Category Archives: j.m. coetzee

The Body Writer


I’m very much intrigued by the intersection of literature, identity, and the human body. That is probably at least one reason why I enjoy reading J.M. Coetzee so much.

The current issue of the TLS has a hugely interesting essay on Coetzee as a writer of the physical body (which I would wholeheartedly agree with). Here’s a taste:

Coetzee has elsewhere sought to affirm this belief in the importance of physicality: “the body with its pain becomes a counter to the endless trials of doubt. (One can get away with such crudeness in fiction; one can’t in philosophy, I’m sure)”. We must learn, however, that Coetzee never writes in bold. The self-sealing parentheses are a giveaway: by ostentatiously highlighting what he wishes to convince us he is so “sure” about, Coetzee is pointing out the artificiality of its separation from the “trials of doubt”. A body with “its pain”, its own pain, may be something certain, but the nature of someone else’s pain must always be in question. Indeed, we can read the Coetzeean canon as a sustained investigation into the notion that pain can be shared, and its inevitable recognition of the doubtful results. Coetzee puts similar sentiments in the mouth of the Magistrate, in Waiting for the Barbarians; he argues at the beginning that “pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt”, but this view does not persist (even within the “crudeness” of the fiction). He later reflects on the exclusivity of suffering: “they exposed her father to her naked and made him gibber with pain; they hurt her and he could not stop them (on a day I spent occupied with the ledgers in my office)”.

Whole essay here.

Obviously Novels Are Constructed

Stephen Mitchelmore offers my first reasons to want to read Summertime and Diary of a Bad Year:

The Complete Review offers another curious judgement: “Coetzee is an incredibly talented writer and a master craftsman — and, yes, this is a meticulously crafted book, and one of [Summertime’s] weaknesses is that it is so obviously a construct.” The key words here being “so obviously”. Perhaps the schism then is between those who are troubled by fiction as a construct and those who are not. One has to ask the question begged: how might this novel have been less of a construct; so obviously less of a construct? Of course, one can ask it of every novel.

The question is clearly one that troubles JM Coetzee, the writer currently living in Australia. In contrast, it seems not to be a question that troubled John Coetzee, the dead object of this novel’s attention. His ex-lover and ex-colleague Sophie Denoël, one of the people interviewed by his fictional biographer, offers her opinion of the man’s novels:

I did not read all of them. After Disgrace I lost interest. 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. That’s all.

Such withering criticism is perhaps the clearest guidance to the reader and to the novel itself. By including it, spoken from the mouth of someone both close and distant to the author, the critic is disarmed. How can one criticise a book that pre-empts the worst one can offer? Perhaps this is why the consensus has been welcoming albeit distracted by a witless need to tease out the differences between author-writer and author-character.

The consensus is a conspicuous reversal of that on Coetzee’s previous novel Diary of a Bad Year which is, however, similar in many ways to Summertime, only more formally adventurous . . .

Coetzee on Walser

Writing in 2000 on Jakob von Gunten:

As a literary character, Jakob von Gunten is without precedent. In the pleasure he takes in picking away at himself he has something of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and, behind him, of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the Confessions. But—as Walser’s first French translator, Marthe Robert, pointed out—there is in Jakob, too, something of the hero of the traditional German folk tale, of the lad who braves the castle of the giant and triumphs against all odds. Franz Kafka, early in his career, admired Walser’s work (Max Brod records with what delight Kafka would read Walser’s humorous sketches aloud). Barnabas and Jeremias, Surveyor K.’s demonically obstructive “assistants” in The Castle, have Jakob as their prototype.

In Kafka one also catches echoes of Walser’s prose, with its lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox. Here is Jakob in reflective mood:

We wear uniforms. Now, the wearing of uniforms simultaneously humiliates and exalts us. We look like unfree people, and that is possibly a disgrace, but we also look nice in our uniforms, and that sets us apart from the deep disgrace of those people who walk around in their very own clothes but in torn and dirty ones. To me, for instance, wearing a uniform is very pleasant because I never did know, before, what clothes to put on. But in this, too, I am a mystery to myself for the time being.

What is the mystery of Jakob? Walter Benjamin wrote a piece on Walser that is all the more striking for being based on a very incomplete acquaintance with his writings. Walser’s people, suggested Benjamin, are like fairy-tale characters once the tale has come to an end, characters who now have to live in the real world. There is something “laceratingly, inhumanly, and unfailingly superficial” about them, as if, having been rescued from madness (or from a spell), they must tread carefully for fear of falling back into it.

