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