Coetzee The Master
What I’m reading right now, and what I began reading some ten years ago are the works of J.M. Coetzee, the great South African writer and Nobel Prize winner. For some reason, I never got around to picking up on his work, and I find it nothing short of extraordinary. WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS (1980) is simply incredible. It took hold of me and shook me up in a way I haven’t been shaken before. The language, the symbolism, the depth of writing and expression — all combine to produce one of the most brilliant works of the 20th century (the book, which is relatively short, was published in 1980). Once you start reading it, you can’t stop; it takes over your life. You live inside the story, the characters, the voice of the narrator. Likewise, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K (1983), another Coetzee book that dazzles and catches you up in its narrative right to the end. The beauty, also, of Coetzee’s work is that it’s short, dense, and provocative. The line of each sentence (as poets describe it) has a cadence all its own, and connects at a powerful level of the unconscious.
Being a huge reader of Dostoyevsky, I grabbed THE MASTER OF PETERSBURG (1994), cruised through it at breakneck speed and came away with a sense that something wasn’t quite right in the narrative. Still, I liked the story, and the daring of it: we go back to 1863, to another time, another place. Coetzee understands the nature of fiction as one of displacement, of not simply an exotic setting, but one that’s real, with internal consistency, with authentic detail and a landscape you can live and breathe in. After that, I picked up on DISGRACE (1999), which is written in the present tense and set in South Africa. This novel had me turning the pages, never letting me loose from its grip. The characters were fully realized, and the father-daughter relationship (which I think I have some understanding of) brought to life the clash of generations, of attitudes wide apart, of race and violence — a powerful mix, indeed. I like the fact that Coetzee’s protagonists are not necessarily sympathetic: they have great flaws and weaknesses. Yet above all, they’re conscious of their actions, however misguided they may be. It’s this journey of self-understanding, of getting to the heart and soul of things, of testing the waters that I like about Coetzee’s fiction.
As for the last book I’ve picked up on, DIARY OF A BAD YEAR (2007), which I’m about half way through, it’s hard to make a judgment: the work is a departure from previous Coetzee fiction, in that it weaves together three narrative voices, one of which is in pure essay form. I’ve read Coetzee’s essays in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS over the years, and his insights into the work of Garcia-Marquez, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and others are brilliant, the product of great learning and study. In DIARY OF A BAD YEAR, the essays expand to cover everything under the sun, and by themselves are worth reading. The essay as a form, devised by Montaigne, was always short, a swift parry of sword and dagger, a bit of sparing and wit. You can see how Coetzee’s intellectual gifts, his prodigious learning and reading of modern and ancient literature somehow infuses itself into the book, thereby rendering the other two fictional narratives less than what they ought to be. I guess it’s bound to happen: you learn, read, lecture, talk, expound, and the thinking part of you takes over. It rules. Whatever happens, you just aren’t the same after you read Coetzee’s work. Ever.