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Book Cover of Life & Times of Michael K.
I just read Life & Times of Michael K.
J. M. Coetzee wins many prizes (including two Bookers and the Nobel), and much praise. He is interesting and challenging. So is his fiction. I am still wrestling with him. I will also have to read Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians. He's written twelve novels; the three I just mentioned are considered the best.

J. M. Coetzee is the opposite of simple-minded. The protagonist I read about, Michael K, appears a bit simple-minded, but also differently-minded. There are things a book should have which appear to be missing from Coetzee. But he does write "gem-like books - small, hard, glittering with piercing image and feeling." If you've read any Coetzee, please comment below on what you've read, and your reaction. I am unsure what to make of Coetzee, and really want to know what other Kossacks think of his writing.

I would like to tell you who J. M. Coetzee is, and what his writing tastes like. Or at least I should tell you the story of Michael K. But I'm not sure that's what's important here. I can't even tell you that you should read a book by Coetzee.

To be precise, you should read a book by Coetzee. I just can't promise that you'll enjoy it. Books are supposed to be fun. But that's not what Coetzee's books are for. If you want a book to make you think, and feel, and see things differently, Coetzee's pretty good at that.

Coetzee aims to do for his readers what Kafka does for him: ''I work on a writer like Kafka because he opens for me, or opens me to, moments of analytic intensity. And such moments are, in their lesser way, also a matter of grace, inspiration.''

Life & Times of Michael K did not make me happy. Neither am I quite happy with this essay. It is unfinished, it is unsettled. So I am still in pursuit, and I'm pursuing something other than happiness. Quarkstomper is writing some fine pieces on The Hobbit, which lends itself to straightforward storytelling. But I am no quarkstomper. After reading Coetzee, I feel more like a quark that's been stomped on. Furthermore, Life & Times of Michael K doesn't want to be straightfoward. It is oblique and allusive. Perhaps we are not meant to reach its heart, but are meant to keep grasping.

I might be happier if I had my own capsule summary of Coetzee to give you. Instead, I have many contradictory shards to share with you. I hope this essay will make you think. If you don't know Coetzee, there are still ideas here about books in general, why we read, and whether we have an inalienable right to something heavier and more awkward than happiness. If we don't have that right yet, I think Coetzee is trying to invent it.

In case you don't feel like grasping, I'll just hand you an easy-to-swallow dessert. Here is a two page summary of the plot and main themes of Life & Times of Michael K.  

Now let's meet J. M. Coetzee, in brief:

He is a is a novelist, essayist, professor, linguist and translator. He was born in 1940, grew up in South Africa, then moved to London in 1962, where he worked for IBM as a computer programmer. He went to the University of Texas at Austin, on the Fulbright Program in 1965. He received a PhD in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages there in 1969. His PhD thesis was on computer stylistic analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett. He taught English literature at SUNY at Buffalo until 1971, and then sought permanent residence in the United States, but it was denied due to his involvement in anti-Vietnam-War protests. He continued teaching, in South Africa, until 2001. In 2002 he moved to Australia.

I did say Coetzee is interesting and challenging. Author Rian Malan has said that:

Coetzee is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.
Still, you ask, what's so special about Coetzee's writing. So here is some of what they said when they gave him the Nobel:
To write is to awaken counter-voices within oneself, and to dare enter into dialogue with them. The dangerous attraction of the inner self is John Coetzee's theme: the senses and bodies of people, the interiority of Africa. "To imagine the unimaginable" is the writer's duty. As a post-modern allegorist, Coetzee knows that novels that do not seek to mimic reality best convince us that reality exists...John Coetzee's characters seek refuge beyond the zones of power. Life & Times of Michael K gives form to the dream of an individual outside the fabric of human coexistence. Michael K is a virgin being, viewing the world from an infinite remove. Although exposed to the violence of racist tyranny, he achieves through passivity a freedom that confounds both the apartheid regime and the guerrilla forces simply because he wants nothing: neither war nor revolution, neither power nor money...between the lines, in what is unspoken, there is a distillation of feelings uncommon in contemporary literature...Every new book by Coetzee is astonishingly unlike his others. He intrudes into the uninhabited spaces of his readers.

Dear John Coetzee,

Your work is limited in pages, limitless in scope. What I have said in Swedish to those present here is merely in so many words: "Don't listen to me, just go home and read, and some images will stay with you forever."...You are a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on your own, starting with the basic words for our deepest concerns. Unsettling and surprising us, you have dug deeply into the ground of the human condition with its cruelty and loneliness. You have given a voice to those outside the hierarchies of the mighty. With intellectual honesty and density of feeling, in a prose of icy precision, you have unveiled the masks of our civilization and uncovered the topography of evil.

That is all true, Coetzee achieves all that. He also seems like the sort of writer people who know about literature should admire. Here is a link to Michiko Kakutani praising him unreservedly the day after the Nobel ceremony. She is so articulate, but I always feel she is telling us what all hip intellectuals think, instead of giving her visceral personal reponse.

For myself, it intrigues me that Coetzee induces such ambivalent reactions in me. He is compelling and off-putting at once. This seems to be a fairly common reaction to his writing, or at least to Life & Times of Michael K. Here is the NYT review:

One reads ''Life & Times of Michael K'' with an absorption bordering on compulsion. The deadpan tone of the narrative creates a vacuum that sucks you along, and as you get more involved you grow to identify with the stoic hero as the ultimate ''escape artist'' in a world of violent and brutal contention...Still, for all its effectiveness, ''Michael K'' does not generate the force that ''Waiting for the Barbarians'' does. Several things combine to weaken its impact. There is, to begin with, the novel's heavy debt to Franz Kafka - not only the references to ''K'' and even once to a telephone call placed to ''the Castle,'' but also the insistent comparisons of Michael K to various insects, and his gradual mastery of the role of hunger artist. These are doubtless meant to be tributes to a master as much as borrowings from him, but they are overdone and call an unnecessary amount of attention to themselves.
The NYT reviewer goes on to list a few more things he finds heavy-handed. I see his points. Still, it's possible he's mistaken: Coetzee is so smart, so original, so deliberate - he may well feel heavy-handed because he is carving a furrow we have never felt before. I do not know.

The Guardian review says:

...criticising Coetzee is a dangerous game. He is a Nobel-winning sacred cow of contemporary literature, and any attempts to slaughter him must be made in the face of received and popular opinion.

Life and Times of Michael K makes a good first impression. And who wouldn't be intrigued by a novel inspired by the moral rebellion of a giant panda?...if it's a thin book, that's not because Coetzee doesn't have a lot to say, or doesn't paint a vivid picture. It's just that his prose is as lean and spare as Michael after months of bugs, pumpkins and sunlight. At its best his writing moves like a cracking whip.

But in spite of such pleasures, I have serious doubts. My main concern is Michael K himself. He's more of a plot device than a real man, and we are constantly reminded how simple Michael is, and how little he understands . Yet he is able frequently to outwit those who would capture him, to work irrigation systems and grow crops, build shelters and – most jarringly – speak eloquently and ask endless searching questions.


