In Coetzee’s work, cruelty surges beyond bearable depiction.
There are people who think of J. M. Coetzee as a cold writer, and he might agree, or pretend to agree. “If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry,” he writes of himself in his memoir “Youth.” “But warmth is not in his nature.” The protagonist of Coetzee’s new novel, “Diary of a Bad Year” (Viking; $24.95), is, like his creator, an aging South African novelist resident in Australia, who muses at one moment that his father surely thought him a selfish child “who has turned into a cold man.” His art, he laments, is “not great-souled.” It lacks “generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.”
Yet this is the cold air just beyond the reach of a fire. Coetzee’s chaste, exact, ashen prose may look like the very embers of restraint, but it is drawn, again and again, to passionate extremity: an uneducated gardener forced to live like an animal off the South African earth (“Life & Times of Michael K”); a white woman dying of cancer while a black township burns, and writing, in her last days, a letter of brutal truths to her daughter (“Age of Iron”); a white woman raped on her farm by a gang of black men, and impregnated (“Disgrace”); a recent amputee, the victim of a road accident that mangled a leg, helpless in his Adelaide apartment, and awkwardly in love with his Croatian nurse (“Slow Man”). Coetzee seems compelled to test his celebrated restraint against subjects and ideas whose extremity challenges novelistic representation.
The excessiveness of witnessed cruelty produces a corresponding excess of shame. In “Disgrace,” for instance, David Lurie is locked in a bathroom by the intruders while they rape his daughter. Lurie is a disgraced academic—he had an affair with a student and has lost his job—but his real disgrace begins after this episode. He starts helping out at an animal clinic run by a friend of his daughter’s. He cannot get used to seeing the countless numbers of dogs put down and then cremated; he will cremate the animals himself rather than watch the workmen casually breaking the legs of the corpses to make them fit better into the furnace. Why does he do it? It is not rational. He does it, he decides, for himself: “For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing.” In Coetzee’s “Elizabeth Costello,” the title character, an august Australian novelist, argues that the daily slaughter of animals is morally comparable to the Holocaust. When a college president wonders if Costello’s vegetarianism is born of moral conviction, she explains that it “comes out of a desire to save my soul.”
In Coetzee’s work, emotions like shame, guilt, and disgrace surge beyond rational discussion just as cruelty surges beyond bearable depiction. And here, in his latest novel, another novelist protagonist gives voice to a feeling of unbearable shame, this time at the Bush Administration’s connivance at torture:
Their shamelessness is quite extraordinary. Their denials are less than half-hearted. . . . The issue for individual Americans becomes a moral one: how, in the face of this shame to which I am subjected, do I behave? How do I save my honour?
Later, this protagonist asserts that if he heard that some American had committed suicide “rather than live in disgrace, I would fully understand.” He can understand because “the generation of white South Africans to which I belong, and the next generation, and perhaps the generation after that too, will go bowed under the shame of the crimes that were committed in their name.” A Finn, hearing Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony for the first time, nearly a century ago, he argues, must have felt pride that “one of us could put together such sounds, proud that out of nothing we human beings can make such stuff. Contrast with that one’s feelings of shame that we, our people, have made Guantanamo.”
The central characters of both “Elizabeth Costello,” which appeared in 2003, and “Diary of a Bad Year” are novelists, and novelists in the act of dispensing strong opinions. Elizabeth Costello has been giving public lectures, which are reproduced in the novel; the protagonist of Coetzee’s new book has been asked by his German publisher to contribute to a volume of essays that will gather the “Strong Opinions” (this is its proposed title) of six prominent contemporary writers. Many of the protagonist’s essays are reproduced in the novel we are reading. Naturally, the reader wants to make Coetzee’s novels confessional, to claim these opinions as his rightful children. But Coetzee explicitly complicates the question of his paternity, so that these books read less like confessions than like books about confession.
