight the human condition unshadowed by familiar geographical settings which might distract the reader: the great risk in setting a story in a known location is that it will seem to be about that location. Better to create a new one. The balancing risk in doing so is that the reader will spend most of the book trying to work out what and where the author is really talking about.

Certainly, the critical consensus so far on The Childhood of Jesus has been to place weight on the title and the numerous biblical analogies which appear in the book. A man and a boy arrive in a Spanish-speaking city called Novilla, having journeyed by boat “from the camp, from Belstar”. They have been assigned names and ages, based on their appearance – the man is Simón, the boy David – and have been “washed clean” of their memories of whatever went before. They are not related (“not my grandson, not my son”) but Simón has assumed responsibility for David, and his self-defined role shifts as the book proceeds: “guardian”, “sort of uncle”, even “godfather”. His main aim – his quest – is to locate the boy’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that this means finding a woman who can be placed in the role, rather than the one who previously held it. The boy asks him “Why are we here?”

‘You are here to find your mother. I am here to help you.’

‘But after we find her, what are we here for?’

‘I don’t know what to say. We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted that chance. It is a great thing, to live. It is the greatest thing of all.’

This tendency toward allusion, and to render the particular into the philosophical, is present throughout. Simón finds a job as a stevedore at the docks, unloading sacks of grain, and has debates with his colleagues on labour and progress. (“If you were to bring a crane, you could get the unloading done in a tenth of the time.” “You could, but what would be the point? What would be the point in getting things done in a tenth of the time? It is not as if there is an emergency, a food shortage, for example.”) He grows close to a woman, Elena, who challenges his presumption of mutual attraction between the sexes (“As a tribute to me – an offering, not an insult – you want to grip me tight and push a part of your body into me. As a tribute, you claim. I am baffled”), and to whom he protests about Novilla’s desire to curb “appetites” (“When we have annihilated our hunger, you say, we will have proved we can adapt, and we can then be happy for ever after. But I don’t want to starve the dog of hunger! I want to feed it!”). He argues even with the boy, in simultaneously logical and illogical ways, trying to impose his fading memories of how life used to work (others in Novilla consider memories to be things we “suffer from”), even directing the boy’s reading of Don Quixote to his own understanding. But his love for David, although oddly expressed, is honest and true, and is his only compass in this strange new place, which might be not just another country, but another world, another life. “What good is a new life if we are not transformed by it?”

Simón is something of a fool, pitiable in his inability to let go of the past and of his irrational beliefs, such as his conviction that a woman he sees playing tennis is the mother for David that he has been searching for. He follows through on his beliefs without regard to how they will affect others; or rather, in the belief that all will be for the best because he believes it so strongly. No need to look too hard for religious allegory here, nor as the book proceeds and David acquires what can only be described as Christ-like traits, and biblical references bubble across the pages. But the title, The Childhood of Jesus, can also speak of something about which we know nothing (or almost nothing: a dozen verses in the gospel of Luke). So Coetzee’s novel is also a deliberate empty space, cleared of context to enable the ideas and thoughts – the hopes we invest in children, and how much of ourselves we put in them, for example, just as we put our own ideas into Coetzee’s story – to be seen clearly. There are knotty concerns here on reading, on order and chaos, on political engagement, on almost anything you can think of. But, “you think too much,” Elena says to Simón. “This has nothing to do with thinking.”

Simón wishes for “some saviour” to “descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered.” What Coetzee has given us is a book not of answers but of questions. To use James Wood’s formulation (writing about Thomas Pynchon), it is an allegory which refuses to allegorise. Indeed, a distant resemblance for me was Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King, which, like The Childhood of Jesus, is rich in religious reference but resists reduction to one neat analogy. I was going to say “like Three to See the King without the jokes”, but that’s not really true. Coetzee is often seen as a gloomy, humourless writer (though those two words are not synonyms), probably helped by things like his reaction to Geoff Dyer telling a joke at a festival in 2010. But like many writers with a reputation for miserablism, Coetzee’s work does have comedy, most obviously seen here in Simón’s attempts to complete an application form for membership of a brothel (“Which is not to say that I am not a man, with a man’s needs”), and a dialogue with David and his ‘mother’ Ines, about a blocked toilet.