Coetzee's an intellectual. He likes Kafka. He is like Kafka or Beckett in that the experience of reading him is jarring, new, strange. His art appears realistic, but is also highly artificial.
I see this heavy-handedness, this artifice. It bugs me a little. But Coetzee is brilliant and unique, and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It may be that Coetzee is just pushing past my comfort-zone, and building new ways to tell a story. It may be that I should feel uncomfortable, that I should be forced to think of patterns, when I might rather dive underwater and swim through the story of Michael K.

Or, perhaps, Coetzee has overdone it. Perhaps his hitting me over the head gives me more headache than enlightenment. Couldn't he have put more art into coloring his world, so it sprang to life like a desert after the rains, so it filled me up with love for his alien creation? He shows serious craft, and could easily write more lushly if he chose to.

If this heaviness is a firmness, if it's not clumsiness, but mastery, then Coetzee is keeping me a little apart from his world. I care about Michael K, but Coetzee won't quite let me get lost in him. Coetzee writes astringently: he forces me to think, and re-think, instead of feeling so fully that I lose some part of my consciousness. I am not allowed to sleep in his creation, for I am meant to emerge more awake than I went in.

Browsing the internet, I find many people saying they admire Coetzee, and others who don't like him at all. Here are some comments on J. M. Coetzee:

"In general, I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion."

"... to my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You have also to be a great man. And he was not a great man. He was a little man, an unimportant little man ... How can you be a great writer if you are just an ordinary little man?"

"In his lovemaking, I now think there was an autistic quality. I offer this not as a criticism but as a diagnosis."

These assessments of Coetzee seem harsh and too personal - but they were all made by characters in his own fiction. My intuition is, each of these comments is based in hard kernels of truth, wrapped in insight and irony. So there is a certain oblique kind of fun in Coetzee, or at least a unique humor.

I found a harsher assessment of Coetzee, from an interview with Martin Amis. I think there is some of Hitchens' contrarianism in these pronouncements, and a bit of genius envy - but also a kernel of bitter truth:

Amis: ...People assume that it’s the gloomy buggers that are the serious ones—but in fact, anyone who has ever been anywhere in fiction is funny. Yet there are whole reputations built on not being funny...Coetzee, for instance—his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure.

Chatfield: Do you admire his books at all?

Amis: No. I read one and I thought, he’s got no talent. The denial of the pleasure principle has a lot of followers. But I am completely committed to it, to pleasure.

Chatfield: Why have people felt the need to do this to the novel: is this puritanical?

Amis: Dryden said, literature is instruction and delight, and there are people who think that if they’re not getting delight then they are getting a lot of instruction, when in fact they’re not getting that either. But it has a sort of of gloomy constituency. If there is no pleasure transmitted then I’m not interested. I mean, look at them all: Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Smollet, Fielding, they’re all funny. All the good ones are funny. Richardson isn’t, and he’s no good. Dostoyevsky is funny: The Double is a scream. Tolstoy is funny by being just so wonderfully true and pure. Gogol, funny. Flaubert, funny. Dickens. All the good ones are funny.

If you haven't read any Coetzee, here are some things you might comment on:

Do good books have to be funny? Should they at least be fun?
If you had a book full of thoughtful, well-crafted writing, which showed you a world that felt mostly bleak and senseless, would you read it,or just leave it on your shelf?

Life & Times of Michael K impressed me considerably. But I did find myself wondering why, and how, Coetzee made a career out of writing books that taste like this. On the back cover, it says "A major work of crystalline intensity" (LA Times), and I agree. It also says "This life-affirming novel goes to the center of human experience -- the need for an interior, spiritual life; for some connections to the world in which we live; and for purity of vision." Well, I kind of see that, with one quibble. It says "life-affirming"; but the book is 180 pages long, and, despite glimmers of hope, I didn't really hear a resounding "Yes" until the last page.

The book's strongest achievement was that it made me think and feel things that would otherwise never have occurred to me. If they had, I might have shied away from them. Life & Times of Michael K made me uncomfortable, but I suspect it had to, or I never would have reached the foreign land Coetzee meant to show me.

Do we have a right to happiness? Should we have to pay for it?

Thomas Jefferson wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
He improved on his sources. In his Two Treatises of Government, John Locke argued that political society existed for the sake of protecting "property", which he defined as a person's "life, liberty, and estate". George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights referred to "the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

Jefferson was wise to see that happiness itself cannot be guaranteed, but that we must all be free to pursue it.

I'm not sure we should aim directly for happiness. Perhaps we should pursue some higher goal, like humanity. Perhaps then we would develop a fuller kind of happiness, growing organically out of our quest. If you're aiming for humanity, your happiness will have some grit in it. It will have to account for loss, pain and sorrow; but it will also be more robust, more real, more able to survive in this sometimes brutal and senseless world.

Simple pursuit of happiness is really the engine of most books: we read for escape, for joy, for sweet and exciting flavors. Coetzee doesn't aim for happiness, or at least not any happiness we're used to. His business is the pursuit of humanity, especially where we wouldn't think of looking for it. He shows us a world full of suffering and senselessness, and he says "This is what's real, this is where we actually live. You can try to grow happiness here, or you can stay in Disneyland".

Originally posted to Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers and Community Spotlight.

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  •  Tip Jar, and (17+ / 0-)

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    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 04:07:47 PM PST

  •  I taught an excerpt from (9+ / 0-)

    Waiting for the Barbarians in my British/Commonwealth Lit Course a couple of semesters ago- and have to admit that I had not read anything of his prior.

    I was very much impressed by this excerpt (in which 12 captives are beaten in a public setting)- it reminded me of Orwell and Kafka, but there was both a grittiness in the descriptions and timelessness in that Coetzee seemed specifically vague in specifics vis a vis the the political background.

    Waiting is on my reading short-list once I finish my Dissertation.

    •  Yes, Coetzee sits halfway between dreams & earth (9+ / 0-)

      Through the whole Life & Times of Michael K, set in a war-torn South Africa, he never mentions race once.

      I've been reading many essays by Orwell. He has so much sense and insight, so little bullshit. His Dickens is some of the best Lit. Crit. I've seen.

      What's your dissertation on?

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 05:20:52 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Space and Place in the American Far West eom (8+ / 0-)
        •  We've talked before about Rock. I have a question (4+ / 0-)

          you might be able to answer, or at least enjoy.

          I've noticed an interesting connection between two '60s songs, Eight Miles High, and Satisfaction. In each of them, the guitarist is deliberately imitating brass. Eight Miles High was inspired by Coltrane's India, and in Satisfaction, Richards was aiming for the sounds of Motown horns. Or perhaps Stax horns - which makes Otis Redding's version, where the riff is played on horns, both amusing and apt.

          Do you know any other songs where the guitars try to sound like brass?

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 04:34:19 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Great question! (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Brecht

            I want to chew on it more, but I'll take a stab at it.