Lest that sound dry, it should be said that “Diary of a Bad Year” is an involving, argumentative, moving novel: if not quite “great-souled,” then deep-souled. Coetzee smudges the traces of his authorial DNA by using a framing device that both hints at and disavows connections between the novelist protagonist and the actual writer. The South African novelist at the center of the new book is teasingly called “Señor C” by his neighbors, but he is by no means identical to J. M. Coetzee, who was born in South Africa in 1940, taught at the University of Chicago before moving to Australia, and won the Nobel Prize in 2003. Señor C is six years older than the Nobel Laureate, often writes elegantly and sometimes a bit demotically (“Most scientists can’t write for toffee,” he claims at one point), and expresses regret that people think of him not as a novelist but as “a pedant who dabbles in fiction.” Distinguished he may be, but he feels obscure, overlooked, worn out. Stockholm has not, apparently, called. He lives in an apartment block in Sydney, where he meets Anya, an attractive young neighbor who is currently unemployed but used to be a receptionist in “the hospitality industry.” Like the elderly Nathan Zuckerman, he is uselessly afflicted with desire, and smothers his lust by asking Anya if she would like to type up the “strong opinions” he has been speaking into a Dictaphone. After a formulaic demurral—as in bank-heist movies, the last important addition to the team always spends a scene resisting—she agrees. Anya calls him Señor C because, it seems, she had thought that he was a South American novelist. Señor C’s strong opinions are divided into thirty-one brief chapters, with titles like “On intelligent design” and “On Guantanamo Bay.” They are a confounding mixture of the banal, the extreme, and the scintillating. Inevitably, his attacks on George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Guantánamo, though righteous, have a slightly overinhabited quality, as if too many other people had been squatting in their public rooms. Coetzee, I suspect, wants us to reflect on the differences in rhetoric between public and private ideas. A passage like the following, from a chapter entitled “On terrorism,” sounds like a bull with a bullhorn, and is very different in tone from the more feline Coetzee, who would surely rather have his claws pulled than commit to print the phrase “It’s déjà vu all over again”:
Well, what do we see today, in 2005? Not only the re-emergence of old-fashioned restrictions of the baldest sort on freedom of speech—witness legislation in the United States, the UK, and now Australia—but surveillance (by shadowy agencies) of the entire world’s telephonic and electronic communications. It’s déjà vu all over again.
Broadly, the intellectual and political persona of Señor C, as we can decipher it, is left-leaning, subversive, cynical, anarchic, and preternaturally sensitive. He is no great lover of democracy (would history be much different, he asks, if elections had been decided by the toss of a coin rather than by majority vote?); he dislikes the pro-Bush government of John Howard; he is shamed by Guantánamo, by torture; he defends the cinematic representation of pedophilia by adult actors young enough to pass as children; he argues in favor not quite of intelligent design but of enlightened deism. “An intelligent universe evolves purposively over time, even if the purpose in question may for ever be beyond the grasp of the intellect,” he writes. “One might want to give that intelligence the handy monosyllabic name God.” Like Elizabeth Costello, he seems to quiver with shame and abhorrence before the carnage of animals raised for food: a chapter entitled “On the slaughter of animals” describes the kitchens we see on television cooking programs as if from the estranged eye of the non-carnivore. The neat little pile of raw meat on the counter must look “much the same as human flesh (why should it not?),” he writes. “So, to the eye unused to carnivore cuisine, the inference does not come automatically (‘naturally’) that the flesh on display is cut from a carcass (animal) rather than from a corpse (human).”
These essays are always interesting, and some are dazzling. The last of the strong opinions, “On the afterlife,” is a beautiful piece of argumentation in which Señor C probes at the Christian notion of Heaven and Hell, and at the idea that the self continues to exist as itself after death. If there is no proposed continuity between the self on earth and the self in Heaven, he says, then it is incoherent to suggest that good behavior on earth will be rewarded in paradise—such rewards can mean nothing to us as we understand them now. But, if there is a continuity between selves, then how will Heaven avoid replicating earth? This is even more acute if one believes in Hell:
Either the soul in hell has a memory of an earlier life—a life misspent—or it has not. If it has no such memory, then eternal damnation must seem to that soul the worst, most arbitrary injustice in the universe, proof indeed that the universe is evil. Only the memory of who I was and how I spent my time on earth will permit those feelings of infinite regret that are said to be the quintessence of damnation.
