Review: James Leyon J. M. Coetzee

Novelist of the Sorrowful Countenance: The Schooldays of Jesus

There are critics who have suggested that J. M. Coetzee’s writing lost its edge when he emigrated from South Africa to Australia. I don’t necessarily agree, though it is undeniable that the move coincided with a shift in the tone and emphasis of his work. There is a harrowing quality to the novels up to and including Disgrace (1999) that all but disappears from those that followed. The tendency to anguish over intractable moral questions is still very much in evidence in the later novels, but their cultural burden feels less crushing, as if some of the weight of inherited postcolonial guilt has been lifted. It is not as if Coetzee’s adopted home lacks for its own history of violent dispossession and racist subjugation, but the embrace of a new life in a new country seems to have afforded him the opportunity, if not exactly to reinvent himself, then at least to reorient himself as a novelist, let his guard down a little, write in a more relaxed and ironic register, conceive works that are less tightly buttoned in a formal sense, and re-examine some of his defining themes in ways that incline away from the historical and toward the philosophical.

Some of the unusual atmosphere of Coetzee’s two most recent novels, The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus, can be attributed to the fact that they push this tendency to an extreme. They imagine a society that has no discernible past. The two central characters – a middle-aged man named Simón and a young boy named David – are divested of their personal histories when they arrive in the town of Novilla at the beginning of The Childhood of Jesus. Not only are they assigned their new names, they can’t remember their old ones – or the details of their previous lives, or even where they came from. They step into a country that is itself oddly ahistorical. The people speak Spanish, but otherwise there seems to be little that is culturally distinctive about Novilla. It has an air of austerity, a kind of Eastern-bloc drabness. Some subtle class distinctions are hinted at (Inés, the woman who, rather implausibly, agrees to act as ‘mother’ to the parentless David, seems to come from an established family), but there is no indication that the social order is riven by political or ethnic rivalries, or that an indigenous population has been dispossessed in order to establish this peculiar amnesiac nation.

The indeterminacy this creates gives the two Jesus novels their air of unreality and their vaguely allegorical sheen, but it also provides a conveniently stripped-back setting in which to stage philosophical arguments. Both books cleave to Simón’s perspective, so we share his initial ignorance about the customs of his new home. That the fictional world of these novels seems to have been conjured ab ovo makes his attempts to navigate his unfamiliar surroundings more than a matter of pragmatic adaptation. The absence of contextualising information raises fundamental questions, which are made explicit in Simón’s interactions with David. The boy is constantly asking him naive questions about life, the universe and everything. Simón struggles to explain the mysteries of love, sex, death, human nature, how they came to be here, why things are the way they are. Yet David displays a puzzling tendency to reject the answers he is given. He refuses to accept certain elementary truths, insisting on the validity of his own fanciful ideas – which soon enough (about halfway through the first book, in fact) leads Simón to the inevitable response of every exasperated adult faced with a precocious child:

The answer to all your Why? questions, past, present and future, is: Because that is the way the world is.

In this sense, the Jesus novels are extensions of Coetzee’s interest in the ancient quarrel between literature and philosophy, evident in works such as Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007). Both of those books place expository texts in fictional contexts that ironise or call into question the arguments being advanced. In doing so, they foreground a crucial ambivalence that runs through Coetzee’s work – namely, scepticism about rationality itself. His novels often voice a neo-romantic suspicion that reason is an enclosed and self-validating system, that language and logic have little traction when it comes to the problems of guilt and justice and confession, that the realities of emotion and desire exist frustratingly beyond the limits of expression. ‘Passion can’t be explained,’ Simón informs David near the beginning of The Schooldays of Jesus, ‘it can only be experienced.’

This tendency in Coetzee’s work is closely related to its thwarted idealism. His recent book The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy (2015), co-authored with the psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz, is revealing on this point. ‘I would like to believe that the universe is just,’ Coetzee confesses to Kurtz, ‘that there is some or other eye that sees all, that transgressions of the law do not ultimately go unpunished.’ Later, he admits to a ‘longing or nostalgia for the one and only truth’. This much might be inferred from his novels, which dramatise the exquisite secular torments of protagonists who want to believe in noble ideas that the world refuses to endorse.

