Ceridwen Dovey on J. M. Coetzee

The works of J. M. Coetzee, whom Ceridwen Dovey would discover through her mother’s references to a “mysterious man whom she referred to only as ‘J.M.'”, are fully literature, but could without error be placed in many other sections of the library. He therefore presents a complex task for a critic. For Coetzee’s works are also replete with quasi-religious  and national myths, quasi-rhetorical speeches, fictionalised autobiography, ethics, metaphysics and psychology. The ideal critic must try to equal his breadth of concerns as well as his psychological depths. It isn’t surprising that most critics fail to write intelligently about Coetzee’s work. However many times you read his books, there is always more to question, more to try to understand.

For Ceridwen Dovey, in her beautifully presented book, part of a Writers on Writers series, interpretation is not her challenge. She does not ask us to believe anything. Her mother, who is truly the book’s subject, a Coetzee scholar, stops trying to unpick his work: “She now thinks that applying theory to his novels, using reasoned critical discourse to dismantle and decode them, may have been fundamentally against the grain of what the novels themselves ask for.” It is a perfect conclusion to a book Dovey has clearly enjoyed writing, in which readers are not bullied into taking a writer’s line and are instead encouraged to think for themselves.

A Dialogue of Sorts

“Living reading . . . strikes me as a mysterious affair. It involves finding one’s way into the voice that speaks from the page, the voice of the Other, and inhabiting that voice, so that you speak to yourself (your self) from outside yourself. The process is thus a dialogue of sorts, though an interior one.”

–J. M. Coetzee, Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy

It is strange and satisfying when one comes across a passage in support of an earlier conversation, in this case with my daughter over breakfast this morning. She referred to an idea I once expressed that fiction is the only way to inhabit momentarily the filter of the Other, something I no longer believe. An act of deep empathy perhaps but still merely a dialogue with oneself.

Recent Arrivals: Poets, Essays, Letters

Carcanet is one of my favourite publishers, with the recent wonderful Carcanet Classics series, and these recent additions to my library.

With a taste for H.D.’s work sharpened by the first twenty pages of Bid Me to Live, her lightly fictional autobiography, these three books will form part of an immersive reading, probably in the early part of next year. H.D.’s engagement with mythology and Hellenic literature is extra compelling.

C.H. Sisson wrote a brilliant essay in the 4th edition of what was Poetry Nation (1975) magazine (now PN Review) on H.D.’s work. I am interested to read more of his literary essays.

W.S. Graham’s collection of letters was irresistibly reviewed on the Carcanet blog recently.

Ceridwen Dovey writing about one of my favourite writers, J.M. Coetzee, was equally compelling, despite having to have it shipped from Australia.

The Thomas Jesus

There was a strong sense while reading J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus that there was much going on that was eluding me, to the degree that I wanted to dig a little deeper. The piece below references the apocryphal infancy gospels that are not permitted to be part of the biblical canon. While I was vaguely aware of their existence, it is quite clear this is a rabbit hole I must follow, not only to do justice to the concentration of thought and feeling in Coetzee’s novel and to prepare to read its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus, but also for curiosity’s sake.

Coetzee’s novel is quite different to what came before, to which he eludes in his exchange of letters with Paul Auster, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011:

“One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.”

It is I think a very fine novel, one to which I intend to devote time thinking, but it also prompts me to reread some of Coetzee’s earlier work (I’ve read everything) to see how they foreshadow The Childhood of Jesus. In some cases, they seem very directly to do so. One of the reviews I read posed this question: ‘what might happen if characters from previous work were reborn in a new one, with only shadow memories of their prior selves.’ I find this idea very intriguing and, at very least, wish to re-read Life & Times of Michael K, Elizabeth Costello, The Master of Petersburg and Foe, all of which are echoed, to some degree, in The Childhood of Jesus.