            McGuinn and Crosby were admitted Trane-heads (as am I!). Africa/Brass was a big record for them, as was "India." Coltrane's modal approach --dispensing with chord progressions in favor of extemporaneous vamping on a single chord and related chords-- drew upon sympathetic, while also improvisational accompaniment. That's the spirit which under-girds "Eight Miles High" One couldn't say it "quotes" Coltrane as much as it is inspired by 'trane's approach.

            That said: "Eight Miles High" is one of the best things the Byrds ever did. It was not so much a brassy sound as translated  to a rock band format as it was taking the ideas Coltrane had introduced to jazz.

            (Coltrane was into Indian classical music, but there were other artists who were inspired by Indian music and took it into different directions: George Harrison was besotted by ragas, but it was John Lennon who used the idea of vamping on a single chord for "Tomorrow Never Knows.")

            On "Satisfaction," Keith Richards appropriated the trademark Motown horn arrangements of the time and simply distilled into a signature (fuzz-laced) structuring riff. Its an R&B approach, but one in keeping with his strength as a committed rhythm guitarist.

            Off the top of my head- Kosmail me if you want to continue the discussion. :-)

            •  Great answer; you are very thoughtful & informed (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Free Jazz at High Noon

              on Rock & music in general.

              The Byrds are hugely ambitious, and they do touch the stratosphere with Eight Miles High.

              Coltrane's very inspirational. Your point about vamping on a single chord and related chords is a good insight. I never noticed that about Tomorrow Never Knows. I'm a good listener, but woefully underschooled, musically.

              I think I'll poke around the internet looking for clues, when I have the time, and will Kosmail you at some future point. Thanks again.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 09:43:56 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, I meant to say that, (5+ / 0-)

        while the backdrop of Coetzee's books is necessarily political, he goes beyond the politics and makes art.

        •  Coetzee marries the particular and the universal (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Monsieur Georges, Avila

          As you say below,

          Coetzee's point was that this setting is endemic to the mid-late 20C, overall- it could be Sudan/Darfur, Vietnam/Cambodia (1979), USA/Nicaragua (80s) and etc.
          I think he gets the balance right, but he makes his limbo too thin. As Dante showed in his Inferno, you can make a world so real that the reader smells it, and your universal truths will just hit the gut harder.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 10:11:13 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I read Master of Petersburg years ago (9+ / 0-)

    and liked it very much.

    I've been meaning to read Disgrace but haven't built myself up it yet.  I do not expect that to be pleasant.

    Красота спасет мир --F. Dostoevsky

    by Wisper on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 05:20:53 PM PST

    •  I am sure 'Disgrace' will be unpleasant but bold; (9+ / 0-)

      it has a harder story than Life & Times of Michael K, and a far uglier narrator. But I can handle brutal truths if the writer doesn't try to excuse or evade them, and I'm sure Coetzee won't.

      I'm not sure if Beauty will save the world, but I find a lot of it in Dostoevsky. When I finished The Idiot, my soul felt enlarged in a much sweeter fashion than Coetzee's method - as if I had just stepped out of a great cathedral to the human spirit.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 05:28:54 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Okay, I read only the first bit of your diary but (10+ / 0-)

    I have studied Coetzee extensively, and I do not have the most positive view of his work. It is often posited as very liberatory, but I find him to be extremely bound up in the same imperialism that he so often tries to critique, and there are some really creepy interviews with him floating around that trouble me in this regard.

    Hang on... I am cooking dinner. Way into reading your diary and dialoguing more! In a bit.

    "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

    by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 05:47:41 PM PST

    •  "I do not have the most positive view of his work" (10+ / 0-)

      Good! As soon as I have a point of view, I like to walk around to the other side, to make sure it's not just a facade.

      It's entirely possible that I admire Coetzee more than he deserves, simply because I can see how smart he is. I will go and look for some interviews.

      Enjoy your dinner. This diary will be here for a while.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 05:59:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Back, hello! (8+ / 0-)

        I'm not back for too long, but I'm looking for the exact articles I was referring to which are in one of the 8,000 notebooks I have either here or in my office. I'm thinking my office, sigh... because I wanted to repost them. My copy is photocopy only, and I think it was from a fairly popular source.

        Now don't get me wrong. I think WTTB is brilliantly written and that Coetzee has an incredibly strong aesthetic style, but I know he's decidedly not above reproach. If nothing else, I find the characterization of the barbarian girl as always Other and the centrality of the narrator's own consciousness as very imperialistic for someone ostensibly criticizing Empire. The interview I was referring to (which is not at hand, argh, this is the second time I've looked for it recently) highlights a fairly paternalistic view of Africa that Coetzee himself tends to take which underscores how similar his consciousness is, how empathetic it really is, with the vexing characters he writes about, such as the Magistrate. He seems to lack distance from his subject because he is, himself, a product of the situation from which he both writes about yet also distances himself from.

        For Africanist critics, this is very troubling to many. I am not alone in this one by any means. While Coetzee does offer an extraordinary vision of life in imperial and hyper-racialized structures, that vision is often overly and quietly if not empathetic, more ambivalent then would be expected and then is found in some more critical and sensitive African writers. He often poses a spectacle rather than an interrogation or a witness and has often been criticized as decidedly bourgeois and detached. Compare this to another African writer like Ken Saro-Wiwa, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, or Marlene Van Niekerk and the distinction is striking. He is oblique in how he discusses the situation of apartheid, and all of his veiling and obliqueness lends to an aesthetically beautiful literary object which keeps itself at a distance from what it claims to reflect back to viewers. Why does he never name names? Why does he generalize rather than specify? Why does he de-historicize and make generic and universal what is so specific and so needed to be revealed to a global population of readers? Even Nadine Gordimer commits herself to this. Is it by choice that he provides this interpretation of the world? I don't believe he has access to other points of view. In the barbarian girl's blank, black eyes, this is what he wrestles with. In the tender, intimate knowledge of the Magistrate, this is what he embraces.

        Ah! I believe this is the interview! http://www.time.com/...

        It's basically alleging that he's a cold postmodernist, a thing which I have zero problem with, but it really supports my own read of his work as overly and vexingly aloof. Of what use is a "dazed" reader wondering at the beauty of what is painted before them when the painting itself is of terrible realities? Do not mistake me. I am not wed to Marxist interpretations of reading as many African critics are, and I do categorically support postmodern and poststructuralist, open-ended readings (I am not a Marxist reader, nor am I a formalist sort of reader in most cases, and I don't accept a wholesale view of postcolonial reading either, although I see it as somewhat valuable). I simply find that he has such a grand voice, why does he not use it? He lends his eyes to the world to see Africa with, and what many come away with seeing is J.M. Coetzee himself: a white, upper-class, privileged man who writes from that space of privilege, removed from the pain of Africa but engaged in its spectacle.

        Sorry to prattle. I have, as I said, strong opinions about his work. Glad I found that interview again! Now I can just print it out for myself.

        He is not like Kafka for Kafka was far more involved with his subject matter on a firsthand basis, although yes, he reads as Kafka-esque at times. His writing really is beautiful. Just either not successful or else he's aiming for something I would prefer not to participate in, which seems to be a continuance of imperialism in various forms. I prefer his The Lives of Animals best.

