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Archive for the ‘coetzee’ Category

first thoughts on coetzee’s “the childhood of jesus”

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I was asked by students and others several times last week what I made of Coetzee’s new novel. I’ve been a bit annoyed with myself that I haven’t really had any good answers yet, and have been forced to make the same gestures towards “bafflement” that just about all the reviews I’ve read have made. But I’m starting to think that its our bafflement itself that we should be looking into – that there’s more to be made of it than a shoulder-shrug.

Chris Tayler, in his review of the novel in the LRB, gives us a good start at a list of the questions begged but left unanswered in the course of the narrative:

As a reading experience it’s utterly absorbing, with almost painful levels of meta-suspense as you try to work out where the story is aiming to lead you. Questions are as close as Coetzee comes to direct statements, and the novel is richly generative of these. Is the world it depicts an afterlife, a pre-life, a mere stage in an unending transmigration of souls, a realm of ideal images as discussed in Coetzee’s recent essay on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books, or none of the above? How does the Jesus plot fit in with this? How come Inés has access to sausages? Do the deadpan jokes get less frequent or just ascend to a higher sphere?

One of the things that I try to teach my students is to developed a more nuanced take on literary “difficulty.” Most of us, especially when we’re starting out at reading “difficult” books and thus insecure about our ability to understand, let alone intrepret, them, take it on instinct that there always is something to figure out in such works. One acquires a “reader’s guide” to Ulysses, one takes up the challenge of the notes at the end of The Waste Land – one struggles to “solve” the riddles of the poems, to understand the allusions, etc. But what if (so I argue in my first-year seminars) we’re meant in dealing with these texts not so much to penetrate the difficult but to have an experience of difficulty’s opacity itself. (My favourite example is to use in teaching is the beginning of the second section of The Waste Landwhere I think Eliot’s putting us through a sort of routine having to do with the “dissociation of sensibility.” We simply can’t see the image described, and perhaps that’s meant to make us feel our own post-lapsarianness…)

Why does Inés have access to meat – and what is La Residencia in the first place?

It has been a preoccupation of Coetzee’s for quite awhile, to tantalise the reader with the sense that there are answers to questions raised by the text, that there is an interrogate-able reality lurking behind the narrative itself, and thus, when the answers fail to arrive, perhaps to push the reader back into an awareness of her or his own need for answers in the first place. (Think for instance of Disgrace, where the reader is left in the same position as David Lurie himself – completely unable to understand the reasons why his daughter Lucy does what she does [or doesn’t do what she doesn’t do] in the wake of her rape.) In this case, why, in the end, are we bothered by Inés’s access to sausages? Why are we worried about the nature of La Residencia? It feels as though, at the beginning of the work, Simón would have asked them too – but by the end of the novel, he’s lost his appetite for questions of this sort – his appetite for questions about appetite and its fulfilment. In other words, the reader’s persistence in wondering falls out of sync with the characters in the text – it’s we readers who remain new arrivals at Novilla.

Likewise with the question “How does the Jesus plot fit in with this?” Not only is the abstraction inherent in this sort of typology or allegorical sense incompatible with the putative Jesus’s incessant refusal of such abstraction, but the question is exactly the sort that Coetzee’s fiction time and again refuses to solve for us – or stages the struggle and failure to solve on the part of his characters. Again, think of Lurie’s attempts to place is daughter into a discernable “category” of rape victim after their attack, or even more pressingly, the efforts of the administrators of the camp that Michael K ends up in at the end of his novel to deduce the “meaning” of this man who has come into their care and custody.

Michaels means something, and the meaning he has is not private to me. If it were, if the origin of this meaning were no more than a lack in myself, a lack, say, of something to believe in, since we all know how difficult it is to satisfy a hunger for belief with the vision of times to come that the way, to say nothing of the camps, presents us with, if it were a mere craving for meaning that sent me to Michaels and his story, if Michaels himself were no more than what he seems to be (what you seem to be), a skin-and-bones man with a crumpled lip (pardon me, I name only the obvious), then I would have every justification for retiring to the toilets behind the jockey’s changing-rooms and locking myself into the last cubicle and putting a bullet through my head.

