Beckett has meant a great deal to me in my own writing – that must be obvious. He is a clear influence on my prose. […] The essays I wrote on Beckett’s style aren’t only academic exercises, in the colloquial sense of that word. They are also attempts to get closer to a secret, a secret of Beckett’s that I wanted to make my own. And discard, eventually, as it is with influences.
It is In the Heart of the Country that Beckett’s influence seems most clear in Coetzee’s work, but also apparent in Waiting for Barbariansand Life and Times of Michael K. In the latter Coetzee writes memorably of, “a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand,” paying quiet homage to Molloy’s famous sequence.
[November 2013: The link originally in this post, to a NYRB Coetzee review of Beckett’s letters is now subscribers only, so I’ve changed the original post.]
Such darkness in Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, ostensibly the tale of a haunted, fictionalised Dostoevsky returning to nineteenth century St Petersburg to mourn and collect the papers of a dead stepson, who has apparently become the political tool of local nihilists.
Although Coetzee’s Russian backdrop is superficially different from his earlier works, his theme of a tortured protagonist that must humble himself to learn to love, against an undercurrent of violence and death, is familiar territory. The tension in The Master of Petersburg is created from a confrontation of moralities and questions around authorship.
This Wikipedia post on the book suggests a confessional aspect to The Master of Petersburg, which I’ll investigate further when time permits. The intertextual relationship with Dostoevsky’s Demons is clear and fascinating. I love when a writer of Coetzee’s ability continues a literary conversation started a century earlier.
In the late eighties, the professor in charge of our research group invited us regularly to his Muswell Hill house for debates that would often extend, over dope and Rioja, into the next morning. Let’s call him Richard, it is as good a name as any. Richard had the most extensive library of dog-eared paperbacks I’d ever seen, a mixture of non-fiction that betrayed his earlier Communist party affiliation and obscure novels, many in French and Spanish.
It was Richard that lead me to the novels of JM Coetzee, for which I am indebted. Coetzee is for me the touchstone of all novelists. Richard is my reference point for that generation of dejected former Communists that sold out, first to impotent liberal-humanist posturing, then eventually to free-market economics. That generation are accountable for much of the nastiness of Western government and its pernicious influence on the rest of the world. They opened Pandora’s box, and I am not at all certain that it can be resealed.
Coetzee’s Age of Iron condemns the impotence of liberal-humanist posturing in South Africa’s apartheid era, a form of champagne cowardice that was equally clear within the Moroccan blue walls of Muswell Hill. Using the first person point of view, Coetzee makes the reader a co-protagonist in this unmasking. No other perspective would have served his narrative model so powerfully in this truly heartbreaking story. It ends with the faintest hint of release but nothing that could be considered absolution.
It is hard, perhaps impossible, not to be cynical about politicians. Our institutions have singularly failed us, repeatedly. As the man credited with the title of first anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, wrote:
To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonised, listed and checked-off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about, by creatures without knowledge and without virtues. To be ruled is, at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected. It is, on the pretext of public utility and in the name of the common good, to be put under contribution, exercised, held to ransom, exploited, monopolised, concussed, pressured, mystified,
robbed; then, at the least resistance and at the first hint of complaint, repressed, fined, vilified, vexed, hunted, exasperated, knocked-down, disarmed, garroted, imprisoned, shot, grape-shot, judged, condemned, deported, sacrificed, sold, tricked; and to finish off with, hoaxed, calumniated, dishonoured. Such is government! And to think that there are democrats among us who claim there’s some good in government!
Such a statement must have seemed overly dramatic in 19th-century France, but is there anybody now that would not recognise much that is familiar in the governments of the 21st-century?
This isn’t a political blog (though everything is political). Reading JM Coetzee sent me flicking through my anarchist notebooks for context. In Age of Iron, Coetzee’s narrator writes of the South African administration but it applies to any:
The parade of politicians every evening: I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. The bullies in the last row of school-desks, raw-boned, lumpish boys, grown up now and promoted to rule the land. They with their mothers and fathers, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters: a locust horde, a plague of black locusts infesting the country, munching without cease, devouring lives. Why, in a spirit of horror and loathing, do I watch them? [..] Legitimacy they no longer trouble to claim. Reason they have shrugged off. What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power.