‘It’s my poo,’ he says. ‘I want to stay!’

‘It was your poo. But you evacuated it. You got rid of it. It’s not yours any more. You no longer have a right to it.’

Ines gives a snort and retires to the kitchen.

‘Once it gets into the sewer pipes it is no one’s poo,’ he goes on. ‘In the sewer it joins all the other people’s poo and becomes general poo.’

These are not the only straightforward pleasures in the book: Coetzee’s prose is clean and efficient, driving the reader on through the mazy stasis of life in Novilla. There is plenty of what, to avoid a cliche, we might call Kafkaish stuff. “He remembers asking Alvaró once why there was never any news on the radio. ‘News of what?’ inquired Alvaró. ‘News of what is going on in the world,’ he replied. ‘Oh,’ said Alvaró, ‘is something going on?'” This intellectual incuriosity provokes the opposite in the reader. The story itself is intriguing – bewildering, puzzling, frustrating, say others – though it’s disappointing that the blurb on my UK edition outlines the plot up to page 260. (The book has 277 pages.) These qualities, combined with the enjoyable and unaccustomed exercise of thinking about the book – wanting to think about it – all the way through, meant that in a strange sense, The Childhood of Jesus is the most fun I’ve had with a novel in ages.

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging.  Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time.  The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force.  It’s about art, life and more.  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.”  Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.

Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  “He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year.

Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising.  Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt.  “For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue.  A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics.  Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better.  “He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone
Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified.   Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real.  “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come.  Goody.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me.  In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over.  “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  “After mankind, the Horla!”

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18
The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner.  In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming.  This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader.  “He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  “He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose.  “Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”

John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate).  It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love.  ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below.  Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

To describe myself as a fan of J.M. Coetzee’s work on the basis that I liked Disgrace makes me feel a little like the gorilla in the Far Side cartoon, who says to his friend, “You know, Sid, I really like bananas. … I mean, I know that’s not profound or nothin’. … Heck! We all do. … But for me, I think it goes far beyond that.” After a disastrous attempt to review Diary of a Bad Year when I was having a bad month, I have now – third time lucky – reached the stage where I know I will, eventually, have to read all his books. It’s all because of Summertime, a magnificent book which from the beginning places the reader in Coetzee’s expert care. But which Coetzee?

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

Summertime is subtitled Scenes from Provincial Life, which recalls Middlemarch and Madame Bovary, but also aligns it with Coetzee’s earlier books Boyhood and Youth. Summertime follows them as fictionalised memoirs of Coetzee’s life, and the title is a mordant joke from an author not famed for his wit. The joke is: ‘If this is the prime of his life…’, because Coetzee gives us a ruthless self-portrait. He does this by stepping aside and reimagining his life in the 1970s from the viewpoints of five people – a lover, a relative, a colleague, and so on – all interviewed by a prospective biographer named Vincent after Coetzee’s death. The book opens and closes with journal entries, the only time the author (as character) speaks directly.

But to the barbarians, as Zbigniew Herbert has pointed out, irony is simply like salt: you crunch it between your teeth and enjoy a momentary savour; when the savour is gone, the brute facts are still there.

The reader’s temptation when reading Summertime is to try to work out what is brute fact, what is irony, what is something else, but it’s a temptation which should be resisted. (As I manfully resisted the urge throughout to compare the content of the book with Coetzee’s biography.) John Coetzee – as he is called in the book – is not flatteringly depicted. “He looked out of place, like a bird, one of those flightless birds; or like an abstracted scientist who had wandered by mistake out of his laboratory. There was an air of seediness about him too, an air of failure.” Even for his lover, Julia, “he had no sexual presence whatsoever.” This, she suggests, is because “his mental capacities, and specifically his ideational faculties, were overdeveloped, at the cost of his animal self.” While Julia knew John Coetzee, he wrote and published his first novel, Dusklands.