        "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

        by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 06:57:13 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  (that's not the only interview, btw... (7+ / 0-)

          ...the other is quite long and much more explicit; it may have been a review, now that I think of it. It's been a long time since I've read it).

          As a critic, I always read both with and against the grain of any text. It's good that you're doing that! That's a strong way to read, Brecht.

          "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

          by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 06:59:16 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Thanks for your long and substantial comment (5+ / 0-)

            It's going to take me awhile to digest the whole thing, and that interview as well. But I like good thought-food.

            You say, "Compare this to another African writer like Ken Saro-Wiwa, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, or Marlene Van Niekerk...". You're way better read in this area than I am. I've only read a few African books: Things Fall Apart, A Bend in the River, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, not much else.

            Now, if you've "studied Coetzee extensively", then you've had much more time and matter than I have to examine his work. At the risk of being naive, I'll just raise a point here. Might Coetzee appear to be endorsing/allowing/forgiving a callous imperialist viewpoint, because he is burrowing into it in a search for an honest accounting of its inner workings?

            If you watch the Westerns that Clint Eastwood directed in the '70s, at first they seem pretty standard in their glorification of violence, except perhaps even more brutal than the norm. But he holds our face in it a little too long, he makes us feel more of the human cost - he makes us uncomfortable on purpose.

            I appreciate your informed and thoughtful comments, mahakali overdrive. Now I'll go read them carefully.

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 07:45:30 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Yes, that's what a lot of people (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Brecht, shari, Avila

              would claim. I won't say he's soul-searching because a close textual analysis will show some specific moments that are too marked to disregard. I'm not looking at the text at present, but I should have mentioned this in the long rambling bit above. If you look at some of the moments which depict the magistrate's consciousness, especially in the scene where he's looking into the prior history of the previous settlers, at the language they left behind, and the disinterest there for the people, these sorts of moments are awkward contrasted with the thesis that "Imperialism is bad" which is more overt. So it's sort of like Coetzee says one thing more overtly, but then when you start looking at his particular evidence, especially surrounding how he explicates consciousness and self-consciousness, whoa, there's a lot of contradiction that gestures toward something. Again, this is not my own analysis but a sort of group analysis that many critics share of his work (the scene that I'm motioning to is my own, mind you).

              I very much appreciate your thoughtful commentary and found this diary quite brilliant in its approach. I don't know if your background is in Literature, but you are clearly reading with a sophistication that is scholarly at heart.

              I highly, highly recommend Ben Okri's The Famished Road, but first! You must read Van Niekerk's Triomf. If Coetzee is a Kafka-esque South African writer, then Van Niekerk is a Faulknerian one, and not in the coy way that Gordimer is aesthetically, but in Van Niekerk's conception of how sordid South Africa really is; she interrogates the notion of apartheid as a white woman, a lesbian, and an Afrikaaner all too well. It is not a pretty read. It's all pain. But you will laugh until your eyes bleed, and you will kick yourself for laughing at such terrible things. And in the end, you will know that you have read a masterpiece-waiting-to-be.

              "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

              by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 08:22:59 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  What you say here connects to my comment below, (3+ / 0-)

                replying to yours above:

                it's sort of like Coetzee says one thing more overtly, but then when you start looking at his particular evidence, especially surrounding how he explicates consciousness and self-consciousness, whoa, there's a lot of contradiction that gestures toward  something.
                I'm not yet sure if this presents an intractable problem. Because I can't yet see the "something" that Coetzee is gesturing toward. I'll have to read more Coetzee.

                I got a BS in Literature, and another in Political Science. And these days I read more books than ever. I'm pleased that you enjoyed my work here. Where in academia are you? (I mean your specialty, not geography). I think you and I will have many chats about books.

                The Famished Road was on my TBR list, and now Triomf is too.

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 10:26:09 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  If I told you (on this site) (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Brecht, Avila

                  I would be taking big risks. That's a private conversation that I'm glad to have anytime.

                  I think you will appreciate both of these if you liked Tutuola and Coetzee, although they're each quite unique.

                  Let me know what you think?

                  "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

                  by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 10:55:24 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  "Let me know what you think?" Certainly. May take (4+ / 0-)

                    awhile, as I've got more than 1000 books on my TBR list.

                    Since you say of Triomf, "It is not a pretty read. It's all pain. But you will laugh until your eyes bleed, and you will kick yourself for laughing at such terrible things", that does put it pretty high on my list.

                    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                    by Brecht on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 04:13:07 AM PST

                    [ Parent ]

        •  Great comment, MO. (5+ / 0-)

          I really liked the excerpt I read and taught; perhaps it was not indicative of the novel as a whole? When I read Waiting, I'll keep your astute observations in mind.

          •  Well you know how interpretations are (4+ / 0-)

            Open and fair game. But this is definitely not my own view alone. I'm sure there's a ton of similar criticism on Coetzee out there that is far more coherent and critical yet. If I find a good piece of secondary criticism in this vein, I'll pass it along to you by Kosmail, mos' def'... I've read plenty, but now it has been a while.

            I hate teaching excerpts. It has to be my biggest nit in the world! :)

            "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

            by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 08:30:32 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I was thinking about that very thing just now- (5+ / 0-)

              but I am I happy to have not done a disservice to the work in not having read the entire text (this sometimes bothers me).

              My students were undergraduate English majors, and heaven knows we covered Modernism, post-Modernism, and post-colonialism. I touched on the latter in teaching the excerpt, obviously, but it seemed to me then that Coetzee's point was that this setting is endemic to the mid-late 20C, overall- it could be Sudan/Darfur, Vietnam/Cambodia (1979), USA/Nicaragua (80s) and etc.

              I taught the excerpt in the current Norton anthology of British Lit; I now wonder why it was chosen as a representative sampling of the novel (and I don't have the book here with me at the moment). The critical approach(es) you cite is/are familiar and seem quite correct; I think I'll revisit the excerpt later this week.

               It seems like this school of thought is not so much concerned with critiquing Coetzee along ideological grounds, but more so pointing out that his take on Imperialism contains contradictions that shouldn't be waved away wrt to the author identifying as a white SA. Yes?

