J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing
by J.C. Kannemeyer
Published November, 2012
J.M. Coetzee’s 2001 essay collection Stranger Shores begins with the text of a lecture he gave a decade earlier in Graz, Austria. Its title – ‘What is a Classic?’ – alludes to T.S. Eliot’s 1944 lecture of the same name, in which Eliot considers Virgil as an example of a poet whose writing has transcended its historical moment.
In Eliot’s account, a classic is more than just a work that has endured; it has an importance that is at once literary and historical. Virgil is thus a classic in a way that no English writer, not even Shakespeare, can claim to be – indeed, he is ‘the classic of all Europe’ – because his poetry is the mature expression of a mature civilisation. He is ‘the consciousness of Rome and the supreme voice of her language’: a pivotal figure whose work reaches back to the pagan civilisation of ancient Greece and whose influence flows into the Christian era that succeeded his own. He qualifies as a classic because he wrote in one of the two languages – Latin and Greek – that Eliot describes as the ‘blood stream of European literature’, and because his work achieves the twin virtues of comprehensiveness and universality. For Eliot, the Aeneid is an exemplary manifestation of the ‘common heritage of thought’ that informs his ideal of European civilisation – a civilisation whose underlying unity he holds as an article of faith. It establishes a ‘criterion’ against which other works might be assessed, but more importantly, its cultural centrality resists the chaos of disunity and acts as a corrective to provincialism.
Eliot may well be one of Coetzee’s most telling influences, though the nature of that influence is not straightforward. On the face of it, the two Nobel laureates would not appear to have much in the way of an ideological affinity. In his characteristically measured reading of Eliot’s notion of a classic, Coetzee is leery of the radical conservatism at the heart of the poet’s argument, which he points out can be interpreted in an unsympathetic light as an attempt by Eliot to redefine the world in a way that suits his agenda. Eliot’s affirmation of the unity of European culture – an affirmation so wildly counterfactual, given the historical context, that it acquires a perverse nobility – is, at least in part, a tendentious exercise in laying claim to the concept of centrality and the defining authority it grants.
Coetzee, by contrast, has inherited the postmodern suspicion of universalising gestures. His work is conscious of its marginality, its provincialism. As a writer who spent most of his life as a resident of South Africa before emigrating to Australia in 2002, he has often been moved to reflect on the problems that arise from the distance of the postcolonial artist from the centres of cultural authority. One of the most potent features of his apartheid-era South African novels is their strong awareness of an inherited history’s ability to determine and constrain. They depict the complicated relationship between ideological abstractions and the operations of worldly power in a colonial context, dramatising the many ways in which the impositions of a dominant culture can oppress and silence those deemed not to have a stake in its ‘common heritage of thought’. Frank Kermode, in a series of lectures on Eliot’s ‘What is a Classic?’ (which Coetzee does not mention), noted that Virgil’s classic status is associated in Eliot’s mind with the virtues of imperialism. ‘I am all for empires,’ Eliot once enthused. The attitude of Coetzee’s fiction, it seems fair to say, is rather more ambivalent. Perhaps the greatest of his early novels, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), is set, quite pointedly, at the very edge of an unnamed empire, the better to observe the terrible truth of Walter Benjamin’s remark that the history of every civilisation is a simultaneous history of barbarism. Implicit in Eliot’s definition of a classic is the notion that a civilisation’s enduring ideals can be said to have, on some level, an independent or uncompromised existence, a theoretical purity that remains untainted by its historical legacy. Rhetorical appeals to this kind of supra-historical idealism are precisely what much of Coetzee’s fiction calls into question.
J.C. Kannemeyer describes ‘What is a Classic?’ as ‘one of the most important lectures of [Coetzee’s] career’. It is certainly one in which a number of key themes intersect. As Kannemeyer observes, it is especially striking for the way Coetzee relates Eliot’s ideas to his own experience by noting that the American-born poet makes no mention of the fact that he is, by the terms of his own argument, someone of ‘provincial’ origins whose personal history distances him from the European tradition he venerates. In highlighting this point, Coetzee looks to the biographical foundations of Eliot’s ideas, but he also recasts the argument. The lecture comes to turn on a moment of autobiographical revelation: the story of his first riveting encounter, at the age of fifteen, with the music of J.S. Bach, which he overhears one day when it drifts across his yard from a neighbour’s stereo. This personal experience provides him with a specific example of the problem he extrapolates from Eliot’s work. For young provincials, he writes, ‘the high culture of the metropolis may arrive in the form of powerful experiences which cannot, however, be embedded in their lives in any obvious way, and which seem therefore to have their existence in some transcendent realm.’