With just a shift of a few details and a reduction in intensity, this passage from Michael K could stand as a rendition of what I was feeling when asked last week “what the new novel means” and probably isn’t all that far away from the sort of frustration that the reviewers felt as they worked up their pieces for the magazines, or so I guess…

Coetzee is often – with obvious justification – labelled a “meta-fictional” writer: his works build on and distort previous literary works, or are “about” the act of writing itself. But they are also books that generate – or should generate – a sort of “meta-reading.” Just as the writer is writing about writing, when we read them, we are reading about reading. Or at least that seems to be the point. Were a new (or even the first) messiah to arrive on earth, would we be so concerned with his meaning and relation to precedent, his conformity or lack of conformity to the models that we would impose, that we would fail to listen to him right from the start? With inherited instrumental logics and instinct to abstract categorization, our need to extract reified meanings from things, would we be able to read him at all?

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March 17, 2013 at 12:30 pm

performative reviewery: coetzee on (corngold’s) goethe

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Two things about Coetzee’s recent review of Stanley Corngold’s new translation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in the NYRB:

1) The extended first section of the review, which deals with the play of truth and fiction in Goethe’s novel, seems like it might be relevant to – that is, it might be an oblique commentary on – Coetzee’s own recent (and incessant, from Lives of the Animals forward) entangling of the truth and fiction. For instance:

The image of Werther as a twin or brother who has died or been killed and returns to haunt him recurs in a poem entitled “To Werther,” written when Goethe was near the end of his life. Between Goethe and his Werther self there was a complex, lifelong relationship that swung back and forth. In some accounts, Werther is the self he had to split off and abandon in order to live (Goethe spoke of the “pathological state” out of which the book emerged); in others, Werther is the passionate side of himself that he sacrificed, to his own cost. He was haunted not only by Werther but by the story of Werther he had put out into the world, which called out to be rewritten or more fully told. He spoke at various times of writing another Werther and of writing a prequel to Werther; but it would seem he could not find his way back into Werther’s world. Even the revisions he did to the book in 1787, masterly though they are, were done from the outside, and are not at one with the original inspiration.

Difficult not to read this in relation to Coetzee’s ostensibly late-life depictions of “himself” – or depictions of fictional depictions of himself – in Summertime and elsewhere. Yet another reframing – is his portrayal of himself (or, again, portrayal of portrayals of himself) as emotionally desiccated a kind of yin to Goethe’s yang, something he had to “split off in order to live,” or do something else than live. Anyway, bears some thinking through, this.

2) Corngold and his translation are mentioned only twice in the course of this long essay. The first time is to criticise the fact that the translator does not retranslate a long excerpt that Werther recites from The Works of Ossian but rather inserts Macpherson’s original. The second mention is simply to introduce some consideration of another broad question:

Corngold’s scholarly concern about anachronism raises a wider issue: With works from the past, how should the language of the translation relate to the language of the original? Should a twenty-first-century translation into English of a novel from the 1770s read like a twenty-first-century English novel or like an English novel from the era of the original?

A great question, but one that leads off from rather than back into Corngold’s own translation. So, after these two slight incursions into the edition at hand – incursions that mostly offer Coetzee to offer brilliant riffs of his own on the topics which and implicitly leave Corngold looking a bit under-rigorous in these spots – Coetzee makes a jarringly abrupt turn into the final paragraph of the review:

The Sorrows/Suffering of Young Werther has not lacked for translators. Among first-rate modern versions are those by Burton Pike, Michael Hulse, and Victor Lange. Corngold’s new translation is of the very highest quality, punctiliously faithful to Goethe’s German and sensitive to gradations of style in this extraordinary, trail-blazing first novel.

Wait, what? Sounds like the first paragraph of a more conventional review, the 800 word pieces you see in other magazines and newspapers. After all this, just “very highest quality, punctiliously faithful… sensitive to gradations of style”? After all of these complex and provocative analyses that Coetzee has offered – only some of them provoked by anything specific to the translation ostensibly under consideration?

In other words, it seems as though Coetzee here has written something like a pastiche of the style of the “long-form” reviews that we’re accustomed to find in the LRB and NYRB, where the expectation is that the reviewer does her or his own routine about the topic and then, only late, turns back to the book at hand. Which is what he does here too, but comically starkly, as if to make yet another point – this one performative – about the issue of writerly personality and its vicissitudes.