              •  Yes and no (4+ / 0-)

                I don't want to go too far down the slippery slope of authorial fallacy, although I've already done that a bit much; I don't view all biographical information as fallacious of course, but I'm generally hesitant to give it too much creedence. At the same time, writing is a situated and social act. So I think that yes, it is not an ideological critique that I hold here, but no, it's not quite that I'm concerned with his personal, ontological SA whiteness so much as the ontological SA whiteness he constructs as "supreme" in his text despite his seeming topical insistence that the text should be viewed as disclosing the tensions of Empire and race (I'm now wholly in WTTB; to me, that's Coetzee's most elemental and sui generis text for this very issue). So this is a contradiction and a gap in the text's basic self-proclamation of "I confront Empire; I witness racism; I acknowledge my own complications" and this problematic construction of a Magistrate in whose consciousness we reside in which is never ruptured, never penetrated, never plays between "complicated internal self" and "Other." You could make a Hegelian argument against it as a text which posits examination of a master-slave dialectic while subtly further reifying this gap. Again, the means of this, in this text, are at the level mainly of the consciousness and gaze of the main character. He continues to maintain subordination of all other persons in the text without any sense of ironic distance. He excavates the ruins of a previous people without seeming to note that they no longer exist, concerning himself less with them then with their significations and totems and fetishes. But where, in that, does Coetzee turn and wink at the reader? So then you read this as sincere, as a sincere utterance from Coetzee that this distance and aloof wonder -- an Orientalist sort of a wonder -- is "the" great wonder of a white man looking at the Other? Really? Is that all he's got? A "barbarian" with blank eyes and little else going on? The deep eroticism of that is one-bodied, not two-bodied, and here we can see shades of Hegel very easily. So that is all he's got despite such a provocative seeming set of claims? And I have to think it is all that he's got because he provides no evidence to think otherwise beyond topical ones. The way the text moves though, boy, it's self-interested in the show that it shows itself, which is a spectacle and which is only a spectacle because of those contradictions that should not be waved away -- of apartheid itself. The textual gestures ARE Imperialistic in their constructions. So what are we, as readers, left with? The sense that the text was written by a priviliged, white, aloof South African man who might think he's clever by half too much, and maybe because perhaps he is.

                Some people read it as a bit utopian that his setting, or shall I say space and place (!) is so universalized and representative of a syndrome that is repeated and repeatable. Others might suggest it is an erasure of the actual people, culture, land, and someone might even call it a wish-fulfillment or an Imperial fantasy to take a white expanse of paper and fill it not with Africa but an implied Africa that has a nebulous, universal sort of a problem, not the actual situation of apartheid with the specific issues that came about from this. Not to promote "realism only" in any way. A perfect article to explore this idea, in my view, would be Alan Lawson's essay on Anxious Proximities (I don't think he mentions Coetzee per se). I don't have the citation right here, but you should be able to find it. Lawson discusses this nicely. Recommended if it's not hard to find. Also, there's a pretty fabulous anthology of secondary criticism of African Lit that just came out, but it's very in-depth and a bit pricy. If you happen to have easy access, there would be a ton there. It's ed. by Tejumola Olaniyin (and maybe Ato Quayson?).

                We're getting heavy into Africa now, my friend. The Cambridge Companion to African Literature is very well done, small, and quite nice as well, providing a sort of quick overview of specifically African criticism. But I'd be glad to talk of the space and place involved here, because obviously it's highly relevant to this, and in PostColonial Theories, think about erasure and ellision, and from a Deconstructive perspective, think about aporias and trace. If I say much more, I'm going to get far more personal here than I prefer to be.

                It's been lovely, as ever, to talk with you, Free Jazz at High Noon! Go forth and teach until their wee brains bleed from glee and knowledge!  

                "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

                by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 10:18:02 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  This is great, MO. Thanks so much for sharing (4+ / 0-)

                  your reading of Coetzee and for the succinct summary of the criticism. Contemporary African literature, I must admit, has not really been on my radar (the African diaspora across the Western Hemisphere is much more so), so these comments --as the diary itself-- have been quite useful and thought-provoking.

                  I would need to read the novel in full to opine any further, but these comments give me a framework in which to read it. I can say, however, that I might well have (mis-) read into the excerpt an irony that the larger work does not bear out.

                  Thanks much --again-- for the critical recommendations!

                  Have a great evening, MO!

                  •  Really I should be in bed (4+ / 0-)

                    Ten more minutes! Laugh...

                    African Literature on anyone's radar? It doesn't happen all that much. Diaspora Literature, more so.

                    Read the whole novel. Excerpts are for undergraduates, and even then, I'd claim for nonmajors. Not a fan. Why not read the book. It has a beginning and an end that way. Oh the politics of publication.

                    Have a most lovely evening, y'self FJAHN.  

                    "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

                    by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 11:02:49 PM PST

                    [ Parent ]

                •  You elaborate here on your central criticism: (3+ / 0-)
                  So this is a contradiction and a gap in the text's basic self-proclamation of "I confront Empire; I witness racism; I acknowledge my own complications" and this problematic construction of a Magistrate in whose consciousness we reside in which is never ruptured, never penetrated, never plays between "complicated internal self" and "Other."...But where, in that, does Coetzee turn and wink at the reader? So then you read this as sincere, as a sincere utterance from Coetzee that this distance and aloof wonder -- an Orientalist sort of a wonder -- is "the" great wonder of a white man looking at the Other? Really? Is that all he's got? A "barbarian" with blank eyes and little else going on?...The textual gestures ARE Imperialistic in their constructions. So what are we, as readers, left with? The sense that the text was written by a priviliged, white, aloof South African man who might think he's clever by half too much, and maybe because perhaps he is.
                  Thanks for making a clear, strong argument. I believe I fully grasp what you're saying now. I will carry it with me as I read more Coetzee, and weigh it against what I find there. We will talk again on this problem, I think.

                  "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                  by Brecht on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 04:24:03 AM PST

                  [ Parent ]

        •  Sorry for my slow reply - internet interruptus (4+ / 0-)

          I expect you're in bed now.

          This is rich dialog. You raise interesting points.

          Again, you are clearly ahead of me here, I am just catching up to insights you had long ago. Here goes:

          Coetzee does offer an extraordinary vision of life in imperial and hyper-racialized structures
          Yes, and of course Coetzee began by telling people what apartheid looked like from inside, at a time when most of the world had little idea.
          that vision is often overly and quietly if not empathetic, more ambivalent then would be expected and then is found in some more critical and sensitive African writers. He often poses a spectacle...
          Ambivalent, and I think something beyond that. I'm not sure what. Perhaps I assume some further purpose, just because his writing appears so conscious, so deliberate.
          all of his veiling and obliqueness lends to an aesthetically beautiful literary object which keeps itself at a distance from what it claims to reflect back to viewers.
          I'm kind of stuck at the "beautiful literary object", the top of the iceberg of Coetzee's writing, as it's the only thing I've seen clearly enough to grasp.
          I don't believe he has access to other points of view.
          If you're right, that's a strong criticism of Coetzee as an artist. It also implies there is presumption, arrogance in his attempting to show things he just does not know. But then you say:
          In the barbarian girl's blank, black eyes, this is what he wrestles with.
          So he sees his limitations, and at least is wrestling with the essential though almost impossible task of seeing further, if only one millimeter into the other.

          I know just what you mean about "overly and vexingly aloof" - and I think Coetzee does too.

          I read someone saying Tolstoy could make you feel what it was to be a horse. Now, Coetzee doesn't have half of Tolstoy's heart, and he may have a mere fraction of Tolstoy's art. But why, when he has lived with these issues for decades, won't he attempt to step inside the other? I don't know. I also haven't read enough Coetzee to be sure that he doesn't try to.

