J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time
by David Attwell
Published August, 2015
In 1995 a small collection of papers related to the composition of several of J.M. Coetzee’s novels were deposited at Harvard University. The archives were held there without much comment, only accessed by a few scholars, until they were moved to Coetzee’s alma mater, the University of Texas, Austin in 2011, where they are now held by the Harry Ransom Center, which has one of the largest archival holding related to twentieth-century English literature in the world. A far more extensive set of archives related to all of Coetzee’s works, with the exception of the most recent, The Childhood of Jesus, was delivered to Harry Ransom Center in 2013. Coetzee wrote his PhD thesis (The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay In Stylistic Analysis) at this University in the late 1960s, and a large part of this work involved his going into the archives (then held on the top floor of the University Library rather than in the impressive stand alone building in which it is now housed) to examine the archival material related to Samuel Beckett. With the arrival of this vast Coetzee collection (140 containers), which includes drafts of the novels, notebooks of ideas kept during the process composition, copies of research materials, as well as juvenilia, screenplays (which have been recently published), translations, reviews, literary criticism, photographs and other personal materials, the strong scholarly interest that had already developed around his work has now turned to these archives, which are currently among the most accessed resource in the Center.
For the most part, since he began this regime on 1 January 1970, Coetzee has sat down to write everyday, more or less without exception, and dates both the entries to his notebooks and the draft materials, and any subsequent revisions to those drafts. While this was no doubt extremely useful to Coetzee himself in organizing the complex set of materials through which his novels emerged, it also allows students of the archives to closely follow his creative process. Unlike many other writers, including Beckett, Coetzee’s handwriting is extremely legible. If one considers the archive to be some kind of extension of the works or perhaps some kind of work of its own, it is possible to enter into this extra- or ur- or uber- work without too much difficulty. In effect, the main thing that limits the critic/scholar in this process is the vast nature of this archive. There is simply too much within it for it to be easily summarized or mastered: the ideas and the drafts often move in directions that are quite different to the final published works. To use arcane technical terms: the labour in the Coetzee archive is necessarily as much a ‘critical’ (or interpretative) labour as it is a ‘scholarly’ one (tracing every textual move as rigorously as possible), because the scholarly task is so vast and so fraught as it moves between the various versions and the ideas set out within the archive.
Paradoxically, then, approaching this archive is both too easy and too hard. One is necessarily called upon to find a line and to follow it. With that said, lines, or problems do announce themselves, and the richness of the archives, and the works that in part emerged from them, yields real and at times astonishing insight into the writing process and problems at stake in the published works. I say the works that ‘in part emerge’ from them because vast as they are, not everything is held in these archives. Indeed, Coetzee has put an embargo on some of the materials held, but not yet made public, by the Harry Ransom Center (mostly, from what one can tell from the holdings, with regard to the later works), and one can only guess at what might not have been set down on the page but still profoundly influenced the creative processes involved.
David Attwell can rightly claim to be one of the foremost critics of Coetzee’s works. In important ways he has been a collaborator with Coetzee, having edited and undertaken the interviews for Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, which remains one of the most insightful guides to Coetzee’s writing. He is also the author of J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, and numerous articles on Coetzee’s work. His latest book, J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, extends his legacy and takes it in a somewhat different direction. This work, while rigorous and scholarly, is clearly pitched to a general rather than an academic readership, and for this reason it is published by Coetzee’s own publishers (Penguin in the US and UK, and Text in Australia) rather than by an academic press.
The work is a kind of biography, or at least enters into the space normally inhabited by the biography, yet it does so more or less exclusively through Attwell’s reading of the archival materials I describe above. I say more or less exclusively because, while he pushes it down in the mix, so to speak, he is one of the best informed critics of Coetzee and has comprehensive knowledge of the critical literature that has built around him, and his book is also informed by this. It is further informed by his capacity as a literary critic, because, as well as developing a focus on Coetzee’s life Attwell offers strong and original readings of the works themselves. As he states at the outset his book is ‘a critical biography whose purpose is to read the life and the work of its subject, the novelist J. M. Coetzee, together.’
