Review: Peter Cravenon J.M. Coetzee

Avuncular question marks: The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

It is, in fact, the oddest trajectory. J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and the most celebrated writer to identify as Australian since the death of Patrick White, has been at work on a suite of fictions and demi-fictions since he took up residence in Adelaide which stand in stark contrast to the work that made his name. Disgrace (1999), that novel about rape in the new South Africa, which was filmed with John Malkovich as the English literature academic whose affair drives him out of the university, only to have him find himself as an outraged and worried father, was intensely dramatic – full of storm and stress and the shadow and the stain of history. The books that have followed in its wake, the post-Elizabeth Costello (2003) books, have played with different paradigms and parameters.

Now, we have a new novel with the bizarre title (for Coetzee anyway) of The Childhood of Jesus. It comes with a cover of a young child in sunglasses and dress-up cloak and is like nothing on earth, and not much else in the history of literature. It is rhapsodic, didactic, episodic and – in ways that might signify a relapse or a reversion – dramatic. Except that this engrossing story, about an older man and the young boy he cherishes and fathers and strives to protect, takes place in a landscape with little resemblance to that of Coetzee’s early work and is written in a style that has a family resemblance to the haunted meta-narratives of the novelist’s Australian afterlife.

Maurice Blanchot said of the later sections of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930-42) that they were written in a style of ‘spellbinding sobriety’. In a very different way, the phrase fits The Childhood of Jesus. Yes, this novel about a man caring for a child as they wander through hazards in a country that might be adjacent to the mountains of the moon is a spellbinder. It has an extraordinary, poignant intensity, a heart-stopping quality in the very midst of every threadbareness with which it flirts and faiblesse with which it teases the reader. It conveys a sense of last things and enigmas that can only be encompassed by simplicities. There is a late-ish poem by Thom Gunn, I think about an AIDS victim, which recapitulates the starkness and the resonances from which the novel derives. It alludes to Sophocles of all people, and sounds a bit like him: ‘I remember Oedipus, old, led by a boy.’ It is that area, heaven help us, amid stricken sages, where the relation between elder and child hints at ultimate significances – that area, or something like it, where this lame, late novel – a ‘dotage’ as surely as any of Shakespeare’s romances are – seems to be leading us.

The Childhood of Jesus is an extraordinary book composed in a style that defies the intelligence. Here is a section that starts with the voice of the boy, then passes to the man, and back again:

‘But really did he have a ruby? Really was he under the ground three days and three nights?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe for Don Quixote time is not as it is for us. Maybe what is for us the blink of an eyelid is for Don Quixote a whole aeon. But if you are convinced that Don Quixote ascended from the cave with rubies in his pockets maybe you should write your own book saying so. Then we shall return señor Benengeli’s book to the library and read yours instead. Unfortunately, however, before you can write your book you will have to learn to read.’

‘I can read.’

‘No, you can’t. You can look at the page and move your lips and make up stories in your head, but that is not reading. For real reading you have to give up your own fantasies. You have to stop being silly. You have to stop being a baby.’

Never before has he spoken so directly to the child, so harshly.

Don Quixote (1605-16), that culmination of the later Renaissance’s preoccupation with the wisdom of folly, was being translated into English by the Irishman, Thomas Shelton, around the time that Shakespeare made the transition from his sweet and bitter fools and troubled souls on the heath and hearth, to those late plays about the stuff of dreams, about maids who were like men’s wives and magic that should be as lawful as eating: the mouldy tales resented by Ben Jonson and which Lytton Strachey thought were so hopeless. And Cervantes’ epic is one of the central motifs of this novel that asks to be seen as a wisdom book – the term we naturally use for the Book of Ecclesiastes and which Harold Bloom would also apply, quite rightly, to the poetry of Anne Carson in a masterwork like The Autobiography of Red (1998) – by an old, South African-born master, who has seemed for years now to be sauntering through the fields of fiction – or its mirror images – almost as if he were pleasing himself. Except that the power and glory of something more than the word has always kept knocking at the door and at the heart.

