London: Secker & Warburg, 2002.
£14.99, 169 pages, ISBN 0-436-205823.
Liverpool John Moores University
When writing about J.M. Coetzee it seems that there is a familiar
set of adjectives to which reviewers and critics inevitably resort:
arrogant, cruel, austere, honest, precise, ironic, bleak, abstemious,
ethereal, spare, dry, controlled, elegant, cold, chilly and perhaps
unexpectedly, humorous. It is words of this ilk, words that suggest
a certain reticence and even silence, that are used to describe Coetzee's
writing style, his characters, plots and, often, Coetzee himself.
For somebody as notoriously uncommunicative, in person at least, as
Coetzee, much has been made of his foray into autobiography with his
1997 Boyhood and his latest third-person Youth. It is
as if we are waiting for the moment when Coetzee finally lets down
his guard and announces unambiguously his intentions. Famously reserved
in social situations, we fondly imagine that it is to us that he will
suddenly warm, perhaps partake of a few glasses of wine, and just
tell us simply and with a few loud guffaws exactly what the joke is
that we all seem to vaguely glimpse in the man and his books.
Much like the magistrate in Coetzee's nowhere fable of a man obsessed
with trying to understand the life of a crippled and blinded woman,
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), the reader seems to be constantly
on the edge of some sort of revelation that never quite seems to come:
"But with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a
surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry. Is this
how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought
it was?" (43). Coetzee's work seems filled with characters who
cannot see or talk and who are constantly being interrogated by well-meaning
white men to divulge their inner meaning. In Foe (1986), the
servant Friday has had his tongue removed and in the finale of the
novel his drowned mouth finally produces an enigmatic speech: "
His mouth opens. From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath,
without interruption....Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats
against my eyelids, against the skin of my face" (157). What
that speech is telling us is impossible to know. It is difficult therefore
not to imagine that Coetzee sees his own autobiographical project
as fundamentally doomed yet in some way essential. In his 1969 Ph.D.
on Samuel Beckett he writes: "It now seems clear that when all
is called into doubt no assertion can be made; yet the process of
doubt, uttered by the doubter, remains on the page. We read, so to
speak, a sequence of sentences that have been scored through: they
form no statement because they have been cancelled, yet we read them
all the same." So we read Coetzee's fictionalised reminiscences
(since all reminiscences are necessarily fiction) in the understanding
that their truth is under an ironic erasure. For Coetzee the subaltern
both cannot speak and must speak.
Since we are dealing with the question of autobiography and the extent
to which it is possible or not, perhaps I should divulge the extent
of my own personal encounters with Coetzee. While a post-graduate
student at the University of Cape Town in the early 90s, J.M. Coetzee
and that other luminary of white writing in South Africa, André
Brink, ran a newly established M.A. course. The contrast in teaching
styles between the two men could not have been more different. While
Brink talked eloquently about the incidence of animal imagery in the
work of Zola, Coetzee seemed to hardly say anything at all (quite
a feat considering that this was a full-time 2 year taught course).
Needless to say, gossip about these two literary stars among our student
group was rife and as the course wore on it seemed that many considered
Coetzee to be holding out on us. The only time I remember Coetzee
saying something was when, halfway through a particularly gruelling
6 month section foolishly entitled "Postmodernism", some
of the students openly challenged the venerable professor to explain
what, exactly, this thing "postmodernism" was. After an
uncomfortable silence, Coetzee answered, "It's something to do
with loss" and would not be drawn any further into the matter.
It strikes me now that the two years of angst that the course caused
many of us was worth it just to hear this slightly gnomic and perhaps
crushingly obvious sentence. He was, and I presume still is, an unfailingly
charming man (although many of the group disagreed during the protracted
drinking sessions that often followed the Thursday meetings). To what
extent this little anecdote adds to the world's knowledge of Coetzee
is uncertain (its accuracy may also be questionable).
In Joseph Conrad's short story Youth: A Narrative (1898), a
rather dull story of high times on the high seas, the best bits are
the narrator's apostrophes to a lost past: "Oh, the glamour of
youth! Oh, the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning
ship, throwing a magic light on the wide earth, leaping audaciously
to the sky, presently to be quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless,
more bitter than the seaand like the flames of the burning ship
surrounded by an impenetrable night" (29-30). So Coetzee's Youth
seems to burn in a similar way: illuminating little, consuming itself,
and yet providing a joyous spectacle of destruction that should be
celebrated rather than interrogated. While Coeztee's book takes us
from South Africa to London in the 1960s, from Ford Madox Ford to
computer programming for IBM, from one unsuccessful love affair to
another, there seems to be a tenderness for the follies of youth and
a wry understanding of mortality. What is the book about? Well, it's
got something to do with loss.
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