In one way this is an endeavor suggested by the archives themselves. One of the things made possible by Coetzee’s daily writing practices is a capacity to trace some of what Coetzee was thinking, at least in terms of what he was writing, on each of these days. Yet Attwell recognizes the limitations of his project and does not claim that his work offers ‘a biography in the conventional sense’ or an ‘intellectual biography… [understood as] an account of the growth and development of Coetzee’s ideas and their expression in his fiction and other writings’. Rather, ‘The book is mainly an account of my reading of Coetzee’s manuscripts’.
In effect, then, one way of reading his book would be to see it as a critical reading of the extra-, ur- or uber- work that the archive comprises. Another way would be to see it as effectively inverting the normal biographical process: whereas traditional biography proceeds by gathering evidence of the life to build a narrative about that life and situating the works within that narrative, Attwell begins with the writing process and its documentation in the archives in order to develop a narrative as to how this process both reveals understandings of and in important ways situates that life.
The major theme of J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing is the problem of the relation between the life and the work and how this might be understood. Attwell develops a ‘weak’ (or less emphasized) thesis and a ‘strong’ (or explicitly emphasized) thesis with relation to this theme. The strong version requires us to return to the life writing process to understand the works. The weak thesis moves from the life/work relation to other questions, such as socio-historical contexts and the problem fields they carry with them, and style and form in fiction.
In the strong version the life-based process not only informs but determines how the works can be read. In the weak version the life is only one of a range of processes from which the work emerges which enrich but do not limit our interpretation of those works. There is a slippage between the strong version (which becomes at times the official thesis of the work) and the weak version, and the dialogue between them develops under the surface of Attwell’s book, undermining the strong thesis while simultaneously transforming it from a thesis to be demonstrated into a provocation that forces us to think about the nature of the relation between fiction and the real.
I think it likely that Attwell would disagree with my reading, as the nature of the strong thesis is such that it requires robust assertions which Attwell must of necessity stand by. For example, he states,
The book must in some sense answer to the mystery of its author’s being. Coetzee’s writing is a huge existential enterprise grounded in fictionalized autobiography. In this enterprise the texts marked as autobiography are continuous with those marked as fiction — only the degree of fictionalization varies.
This is an example of a statement of Attwell’s strong thesis, set up clearly and forcefully at the outset. Perhaps the best example of a clear statement of the weak thesis can be found at the end of the book, although here, prompted by comments Coetzee makes in his published correspondence with Paul Auster, Attwell is referring to the ‘third stage’ fiction that emerges after Disgrace rather than all his works.
Instead of a simple ‘urge to represent’, Coetzee says that what engages him more is the ‘second-order’ questions. Examples would be, [here Attwell cites Coetzee from his notes to Diary of a Bad Year] ‘What am I doing when I represent? What is the difference between living in the real world and living in a world of representations?’ From inside the process of thinning-out [which Attwell attributes only to the late fiction], Coetzee clarifies here what is most important for him: the self-reflection on one’s practice.
My point is that as one reads the book it becomes apparent that Attwell himself, as an excellent literary critic with strengths both in socio-political historical methods and stylistic analysis, offers readings of Coetzee’s works that go beyond the strong thesis with its emphasis on a continuity between the life and the work and move toward the weak thesis which necessarily involves a recognition of the gaps between the life and the work required by the literary forms made use of by Coetzee. This is apparent in Attwell’s reading of Waiting for the Barbarians, for example, which demonstrates the importance of background research (in this case into China and border outposts) and socio-historical events (in particular the murder of Steve Biko), and stylistic and formal concerns, to the power of the work. He is equally insightful in his reading of Disgrace, which situates statements in the notebooks in relation to the specific historical moment in which they are made, as well as considering how the original sentiments were significantly transformed through the creative process. To put it another way, Coetzee has always been interested in second order questions and these have always emerged within the forms he develops. Further, this interest itself makes a simple statement of the strong thesis impossible to sustain.
I need to move to some examples to more fully explain what I mean. In Chapter 3, ‘1 January 1970’, Attwell turns to Dusklands to illustrate his strong thesis, maintaining that:
Fictionalized autobiography in Coetzee actually starts here, at the beginning of the oeuvre, with Dusklands — not with Boyhood, in other words, where the genre is explicitly taken up.