And on The Robber:

The Robber is more or less contemporary in composition with Joyce’s Ulysses and with the later volumes of Proust’s Recherche. Had it been published in 1926 it might have affected the course of modern German literature, opening up and even legitimating as a subject the adventures of the writing (or dreaming) self and of the meandering line of ink (or pencil) that emerges under the writing hand. But that was not to be. Although a project to bring together Walser’s writings was initiated before his death, it was only after the first volumes of a more scholarly Collected Works began to appear in 1966, and after he had been noticed by readers in England and France, that he gained widespread attention in Germany.

Today Walser is judged largely on the basis of his novels, even though these form only a fifth of his output, and even though the novel proper was not his forte (the four novels he left behind really belong to the tradition of the novella).

Summertime Excerpt Watch

Another one just popped up ($$$) in Harper's. This one takes the form of a mock interview with a woman whom a man referred to as "Coetzee" once propositioned, the woman declining because "Coetzee" seemed "soft."

Movie Trailer: Disgrace by JM Coetzee

Oddly enough, they've made a movie of what is probably JM Coetzee's most popular novel, Disgrace. And odder yet, it stars John Malkovich as the philandering professor Lurie. The trailer:

Looks almost decent, doesn't it? Although, I have my doubts . . . bad book = good movie, and vice versa.

For more on how Coetzee fits into the fiction of post-apartheid South Africa, see Matt Cheney's essay at The Quarterly Conversation.

Related Posts

Summertime by JM Coetzee

Moving into prolific author territory, J.M. Coetzee will be publishing his 20th book in late summer, the aptly titled Summertime. Hat tip to the Literary Saloon for the head’s-up.

The book doesn’t yet have a U.S. Amazon webpage, although it is listed on the Wikipedia J.M. Coetzee page, where it has been grouped with Coetzee’s previous memoirs, Boyhood and Youth. So, looks like this will be the third installment of Coetzee’s reflections on a provincial upbringing.

Coetzee and Crossreferencing

Matthew Cheney:

And then I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K. as if I were marking up a poem.  I looked, then, at my teaching copy of Disgrace,
from when I used it in a class a few years ago. The same thing. Lots of
circled words, lots of "cf."s referring me to words and phrases in
other parts of the book. Lots of sounds building on sounds, rhythms on
rhythms in a way that isn’t particularly meaningful in itself, but that
contributes to an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance to
hold up the shifting meanings of the story and characters.

The other writers I think of as doing this sort of thing — Gaddis, DeLillo, and Pynchon come to mind, though more as 2nd-cousins than twin brothers — do so on a larger, more baroque scale.  Coetzee is closer to Beckett,
but more concrete (less dense than early Beckett, less ethereal than
later). The biggest influences on Coetzee, it seems from some of his
interviews and essays, have been Kafka
and Beckett, and if forced to say which writers of the last 100 years
matter the most to me right now, I’d say, myself, Kafka and Beckett,
with Coetzee somewhere close behind them, hand-in-hand with Paul Bowles, Virginia Woolf,
and maybe a couple of others, depending on my mood. This says less
about literature than it does about me, about what it is I look for in
fiction — there is a bleakness of vision to most of these writers,
often a fierce anti-sentimentality (which, in their best works, does
not preclude humanity or descend to the converse of sentimentality,
macho frigidity), and a great depth of language within relatively
compressed fictional forms. My love for this sort of writing is also my
limitation as a reader; I am, I think, capable of appreciating the
DeLillos, Gaddises, and Pynchons of the world, but I am not someone who
can truly love their work.  (Instead, I end up loving them for certain sentences and paragraphs.  There are passages in Mason & Dixon, Underworld, and The Recognitions
that reach toward the height of human accomplishment with language —
perhaps these are simply feasts too rich for my metabolism.) Similarly,
many more lush or emotive writers are capable of effects I can notice
and see as skillful, but ultimately they … well, they make me gag.

Friday Column: Overcoming Your James Wood Habit

With the publication of James Wood’s new book in England, we can already see the beginnings of the coverage that will soon attend its publication over here. In other words, more attention for the one literary critic in America who actually gets attention.

To me this seems unfair. Yes, Wood rightly deserves some attention, but he certainly doesn’t deserve this de facto coronation as the only thing going. Moreover, focusing on one critic to the exclusion of others is contrary to the idea of literary criticism, which thrives on a polyphonic chorus of competing voices.

In that spirit, here are some critics that are still writing today that you can read as counterpoints to Wood.

William H. Gass—Recently The Guardian published an excerpt from Wood’s new book in which he rather momentarily brings Gass up, onto to then triumphantly dash aside Gass’s thoughts about the nature of fiction. Wood didn’t give the considerable thought behind Gass’s criticism the full respect it deserved, but he was right to say that Gass’s philosophy is strongly opposed to his own.