One mild summer in the late eighties, with limited resources and no compelling responsibilities, I set out to circumnavigate the 11,073 miles or about 17,820 kilometres that make up the coastline of Great Britain.
At the time my only foray outside of London and the south of the country had been on an aeroplane diverted to Birmingham airport due to fog at Heathrow. The single thrill of this inconvenience took place on the return train to London, en-route to boarding school, when my train passed through the small town of Leighton Buzzard. One of my favourite songs from a few years earlier had been Saturday Night (Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees) sung by The Leyton Buzzards, who went on to greater renown as the pop group Modern Romance.
Provoked by a desire to see the country of my birth I walked a little, but mostly hitchhiked, following the coastal roads. This odyssey became the prototype of similar journeys from north to south, then east to west in Ireland, and across the top of North Africa.
On this trip around Great Britain I slept mostly in small harbour side inns, always with a sea view of sorts, but occasionally in bus stops, or sheltered by seaside groynes and, on one occasion, on a park bench. A touch clichéd, but I felt a wanderer’s imperative.
I discovered many things about the country and myself: Gregg’s bakeries sell different delicacies country-wide, discovering these regional specialities became a mission; people who picked me up from the side of the road for both long and short runs were mostly staggeringly kind and generous; it was rare to even see a car (and very, very windy), let alone hitch a lift on the eastern and northern coastal roads of Scotland. What I found in eastern Scotland, perhaps the highlight of a trip that was terrific and terrible in equal part, was the wind lashed village of Lower Largo, birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
This afternoon I finished reading JM Coetzee’s Foe, which uses Defoe’s book as the metatextual framework to explore the ontological status of fictional characters, the nature of authority and language, all themes that Coetzee goes on to question in later novels. As always with Coetzee, as with Beckett, it is as though the writer published fully formed mature novels from the first instance. There is no sense of the writer having to develop their craft in full gaze of readers, as Zadie Smith has described.
We yield to a stranger’s embrace or give ourselves to the waves; for the blink of an eyelid our vigilance relaxes; we are asleep; and when we awake, we have lost the direction of our lives. What are these blinks of an eyelid, against which the only defence is an eternal and inhuman wakefulness? Might they not be the cracks and chinks through which another voice, other voices, speak in our lives? By what right do we close our ears to them?
It’s been two, maybe three years, since I read David Shields’ manifesto Reality Hunger, and I’ve often wondered about my response to that book. It was uncharacteristic in a way I find interesting. While reading Reality Hunger I disliked the form, not quite knowing which material was borrowed and which was Shield’s own (while enjoying the reasons he adopted that form). I broadly agreed with the argument, neither original nor particularly well made, that plot-driven narrative fiction has become a stale and nugatory vehicle. Shield’s paean to the essay was less persuasive. Since reading Reality Hunger it has served as an irritant similar to grit in the soft part of an oyster. Hankering for more insight into Shield’s consciousness, I sought out The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.
So, it was with curiosity I read his latest How literature saved my life, essentially making the same point as Reality Hunger but serving as literary memoir and continued observation about art and death. As memoir, Shields’ personality is explicitly present on every page and it struck me that, in this and his earlier books, it is his personality that I respond most strongly to. It is the same sensation I get from reading Geoff Dyer and Kate Zambreno. Literary flair aside, and there is plenty of that in all three writers, they pass the pub test. I can conjure up wonderful winter evenings spent in a good pub with Shields, Dyer or Zambreno, preferably all three, discussing art, literature, death, and generally, for a time, lessening the loneliness inherent in life. Though I prize their literary work, I cannot imagine a similar evening in the company of JM Coetzee or Susan Sontag. I suspect it is also why all three writers encourage such polarised opinion, in part a personal response to how warmly or coolly readers respond to their personalities.
From How literature saved my life, an excerpt that could easily serve as my personal literary manifesto. Perhaps in Shieldian fashion I should borrow it as my own.