“Diary of a Bad Year” takes a daring form: Señor C’s essays occupy the bulk of each page, more or less, but running beneath them, like the news crawl on a TV screen, are what read like short diary entries by Señor C and by Anya, which offer a running commentary on the developing relationship of employer and employee, and which convey the plot of the novel, such as it is. So a typical page is segmented like the back of a scarab beetle, and the reader must choose to read either one narrative strand at a time or one page at a time and thus two or three strands simultaneously. In practice, one does a bit of both—a gulp of essay, a snatch of diary—and the broken form usefully, but relatively painlessly, corrupts any easy relation to innocent continuity.
Coetzee wants to interrupt the usual smoothness because, in part, he wants to remind us of the provisionality, the unfinishedness, of ideas as we encounter them in novelistic form. The diary excerpts in the lower parts of the page function as the rebellious downstairs of this intellectual mansion: it is where we witness Anya and her boyfriend, Alan, who voted for John Howard, mocking the embarrassing seepage of the liberal bleeding heart. To them, and especially to Alan, a hard-nosed financial consultant, this elderly writer is out of touch, an old fart, an unworldly mandarin. Anya begins to chafe under his rule, and cheekily corrects his English; perhaps she, then, is the source of phrases like “The rest is history” and “It’s déjà vu all over again.” She resists his sensitivity to collective shame, proffering a clean, modern individualism: “As long as it is not your fault, as long as you are not responsible the dishonour doesn’t stick to you.” Alan, meanwhile, has discovered that Señor C has a large bank account, and that the money is pledged to the Anti-Vivisection League of Australia. He has designs on the money. This narratological downstairs is also the place where Coetzee has Señor C remind us that his opinions do not necessarily represent his deepest thoughts (and, by extension, that we should avoid any attempt to lead them back to Coetzee). “Tread carefully,” he says to Anya. “You may be seeing less of my inmost depths than you believe.” And later: “I should thoroughly revise my opinions, that is what I should do. I should cull the older, more decrepit ones, find newer, up-to-date ones to replace them. But where does one go to find up-to-date opinions? To Anya? To her lover and moral guide, the broker-man Alan? Can one buy fresh opinions in the marketplace?”
In truth, one reads the top section of each page with mounting excitement, and the bottom two sections rather dutifully. The properly postmodern qualifying of Señor C’s opinions (“I should thoroughly revise my opinions”) has a slightly academic explicitness, a self-conscious legibility, as did that moment in Coetzee’s last novel, “Slow Man,” when the novelist Elizabeth Costello suddenly entered the amputee’s life and he started uttering obviously allegorical protests to her: “You treat me like a puppet. . . . You treat everyone like a puppet. You make up stories and bully us into playing them out for you.” Coetzee’s deliberate complications can seem a little simple here, and it hardly helps that Anya and Alan are uninteresting caricatures. As “Slow Man” also demonstrates, one of the difficulties of this kind of allegorizing may be that, even as the novelist is being self-conscious about his own fiction, he writes up his experimentalism in the most rudimentary and conventional kind of “realism.” Anya confides to her diary such things as “Three years together and still Alan has the hots for me, hots so hot there are times I think he is going to burst.” In regard to Señor C, Coetzee seems to have given a lot of thought to the question of who is speaking whose words, and for whom; but no such thought seems to have been spent in regard to Anya’s voice and audience. As a result, the relationship between her and the old novelist is a good deal less absorbing than that between the protagonist of “Slow Man” and his solidly real, thick-waisted Croatian nurse.
Besides, Coetzee does not really need this subplot. The dynamism of the book is intellectual, and the real drama is at the top of the page. Coetzee is devoted to Dostoyevsky, and “Elizabeth Costello” made clear that part of that devotion has to do with what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called the “dialogic” nature of Dostoyevsky’s arguments. Bakhtin noted that it is impossible to infer from the novels what Dostoyevsky believed, because no single idea ever gains authorial dominance. Instead, ideas, like the characters themselves, are in constant circulation and mutual qualification. It is how Dostoyevsky the ardent Christian was able to argue against himself, awarding Ivan Karamazov the most devastating petition against conventional Christian belief ever mounted in a novel. Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones? Imagine a fervent Christian, who has always believed in the afterlife. One night, waking in terror, he realizes, for only a second, but absolutely, that there is no afterlife. The terror passes, and the next morning he reaffirms his public vows. He does not succumb to doubt. Still, the question remains: what has happened to his orthodoxy? If it has not been cancelled or refuted by the nightmarish doubt, does it now contain, like a trapped smell, the ghost of its opposite?