Readers of Wood could do much worse than opening their minds to the seven collections of criticism that Gass has given us. He shows the same love of minute textual analysis that Wood often exhibits, but he champions authors that Wood dismisses (Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, Gaddis among them). And although Gass is getting old, he still does publish an essay every now and again, often in the pages of Harper’s.


He has seven collections of criticism available, collecting essays from over 30 years of work. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life, one of his best, which mainly collects essays first published in The New York Review of Books during that publication’s heyday.

Wyatt Mason—The lead literary critic for Harper’s, for some time now, Mason’s been giving us a solid essay almost every month in that magazine. He also publishes in other publications, notably The New Yorker and The London Review of Books. (See Wikipedia for links to his articles on the web.)

Here he is critiquing David Foster Wallace by creatively appropriating his style:

To those of you not disposed to taking Wallace at his word, do so for the sake of argument. Cede to him the right to his belief in his own goodwill. The trouble one faces, the trouble I face – having read the eight stories in Oblivion; having found some hard to read and, because they were hard and the hardness made me miss things, reread them; having reread them and seen how they work, how well they work, how tightly they withhold their working, hiding on high shelves the keys that unlock their treasures; having, in some measure, found those keys; and having, in the solitary place where one reads, found a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value – is the concern that these stories, the most interesting and serious and accomplished shorter fiction published in the past decade, exhibit a fundamental rhetorical failure.

Sven Birkerts—Longtime contributor to and now editor of Agni, Birkerts commonly publishes writing in that journal, usually in the form of an essay-like editor’s note. (See here for a full list of his contributions to that journal.) He also contributes the odd review or article to newspapers, although I haven’t seen his essays too much outside the pages of Agni.

Birkerts was an early fan of David Foster Wallace and generally champions him and similar writers that are trying to push the medium forward. As such, his voice makes a good reply to that of Wood. It’s this philosophy that he brings to the pages of Agni, expressed here in this editor’s note.


Among his collections of essays is his 1994 essay collection, The Gutenberg Elegies, a useful precursor to the current conversation over the fate of bound paper books in an electronic age.

Tom LeClair—By now Wood’s aversion to Don DeLillo needs no introduction. Tom LeClair is perhaps our best critic and explicator of DeLillo’s work. (See his In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel, among numerous essays and interviews.)

LeClair’s essay on Underworld in The Atlantic, in which he called that book "a masterwork to rank with Gravity’s Rainbow and JR," is a good reply to Wood’s own take on DeLillo’s magnum opus (as is this). He LeClair sums up more or less what DeLillo has been doing all this time:

Since 1971 and his first novel, Americana, DeLillo has taken sometimes blunt instruments to the age’s cultural excrescences: television in Americana, sports in End Zone (1972), rock music in Great Jones Street (1973), big science in Ratner’s Star (1976), and fascination with terrorism in many of his other novels. In Underworld, DeLillo gives his most profound subject — apocalypse — his most subtle treatment, using all the novelist’s devices to examine nuclear malaise and compose a narrative of its displacements. DeLillo awards readers a peace dividend — millennial hope.

LeClair was also an early champion of William T. Vollmann (exposing the world to his love of prostitutes and high-risk journalism in an early New York Times article).

If you can find them, LeClaire’s collections of interviews with authors and essays make for good reading. (Try getting them used on Amazon.) He occasionally contributes reviews to newspapers and Bookforum and essays to glossy mags like The Atlantic.

J.M. Coetzee—Obviously better-known as a novelist, Coetzee has established a strong body of exacting criticism (mostly in the pages of The New York Review of Books). His review/essays are notable for laying out the specific criteria upon which he will judge a book and then taking a book through them step by step. As one may expect from the careful, considered prose found in his novels, Coetzee is a conscientious critic, one who I imagine to be an extremely slow reader who doesn’t miss a thing.


There’s some hope that as Coetzee ages he’s taking on more and more the role of a critic. His first essay collection, 2002’s Stranger Shores, collected essays from between 1986 and 1999. Only five years later, the equally long Inner Workings brought us criticism from 2000 to 2005. One can hope this trend continues.

Coetzee’s criticism is international in range. He’s written well on a number of Europeans—Harry Mulisch and Cees Nooteboom among them—who have yet to receive much attention in the U.S.

And here’s some recommendations on some classic works of criticism that you might consider reading instead of picking up a copy of Wood’s new book:

The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth

A Rhetoric of Irony, Wayne Booth

Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye

Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson

The Well-Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks

Coetzee on Nooteboom

I enjoy few novelists as critics as much as when JM Coetzee steps in to contribute on essay. He’s already written eloquently on Cees Nooteboom in the past, and here he is again, discussing the recently translated Lost Paradise.