What is particularly telling about The Good Story is Coetzee’s ‘dogged concentration’ on the ethical implications of the unstable distinction between truth and fiction, as it applies to individual selfhood and collective identity. This becomes a significant point of difference with Kurtz, for whom the ethical and epistemological implications of the problem are (as she feels compelled to point out on several occasions) not all that relevant for a practising therapist, whose immediate concerns are pragmatic and ameliorative – ‘psychoanalytic truth,’ she observes, citing fellow psychoanalyst Hanna Segal, ‘is a process and not a fact’. For Coetzee, however, the proposition that what we accept as ‘reasonable’ or ‘true’ may be a self-serving or socially sanctioned delusion acquires its importance in the light of his personal history. His ‘intense tussle’ with the Afrikaans culture he was born into – a culture governed by an official Calvinism he characterises as ‘a religion of reason, suspicious of irrational forces’ – was prompted by his distaste for its tribalism and triumphalism, but also by the fact that he was ‘a child inordinately given to fantasy’ (which, he goes on to observe, inspired feelings of guilt that were ‘fortified by the very puritan culture in which I lived’). Elsewhere, he refers more broadly to his compromised position as a white man who has lived in South Africa, the United States and Australia:

That is to say, I have lived as a member of a conquering group which for a long time thought of itself in explicitly racial terms and believed that what it was achieving in settling (‘civilising’) a foreign land was something to be proud of, but which then, during my lifetime, for reasons of a world-historical nature, had to sharply revise its way of thinking about itself and its achievements, and therefore revise the story it told itself about itself, that is, its history.

It is easy enough to extrapolate some of Coetzee’s most significant themes from these formative personal conflicts. His novels acknowledge the essentially Marxist point that certain ideological justifications can become so naturalised that they seem inevitable, coterminous with reality, precisely because they define the limits of what is and is not reasonable, what can and cannot be articulated. They recognise that such justifications have been responsible for all manner of exploitation and suffering, that they can and do break down, and that beliefs and practices which seem unremarkable in one era may come to seem unconscionable in another – Elizabeth Costello raises this possibility with regard to the industrialised slaughter of animals for human consumption, for example.

The South African-era novels, in particular, do not simply address the historical fact that the colonial project was underwritten by now comprehensively discredited notions of racial superiority; they are also preoccupied with the fact that certain ideals were enlisted and compromised in the service of that project – concepts such as justice, reason, truth, civilisation. The moral dilemma that animates much of Coetzee’s fiction is ultimately a metaphysical argument about the status and validity of these kinds of abstractions. His novels are informed by a double-edged understanding of the inevitability and unsustainability of illusion. They suggest that there are times when it is necessary to reject Simón’s tautological argument-ender (‘that is the way the world is’) and insist that the world can and should be a better place. In other words, there are times when it is necessary to be unrealistic, to have in mind an ideal, something that is by definition an abstraction, nonexistent, irrational, even delusional. This is the implication of Elizabeth Costello’s rhetorical question: ‘How else are we to live but by dreams?’

The notion is literally quixotic. In The Good Story, Coetzee refers to a chapter in the second volume of Don Quixote in which Quixote, who appears to be experiencing a rare moment of self-awareness, notes that his delusional beliefs make him a better person. And by the end of the book his companions have come to prefer his idealised version of himself, realising that (as Coetzee puts it) ‘the world turns out to be a more lively, more entertaining place when at least some of us live out our ideals’. One of the reasons Don Quixote is regarded as the first modern novel is precisely because it raises the issue of the status of illusion in an age of disillusionment – the ‘age of iron’ that Quixote tells Sancho Panza they have the misfortune to have been born into. Part of the novel’s charm is that it does not insist reality is always hard and unyielding. Despite his ridiculousness, despite his many beatings and setbacks, Quixote continues to believe in his moral code and acquires a perverse integrity; he does become a famous knight-errant (the most famous ever, it is safe to say).