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April 27, 2012 at 10:54 am

“something tawdry about following the state in this way”

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Can’t believe that I’ve never posted a link to this essay by Coetzee. You should go read the whole thing if you have the time, but for now – and apropos of some of the issues that I and others have been discussing here and elsewhere – here’s my favorite bit:

Some years ago I wrote a novel, ”Waiting for the Barbarians,” about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience. Torture has exerted a dark fascination on many other South African writers. Why should this be so? There are, it seems to me, two reasons. The first is that relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims. In the torture room, unlimited force is exerted upon the physical being of an individual in a twilight of legal illegality, with the purpose, if not of destroying him, then at least of destroying the kernel of resistance within him.

Let us be clear about the situation of the prisoner who falls under suspicion of a crime against the state. What happens in Vorster Square is nominally illegal. Articles of the law forbid the police from exercising violence upon the bodies of detainees except in self-defense. But other articles of the law, invoking reasons of state, place a protective ring around the activities of the security police. The rigmarole of due process, which requires the prisoner to accuse his torturers and produce witnesses, makes it futile to proceed against the police unless the latter have been exceptionally careless. What the prisoner knows, what the police know he knows, is that he is helpless against whatever they choose to do to him. The torture room thus becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.

The fact that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants, is a second reason why the novelist in particular should be fascinated by it. Of the character of the novelist, John T. Irwin writes in ”Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner”: ”It is precisely because [ he ] stands outside the dark door, wanting to enter the dark room but unable to, that he is a novelist, that he must imagine what takes place beyond the door. Indeed, it is just that tension toward the dark room that he cannot enter that makes that room the source of all his imaginings – the womb of art.”

To Mr. Irwin (following Freud but also Henry James), the novelist is a person who, camped before a closed door, facing an insufferable ban, creates, in place of the scene he is forbidden to see, a representation of that scene and a story of the actors in it and how they come to be there. Therefore my question should not have been phrased, Why are writers in South Africa drawn to the torture room? The dark, forbidden chamber is the origin of novelistic fantasy per se; in creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of representation.

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.

This is just right. The whole game for the novelist who would write “politically” is to figure out the very very ambiguous difference between critique and inadvertent PR work. Showing the worst can sometimes – with a deeply dark irony – be doing the very bidding of that which is opposed. On the other hand, as Coetzee has it here, avoiding representation altogether is unacceptable as well.

(There are a few tangential things to mention while on the topic of this essay. First of all, readers of Disgrace should be able to see the centrality of this image of the “torture room” and the “locked door” in that novel… Second – and here’s where things get really complicated – one of the strange facts about Coetzee’s career was that he was able to evade South African censorship when many of his fellow SA writers weren’t. Reportedly, this has to do with the formal and thematic complexity (opacity?) of his early work… a situation that begs important questions about the position taken in the essay above….)

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May 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

houellebecq on coetzee

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From a recent Paris Review interview:

INTERVIEWER

And what do you think of this Anglo-Saxon world?

HOUELLEBECQ

You can tell that this is the world that invented capitalism. There are private companies competing to deliver the mail, to collect the garbage. The financial section of the newspaper is much thicker than it is in French papers.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that men and women are more separate. When you go into a restaurant, for example, you often see women eating out together. The French from that point of view are very Latin. A single-sex dinner would be considered boring. In a hotel in Ireland, I saw a group of men talking golf at the breakfast table. They left and were replaced by a group of women who were discussing something else. It’s as if they’re separate species who meet occasionally for reproduction. There was a line I really liked in a novel by Coetzee. One of the characters suspects that the only thing that really interests his lesbian daughter in life is prickly-pear jam. Lesbianism is a pretext. She and her partner don’t have sex anymore, they dedicate themselves to decoration and cooking.

Maybe there’s some potential truth there about women who, in the end, have always been more interested in jam and curtains.

INTERVIEWER

And men? What do you think interests them?

HOUELLEBECQ

Little asses. I like Coetzee. He says things brutally, too.

I’ve searched Disgrace on Amazon and can’t find the reference to jam as a marker of lesbian sexlessness in question. Prickly-pear jam comes up, but not that way… Anyway, there’s MH for you… And it all leads me to thoughts about the forms and intensity of what we might call willful stupidity that certain novelists indulge in, perhaps have to indulge in.