He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.

Summertime might be its own cathartic exercise. Coetzee seems to lacerate his human failings (and given Coetzee’s interest in animal welfare, his “animal self” might represent the highest qualities), but it seems sly and knowing, even witty. The portrayal of John Coetzee – cold, ill at ease, “stalled” – looks steeped in humility, though such self-effacement can itself be a form of vanity (“See how brave he is to mock himself! Such a good sport!”). John Coetzee is not much more effective as a family member than he is as a lover: he lives with his ageing father, and his cousin considers that “all Coetzee men are slapgat [slack, spineless]”. During this period, he also works as a teacher of English, but when he shows passion for a student’s ability, this is misinterpreted by her mother. The mother’s personal distaste for him (“he is nothing, was nothing, just an irritation, an embarrassment”) leads her to cast doubts on what his biographer – and John Coetzee himself – believes might really redeem him: his writing.

He was not a man of substance. … I know he won a big reputation later; but was he really a great writer? Because to my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You also have to be a great man. And he was not a great man. He was a little man, an unimportant little man.

This hurts. In the book, John Coetzee believes that what will survive of him are his novels. His lover, Julia, observes that she “never entered his books. Which to me means I never quite flowered within him, never quite came to life.” To him, his books are “a gesture of refusal in the face of time. A bid for immortality.” Writing is a way of fixing in time, like music; as he explains to Julia when trying to persuade her to make love to Schubert’s string quintet:

He wanted to prove something to me about the history of feeling, he said. Feelings had natural histories of their own. They came into being within time, flourished for a while or failed to flourish, then died or died out. The kinds of feeling that had flourished in Schubert’s day were by now, most of them, dead. The sole way left to us to re-experience them was via the music of the times. Because music was the trace, the inscription, of feeling.

He maddens his cousin Carol with knowledge of dead languages. She asks who he can use them to speak to. “The dead. You can speak with the dead,” he responds. “Who otherwise are cast out into everlasting silence.” John Coetzee, when the biographer is carrying out the interviews which glean these details and statements, is already dead, and is speaking to us from his everlasting silence.

The repeated conflict in Summertime is between the writer and the world, the writer and ‘real people’. John Coetzee plans to move his father to “some rundown old ruin” in the backwater of Merweville. “I want to be able to be alone when I choose.” Elsewhere, in the journals, John Coetzee wonders “where in the world can one hide where one will not feel soiled?” The book emphasises that for a writer, most alive when alone, even those who see him most often, who know him longest, can’t know him at all. This is a book where the writer is everywhere present in many different forms: the hand of Coetzee creating the biographer Vincent; the character of John Coetzee shaped by that biographer’s selections and omissions; and the ghostly figure that lies somewhere between the reader’s existing knowledge and the fiction on the page.

One of the interviewees points out to the biographer that “we are all fictioneers … we all continually make up the stories of our lives.” Another challenges him where he embellishes her comments as he writes them up. A third berates him for trying to recast her story into John Coetzee’s story.

You commit a grave error if you think to yourself that the difference between the two stories, the story you want to hear and the story you are getting, will be nothing more than a matter of perspective – that while from my point of view the story of John may have been just one episode among many in the long narrative of my marriage, nevertheless, by dint of a quick flip, a quick manipulation of perspective, followed by some clever editing, you can transform it into a story about John and one of the women who passed through his life. Not so. Not so. I warn you most earnestly: if you go away from here and start fiddling with the text, the whole thing will turn to ash in your hands. I really was the main character. John really was a minor character.

The work evades, eludes, gets away from the facts and finds it own form. The version we see is not the finished biography, but it is the finished novel. It is not life, but art. Which is what the late John Coetzee surely would have wanted.

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.