          As you say, "I simply find that he has such a grand voice, why does he not use it?" I agree with this. It seems to me that he is clearly capable of many beautiful things, of tasks that seem to me essential to great fiction, which he doesn't attempt. But I'll have to read more Coetzee, to better understand what he just fails at, and to begin to see what peaks he achieves, that are presently just hints in the mist to me.

          There was much matter in your comment, but no prattle. I'll certainly look for The Lives of Animals.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 09:46:45 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Tell me what you think of it (4+ / 0-)

            I'd love to hear it!

            It's prattle for me; I'm using writing about this stuff to try to publish. Here, I am musing. It's like writing class notes? Almost.

            Always question the conclusions you've just arrived at, take a bat to them, shatter them, pick the shards up, put it back together again, and question whether the structure of this thing has any integrity, beauty, meaning, or pertinence at all. A good book should be able to have that done to it. Ultimately, a good book should simply make you feel the books alongside it without ethically imperiling you!

            "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

            by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 10:59:20 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  I read and liked Waiting for the Barbarians, (7+ / 0-)

    and read and loathed Disgrace.

    It wasn't that Disgrace was badly written; far from it.  But the perspective it is written from is that of a person I didn't want to be in the head of, at all. Being in the mind of the main character made me feel like a slug was slithering over my mind.

    (If you ask why I kept reading: it was for a class.)

    Thus, when our professor asked us to reread it slowly, my response was: "Are you kidding?  I read it as quickly as possible to get that guy out of my head."

    I suspect this may be a gendered reaction.  My professor was male, I'm female.  The character's actions and mindset towards women made me feel gross.  

    (Not to mention, and not to give anything away, I feel like a female character was "punished" in a way the male character was not, and her reaction seemed to minimize the crime committed against her, or even accept a perspective which blamed her for it.)

    © cai Visit 350.org to join the fight against global warming.

    by cai on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 06:09:59 PM PST

    •  I know the barest bones of the plot of 'Disgrace'; (7+ / 0-)

      Just the professor's great sin, and then his daughter's tragedy.

      Still, if you found it repulsive to read, that does blow a hole in my theory of what Coetzee's aiming for.

      It's one thing to take us into the suffering of Michael K. From his mother on, most of the people he meets take him for simple minded, and treat him as less than human. On the first page, when his mother takes him home from hospital, the pronoun referring to him is "it". This is doubly important, as he internalizes a sense of his own unimportance (of course - our mother's love is essential to identity).

      But all of that callousness serves a purpose. The reader roots for Michael K, advocates for his humanity precisely because others are stepping on it.

      I cannot see how it expands our view of humanity to live through the callousness of the professor in Disgrace. I don't see how repulsion can be a healthy learning experience.

      I will read Disgrace, though, and see what it does to me.

      Thanks, cai, for your comment. It's probably not an insight I'd have found by myself.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 06:33:00 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Agree with you re Disgrace (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht

      A book group I was in read it years ago, and while I don't remember all the plot elements, I do know that none of liked the book.  We recognized his writing skill but the book was too grim and humorless, and the main character very aloof and unlikable.  It was also hard to tell if Coetzee --or the narrator-- was a misogynist.

  •  I've Read Disgrace and Other Books (8+ / 0-)

    by Coetzee.  Disgrace was my first.  I think of Coetzee as an ascetic-hermit from another age, burdened by such an introverted personality that he appears personality-less.  And I think he loves animals deeply.

    I've heard him read and (lo!) speak at the Miami Book Fair.  He's an excellent reader, very tall, thin, quiet-voiced, speaking his text slowly, clearly, and with an accent that falls softly on an American ear.  He gives considered answers to questions; non-spontaneous best describes them.  He's also circumspect -- a quality I admire -- and doesn't feel it necessary to "let it all hang out" like Amy Tan, say.

    The tone of his books reflect the man, I think; Coetzee seems to "think" his books and the pages of them are the outpourings of his mind which doesn't hesitate to be cerebral in its examination of race, injustice, and human behavior.  He crafts sentences that are spare yet vivid, some might say Hemingwayesque.  Somewhere I remember noting that Per Petterson's writing and treatment of themes in his books reminded me of Coetzee.  Astonishing since they are literally  (near) Polar opposites.  However, Petterson seems to write the same novel over again while Coetzee never does.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 06:20:36 PM PST

    •  Thank you for giving us a view of Coetzee as a man (7+ / 0-)

      I enjoy your comment, Limelite. Like Coetzee, you're always thoughtful and precise with words.

      Introverted fits him; also very self-aware. To return to that first quote I mentioned by a character in his own Summertime:

      "In general, I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion."
      The "Too cool, too neat" and "control of the elements is too tight" may all be true. The rest, I think, is a playing against himself. Coetzee is all about ambition, his writing is strenuously "deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before". He's not "Too easy", but he may be too hard. It wouldn't surprise me if he never writes a bestseller. Nor would it surprise me if he influences many other writers.

      I admire circumspect, though it doesn't come naturally to me. But I did live ten years in England, so I can see how American public discourse often gushes too much. I respect those who think first, and only say what they really mean.

      I don't know Petterson yet.

      I would like to read Coetzee write about animals, or about books he loves passionately. I would like to read something that, for Coetzee, would appear lush.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 07:06:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Limelite, you compared Coetzee to (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, shari, Avila, Limelite

      a Scandinavian writer (I'm guessing--I don't know Petterson), and it reminded me that the beauty of Coetzee's work is a Scandinavian spareness.

  •  thoughtful and honest essay (6+ / 0-)

    i have read Disgrace awhile back and because i didn't enjoy reading it, i have almost forgotten about it. funny how that works.

    i have not read Life and times of Michael K yet and not sure i am ready to endure Coetzee's world again.

    with reflection, i did admire Coetzee's novel, Disgrace, in the sense that it seemed to be about South Africa, metaphorically. my sense is that Coetzee is not so sure about the human race and he does not disguise this at all as his characters are so incredibly flawed. my sense is that he is not very sure about humans, especially white men.

    but i did think he believed there was hope except it wasn't in the form that people expected or would like. i don't know if that makes any sense as i don't want to give away the book's plot.

    •  I'd say he is sort of confessing (8+ / 0-)

      to being himself in some of the criticisms which you refer to. He seems to accept the problems of being a white man in South Africa, yet he seems to really "accept" it at the same time without much challenging it.

      It's a very "I am what I am" sort of thing.

      "Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom" - Walter Benjamin

      by mahakali overdrive on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 07:09:52 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I'm pretty sure you've found the heart of Coetzee: (6+ / 0-)
      my sense is that Coetzee is not so sure about the human race and he does not disguise this at all as his characters are so incredibly flawed. my sense is that he is not very sure about humans, especially white men.

      but i did think he believed there was hope except it wasn't in the form that people expected or would like.

      There is something disconcerting in how Coetzee writes, even before you get to the unpleasantness. He shows you this sparse realism, but it turns out to be a kind of invented symbolism.

      As for the unpleasant side of human nature, I'd guess Disgrace is about as ugly as he gets.