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May 10, 2011 at 11:24 am

Posted in coetzee, houellebecq

good taste, anyway

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From an interview with Nick Clegg in the Guardian magazine today:

Which living person do you most admire, and why? JM Coetzee – he writes with a simplicity which lays bare what really matters.

[…]

What is your favourite book? Life & Times Of Michael K, by JM Coetzee.

Funny to think what an absolutely perfect choice is for a politicians favorite novel, and funnier to think what a catastrophic choice Disgrace would be…

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April 24, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Posted in coetzee, Uncategorized

he and his man

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Ooops. Geoff Dyer makes the mistake of trying to make Señor C laugh. Has he ever read a Coetzee novel?

Odd to find a few of these introductions on Youtube. Must admit I’m somewhat disappointed with Coetzee’s rather plain-jane performance in them… Isn’t this exactly the sort of banal occasion when he’s supposed to invent an elaborate metafictional device, pretend that he’s something like Stephen Dedalus’s infant son introducing Leopold Bloom’s widowed grandfather? Moll Flanders’s sister’s best friend introducing a talking ape dressed like Daniel Defoe? Come on, JMC, you’re fucking up the lecture that I give about you, which starts with Since Disgrace, or actually just before, whenever it’s time for a talk, we get a fiction and vice versa…

(video via the LRB blog)

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March 28, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Posted in coetzee, dessication

situation comedy

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In Disgrace, Coetzee writes (Lurie thinks) something like Reversals: the very stuff of bourgeois comedy after seeing a student play. Something like that anyway – my copy is at the office.

So last night I escorted my 4-year-old daughter to another kid’s birthday party, up behind Alexandra Palace. Strange, late-night affair for the 4 and 5 year old set. At moments, I laugh like I don’t normally. All good. On the way home (on the W3 bus) she editorializes against buying a VW Golf. She says that she prefers trains and buses, as cars make her sick and you have to wear a seatbelt.  Good. Settled then.

Kids to bed and I am being moderately difficult with my wife. Just moderately. She expresses a reservation about my behavior and I say Oh just wait! I have something to read to you! You read it while I was out I am sure but let me just read it to you again to ensure that the import was not lost.

And so I grab up the Guardian Review section and search through for the paragraph in James Meek’s intelligent review of Coetzee’s Summertime that was the cover piece this week. The paragraph that I had wanted to read, but never quite did, was this one:

I don’t believe Coetzee had a choice here. If he hadn’t run the risk of seeming self-indulgent, he wouldn’t have been able to capture an essential truth about “great men” – that the women who reject them in the early days are not necessarily blind to their potential. A woman who chooses not to sacrifice her life to the kind of selfish, cranky, vain, obsessive, unstable slobs who tend to become “great men” may be making a wise decision.

But I didn’t read it to her. The reason why is that when I opened up the section to the appropriate page, I found that the paragraph was underlined. That she had underlined the paragraph….. Hmmm…

And so, instead of reading it to her, I ask: It means something different for you to underline this paragraph than for me to um read it to you, doesn’t it?

She nods her head. I continue. It could, for instance mean that you thought that I was a great man and chose to put up with me anyway.

Shrug.

Or that, rather bleakly, you never recognized any of these things, and thus decided to stay with me.

She cuts me off: There are more options on the table than that. Those truly aren’t the only options.

And then she pointed to her notebook, the one that I’m not allowed to read, as if to suggest that the answers to all of my questions – not just the ones that I am asking but all of my questions, are to be found there, written out in ballpoint pen. But I’m not going to get to read them.

(Cue laff track. Cue Ad’s repeating the scene of picking up the paper, discovering the underlining, over and over again to at first increasing and then gradually diminishing choruses of laughter…)

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September 6, 2009 at 8:37 am

Posted in coetzee

austerity 2: comment on paye ses dettes quand on a du génie, or vice versa

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In his “fictionalized memoir” Youth, J.M. Coetzee describes living in a place that just happens to be only a few steps away from Marx’s grave.  At this point in the book, he’s just gotten a job working as a programmer for IBM in London.

Now that he has an income, he is able to rent a room of his own in a house off Archway Road in north London. The room is on the second floor, with a view over a water reservoir. It has a gas heater and a little alcove with a gas cooker and shelves for food and crockery. In a corner is the meter: you put in a shilling and get a shilling’s supply of gas.