There is a distinctively Coetzeean quality to the way he teases out his argument, not from anything Eliot states directly, but from something left unsaid. And, as Kannemeyer argues, the question the lecture seems to raise – that is, whether or not ‘somebody from South Africa, somebody from the colonies, could ever succeed in writing a classic’ – has obvious autobiographical implications. But perhaps the most telling aspect of the lecture is that it can itself be read in light of a potentially significant omission: Coetzee makes no mention of the fact that, at almost the same time as he discovered the music of Bach, he also discovered Eliot’s poetry. Another of his formative experiences of the overwhelming power of the high culture of the metropolis, in other words, was at the hands of Eliot himself. Eliot does not simply clarify the problem of provincialism for Coetzee; his success makes him an example of an artist who has overcome that problem.
Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940 and came of age in the late-1950s when Eliot’s reputation as a literary arbiter and the ne plus ultra of modernist poets was at its zenith. For a young man with a burgeoning interest in literature, Eliot’s imposing cultural presence would have been inescapable. Early in the autobiographical Youth (2002), Coetzee refers to his ‘overwhelming encounter’ with Eliot’s poetry while still a high school student. The young John Coetzee subsequently adopts Eliot and Ezra Pound as literary heroes whose critical opinions he receives as gospel. (He claims to prefer Pound’s verse, but even in this he is deferring to Eliot, who praised Pound as ‘il miglior fabbro’ – the better craftsman.) Youth goes on to satirise John’s callow attempts to transform himself into a writer and preserves for posterity a comically bad poem in the style of Eliot: ‘If you have gone, go then to the Portuguese rock-lobster fishermen.’
Kannemeyer’s biography suggests that Youth, which focuses on the period Coetzee spent in England in the early 1960s, and the earlier autobiographical work Boyhood (1997) are accurate in many of their essential details. It confirms that Coetzee harboured poetic ambitions as a teenager and was strongly influenced by Eliot. By the time he arrived at university, his interest in the literary modernism of the early twentieth-century was well-established and he was affecting an Eliot-like evasiveness about the meaning of his own work. Geoffrey Haresnape, a member of a poetry group Coetzee belonged to at the University of Cape Town, remembers that Coetzee would ‘read his poems, which were usually in the manner of T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, and then maintain an absolute silence in the discussions which followed. Silence can be very unnerving, especially when it is used by someone who gives every evidence of being confident in it.’
Coetzee outgrew his ambition to become a poet; as a novelist, he would find more apposite literary influences elsewhere. Yet Kannemeyer’s biography suggests that the affinity with Eliot was deep and enduring. The wealth of primary material collected in its pages includes extracts from the teaching notes Coetzee used in the early years of his academic career and, as Kannemeyer observes, it is possible to discern a ‘veiled self-image’ in some of the astute commentaries on Eliot’s work. A fellow academic who met Coetzee at Harvard in 1991 remarked on the similarity, observing that he ‘is like Eliot in the way he deliberately keeps his private life out of the public eye. A researcher seeking information on his biography invariably draws a blank.’
J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing is, on one level, a comprehensive rebuttal of the idea that the basic facts of Coetzee’s life must remain shrouded in mystery. Written with the co-operation of its subject, who granted interviews and access to his archives, it puts to rest many of the uncertainties and misperceptions that have come to surround a novelist whose reluctance to talk about himself has meant that even his middle name has been the subject of earnest dispute (it’s Maxwell). Kannemeyer also makes something of a point of correcting the perception that Coetzee is a forbidding or unapproachable character, documenting instances of sociability and arguing – all too plausibly – that his reputation for being unforthcoming with interviewers is a result of his irritation with journalists who presume to question him without having done their research. Nevertheless, the book’s portrait of a studious, disciplined, cautious, conscientious, non-drinking, vegetarian cycling enthusiast is unlikely to strike readers of Coetzee’s carefully crafted fictions as incongruous. Much of the novelist’s famous reserve would seem to be a simple matter of temperament. In the 1956 yearbook for St Joseph’s College, each student was summed up in a single sentence. Coetzee’s was ‘I refuse to Rock and Roll’.