      Thanks for a thoughtful and honest comment.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 07:23:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  as i recall (5+ / 0-)

        i enjoyed the writing which partially made up for the unpleasant plot and characters. but i thought there was a larger reason for all the unpleasantness. i thought he was trying to illuminate something about human nature, especially the awfulness of apartheid in south africa, and the vision of what will be, which will hopefully, better in the next generation. for that, it was worth reading.  

        •  Coetzee's unpleasantness is aimed at illuminating (4+ / 0-)

          the reader who can see his light, it seems to me. He is very aware, both of the structures of repression in our fallen world, and of the patterns he builds into his fictional worlds.

          Mahakali overdrive raises points upstream about the contradictions in Coetzee's fiction, about his failure to illuminate adequately. But mahakali overdrive has read a lot more Coetzee than I have, and it will take me a few more Coetzees to weigh those points fully.

          Some of it comes down to his "vision of what will be, which will hopefully, better in the next generation": how clear and hopeful is this vision in Coetzee's work? It seems to me to be there, but writ subtly enough that many readers may miss it, obscured behind the surface ugliness.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 04:04:45 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I just got home a bit ago (6+ / 0-)

    from a long day of shopping and playing with grandbabies.

    I really appreciate your excellent diary.  I am not able to read this kind of story, but I really enjoy learning about it and the author.  Fascinating!!

    Thank you!!!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 07:37:06 PM PST

    •  Grandbabies are pretty excellent. (4+ / 0-)

      I don't even have babies, but I enjoy all my nieces and nephews. Right now I make do with my aunt's five dogs (I'm visiting). They think I'm a god, because I create treats and walks.

      I'm glad to hear you had a day of happiness and accomplishment, cfk. Thanks for your very kind words.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 07:55:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I started with (5+ / 0-)

    Summertime, which is, I think, his latest, and where the above quotes come from, and I've decided to read them all.  Coetzee is pretty much the opposite of one of my favorite authors, Salman Rushdie.  Rushdie's novels are just spilling over with humor, wordplay, and all sorts of invention.  Coetzee's work is as reserved as he is reputed to be.  I love both writers.

    I love humor, but I can't agree with Amis.  I'm sure Coetzee's seriousness makes him a minority taste, but it doesn't follow that there's no pleasure to be had from reading him.

    On the other hand, I think writing this

    "In his lovemaking, I now think there was an autistic quality. I offer this not as a criticism but as a diagnosis."
    about a character who is based on yourself is kinda funny.
    •  I don't agree with Amis's theory, but I like it. (5+ / 0-)

      Let's look at the full half of his glass:

      If there is no pleasure transmitted then I’m not interested. I mean, look at them all: Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Smollet, Fielding, they’re all funny. All the good ones are funny. Richardson isn’t, and he’s no good. Dostoyevsky is funny: The Double is a scream. Tolstoy is funny by being just so wonderfully true and pure. Gogol, funny. Flaubert, funny. Dickens. All the good ones are funny.
      I think the mistake is to set the bar at funny. There is nothing more deadly to good writing, than to aim at funny and fail.

      Pleasure is much nearer the heart of art. I don't think Tolstoy's funny, but he has a great sense of play. Perhaps every great book has a bold playfulness to it. Coetzee has no laughter, but plenty of play. It is, though, a strange and nerdy kind of play. As you say, he has none of Rushdie's joyful exuberance. From what I've read about it, Summertime is full of playing.

      Also, as the "autistic lovemaking" quote shows, Coetzee may not laugh out loud, but he does smile.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 08:42:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Understanding Coetzee=Understanding S.Africa (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, Avila, shari, mahakali overdrive

    What I mean is that you can't really understand Coetzee unless you understand the South Africa he was living in. One of the links you provided was to an essay by Rian Malan, another South African, who said that people outside SA might think some of his work is a parable, when in fact, it's a pretty realistic description of SA or projection of where it was headed.

    LTMK was written at one of the bleakest times in SA's history. SA had gone from a racist, authoritarian regime to an Orwellian, totalitarian racist regime. Heribert Adams wrote "Modernizing Racial Domination" around this time predicting that because of the modernization of apartheid the regime could probably last another half century. PW Botha was perhaps the least thoughtful South African president/prime minister in history and he was squeezing out even the "democracy for whites."

    The ANC was at a lowpoint - both powerless and Stalinist. Zimbabwe had recently been liberated, but shockingly the charismatic, cheerful liberation leader, Josh Nkomo, had been outwitted by the dour Leninist authoritarian, Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe seemed to prove that the most ruthless people win in a civil war.

    Many thoughtful people predicted that civil war was inevitable in South Africa, but that it would go on forever. Almost the same time Coetzee published LTMK, Nadine Gordimer, SA's other Nobel literature laureate wrote a similarly bleak dystopian novel of endless civil war, "July's People." That's really what Michael K was about -- not a parable, but a grim prediction of what was about to happen.

    Btw, although race isn't mentioned explicitly, to any South African reader, or friend of SA, it was clear that Michael K was Coloured. His stupidity is ambiguous. I knew black South African university professors who would feign abject stupidity in front of any policeman and say things like "ja baas, ek viet nie" to the most simple questions.

    •  Interesting comment. You raise many points here: (3+ / 0-)

      First let me ask about your statement,

      although race isn't mentioned explicitly, to any South African reader, or friend of SA, it was clear that Michael K was Coloured
      I find this entirely believable, but I'm surprised you're so definite. Now, I have no experience of SA (or of being colored), and your comment shows that you do. All I know is, I saw no clear evidence of it in LTMK, nor did I find anyone saying that in my research about the book. I do understand what you say about feigning abject stupidity, but that wouldn't explain all of Michael K's obtuseness. For example, he suffers thefts, but still leaves his mother's purse in her suitcase (he should have hidden the money in his clothes). So the soldier at the checkpoint takes all but ten Rand from him. That was truly dense of Michael K. Or unworldly.

      I could see Coetzee drawing the implication that Michael K is colored, but deliberately leaving it ambiguous - most of how people treat him as a second-class citizen could just be their reactions to his hare-lip, dishevelled appearance, and simple-mindedness.

      If Michael K is clearly colored, that's essential to the book, so I'll leave this comment, and address the rest of what you've said in another. Can you see any further evidence in the text, beyond what you've said, that Michael K is colored?

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 08:27:26 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  There are many clues (4+ / 0-)

        I was in grad school when I first read the book just after it came out in a SA studies program with lots of SAns and the assumption among them was that Michael was Coloured.

        Just to back up a bit there are three main "non-white" ethnic groups in SA -- black or African or Bantu-speakers (eg Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa, like Mandela); Indian or Asian; and Coloured. Coloured people are mixed race, but not like mulattos; they are the descendants of indigenous people, slaves and whites who mixed hundreds of years ago and have distinct communities. They don't speak any indigenous language -- just  Dutch/Afrikaans and English. Because Cape Town was one of the very few areas not settled by Bantu-speakers, Cape Town was up to recently an overwhelming white and Coloured city. Blacks were not easily able to live there because of a law called the "Coloured Labour Preference" and were deported to the eastern Cape. So just the fact that this is Cape Town circa 1983, he has to be either white or Coloured (not black or Indian). This is further reinforced by their trip to a "farm" in the Karoo, which again has no almost no blacks, just whites and Coloureds. The fact that he is treated as a servant means he's not white. Also he is accused of terrorism and put in labor camps, which wouldn't likely happen to a white person.