His diet is unvarying: apples, oats porridge, bread and cheese, and spiced sausages called chipolatas, which he fries over the cooker. He prefers chipolatas to real sausages because they do not need to be refrigerated. Nor do they ooze grease when they fry. He suspects there is lots of potato flour mixed in with the ground meat. But potato flour is not bad for one.

I have never had to write for money. Whether I am capable of doing it or not is another question. I could have used some money in college, but I was too young then. During grad school, there was the stipend – $13,000, split most years between myself and my wife – just enough to keep oneself in a university subsidised one-bedroom in a banally modernist high-rise in the woods. Later, there was paying work, academic jobs – three of them, actually, one after another.

When I first moved to Brooklyn, just as the inflation level of the real estate bubble passed from ridiculous to obscene, I decided that I wanted to buy an apartment and I wanted to do it by writing a novel. It was the era of that sort thing; one of the students that I had taught had just signed a seven-figure contract for two books, was about to buy a gigantic house in Park Slope. And so I sat in the tiny kitchen at the tiny table that we had found that would actually fit it and typed a novel into my laptop, night after night. I would smoke several cigarettes with the window open and the fan on, write, and then go to sleep.

There were mice and cockroaches, yes. Both the little roaches that come in packs and the big indestructible lone motherfuckers, the ones that you could mash with the end of an aluminium baseball bat and they’d pause for a second only to resume their steady sprint around the living room floor.

I actually finished the novel – the only one I’ve ever finished. It’s resting in a document file somewhere on my hard drive, unopened since the day I completed it. It was about a couple who make their living by running an amateur pornography site. Then someone falls in love with her, one of the customers. And then they meet, and nothing’s there.

No good. Obviously I never did anything with this thing. And then I got a job and another and another. It’s nice to make money from writing, but even if I did, it wouldn’t substantially change my lifestyle.

Bourdieu’s writings on art suggests that the negotiation with having to write for money or not – and all the grey areas between the two, like having to write for money but pretending you don’t or not having to write for money but pretending you do – is a or even then defininitive factor in the determination of literary stance and even literary form. It happens simultaneously, in his reading, on the level of the individual artist and as an aggregate effect. For instance, a wider range of people in mid-19th century France get secondary education, smart but poor young men rush into the city looking for work they do with their heads rather than their hands, and the feuilletons, reviews, and papers fill with new names but new names often writing commercialised shit, whatever pays the bills. Or, from the other direction, there is the young man who inherits a sizeable fortune, but then out of stupidity, addiction, or pose, squanders it, and then is himself forced to dip into something that he can’t stop comparing to prostitution, even if he knows it’s not quite the same thing.

Bourdieu is persuasive on this point – that it is out of the warp and woof of having money and needing money that literature itself, as a category, is born, and close on its heels (to extend his point slightly) modernism. Every document of civilisation is at the same time a document of one form of aristocracy or another separating itself from the barbarism of commerce… or one form of meritocracy separating itself from the barbarism of unanchored hierarchy. Or both at the same time.

But that world has passed, the machine that generates distinction has rolled itself to a stop. Neither are there aristocratic redoubts to remove to, nor is there money to be made in this business. Instead, we’re all in a bedsit just off Archway Road, counting off our meagre amenities, proud of ourselves for having found a brand of sausage that doesn’t go bad when the fridge is broken or never existed to begin with. We read the Observer on Sunday; we are careful with our spending on lunch, whether we really need to be or not. We are, like the young Coetzee, austere with our stipends and we go into great detail about it, if only with ourselves. It only takes a glance at the work, all of it, to discover the effect that this austerity has had on the form, the quality, and the pertinence of the things that we make.

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August 27, 2009 at 7:25 am

Posted in austerity, coetzee

coetzee live

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Well, almost. You can listen here. I’ve never before heard him read.

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August 15, 2009 at 1:01 am

Posted in coetzee

“I don’t want to be a professor”

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I’ve been telling anyone who will listen (after I was myself alerted to it by IT) that Coetzee’s review of the new edition of Beckett’s letters in the NYRB is not to be missed. Here’s the start of it:

In 1923 Samuel Barclay Beckett, aged seventeen, was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, to study Romance languages. He proved an exceptional student, and was taken under the wing of Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of French, who did all he could to advance the young man’s career, securing for him on graduation first a visiting lectureship at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, then a position back at Trinity College.