The later Coetzee divides readers for obvious reasons. Elizabeth Costello presents us with the saga of a novelist refracted through fragments of her life that, on occasion, have an intimate resemblance – in fact, to the point of identity (at least in the form her rhetoric takes) – to the language in which the eminent novelist J.M. Coetzee trades. Costello will give a lecture that dovetails with a real-life lecture of his about the killing of animals, one of the writer’s well-known obsessions. It is then up to the reader to decide how far to suspend disbelief. Elizabeth Costello is a Melbourne-born novelist – even though she has a sister, an eminent nun, who battles for the poor and downtrodden, the insulted and the injured, in difficult Africa – and the objets trouvés of the Nobel Prize winner’s literary life are given a wholly different gloss by their relocation in the novel (or meta-novel) that is Elizabeth Costello.

Some readers resiled from the later fictions because they seemed such a blatant retreat from drama. The art refers so much to its own past energies, they think, that it can’t possibly represent, that its self-referentiality is a form of postmodern philandering with the shapes and fantasies of fiction, with the whirl and froth of its leftovers. A literary eminence, himself a fiction-maker of note, was reported to have enjoyed Slow Man (2005) when the book was setting itself up but then lost interest ‘when the postmodernism started’.

And there’s no denying the licence Coetzee grants himself in his later work. Elizabeth Costello, in the book that bears her name, is last seen in the anteroom of the afterlife or in a flaming footnote to Hofmannsthal’s letter to Lord Chandos:

and sometimes I his wife, yes, my Lord, sometimes I too creep through. Presences of the Infinite he calls us, and says we make him shudder; and indeed I have felt those shudders, in the throes of my raptures I have felt them, so much that whether they were his or were mine I could no longer say.

Yet, despite this backward reincarnation, dated 1603, there she is again in Slow Man, as large as life or as endless as death, a ghost who can wander where she will. And she refers – winningly or not is the question – to her role in the action she dabbles in. ‘Go on,’ says Elizabeth Costello. ‘I’ll stay here and catch my breath before the next act begins.’

The licence that allows Coetzee to play with structures also allows him to relax into a meta-world, never less than serious in its literary execution and its tonalities, that is comic, variegated and relaxed in its structures – a world at the furthest remove from the dramatic structure associated with Dostoevsky, who was among other things both a tragedian in the Shakespearean sense and, in The Possessed (1872), the supreme master of the representation of politics. Susan Sontag said to me, long after Coetzee had descended into the Australian meta-fiction (it was a descent to her) that it was the Coetzee of The Master of Petersburg (1994), imagining a counter-life for the great Russian novelist, who interested her most. And it’s not hard to see how the lack of the bloody hand of history makes some readers think that the later Coetzee lacks, in Hopkins’ phrase, ‘the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation’.

Yet that very description, with its semi-comical adumbration of a ‘winter world’, suggests what is lacking in their sense of the possible parameters of fiction. The later Coetzee is experimental. He can seem playful in the formal sense and, though there is never a lack of co-ordination in the plot, however relatively relaxed, there is a discernible signature tune in the strong family resemblance between the older, writerly men who people this wise relaxed mode of storytelling in which the drama has gone into the edges of the conception and the curvature of the sentences,

This is true of the most overtly experimental and challenging of the later works, Diary of a Bad Year (2007), which has a more than usually louche portrait of the artist, old and sleazing, and which has a number of typographically distinguished narratives running on each page, so that the reader has to plunge herself into the running waters of the undecidable and choose where she picks up or leaves each one. Yet this book also has a plangency, as well as a deep humour and erotic glow. And the myth of its dragonish difficulty is just that. Read any which way, its complementary narratives make sense so that its experimentalism, though integral enough to the quality of its shape (and why not?), shouldn’t be off-putting, even if the glance can momentarily blind those feeling timid.