How an awful lot of “literature’ is to me the very antithesis of life
We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb. Straight-forward fiction functions as more Bubble Wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel c.2013 no longer germane (and the postmodern novel shroud upon shroud)? Most novels’ glacial pace isn’t remotely congruent with the speed of our lives and our consciousness of these lives. Most novels’ explorations of human behaviour still owe far more to Freudian psychology than they do to cognitive science and DNA. Most novels treat setting as if where people live matters as much to us as it did to Balzac, Most novels frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments straight out of Hitchcock. And above all, the tidy coherence of most novels-highly praised ones in particular-implies a belief in an orchestrating deity, or at least a purposeful meaning to existence that the author is unlikely to possess, and belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhabit and overwhelm us. I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foreground the question of how the writer solves being alive. Samuel Johnson: A book should either allow us to escape existence of teach us how to endure it. Acutely aware of our mortal conduction, I find books that simple allow us to escape our existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it.)
Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.
Still not available on Lovefilm, but I am so very eager to watch Tom and Viv, which highly questionably “pins the Eliots’ train wreck of a marriage almost entirely on Viv’s hormones and drug use”.
I’m looking forward to Simon Critchley’s new book, co-authored with his wife, the psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster, The Hamlet Doctrine. This brilliant interview from The White Review discusses The Tragic and its Limits.
From HTMLGiant, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s great essay on the long take.
Katie Roiphe’s column on Ian McEwan is arguably better than reading her subject’s novels. “Want To Understand Sexual Politics? Read This Novel. Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth reveals the deepest ways in which men misunderstand women.”
Open Culture offers up Nirvana’s Home Videos: An Intimate Look at the Band’s Life Away From the Spotlight.
Richard Kovitch’s review of Extreme Metaphors – Interviews with J.G Ballard 1967 – 2008. Richard quotes Germaine Greer’s so very accurate pronouncement that, “JG Ballard is a great writer who has never written a great novel.”
This Coetzee novel, though far from a favourite, stimulates the same thought inspired by reading Beckett and Dante: perhaps I should read only this, only Coetzee, or only Beckett. To read one writer’s oeuvre so deeply, sentence by sentence, that it becomes engrained.
Though I relished most of Life and Times of Michael K, I was impervious to the second part, narrated by a medical officer that attempts to restore Michael K to health. In this section, though the allusion is subtle, Coetzee drifts into a spiritual journey allegory, adopting a messiah/simpleton analogy.
Michaels, forgive me for the way I treated you, I did not appreciate who you were till the last days. Forgive me too for following you like this. I promise not to be a burden.
It is impossible to ignore the symmetry between Michael K and Kafka’s Josef K. Coetzee’s fiction often reveals Kafka’s presence in the shadows, but perhaps more overtly in Life and Times of Michael K with its idiot savant motif.
To read Coetzee’s fiction is to undertake a journey, a passage, with the consequent necessity of recuperation when the passage is completed. Waiting for the Barbarians offers a passage to an undesignated time and place, a frontier town, one of many established to secure a heartland from barbarians. The mise-en-scène offers clues to both place and period (lances, fusils, desert and marshland) but these are unimportant. This is a novel that describes a number of binary oppositions, which turn out not to be genuine choices.
Sharing, at the beginning at least, a mood of detachment similar in texture to Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, the central protagonist is unnamed, referred to simply as The Magistrate. Just three of the novel’s many characters are named: the menacing Colonel Joll from the Third Bureau ( I am intrigued that ‘jol’ is South African slang meaning to have fun, to party, which Coetzee was probably aware of in choosing this surname), his vicious sidekick Mandel, and, singly, Mai, a mother that The Magistrate turns to, briefly, for intercourse. By naming just the opposite poles of violence and intimacy Coetzee foregrounds this as a didactic fable with its roots in Kafka.
It is of course essential to read Waiting for the Barbarians as a critique of two distinct forms of colonialism, the benign but amoral form identified with the Magistrate, the last just man, and the unreserved despotism of the Third Bureau and Empire as represented by Joll. Finally, as in Cavafy’s poem, the barbarians never come, thus leaving the reader to ask if they existed, and whether the truly barbaric were within the fortress all along. A Baudrillardian reading through a filter of American barbarism in the Middle East would be rewarding but perhaps for another time.