After a year and a half at Trinity, performing what he called the “grotesque comedy of lecturing,” Beckett resigned and fled back to Paris. Yet even after this letdown, Rudmose-Brown did not give up on his protégé. As late as 1937 he was still trying to nudge Beckett back into the academy, persuading him to apply for a lectureship in Italian at the University of Cape Town. “I may say without exaggeration,” he wrote in a supporting letter, “that as well as possessing a sound academic knowledge of the Italian, French and German languages, [Mr Beckett] has remarkable creative faculty.” In a postscript he added: “Mr Beckett has an adequate knowledge of Provençal, ancient and modern.”

Beckett felt genuine fondness and respect for Rudmose-Brown, a Racine specialist with an interest in the contemporary French literary scene. Beckett’s first book, a monograph on Proust (1931), though commissioned as a general introduction to this challenging new writer, reads more like an essay by a superior graduate student intent on impressing his professor. Beckett himself had severe doubts about the book. Rereading it, he “wondered what [he] was talking about,” as he confided to his friend Thomas McGreevy. It seemed to be “a distorted steam-rolled equivalent of some aspect or confusion of aspects of myself…tied somehow on to Proust…. Not that I care. I don’t want to be a professor.”

Ugh. Yep, another one of those stories about a brave and successful escape from academia. Coetzee slyly mentions later on in the review that “through contacts at the then University of Buffalo [Beckett] also drops hints that he might look kindly on an offer from that quarter (it did not come).” You might know or not know that Coetzee held a teaching position at Buffalo for a bit. You might know or not know something else that I can’t to get into, but let’s just say I’ve heard and reheard the story about the end of his time as an assistant professor, specializing in I suppose British modernism, over and over and over again and from those who would know. But let’s just say I really appreciated Coetzee’s little in-joke.

Really good reason why this blog can’t have my name on it: I’d like to get out, and I really can’t talk about that publically, under my own name. I have a vague plan to get out – something we refer to in my household as the “five-year plan.” I won’t go into the hows of this, but it’s something I’d very much like to do. Unlike Beckett, I actually enjoy teaching, the classroom time, and the reports back from my students would be very different from those that he received. But the damned business shreds time, absolutely shreds it. It’s not the time in the classroom that’s the problem. But lately, since I’m on Easter break, I’ve been indulging myself and working on whatever I like for afternoons at a time, and the work is better and far more pleasing than anything else that I do at any other point in the year.

Anyway, I also appreciated the following:

Though Beckett’s literary output during the twelve years covered by these letters is fairly thin—the Proust monograph; an apprentice novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, disowned and not published during his lifetime; the stories More Pricks Than Kicks ; Murphy ; a volume of poems; some book reviews—he is far from inactive. He reads extensively in philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Schopenhauer. On Schopenhauer he reports: “A pleasure…to find a philosopher that can be read like a poet, with an entire indifference to the apriori forms of verification.” He works intensively on Geulincx, reading his Ethics in the original Latin: his study notes have recently been unearthed and published as a companion to a new English translation.

Twelve years of relatively thin publication, from age 23 to 34. (It’s not really that thin, is it?) Twelve years of reading and periodic publishing and abortive teaching and bouts of psychoanalysis. Coetzee brought out his first novel, Dusklands, in 1974, when he was 34, three years after he stopped teaching at Buffalo.

There’s something deformative, something that you parry with for a long time, about having spent your twenties in the stupid hothouse of New York, or more specifically Brooklyn, during the bubble, again more specifically the period literarily speaking between the founding of Tina Brown’s Talk (remember?) and the founding of n+1. What would Beckett have made of it? What would Coetzee? My wife and I are still reeling from it a bit, I think it’s safe to say. We are 31 and 32 respectively. Anyway, Coetzee writes a lot of stuff about old men lately – he makes his alter-egos even older than he is himself – but this is a valuable review focused on what it means to be a different sort of old man, a young old man, in transit between the business of teaching and the business of writing.

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April 17, 2009 at 12:21 am

Posted in beckett, coetzee

jmc, summertime

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Coming later this summer…. Apparently, though reports aren’t entirely clear, it falls under the memoir rather than fiction rubric, if thinking about rubrics still makes any sense at all when talking about his recent works.

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April 11, 2009 at 8:17 am

Posted in coetzee

battle of the titans…

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…the titans of my own personal canon. Here, in an excellent review of new works from Kundera, Coetzee, Sontag, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Rée has one of my favorites going after another.