None of which is to deny that there are cloaktrailing suggestions of self-portraiture in the later Coetzee. Disgrace had a literary academic hero as far removed from John Coetzee (despite the shared profession) as Macbeth was from Shakespeare, or Raskolnikov and Stavrogin were from Dostoevsky. The later fiction, first with Elizabeth Costello, then with a range of male writer figures, flirts with the reader’s conceptions of the writer at least as much as Prospero and Hamlet do with Shakespeare’s audience’s sense of the self behind the plays. They are the sound of an author tinkering with his signature tunes.

Summertime (2009), with a good level of audacity, takes this crypto self-scrutiny to its reductio ad absurdum, or to what might seem to be its last term. It presents the eminent novelist J.M. Coetzee as dead and the object of biographical enquiry. A man is investigating the mess and mysteries of his life and talks to a group of women (and one man) about what made the son-of-a-bitch tick. Well, Coetzee’s biographer, J.C. Kannemeyer, author of the brand new J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing (2012), is now dead and the novelist is still with us, and one possible reflection on Summertime is the obvious joke, pace Mark Twain, that reports of John Coetzee’s death, like his self-scrutiny, are easily exaggerated. One of the fascinations of Summertime, however, and the thing that mitigates its potential narcissism to the point of annihilation, is the portrait of the father and the process of his dying that animates its last passages with an extraordinary poignancy. ‘O father forsaken forgive your son’ is the last line of James Joyce’s lyric ‘Ecce Puer’, which translates with its subliminally audacious echo of Pilate to the crowd, in the presence of the arraigned Jesus, ‘Behold the boy’. I think of Oedipus, old, led by a boy. Certainly fathers and boys, and the remote echo of the suffering chosen one, are central to Coetzee’s new novel, The Childhood of Jesus.

For years now, Coetzee has pursued a form of minimalist fiction that is not in the larger sense preoccupied with, or reflective of, driving narrative strategies. People muse, they desire musingly, they become involved in the mini-narratives, Australian and not life-shattering, of daily existence. The prose in which these footnotes to a novelistic career of Booker-winning intensity and narrative momentum are written has been masterly, intricate, caviar (it may be) to the general. You cannot object that a writer as accomplished as Coetzee should have taken refuge in Australia – call it exile if you will – as a writer’s writer. Nor does that description constitute a charge worth answering. He always was. It’s just that the later work made it more obvious, more particularly as it seemed, at least to the unbelieving, programmatic.

In The Childhood of Jesus there is a return to drama and high energy narrative, to the urgencies of how things will turn out, though this is still late Coetzee and it is luminous with the glow of something very different from realism. The novel is set in a dimly South American, certainly Spanish-speaking country called Novilla, to which a middle-aged man and a young boy of five have recently come. The boy has lost any papers which might indicate where he came from or who his parents might be; the man is of undisclosed background. We learn that he is not a native Spanish speaker, though he is clearly able to express himself with great lucidity throughout all the long, patient, loving explanations about the nature of the world that he provides to the little boy. He has a name – Simón – but he is normally referred to on the page simply as ‘he’. In fact, he has a family resemblance to those writer figures who populate Coetzee’s meta-fiction like avuncular question marks. And he is, very much, the figure of the wise uncle, the godfather who loves the boy like the shadow and sanctity of his own soul – only more so, because the child is also very much himself.

The tone of their exchanges is rapt, heartfelt, intimate, and the novelistic technique that effects it is wonderfully stripped bare. So simple and so deliberated that it makes it all look easy.

‘You and Fidel seem to get on well together,’ he remarks to the boy once they are alone.

‘He is my best friend.’

‘So Fidel feels goodwill towards you, does he?’

‘Lots of goodwill.’

‘How about you? Do you feel goodwill too?’

‘Anything else besides?’

The boy gives him a puzzled look. ‘No.’

There he has it, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. From goodwill come friendship and happiness, companionable picnics in the parklands and afternoons strolling in the forest. Whereas from love, or at least from longing in its more urgent manifestations, come frustration and doubt and heartache. The last part of this is, in fact, the man turning the innocence of the child back on himself as some sort of mirror of wisdom, but much of the novel is preoccupied – socratically, as it were – with the man telling the boy what’s what in the vicinity of every vicissitude.