Coetzee’s affinity with the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance lies in his belief in the enriching and ennobling potential of the imagination. His fiction, whether realistic or fantastic, does not merely seek to show us how the world is, but to remind us of what it is not — to point up the shortcomings of reality. Near the end of The Good Story, he refers to a French documentary about a teacher who runs classes introducing pre-schoolers to the basics of philosophy. He proposes that the key points raised by the documentary are, firstly, that ‘reasoned discourse can be taught’ and, secondly, that this initiation into reasoned discourse reduces the need for symbolic play. It is the latter possibility that worries him. ‘I hope those sweet little French children,’ writes Coetzee, ‘don’t get the idea into their heads that rational analysis and reason-backed strategising is the only way there is of dealing with the world.’

All of this perhaps goes some way toward explaining, or at least contextualising, the singular character of David, who refuses to be indoctrinated into the rules of reasoned discourse, who teaches himself to read with a battered children’s edition of Don Quixote, and who has divinity bestowed upon him by the titles of the two novels in which he appears.   The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus are departures for Coetzee in certain respects, even by the standards of a writer who has made something of a point of working his way through a host of different genres over the course of his long career. But at least part of what is going in these unusual fictions is an attempt to orchestrate some his defining themes and conflicts, detach them once and for all from worldly (which is to say historical) contexts, and grant them something like a mythical or archetypal status.

The Schooldays of Jesus picks up where The Childhood of Jesus leaves off. At the end of the first book, David and his surrogate parents, Simón and Inés, flee Novilla for the neighbouring town of Estrellita (Spanish for ‘little star’) to escape the educational authorities who are threatening to send David to an oppressive boarding school, having taken a dim view of his strange behaviour and unresponsiveness to conventional schooling. The Schooldays of Jesus opens with them on the road, heading toward a ‘new life’ in the renamed Estrella (‘star’), in the company of a hitchhiker, who just happens to be named Juan (i.e. ‘John’). It is Juan who sets the plot in motion, suggesting they might find seasonal work on a nearby farm.

In the early scenes on the farm, The Schooldays of Jesus slips into the pattern of its predecessor. Simón acts as David’s mentor, attempting to explain the ways of the world, while David clings to his imaginative interpretations. The novel’s scheme and wider concerns begin to come into focus when the issue of the boy’s formal education again becomes pressing. Simón and Inés decide to enroll David at a local dancing academy run by Señor Juan Sebastian Arroyo (who is named after one of Coetzee’s artistic heroes, J. S. Bach) and his wife Ana Magdelena (who, to underscore the point, is named after Bach’s wife). The academy offers nothing in the way of conventional academic instruction. Instead, the children learn through dancing. Rather than study mathematics, they dance in order to call down numbers from the sky.

The implication is that the children are being taught to commune with the universe in a way that transcends mere language or logic. ‘Words are feeble,’ Ana Magdelena states – ‘that is why we dance.’ Señor Arroyo explains the unusual educational philosophy by quoting a line from the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti, which translates as ‘wandering stars are children innocent of arithmetic’. Behind this rejection of rational discourse, there is a view of existence that has mystical overtones, as Ana Magdelena explains:

… when we arrive in this life we put our former existence behind us. We forget it. But not entirely. Of our former existence certain remnants persist: not memories in the usual sense of the word, but what we can call shadows of memories. Then, as we become habituated to our new life, even the shadows fade, until we have forgotten our origins entirely and accept that what our eyes see is the only life there is.

The child, however, the young child, still bears the deep impressions of a former life, shadow recollections which he lacks words to express …

Simón is dubious. ‘She and her husband have made up a religion,’ he thinks. One can hardly fail to miss, however, the evocation of the arrival scene at the beginning of the first book, an event that Simón refers to on several occasions, insisting that he and David have now been ‘washed clean’ of the past. Ana Magdelena’s view, in other words, would appear to be endorsed by the originating conceit of the novels themselves. There is perhaps, too, an echo, of the words of the stevedore near the beginning of The Childhood of Jesus, who makes explicit the connection between the naturalising power of language and the limits of perception. ‘One day it will cease to feel like a language,’ he tells Simón, whose Spanish is still uncertain, ‘it will become the way things are.’