But Coetzee does not confine his attention to novelists, and an outstanding essay on Walt Whitman allows him to explore a conception of democracy that he himself would evidently endorse: democratic politics, he suggests, is “not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros.” Those who make a fetish out of politics, he implies, are in danger of foreclosing on democracy. Take Walter Benjamin, for example. Coetzee, refusing to treat him with the awed indulgence that has become customary, contends that when Benjamin decided to become a good communist, it was not through an imaginative appraisal of political options, but was simply “an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins.” And if there was something silly and unconvincing about Benjamin’s Marxism—”something forced about it, something merely reactive”—it could perhaps be attributed to a certain literary narcissism. “As a writer, Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people,” Coetzee says; he had “no talent as a storyteller,” and no capacity for the kind of compassionate intelligence implicit in the art of the novel. In a perverse attempt to opt for political realism rather than literary imagination, Benjamin managed to cut himself off from both.

This is interesting stuff, isn’t it? Coetzee has morphed into a writer who, when set to write fiction turns up with an essay in hand, just as when the situation calls for an essay, he throws fiction. But here, he accuses Benjamin of being neither fish nor fowl: his engagement was only ever forced and Oedipal, and on the other hand when he turns in the other direction he only discovers his own talentlessness.

Despite being a reflexive defender of Coetzee, I actually think he gets it very wrong here in the end. I actually think – and have written and may one day publish – that it is exactly when WB got most literary (in a certain specific way that there’s not really time to explain here, but the “messianic” threads are where I’m headed) that his work skewed toward a sort of portentous uselessness and maybe even something like bad faith.

More to say about this, of course, but then I’d be traipsing into my own real world work, which simply is not done, chez adswithoutproducts. But a few other things from Rée’s essay. Discussing Sontag’s At the Same Time, he notes that Sontag’s

fury at the condition of the US—she speaks of a “culture of shamelessness,” marked by an “increasing acceptance of brutality” in which politics has been obliterated and “replaced by psychotherapy”—seems to have made her forget her own better self.

…which is, I think, exactly the conclusion, in basically exactly the same terms, that the soon-to-be-departed Sopranos has been building to, no?

And finally, what to make of Vargas Llosa’s redeployment of the “democratic” and “pluralistic” ethos of the novel into service (both metaphorical and, according to him, material, historical) of the neoliberal project?

Vargas Llosa’s prose is sometimes slow-paced, but it speeds up when he reflects on the “collectivist ideology” of nationality. “There are no nations,” he says, at least not in a way that could “define individuals through their belonging to a human conglomerate marked out as different from others by certain characteristics such as race, language and religion.” For Vargas Llosa, nationalism is always “a lie,” but its rebuttal is to be found not so much in high-toned internationalist universalism as in the dissociative particularities of literature, and especially in a well-narrated novel. The novel, he thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be “many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us.” Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled “the problem of the narrator,” or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is “a 21st-century novel.”

Another horribly quick answer: I think he might well be right about this. I also think that this is exactly, if indirectly, one of the issues that writers we term “modernist” had with the form from the start of the period / movement. Right from Bovary forward, where Vargas Llosa’s “basic human desire” to identification gets twisted into a very strange knot indeed…

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Written by adswithoutproducts

June 6, 2007 at 10:11 am

biocentrism

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Serendipitously, while looking at something unconnected, I may have located the start of an answer to my issue from yesterday:

It is significant, I think, that “anthropomorphic” has no inverse, no opposite. There is no word, that is, for the attribution of inhuman characteristics to humans or humanity.

From Derek Attridge’s “Age of Bronze, State of Grace: Music and Dogs in Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace,” located here if you have access.

Coetzee’s novel has some affinities with what Margot Norris, in Beast of the Modern Imagination, terms the “biocentric” tradition in modern art: not that Coetzee creates animals in the manner of writers she discusses, “with their animality speaking” (1), but that his work like theirs (and like hers) tries to imagine a relation to animal life outside of the worthy but limited concept of what Norris calls “responsible stewardship” (24).

Attridge’s essay also appears here, if you’re interested. Have to get the Norris, now…

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Written by adswithoutproducts

April 5, 2006 at 4:23 pm

Posted in animal, coetzee