Yet there is more to the novelist’s distant demeanour than his perfectly reasonable desire that the details of his private life remain private. There are many writers who prefer to keep to themselves; some of them – J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon – have shunned the spotlight to the point of becoming reclusive. Coetzee is nowhere near that extreme. During his long tenure at the University of Cape Town, he participated fully in academic life and was never less than consummately professional. He has delivered many public lectures and readings over the years, and has given a number of extensive interviews – most notably the wide-ranging discussions with Coetzee scholar David Attwell that are collected in Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992).
And this is the broad sense in which Eliot – a notoriously slippery character – might be understood as one of the precedents for Coetzee’s extraordinary literary career. There are few writers who have not only successfully cultivated a personal mystique, but have apparently done so quite deliberately as a way of managing the artist’s contradictory need for self-exposure and self-protection. Eliot’s persona, based around his ironically worn mask of propriety, his teasing aloofness, allowed him to exist as a highly visible public figure while retaining a decorous air of detachment and unknowability. More importantly, it allowed him to pour his deepest sentiments into his poetry while presenting himself as an implacable opponent of verse that was personalised or confessional. This is a lesson Coetzee learned well, and apparently learned early. ‘If Eliot chooses to seem dull,’ he writes in Youth, ‘chooses to wear a suit and work in a bank and call himself J. Alfred Prufrock, it must be as a disguise, as part of the necessary cunning of the artist in the modern age.’
One of the notable features of Coetzee’s career has been his strategic use of fictional techniques that destabilise generic distinctions and play upon the reader’s assumptions about the author. Kannemeyer records that his subject went to some trouble to ensure that Youth was published without any marking that would identify it conclusively as either memoir or fiction, while several of the novels Coetzee has published since settling in Australia would seem to have something of a confessional air about them. Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007), in particular, seem to invite the assumption that the author is using them as vehicles to parade his barely disguised personal opinions. Yet at no point do these late novels allow for any direct and unqualified attribution; at no point does the line that might separate truth from fiction become clear.
An awareness that one of the most potent factors shaping our interpretation of a literary work is what we know – or think we know – about its author’s background is evident as far back as Coetzee’s first book Dusklands (1974). ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’ – one of the two fictions that make up that book – is presented as a historical document: a first-person account of the exploits of a brutally racist eighteenth-century colonial in Southern Africa. An introductory note states that it has been ‘translated’ from the original Dutch by J.M. Coetzee. Kannemeyer, diligent researcher that he is, establishes that there was indeed a real ‘Jacobus Coetsé’ who left an account of his African travels, but that he ‘is descended from a different line to that of J.M. Coetzee.’ Even so, the implication of the shared surname seems clear enough. The narrative not only seeks to recognise the violence of South Africa’s colonial past; it also implies that J.M. Coetzee has inherited something of its taint, however distantly or indirectly. Coetzee suggested as much when he was pressed by his publisher to provide information about his family history in order to publicise the book. He was reluctant to do so, and made a sweeping statement that, at his publisher’s insistence, ended up on the dust jacket: ‘I am one of 10 000 Coetzees, and what is there to be said about them except that Jacobus Coetzee begat them all?’
Kannemeyer appends to this remark, which to my ears sounds very much like a metaphorical declaration of kinship that implies an inherited collective responsibility, the kind of observation that is apt to shake one’s faith in a biographer: ‘it seems that the writer was unaware of the true place of Jacobus Coetsé in the family tree of the Coetzees, and that he regarded him as a direct forebear.’
The literal-mindedness on display here is less troubling than Kannemeyer’s general reluctance to grapple with the various ways in which Coetzee’s personal reticence and his fictional techniques might either complement or contradict each other, for the issue goes to the heart of the biographical project. In 1967, when Coetzee was a postgraduate student studying in the United States, Roland Barthes published his seminal essay calling for the ‘death of the author’ in the name of the interpretive freedom of the reader. In a sense, Coetzee was way ahead of him. Steeped in the literature of modernism with its emphasis on formal experimentation, receptive to Eliot’s ideas about of the objectivity of the literary work and the impersonality of poetic expression, admiring of the writings of Samuel Beckett (another author notoriously reluctant to pronounce on the meaning of his creations), Coetzee had already intuited that there were liberating possibilities in denying the author’s official stamp of approval for any given interpretation, and that in granting this interpretive freedom to the reader there were liberating possibilities for the author himself.