“In the canonical New Testament gospels, there is only one reference to Jesus as a boy before the age of twelve and his famous visit to the temple. That is in Luke (2.40), where it is simply said that Jesus ‘grew and became strong’. But there were infancy gospels that did not make the cut, or make it into the canon. (They might be said to be like David’s lost letter.) The infancy gospel called pseudo-Matthew resolves the issue [was he fully human as well as fully divine throughout his life] just raised by having Jesus calm Mary and Joseph about it: ‘Do not be afraid nor consider me a child; I always have been a perfect man and am so now.’ But in the earliest infancy gospel, that of Thomas, the bearing of that narrative on Coetzee’s novel is very clear. In that gospel Jesus is most definitely a child, or perhaps a vindictive and petulant and very childish small adult. A boy bumps into the child Jesus at one point, and Jesus strikes him dead. Another boy displeases him and is said to be ‘withered’. And, again very directly mirroring particular elements of David’s story, the young Jesus is taken by Joseph to Zacchaeus to learn to read, and Jesus outwits and humiliates him to the point where Zacchaeus begs Joseph to take him away. (Jesus, it is clear, does not need to learn to read.) He is later taken to learn Greek and Hebrew (which again he clearly already knows) and in a fit of anger he kills the teacher, although he brings him back to life. (In the novel, David has kept secret that he taught himself to read, and he torments his teacher, señor Léon, until the teacher insists the boy be removed.) Moreover the Thomas Jesus performs miracles that are much more like feats of magic than benevolent displays, and David says several times that he is and will be a great magician. These cannot be accidental and they go beyond irony, or at least that first sort of exasperated irony. If David is not merely an ironic ‘Jesus,’ then in this sense – and perhaps in another irony – he is more ‘realistically’ ‘divine’ and ‘human’ (‘age-appropriate human’) than the ‘official’ biblical Jesus, and is much more like the Thomas Jesus.”

J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus: The Ethics of Ideas & Things, edited by Jennifer Rutherford & Anthony Uhlmann

There is Life No Longer

“What philosophy once called life, has turned into the sphere of the private and then merely of consumption, which is dragged along as an addendum of the material production-process, without autonomy and without its own substance. Whoever wishes to experience the truth of immediate life, must investigate its alienated form, the objective powers, which determine the individual existence into its innermost recesses…The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact that it no longer exists.” (Trans. Dennis Redmond, 2005)

“What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own. He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form, the objective powers that determine individual existence even in its most hidden recesses..Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.” (Trans. E. F. N Jephcott, 1974)

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1951

I’ve been spending some time with Adorno’s Minima Moralia, not something I do lightly as it is too easy to be taken over by its melancholy tone. It isn’t undiluted pessimism, despite Adorno’s reputation, but it depends, like anything we ingest, on what filters are in place at the time. It has more to offer. The 153 apparently sealed aporias offer up some fragile hope, a way to see beyond his assertion above that life, from a historical perspective, has ended.

I’ve also been reading J. M. Coetzee recently, his exchange of letters with Paul Auster, and The Childhood of Jesus, which I found very interesting but perplexing. It was the latter that made me look once again into Minima Moralia. Coetzee also appears to contend in this novel that our inner lives are no longer a necessary part of continued ‘progress’; that philosophy and art have been rendered redundant. This thought also occurs in Annie Ernaux’s The Years, this idea that those things that shape and feed our inner subjectivity have been appropriated by what Adorno would call ‘the culture industry.’ Ernaux writes, “I’m a petite bourgeoise who has arrived,” that she is “no longer entitled to an inner life.”

With no ability to decipher how good are the translations of Adorno, I include both above. It is useful I find to read them both side by side.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

JM Coetzee’s Slow Man

In Slow Man Coetzee almost fails, or rather he makes the reader expect him to fail, by braving deep metanarrative but drawing back from any of the expected or even easy narrative threads.

Late Coetzee is playful, Nabokovian; in Slow Man’s case bringing back Elizabeth Costello, a narrator from earlier work to explore again issues of language and sexuality through a prism of weary old age. Coetzee has a finer touch than Nabokov though; his metadiegetic game playing, in this case, succeeds precisely because he knows when to pull back from self-absorbed, self-referential fiction that devours itself.

This Slow Man, like its successor Diary of a Bad Year, which I’m reading, is literature to admire not love. There is satisfaction in narrative as an act of construction but it is less easy to enter the kind of fictional space that leads to total immersion. And perhaps that too is deliberate, a game with the reader, deploying language in a way that is slippery, that eludes truth and falsity, that renders the project more tentatively and, in its way, is more accessible to self-reflection.

I’ve spent a few hundred hours thinking about and reading Coetzee’s work. After Diary of a Bad Year I’ll read The Childhood of Jesus. Of the novels that’ll be the end for me of what exists to date. I’ve read the fictionalised autobiography and consider that trilogy Coetzee’s finest work to date, though Life and Times of Michael K holds a special place in his oeuvre. I also plan to read soon The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, his dialogue with psychologist Arabella Kurtz.