        One of the themes of the book is that Michael is just trying to survive and be left alone by both sides in the war -- which was to a certain extent the predicament of many Coloured people. (Otoh, many Coloured people identified with the struggle and by the mid 1970s began calling themselves "black" rather than Coloured - so it's complicated.) So I think the recurring theme that he's getting it from both sides and wants to be left alone to survive which was a very Coloured existential problem of the 1970s and 1980s.

        •  I only knew what the movie "Gandhi" showed of SA, (4+ / 0-)

          so thanks for the much fuller explanation. Everything you say makes perfect sense.

          It does seem to be a central part of Coetzee's style, never to clarify what he can leave implicit. On the plus side, he avoids nailing anything into a narrow and fully explicit frame, so he sets up wider resonances and leaves the reader with questions still humming in their mind.

          On the minus side, his world seems attenuated, less gripping and less inviting than the compelling questions he looks at. Perhaps too much philosophy, too little concreteness. Kafka gets away with it, but he put more passion into his dreamscapes, I think.

          Still, Coetzee left me curious for more Coetzee, so he's got something. I'll have to keep reading...

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 09:45:39 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  "not a parable, but a grim prediction of what was (3+ / 0-)

      about to happen"

      That makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the very informative background you provide. Life & Times of Michael K was written in 1983, and I gather Coetzee's fiction has evolved since then, especially since 2000.

      I can't fully grasp the horror of South Africa in 1983. I'm glad Coetzee can help me to, and far gladder that there has been such progress since then. I do feel the hopelessness of wrongs we are powerless to change, closer to home. You write

      Heribert Adams wrote "Modernizing Racial Domination" around this time predicting that because of the modernization of apartheid the regime could probably last another half century
      I see our ridiculous inequalities in the US, this disgusting fanaticism for free-market capitalism, and corporatism, and all the damage they wreak. But the overlords are pretty savvy, and will trim their sails just enough to prevent meaningful change for as long as possible. Ditto for those destroying the global climate balance.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 08:37:55 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •   (DIS) GRACE (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, shari

    his sparse realism as a diarist above called it is constant in disgrace, a much less allegorical work than michael k. i didn't find it unpleasant, a constant refrain in other comments. there are some very painful scenes and moments in disgrace, but these scenes and many others like them occur in most modern novels. bad things are happening in books. but in coetzee our view is closer, we see significance behind the acts in a way that is different from any other living author. also we  can't identify specifically what the significance we feel is exactly about. usually we have a stock repository of responses and are rarely asked for more. coetzee let's responses clash, not favoring one over the other. in a sense they cancel out and we are left with the stark reality of "sparse realism". to view something without a
    predominant point of view is, in a sense,  to be free of a distorting lens. you see the pain without even the comfort of a familiar conditioned point of view.                                                     we're in the hands of a master. try it for yourselves, kids, and whatever you get it won't be coetzee because he's writing from a very true place and to write like him you have to see like him and  to see like him you have to be him. there are few who have found a place as resonant as coetzee (in our time, beckett, kafka, faulkner, joyce, a few others at times) but he gives it to you in the book.
    perhaps it seems unpleasant because it's life in the raw where bad things happen (i'm not being specific because there are some shocks and i won't even tempt you with spoiler alert because even though it's an experience the second time it's different, fresher, if you don't know what's going to happen).
    but there's also this other thing. what the sparse realist commentator added above  was that somehow along with this mode was another that s/he called symbolic. i agree if we can say that the symbol is expressed as an odd sensation, glowing and humming surrounding the precise words, phrases, sentences, crystalline paragraphs, logical - and yet also an inexpressible element. if at the end of the book you can describe the climax/conclusion of disgrace - which is in one way very ordinary - as meaning this positive or  that negative view - and i have a feeling for what he's saying, an idea i take the title that i also used as the title for the comment (DIS)GRACE- the disgrace and the grace are both in the book, often hard to disentangle - but the dis is the  ingredients of the story and the grace is in the ingredients and is also the soup the story ultimately floats in, another part of the book.  but to find evidence in the text that conclusively overrides other views, i'd be dubious about.
    i haven't read the earlier books because i have little taste for allegory (though it seems coetzee even complicates and enlivens allegory) but i've read the later, more recent ones. they move into new ground. realism in many keys and voices. surrealism  too in places. blends the sur with the real. for those who say he doesn't smile you might like the farcical elements. they're lit in the strange lights that he casts on things.
    it's a vision from a very deep place and whether you like it or not, whether it's unpleasant or "thin," (another sensation some readers didn't like), cherish it, it's a knocking from the place where more fully expressed lives live, the writers i mentioned above have it. so, often, do lawrence and woolf and hemingway and in one almost perfect book, fitzgerald. a few others.
    i don't know if coetzee lives this awarely, this intently all the time or mostly when he writes (faulkner, when a graduate student came to his door to do research: "son, you just lookin at an old drunk. the man you want is in the books"). but you can't fault a man for being comfortable enough to not make small talk. they don't say he never talks, just mostly.
    i hope this appreciation of  disgrace and coetzee  helps people try the book with a more open mind. unpleasant is a shield.  open to pain when it comes as to all other things. there are many things happening in this short book and the painful parts fit a larger pattern.

    •  It seems that you really know how to read a book, (0+ / 0-)

      and that you have burrowed deep into Coetzee, digging with your mind and your heart.

      From the tone of your comment, and from "the grace is in the ingredients and is also the soup the story ultimately floats in, another part of the book", I infer that you find Coetzee, in the end, affirms life, humanity and spirit. He just hides his grace behind a dis-.

      You say

      in coetzee our view is closer, we see significance behind the acts in a way that is different from any other living author. also we  can't identify specifically what the significance we feel is exactly about...to view something without a
      predominant point of view is, in a sense,  to be free of a distorting lens. you see the pain without even the comfort of a familiar conditioned point of view.
      This seems to me a large part of what Coetzee aims for, to strip away our comfortable labels, to make us see freshly what we have lazily hidden from view. Each of the authors you mention broke the conventions they found in fiction to make us see freshly what mattered to them.

      I find Coetzee cerebral, but the heart is there, writ subtly, and he always insists on total honesty.

      the symbol is expressed as an odd sensation, glowing and humming surrounding the precise words, phrases, sentences, crystalline paragraphs, logical - and yet also an inexpressible element.
      This is what I don't quite grasp in Coetzee, and what makes me want to keep grasping.
      the later, more recent ones. they move into new ground. realism in many keys and voices. surrealism  too in places. blends the sur with the real. for those who say he doesn't smile you might like the farcical elements. they're lit in the strange lights that he casts on things.
      I will certainly read more Coetzee, more recent books, books in all directions (e.g. his criticism, autobiography, and The Lives of Animals).

      Thanks so much for commenting.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 12:18:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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