One of Coetzee’s earliest published works dates from his time in England, where he worked as a computer programmer for IBM. Published in the Cape Times in 1963, his seven-line ‘Computer poem’ appeared with a note explaining that it had indeed been generated by a computer. (The episode is referred to in Youth, which has John printing out thousands of computer-generated lines of verse described, rather cheekily, as being ‘in the style of Pablo Neruda’.) Whether Coetzee saw this as a serious literary experiment or a Dadaist prank, it suggests an early interest in the possibility of hollowing out conventional notions of authorship.
In complicated and subtle ways, Coetzee has held to the idea that if the figure of the author can absent himself, retain that core of unknowability, then the work’s open-ended potential is protected and it has a better chance of escaping the determining pressures of the context from which it emerged. It can transcend its historical moment. Simply by knowing when to shut up – truly, a rare skill – he has been able to have the best of both worlds. He can express himself with what can often seem to be startling directness, yet shroud himself in layers of protective fictionalisation at the same time. The frequent appearance of author-figures in his novels is, in this sense, the obverse of his computer poem experiment. This basic technique is, of course, not radical in itself; indeed, it is something of a literary convention. Many of Coetzee’s contemporaries have explored the fictional possibilities of self-referentiality – Philip Roth’s novels have featured a character called ‘Philip Roth’, Paul Auster’s a character named ‘Paul Auster’, Martin Amis’s a character named ‘Martin Amis’, and so on. What distinguishes Coetzee’s dabblings in this area is his genuine interest in the problem of confession. The author-figures who populate his novels, from the amateur writers Susan Barton in Foe (1986) and Mrs Curran in Age of Iron (1990), to the later celebrity authors JC and Elizabeth Costello – and even, audaciously, Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Master of Petersburg (1994) – are preoccupied with the problems of self-expression, mutual recognition and intimate connection, which for a variety of reasons they see as being impossibly fraught and compromised. His novels are not interested in such techniques as a form of postmodern gamesmanship, but as an extension of an issue that sits at the centre of his self-fashioning as an artist: how does a writer create the conditions under which genuine expression might become possible? How does he turn to his literary advantage the expectations and constraints that are inscribed in the facts of his particular historical situation, his cautiously undemonstrative persona, and his cultural marginality – or, more recently, his burgeoning status as an internationally recognised ‘classic’ author, which creates a new set of expectations and constraints?
It is an often noted feature of Coetzee’s fiction that the passionate questioning of its content is wedded to an apparently dispassionate dedication to form and craft. The tension this suggests between the author’s romantic tendencies and his modernist scruples suggests the underlying problem of this biography. Kannemeyer sensibly refuses to speculate about his subject’s psychology, but he begins his account with a discussion of the important place the concept of autobiography has in Coetzee’s thinking. He draws attention to way that Coetzee has deliberately blurred the line between fiction and autobiography in several of his books and notes that a biographer must tread carefully when considering the relationship between the life and the work.
Kannemeyer reports that Coetzee’s co-operation extended only to factual matters and that he declined to comment on anything pertaining to the interpretation of his writings. Yet the question of which biographical facts are neutral (and are therefore amenable to confirmation) and which might be relevant to the interpretation of the work (and must therefore not be commented on) is not an easy one to answer. Coetzee has implied in some of his fictional writings that the biographer, who uses a limited number of factual – and sometimes not-so-factual – details to reconstruct an author’s life is engaged in an impossibly compromised task; it is surely no less compromising to have the author making judgement calls about the relevance of particular subjects. This is not to suggest that Coetzee is under any obligation to open up about his personal life; it does, however, indicate just how successful he has been – and continues to be – when it comes to controlling how much the public is allowed to know of him personally. He is still refusing to Rock and Roll.