Do angels exist? Does God exist? It is not only in the universe of
postmodern fiction that such questions have a quaint,
old-fashioned—that is to say, pre-postmodern and perhaps even
pre-modern—air. In tolerant, post-Enlightenment societies we are free
to make up answers to them as we choose, without risk of punishment.
Indeed, in its advanced form the principle of enlightened tolerance
simply refuses to take such questions seriously. If God works for you
then he must be true (that is to say, true-for-you); and ditto for
angels and the rest of the heavenly hierarchy.

The chief trouble with Nooteboom’s Lost Paradise is that it
is hard to reconcile the skeptical, relativistic spirit of the book as
a whole, particularly its prologue and epilogue, with the story of the
girl from Brazil who exorcises her demon by absorbing traditional
Aboriginal beliefs. It is also hard to make sense of her grounds for
excluding the troubled Dutchman from the paradise he seeks in her arms,
namely that angels cannot consort with human beings. The gods and
goddesses of Greece were not shy of bestowing their favors on mortals.
Why should angels be different?

In respect of relations between human beings and angels, it is worth reading Lost Paradise side by side with Nooteboom’s 1998 novel All Souls Day. . . .

The Immoralist

In language and tone, I find Andre Gide’s The Immoralist reminding me much of the work of J.M. Coetzee, specifically Disgrace. Both authors use a very pared down, austerely beautiful language; in a translator’s note, Richard Howard calls Gide’s voice "raised almost to the tension of the lyre," which seems about as good a description as can be given. Thematically, both books are wrestling with the following idea, quoted from Gide: "The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task."

Like Disgrace, The Immoralist’s protagonist eventually evolves into an amoral state (despite the title, I think he’s more beyond morals than transgressing them):

I reached a point of enjoying in others only the wildest behavior, deploring whatever constraint inhibited any excess. I came close to regarding honesty itself as no more than restriction, convention, timidity.

I imagine The Immoralist, with its strong hints of pedophilia and with its apparent embrace the passionate pursuit of personal desires and the mixing of the classes, was probably a good deal more shocking in its day than it feels now. Howard compares it to Freud and Nietzsche, both of whom certainly have worn with time. But I think this idea that animates the book–how easily we can lose our inhibitions, and how difficult it is to know what to do once we’ve lost them–is something that never grows old.

What I like most about this book, what most struck me the first time through, is the description of how the narrator Michel comes to embrace sensuality. After his marriage ("If I did not love my fiancée, as I say, at least I had never loved any other woman."), Michel and his bride head to Algeria, where he discovers that he has tuberculosis. It is when this disease brings him to the brink of death that Michel realizes the worth of living. Much more interestingly, his battle with tuberculosis forces his mind to reconcile with the body it inhabits, and through the disease Michel becomes sensitive to bodily sensations and, perhaps, stops seeing the mind and body as separate things.

I had forgotten I was alone, forgotten the time, expecting nothing. It seemed to me that until this moment I had felt so little by virtue of thinking so much that I was astonished by a discovery: sensation was becoming as powerful as thoughts.

This seems to be the pivotal moment for the book, as not only does overcoming the disease put Michel in touch with sensuality, it also forces him to hide this new side of himself from his wife, which is the wellspring of his love for transgressions.

I ended by enjoying the dissimulation itself, savoring it as I savored the functioning of my unsuspected faculties. And I advanced every day into a richer, fuller life, toward a more delicious happiness.

Of note here is how Michel comes to his amoral (or immoral) final state. Unlike the characters in, say, Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness, Michel reaches his state without leaving society. True, he gets his start in Africa, but it is only in France that he truly discovers and embraces his new ethic. And yet, Gide isn’t willing to let Michel come to love transgression in the presence of proper Frenchmen. Rather, Michel perfects his taste for the immoral while interacting with the uncouth French peasants that manage his estates.

Compare this, then, to Marc Estrin’s recent, excellent Golem Song, where the protagonist come to believe himself beyond morality in the heart of one of the most cultured cities on earth. A comic telling of a contemporary New York City citizen’s path to amorality, Golem Song’s would-be Superman is Alan, an overweight dork who comes to his beliefs not though estrangement in the jungle or association with the lower classes, but through good old urban decay and violence, aided by a generous helping of traditionally American sour race relations (in this case between African-Americans and Jews). It seems now that forces previously thought to reside within exotic and/or pre-modern people now can be found disembodied, haunting our inner cities.

The Latin American Mixtape

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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