The idea that the embrace of certain modes of ‘rational’ comprehension and analysis entails a loss of other modes of perception is central to the novel. The culminating scene takes the form of a staged debate in which a ‘distinguished philosopher’ named Javier Moreno Gutiérrez delivers a public lecture on an ancient Greek philosopher named Metros (a Coetzeean fiction: his name literally means ‘measure’), who claimed that everything can be measured and quantified. Metros’s revolution in understanding represents ‘the moment when we collectively gave up the old way of apprehending the world, the unthinking, animal way, when we abandoned as futile the quest to know things in themselves … we enabled ourselves to discover new laws, laws that even heavenly bodies have to obey’. This not only allowed humankind to achieve great feats of architecture and engineering, Gutiérrez contends that it led to democratic humanism: ‘we measured mankind [sic – and deliberate, no doubt] and, finding that all men are equal, concluded that men should fall equally under the law. No more slaves, no more kings, no more exceptions.’ The children of the academy, where they ‘do not distinguish between mind and body’, respond to this totalising argument with a dance, which is said to demonstrate that numbers – ‘eternal and indivisible and uncountable’ – existed ‘before humankind came into being’ and that Metros ‘merely used them, subjecting them to his system’.

Perhaps the most striking new element in The Schooldays of Jesus is the introduction of a volatile character named Dmitri, who works as a security guard at the museum adjacent to the dancing academy. ‘When it comes to life’s great choices, I follow my heart,’ he tells Simón. ‘Why? Because the heart is always right and the head is always wrong.’ That Dmitri shares his name with the eldest Karamazov brother is not a coincidence: he is an overtly Dostoevskian figure. (The allusion is confirmed by the fact that the novel also features a minor character named after the gentle Alyosha, the youngest of the Karamazovs – though, interestingly, there is no reference to the middle brother Ivan, whose famous denunciation of God for having created a universe of such inexplicable cruelty lurks behind the anguish of many a Coetzeean protagonist.) It is Dmitri who provides The Schooldays of Jesus with its pivotal moment, committing a violent crime of passion that, like the definitive incident in Disgrace, occurs offstage at the exact mid-point of the novel.

This plot twist is notable, among other things, for explicitness with which Coetzee is repeating himself. The subsequent scene in which Dmitri declares his guilt before the court and demands to be punished, while refusing to explain or justify his actions in any way, is a blatant rewrite of David Lurie’s appearance before the disciplinary committee in Disgrace and, to a lesser extent, the Kafkaesque closing chapter of Elizabeth Costello, in which Costello is summoned before a bench of judges and ordered to give a statement of her beliefs.

The underlying scheme of the novel, its tapestry of allusions, and the more or less overt manner in which Coetzee is reshuffling his old deck of themes and influences suggest that there is almost certainly an oblique authorial irony at work. But this also bring us back to a crucial point – namely, that the Jesus novels style themselves as anti-bildungsromans. David’s education is marked by his resistance to the kinds of social and institutional compromises that, in a more conventional narrative, would lead a naive protagonist to become worldly and wise. His character is defined his instinctive understanding of the competing irrationalities that the novels set out. In The Childhood of Jesus when Simón first reads to him from Don Quixote, David is immediately on Quixote’s side: those were definitely giants, not windmills. He refuses to accept that numbers proceed in a particular order and claims to be afraid of falling into the ‘gaps’ between them, but he has no trouble grasping the quasi-religious artistic expressiveness of music and dance he encounters at the academy. Displaying remarkable acuity for a six-year-old child, he intuits the Dostoevskian psychology behind Dmitri’s theatrical admission of guilt: ‘He wants to be humiliated,’ he tells Simón.

The interpretive puzzle of these novels is how seriously Coetzee expects us to take this allegiance to irrationalism, on what level and to what extent it can be taken as valid, especially given that their titles imply David is some kind of messiah. This is not the kind of determining question Coetzee has ever been inclined to adjudicate for his readers, and the fact that both novels are focalised through Simón is a way to leave their arguments unresolved. Simón is, in many respects, a characteristically conflicted Coetzeean protagonist.  He has ‘a dry soul, deficient in passion’. He resists the ‘cheap paradoxes and mystifications’ peddled by the likes of Señor Arroyo, but he is not quite as sensible or cogent as he imagines himself to be. He is nagged by uncertainty and self-doubt:

He, Simón, thinks of himself as a sane, rational person who offers the boy a sane, rational elucidation of why things are the way they are. But are the needs of a child’s soul better served by his dry little homilies than by the fantastic fare offered at the Academy?