Coetzee has declared his belief that all writing has its foundations in autobiography. This view, which would seem to justify the biographical project, is highlighted by Kannemeyer and is reflected in Coetzee’s own critical practice, which seeks to ground his interpretations in the life and times of the author under consideration. Yet, as Kannemeyer also highlights, Coetzee’s understanding of autobiography is complicated. It asserts the inevitability of autobiography at the same time as it recognises its impossibility. In his interviews with David Attwell, Coetzee emphasised the self-justificatory implications of transforming one’s experiences into narrative, pointing out that if all writing is a form of autobiography, it is also an objectifying process that selectively and tendentiously shapes a coherent but false self from an indeterminate quantity of potentially meaningful details. ‘All autobiography,’ he observed, ‘is autre-biography.’
The virtues and flaws of J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing organise themselves around this paradoxical definition. Kannemeyer, who died suddenly in late-2011 before he could shepherd his book into print, was an expert in Africaans literature. His account of Coetzee’s life, which was written in Africaans and has been translated into English by Michiel Heyns, is an impressive feat of scholarship that will prove indispensable to anyone who wishes to understand the historical and political context of Coetzee’s work – the South African novels, in particular. He analyses the genesis and reception of each work in detail. His practice of quoting liberally from his primary sources is welcome and he smuggles a great deal of additional material into his endnotes, such that the book becomes something of a compendium of valuable contextualising information.
Coetzee’s life has not been one of high drama, though he has experienced his share of personal troubles. His marriage ended in divorce, his ex-wife succumbed to cancer, his son was killed in an accidental fall from a balcony (Kannemeyer scotches rumours of suicide), and his daughter has battled epilepsy and alcoholism. Kannemeyer records these unhappy circumstances, but keeps the focus of his biography, appropriately, on the steady progress of his subject’s career.
Arguably the most important contextualising fact about Coetzee’s career is that he lived through a dark period in South Africa’s history, and the biography is at its most compelling when examining the difficulties and pressures that came with being a writer under the censorious apartheid regime. Coetzee’s novels were deemed to be literary – a designation that seems to have meant their appeal was safely limited – and were not banned (works by his peers Nadine Gordimer and André Brink were not so fortunate). But as Kannemeyer documents, the road to publication could be rocky and a passage in his second novel In the Heart of the Country (1977) was suppressed. Coetzee would later write that the noxious influence of such a regime reaches beyond the act of censorship itself: it creates a climate of paranoia in which the author is ‘touched and contaminated by the sickness of the state’ and can succumb to a pernicious form of self-censorship.
One of the remarkable features of his achievement, which Kannemeyer helps us to appreciate, is the far-sightedness that allowed Coetzee to navigate his way through the oppressive political landscape with his literary integrity intact. J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing reminds us that the South African novels – which are deeply and overtly engaged with the issues of oppression and injustice – were often criticised for failing to address the political situation with sufficient directness. Coetzee’s personal opposition to the apartheid regime was never in question, and the shaping influence of the historical context is certainly evident in his fiction (Kannemeyer notes that when a prisoner dies in custody in Waiting for the Barbarians, his horrific injuries and the bland official reason that is given for his death are almost identical to those in the case of the murdered anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko), but his practice of addressing present concerns in indirect or symbolic ways, filtering them through the genres of historical fiction and allegory, was viewed as evasive. Taking the longer view, however, it is possible to see just how clearly Coetzee understood the imperative he sets out in ‘What is a Classic?’ for a literary work – inevitably a product of its specific time and place – to be applicable to other times, other places. His nuanced examinations of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed, master and slave, torturer and victim, sought to look beyond the badness of the specific moment to consider its corrosive effect on the soul. When he did address South Africa’s racial politics in a direct manner, in the underrated Age of Iron and the harrowing post-apartheid novel Disgrace (1999), it is significant that he stressed the tendency for the toxic context to compromise and thwart genuine communication. There could be few better examples of the way that heightened political tensions encourage falsifying simplifications, and how this is incompatible with the expressiveness Coetzee strives for in his fiction, than the controversy that erupted over the latter novel’s pessimistic vision, which was alleged in some quarters to have racist overtones. That kind of literary criticism, he observed, bending his own rule about not commenting on the interpretation of his own work, ‘would get you an F in English I and maybe even Matric.’