This is what it might mean to “novelize” an idea, to make an idea a kind of character, with a character’s inconsistencies and illogicalities and unreason. When, for instance, Señor C compares the pride of Finns hearing Sibelius to the shame of we who have helped create Guantánamo, he establishes an opposition with which he confidently ends his essay: “Musical creation on the one hand, a machine for inflicting pain and humiliation on the other: the best and the worst that human beings are capable of.” But is this meaningful opposition? Music may be the best of which we are capable (though why not, say, penicillin?), but it is not clear that Guantánamo, for all its horrors, is the very worst. And one is hardly the reciprocal of the other. Music, being non-referential, tends to inflame our irrationality; we can be blinded by the glare of its sublimity, and spurred to entertain “ideas” that wither in the cold silence of day.
The second part of “Diary of a Bad Year” records the private ideas and responses of Señor C—what he calls his “gentler set of opinions.” These are more passionate, more fragmentary, and more irrational than his public utterances. One of them, “On J. S. Bach,” begins:
The best proof we have that life is good, and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all, who has our welfare at heart, is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It comes as a gift, unearned, unmerited, for free.
But this is barely an idea; it is a spasm. At such moments, with the help of Coetzee’s sensitivity to the uneven flow and counterflow of ideas, we can glimpse a mind moving among thoughts, some of them solid and argued for, some specious, some thrilling but fleeting, others irrational but suggestive. And, despite all the postmodern games, we glimpse, of course, not just Señor C’s but also J. M. Coetzee’s mind at work. This, he seems to say to us, is what it means for a novelist to entertain an idea.
Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name for this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces reason. Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist, and in recent years the religious coloration of his metaphysics has become more pronounced. David Lurie and Elizabeth Costello offer a kind of general atonement for the shame they feel before their fellow-animals. “Slow Man” enacts a kind of religious correction of its maimed protagonist, the cannily named Paul Rayment. Wounded in a bicycling accident, he is helpless until the nurse, Marijana, begins caring for him. He falls in love with her, and lavishes on her and her family all kinds of assistance, financial and otherwise. Marijana barely thanks him. The novel seems to teach Paul that true charity expects nothing in return. Paul himself says that “Would Jesus approve?” is the question he puts to himself: “That is the standard I try to meet.” Señor C seems to share Elizabeth Costello’s neurasthenic tenderness toward the suffering of animals; and his sense of shame—as a South African; as an Australian, “the most abject of the so-called Coalition of the Willing”; and as a human animal—is essentially original sin deprived of a nameable theological origin.
The pieties of current criticism are supposed to forbid one to inquire about Coetzee’s relation to this strain of theology. We are warned that it is naïve to confuse author and character, even when—especially when—that character is also a novelist. But if Coetzee’s novels deflect such inquiries, they also invite them, not least because of the provoking extremity, even irrationality, of their ideas. In the last entry of this novel, “On Dostoevsky,” Señor C writes:
I read again last night the fifth chapter of the second part of The Brothers Karamazov, the chapter in which Ivan hands back his ticket of admission to the universe God has created, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably.
It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books makes all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.
There is a chapter in “Diary of a Bad Year” entitled “On Harold Pinter,” in which Señor C discusses the playwright’s Nobel Prize speech, “a savage attack on Tony Blair for his part in the war in Iraq.” In one sense, Señor C says, it was a mistake, for, when a writer speaks “in one’s own person—that is, not through one’s art—to denounce some politician or other,” that writer embarks on a war he is likely to lose. Still, he concludes, what Pinter did “may be foolhardy but it is not cowardly. And there come times when the courage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act, that is to say, speak.”
It is tempting to hear behind these words one Nobel Laureate discussing another; but, of course, Coetzee has not himself abandoned all calculation, even as he praises Pinter for doing so. He is not speaking here but writing about speaking. Coetzee’s own Nobel lecture was not a speech but a story—an allegory involving Defoe and Robinson Crusoe, about the writer’s relationship to his characters—that might easily have appeared in the pages of “Elizabeth Costello.” Still, there is something finely imprudent about his passion here; a rent has been made, a cry is heard. In these times, even writing about speaking is a kind of action. ♦