Simón’s exposure to David’s unusual view of the world eventually makes him suspect there is some inadequacy in himself. ‘I am the stupid one,’ he comes to think, ‘the blind one, the danceless one.’ He is intrigued by the criminal Dmitri’s passion and impulsiveness, destructive though these are, because his own suspicion of irrationality prevents him from acting in a similarly uninhibited manner:

If you want a model in life, look to me, he says: look to Simón, the exemplary stepfather, the man of reason, the dullard; or if not to me, then to that harmless old madman Don Quixote. But if the child really wants an education, who better is there to study than the man who could inspire such an unsuitable, such an incomprehensible love?

Despite Simón’s mediating and qualifying role, the Jesus novels are, it seems to me, Coetzee’s most unambiguous declaration of partisanship on the side of fantasy and unreason. He has always been adept at crafting his novels in such a way that they voice conflicting perspectives and can be read on several levels simultaneously, but these late works affirm the proposition that the man of reason, who is equally estranged from his animality and his imagination, is indeed an inadequate dullard who is not equipped to meet the needs of a child’s soul. Countering voices expressing a lingering Calvinist suspicion of irrational forces are present in the novel, but they are subdued and, more significantly, negated by the overarching conceit. The imaginary world validates David’s second sight and the apparent conflation of art and religion represented by the dancing academy. Late in The Schooldays of Jesus, there is an exchange between Simón and Señor Arroyo, in which Simón observes:

We have, each of us, had the experience of arriving in a new land and being allotted a new identity. We live, each of us, under a name that is not our own. But we soon get used to it, to this new, invented life.

Señor Arroyo responds: ‘Your son is an exception. He feels with unusual intensity the falsity of his new life.’ Earlier in the novel, it fell to Dmitri to insist on the primacy of his immediate existence and the ineluctable nature of identity: ‘this is the life I have, the life allotted to me. I am, alas, what I am.’ But within the fictional context of The Schooldays of Jesus, it is clearly David’s intuitions that are correct.

In Disgrace, David Lurie looks out at the university students who have assembled to hear his lecture on Romantic poetry and thinks: ‘Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate, they might as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday.’ In the Jesus novels, Coetzee has created a world that is hyperliterate and postlapsarian, yet pre-Christian and ahistorical – a world that could have been hatched from an egg yesterday. In this sense, these novels turn Coetzee’s usual emphasis on its head. He has always been a writer with an acute awareness of the importance of context. His characters’ passions and idealism, their sense of existential ‘being’ that is prior to impositions of language and rationality, are commonly set against a scourging backdrop of institutional power, or the ineluctability of history, or the constraining and determining pressure of particular circumstances. As he wrote in Elizabeth Costello, realist fiction is not comfortable with ideas, it insists that ‘ideas do not and indeed cannot float free: they are tied to the speakers by whom they are enounced, and generated from the matrix of individual interests out of which their speakers act in the world’. Coetzee has never been a realist, but this fruitful tension has always been an important element in his work, and it slips a little in the fanciful Jesus novels. More than any of his previous works, they have a contingent feel, as if the author is embellishing the sparse details of his fictional setting in an ad hoc manner. The conflicted and compromised author-figures that have been a feature of his novels are conspicuously absent. Neither the bureaucracy in The Childhood of Jesus nor the court in The Schooldays of Jesus have the kind of oppressive authority that Coetzee has so often and so effectively identified and dissected, in large part because they are placed such an obviously arbitrary fable-like context replete with celestial imagery that, unlike the nowhere-in-particular setting of his early masterpiece Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), entertains the impossible escape fantasy of being ‘washed clean’ of the past. Rich and intriguing though these novels are, the potency of their philosophical arguments is, I think, somewhat diminished as a consequence.


Rafael Alberti, ‘The Collegiate Angels,’ Poets of Modernity.
J. M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy (Harvill Secker, 2015).
J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (Jonathan Cape, 1999).
Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (Knopf, 2003).
The Childhood of Jesus (Text Publishing, 2013).