Valuable though it is, J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing has some mundane flaws that are perhaps a consequence of the fact that Kannemeyer was unable to see his book into print. The text, though readable, lacks polish, and the rough and ready quality extends to a number of niggling errors that, whether the fault of the author or his translator, really should have been ironed out in the editing process. The character of Paul Rayment from Slow Man (2005) is referred to at one point as ‘Paul Raiment’ (a slip that inadvertently makes the French pun in his name explicit); John F. Kennedy was not elected U.S. president in 1961, but in November 1960, and he was assassinated three years later, not two; John Howard is described at one point as Australia’s ‘premier’; the John Button Prize becomes the ‘John Burton Prize’; Geordie Williamson has his surname abbreviated to ‘Williams’, and Czeslaw Milosz has his abbreviated to ‘Milos’.
But the principle flaw with the book – a potentially serious one for a biography – is that its subject remains a distant figure. What is almost entirely lacking from Kannemeyer’s biography is a sense of Coetzee’s personality. One arrives at the end of the book wondering he even has a personality. There are, of course, glimpses of the human being behind the fiction – in some of the modest pranks Coetzee pulled as a young man, in the understandable grief he felt at the deaths of his ex-wife and his son – but there is little insight into his personal motivations. Coetzee has satirised his own boring timidity in his autobiographical writings, and it may simply be the case that he really is a rare human being who has never done anything particularly reckless, or said anything stupid and embarrassing, or lost his temper for no adequate reason. It may be case that the kind of enhanced understanding that the best biographers seem to provide – the way that, say, Richard Ellmann or Joseph Frank seem to demonstrate how their subjects’ conspicuous human flaws and contradictions are deeply entangled with their literary genius – is merely illusory and that it would make no difference if Coetzee had lived his life like William Burroughs. But there remains an absence at the heart of this book that is, well … weird. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, in this respect at least, the biographer has been thoroughly bested by his subject.
There is an intriguing example of the way the distance Coetzee maintains undermines the biographical project in one of the rare details that seems, at first glance, to offer an insight into the failed marriage that he entirely neglects to mention in any of his autobiographical works. Kannemeyer reports that one day in the late-1970s Coetzee left open a gate and the family dog escaped. The Coetzees were living near a busy road at the time and the dog was hit by a car. It crawled home and subsequently died of its injuries. The source of the anecdote is Coetzee’s wife, who suggested darkly to some family friends that her husband did not like the dog and that he left the gate open deliberately.
Kannemeyer is sensibly cautious in his presentation of this detail, acknowledging the possibility of a misunderstanding. Yet he goes on to speculate that the incident ‘might represent a turning point in the life of someone who later in his work would take a very strong stand on animal rights. It could be that his conversion to vegetarianism was also connected with this, as well as his aversion to all forms of violence, even in cases where it could lead to a political solution.’
This seems like rather a lot to be pinning on an uncertain anecdote. Yet the story is also evocative in another direction. Dogs – particularly unloved, injured or crippled dogs – are a recurring symbol in Coetzee’s fiction, and in Boyhood he describes as his ‘first memory’ the experience of looking out a window and seeing a dog being struck by a car and crawling away to die with its back broken. Kannemeyer does not make this connection, and perhaps it is no more than a coincidence. But this moment, in which the life appears to have informed the work, might serve to remind us that a real event, viewed from the outside, can seem to have a symbolic significance – which is to say, we can see it as meaningful in the same way we can find symbolic meaning in a work of fiction – but that without verification from the only person who really knows whether or not he left the gate open deliberately and how the incident affected him, any meaning we ascribe to it will inevitably be speculative.
Ultimately, Kannemeyer does not negotiate this issue very successfully. Despite himself, he repeatedly cites the fictionalised autobiographical works as evidence of Coetzee’s feelings, opinions and beliefs. One could just as readily cite Elizabeth Costello’s assertion that she doesn’t really believe in belief. Late in the biography, in the course of a discussion of Coetzee’s view of his adopted country, Kannemeyer observes:
What strikes Coetzee about Australian politics is how trifling the issues that are debated in parliament and elsewhere, especially when compared with South Africa, where the big political themes involve meaningful national issues. In Australia the big issues are something of the past, and democracy has advanced to the point of a healthy cynicism about and contempt for politics and politicians.