In order to maintain this argument, however, Attwell needs to look past the obvious formal processes within Dusklands. He turns to the first lines Coetzee writes,
Among those heroes who first ventured into the interior of Southern Africa and brought back the news of what we had inherited, Jacobus Janszoon Coetzee has hitherto occupied an honorable but minor place.
Attwell argues that this returns us to Coetzee and his equivocal relation to his place of birth, South Africa. The weak thesis reemerges for a moment as Attwell underlines how ‘In the spirit of Dostoevsky, the position is full of double thoughts’, yet he goes on to claim that ‘behind this voice, in ironic rebellion, stands Coetzee himself’ (52). What Attwell fails to acknowledge, even though it is no doubt very clear to him and implied in the reference to double thoughts, is that this first piece is imagined to be written by a fictionalized ‘editor’ later to be named ‘S. J. Coetzee’ who is supposed to be the father of the ‘translator’ of ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’, one ‘J. M. Coetzee’. Yet, as the character ‘John’ in Coetzee’s ficto-autobiography Summertime states, he made all that up and his real father had nothing to do with the fictional Afterword of Dusklands. What assets itself, then, is the form, and in this case the fictional frame, no doubt borrowed from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which impressed Coetzee at this time, which develops a similar technique of parodying forms from academic genres. The question of framing and form, however, changes everything. While it is no doubt true that there is an important relation between the work and the life, one that, as Attwell demonstrates, motivated Coetzee to begin this text and to address the themes addressed in the work, the fictional form stands between what is said and any definitive identification of ‘Coetzee himself’.
I would also suggest that the virtual identification of the forms developed in Dusklands and other of the novels and those developed in the fictionalized autobiographies Boyhood, Youth and Summertime is not justified. There are important differences in the forms: firstly, the fictionalized autobiographies clearly acknowledge their relation to the genre of autobiography, and secondly, Coetzee uses fictional modes to focus upon the limitations and capacities of the methods used in autobiography. In short, Attwell’s strong thesis is too strong and, in my view, fails. Once one gets beyond this, however, his reading of this novel and many of the others in the book nevertheless do offer compelling insight into the importance of the life to the work. Yet this is because as he continues Attwell loses focus on his strong thesis and offers instead insightful readings of the archives and works that open up rather than close down those works.
There is one place, however, where I think this is not true, at least at a crucial moment. This is in the chapter related to The Master of Petersburg. Here some of the problems at hand come into view. It becomes apparent, as indeed it had been since Kannemeyer’s biography of Coetzee which was published in 2012, that this novel in part responds to or attempts to come to terms with the sudden death of Coetzee’s son Nicolas, who fell from an 11-story building in Johannesburg in 1989. While no other parties were involved in this death the circumstances of it remain unclear. The autopsy and other crucial evidence were lost through oversight by the authorities. There is absolutely no doubt, as Attwell contends, that these real events prompt and infuse the novel. Yet nevertheless The Master of Petersburg is a novel, and, while mercilessly excoriating the vocation and the social position of ‘a writer of fiction’ and ‘a father’ as indefinite and so generalizable terms that Coetzee inhabits, the formal methods Coetzee settles on to explore his themes necessarily shift ‘Coetzee himself’ into the shadows, behind the work. The flaw in Attwell’s strong thesis becomes apparent as he turns to the fraught tangle of themes forced in front of us by the novel. How do we interpret this suffering and the complex accusations and provocations directed equally towards the reader and the writer in Coetzee’s extraordinary novel? Attwell states, ‘The book prompts the questions, but answering them seems callous’. The problem here is that the strong thesis, which sees the fictional works as inextricably linked to the life, asks us not to interpret the work. If the strong thesis were right, how could this be of benefit? Such a position surely fails both the role of the writer and the role of the reader.