The world of the novel is as lean and unadorned as its style, skeletal beyond the mimetic dreams of naturalism. Man and boy arrive at some housing centre. At first, a woman who works there befriends them, but she makes them sleep outside under a makeshift shelter. Then they are given their elementary apartment. The man has as his idée fixe that the boy’s mother must be found. By this he does not mean the actual recovery of the child’s biological mother; he means that he, the man, will know the boy’s true mother when he sees her. She is found at some high-class bit of this stretch of the world called La Residencia, where she is playing tennis with her brothers. And she does indeed embrace the boy and the mothering of him like a destiny, though she is a testy spoiled woman to look at. Nevertheless, she says the boy is the light of her life.

The whole of The Childhood of Jesus is written with an absolute deliberateness of design and sureness of pace in the face of a conception which sounds almost ludicrously sketchy and portentously parabolic. Everything happens episodically. The man works as a stevedore at the docks, the boy suddenly becomes the object of improbable and draconian dramas about his learning difficulties which look like having the most ghastly consequences for all the characters.

None of it should work but it does, like a dream. It contains every possible tone colour and admixture of symbolism. The boy sings Schubert’s ‘Der Erl König’ without either of the characters knowing what Goethe’s sinister words mean, or the implications of this potential liebestod of love between father and son (the added complexity is that Coetzee both re-writes the German of the original and makes ‘German’ into the unintelligible ‘English’ of the book). Yet the narrative has a wonderful tact and gravity, a childlike quality that partakes of the nature of fable – which, in fact, indulges in wholesale graverobbing of the entire fairytale tradition – yet it seems in the end a wholly original vision full of grace and truth.

The Childhood of Jesus is a book haunted by the prospect of a possible spirituality and beyond that (or rather deep in one aspect of this) a possible wisdom. In a weird way, the book brings to mind the numinousness of Hermann Hesse read in the first flush of adolescence and those do-it-yourself user’s manuals to the right way through the dark wood. Works like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) or Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote (1982) – the one about the simple silly priest and the shrewd mayor and the ride they take towards the windmills and giants. And, yes, as that suggests, The Childhood of Jesus is also a Don Quixote book: a book written in the wake of that greatest of all responses to the Christian humanism of Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly (1511). It doodles with all this like a backdrop – as if it is only the subsidiary of a lame, grave story about the love of an adult for a child, a would-be father for a would-be son – but it is not, or not primarily, a meta-fictional archaeology of the nature of art.

The title of the book is at once an audacity and an enigma. Coetzee has written an absolutely convincing story about the miracle of human innocence and the miracle of individual human identity. The boy, called at one point David (almost casually, though remember what house the messiah came from) is a compelling portrait of the specialness of a child. At the same time, the novel plays on the grand piano of our associations with that archetype. Whether or not this trails a metaphysics hardly matters. The Childhood of Jesus is an extraordinary piece of fiction by a literary master. Is the man in the book what Leonard Cohen called ‘just some Joseph looking for a manger’? In some sense, yes, but that’s hardly the point. This is a great novelist condensing the figures of man, woman, and child to their barest and most enigmatic forms and giving them back to us as a form of romance that has a breathtaking poignancy and power. This is a piece of fiction, at once baffled and wise, full of a radiance and gravity that the language absolutely embodies.

In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Coetzee wrote with grave appreciation of that Australian turner-over-of-stones and purveyor of epiphanies, Gerald Murnane. In this book, he is in parallel territory. The Childhood of Jesus, gives us his realisation of a mythology, almost as a skeletal cartoon, but with a gravity and steadiness of step in a story he makes seem as old and true as the world. It is a breathtaking performance, full of the tears in things and the wonders of which we cannot speak. It is almost a guide book to the meaning of life and it dramatises its own faltering steps, at the edge of ridiculousness, at the cliff of solipsism, with a breathtaking originality that refreshes the mind.


J. M. Coetzee, ‘The Quest for the Girl from Bendigo Street’, The New York Review of Books (December 2014).