He backs up this claim with an endnote that directs the reader to the novel Diary of a Bad Year, despite having argued at the outset that ‘in a work like Dairy of a Bad Year, the narrative strategy does not allow the reader invariably to ascribe the pronouncements of the fictionalised writer to the author J.M. Coetzee.’
At such moments, one hears the gate close and realises one is still on the outer. Near the beginning of Youth, John Coetzee has an argument with a girlfriend after she violates his privacy by reading his diary. ‘The question of what should be permitted to go into his diary,’ he thinks, ‘and what kept forever shrouded goes to the heart of all his writing.’ On this point, it appears Kannemeyer could not win. What we are allowed to know of the author is what he chooses to tell us in his fiction, but what he tells us in his fiction does not allow us to claim we know him at all.
In a recent essay on the fiction of Gerald Murnane, Coetzee argues against the perception that Murnane is a coldly cerebral writer whose work lacks heart. He cites a scene in Barley Patch (2009) in which Murnane visits a favourite uncle who is in hospital, dying from cancer. Murnane had fallen out with his uncle decades earlier over his decision to become a writer. Yet when the two men are reunited they ignore the subject of their long estrangement. In what Coetzee characterises as a ‘typically Australian male way’, they make no mention of their feelings and instead chat about horse racing. The encounter touches on the deepest, most sensitive motivation behind Murnane’s fiction:
without writing he ‘would never be able to suggest to another person what I truly felt towards him or her.’ That is to say, only by telling the story of a man who appears to have no feelings but privately weeps, addressing the story elegiacally, to one who can no longer hear it, is he able to reveal his love.
The argument recalls Coetzee’s observation in ‘What is a Classic?’ that Eliot’s often obscure poetry, whose literary effects are deployed in the service of a theoretical depersonalisation, is ‘astonishingly personal, not to say autobiographical’. It echoes Coetzee’s claim, which Kannemeyer highlights for self-evident reasons, that all writing has its foundations in autobiography, even writing that belongs to the supposedly disinterested and analytical genre of literary criticism. Most strikingly, Coetzee’s discussion of the theme of atonement in Murnane’s fiction evokes the elegiac conclusion to Summertime (2009), the third book in the autobiographical trilogy collectively titled Scenes from Provincial Life, which describes John Coetzee’s strained relationship with his widowed father.
Kannemeyer confirms that this scenario is every bit as fictitious as Summertime’s overarching conceit that the famous novelist John Coetzee has recently died and his life is being researched by a nosey biographer. The real Coetzee was not, in the early 1970s, a single man who shared a house with his father; he was living with his wife and two young children. His father was not, at that time, a widower. Smaller details that feel as if they could be genuine would also appear to be fabrications. Near the end of Summertime, Coetzee recalls that when he was growing up his father liked to spend his Sunday afternoons listening to an album of arias sung by Renata Tebaldi. The book claims that the young John so despised his father’s record that one day he deliberately scratched it with a razor blade. Yet in ‘What is a Classic?’ Coetzee writes: ‘I do not come from a musical family … At home we had no musical instrument, no record player.’
This claim may itself be a falsehood; at very least, it requires qualification. Kannemeyer records that the fifteen-year-old Coetzee, flushed with excitement following his discovery of Bach, ‘nagged his parents for music lessons, and his mother bought a piano. He had ambitions to become a great musician, but the step-by-step method of instruction bored him and the lessons were not a success.’ But the question of whether or not the story of the scratched record is literally true is beside the point. The mean-spirited act of vandalism is a symbolic gesture, as is John’s piteous attempt to make amends as an adult by tracking down, with some difficulty, a new copy of the record and presenting it to his father. The episode is offered as an objective correlative. It is particular, yet archetypal. Its poignancy resides in its general applicability: its sense that his father is a kind of everyman, that the tragedy lies in the fact that there is nothing remarkable about his palpable loneliness. He is merely one of countless men of ordinary failings who have lived decent enough lives but have not been thumping successes, men who find themselves in the twilight years of their lives alone and unable to communicate with anyone. Father and son are estranged from each other in a typically South African male way. These pages are among the saddest and most affecting Coetzee has ever written. They are emotionally raw and confessional. And there is no greater tribute to his skill as a novelist than to recognise that they are untrue.