Something crucial would be in danger of being missed if one were to take the strong thesis on face value, rather than understanding it, as I believe it should be understood in Attwell’s book, as a provocation, an exhortation to think. It would miss what is one of the most crucial powers of fiction as a form. Fiction in part draws its power precisely from the distance it sets up, through form, between the real and the representation of the real. This distance, however paradoxically, allows a closer examination and fuller understanding of the real. It also allows, for example, the coexistence of contradictory ideas and even contradictory events. The novel, unlike many other forms of thinking, is not afraid of paradox or intractable complexity and allows us to feel such complexity rather than pointing us to simple answers. This is because overly neat ‘answers’ to problems of complex interrelations are always in part directives: this is what you should think or believe. Rejecting this, the kinds of novels J. M. Coetzee writes require us to think for ourselves. That indeed is at the heart of the concept of dialogue Bakhtin derives from his reading of Dostoevsky.
This is further demonstrated in Peter Singer’s response to The Lives of Animals, where Singer strongly objects to the fictional form Coetzee uses to address a real set of problems around our treatment of animals as resources to be exploited (problems that Coetzee himself has strong personal investments in). Singer states, ‘Call me old-fashioned… but I prefer to keep truth and fiction clearly separate’. Firstly, Singer is being glib here in implying that fiction is a simple antonym of the truth and as such has no access or relation to the truth. Secondly, Singer is not being old-fashioned, but rather new-fangled, and he is wrong to associate Coetzee’s primary method (the fictional frame itself) with ‘post-modernism’ as if that fictional frame had just been invented. It is, rather, at the heart of all storytelling, and always has been, whenever stories are told that seek for truths beyond the simple recounting of facts. Fiction has long demonstrated its capacity to urge readers to think about problems and recognize complexity and apply this understanding (moving back now from the generalized to the particular) to our own lives. In any place where one tells a story with characters or others who do not stand for you, no matter how transparent the mask, the figures involved are no longer simply particular, no longer simply reflect the author or expressions of her or his opinions; rather they become, through the form, indefinite and generalizable. Coetzee himself has written about some of the historical developments within the form and is a student of literary history with a special interest in formal and stylistic method. What he achieves is new but it develops through a potential that has always been present: the formal distance that opens between the real and the representation.
As a final example it is worth turning to Coetzee’s 2008 novel Diary of a Bad Year. Attwell states that ‘the novel began as a fictionalized diary’ but when examining the archives something else seems possible or even likely. This is one of the late texts and not all of the materials related to it are yet available to researchers. The original notebooks, for example, are not present in the available files, and the first draft that is available is marked ‘Draft 4’. Yet reading this draft it seems that this diary might not have been fictional to begin with, that it might have been an actual diary. Perhaps the entries are simply entries Coetzee made into his notebooks while failing to write a novel even though discipline still required him to write every day. The personal references to real people and places in his life in these drafts suggest this is likely. Later the drafts are edited extensively and reordered into the ‘Strong Opinions’ essays and all the direct references to the real Coetzee and his real life are excised, replaced by a fictional frame that surrounds the character ‘JC’ to whom they are now attributed, which is further framed in relation to the fictional story of JC’s relationship with his secretary, Anya, in an imagined apartment block in Sydney.
I would argue that this, in effect, demonstrates the power of the literary form, which is a power of framing as much as anything. Once anything is fictionalized it is no longer possible to make an unequivocal connection back from the work to the life its author. A distance is established that mobilizes this relation but renders it equivocal.
And yet Attwell clearly demonstrates that there is a lot that can be gained by attempting to make this fraught crossing between the life and the work. The danger would be if the strong thesis is taken as proven and used as a way of closing down the works to other approaches. The benefit occurs when one considers the claim to be only a provisional way in, which, once taken, allows insights that might otherwise not be possible.
David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, New York: Penguin 2014.
J.M. Coetzee, The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay In Stylistic Analysis, Austin: University of Texas, 1969.
– ‘Nabokov’s Pale Fire and the Primacy of Art’, UCT Studies in English 5 (1974): 1– 7
– Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, edited by David Attwell, Cambridge, Ma: Harvard UP, 1992.
C. Kannemeyer, J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns, Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2012.
Peter Singer, ‘Reflections’, in J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001, pp. 85-91.