Stony Ground

Peter D. McDonald

  • J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event by Derek Attridge
    Chicago, 225 pp, £13.50, May 2005, ISBN 0 226 03117 9
  • Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee
    Secker, 265 pp, £16.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 436 20611 0

In a respectful but chary review of The Life and Times of Michael K (1983) in the New York Review of Books, Nadine Gordimer wrote about J.M. Coetzee’s ‘conscious choice’ of allegory as a literary mode in his first three novels. The reasons for this, she speculated, were temperamental:

It seemed he did so out of a kind of opposing desire to hold himself clear of events and their daily, grubby, tragic consequences in which, like everyone else living in South Africa, he is up to the neck, and about which he had an inner compulsion to write. So here was allegory as a stately fastidiousness; or a state of shock.

For Gordimer, The Life and Times of Michael K represented a welcome new willingness to engage more directly ‘with the victimised people of Michael K’s life and times’, the ‘hundreds of thousands of black people in South African squatter towns and “resettlement camps”’. Less burdened by spurious universalism – ‘Man becomes Everyman (that bore)’ – it was a more particularised novel of witness. The trouble was that by making the hapless, drifting Michael the representative of the victims of apartheid, Coetzee betrayed his continuing ‘revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions’.

Gordimer’s review helped to broadcast the idea of Coetzee as a mythically fastidious, apolitical figure. The caricature understandably left its mark: Coetzee has from the first displayed an acute awareness of the politics of his own authority as a novelist and, above all, as a white South African novelist. It is difficult not to read the opening of his 1992 essay on Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly without recalling the terms in which Gordimer framed her charge:

To the extent that [Erasmus] became involved in the rivalry between the pope and Luther, his involvement was unwilling. At a personal level he found conflict uncongenial (which is not to say that his reluctance to take sides was merely a matter of temperament: it was political too). Urged by the pope to denounce Luther’s heresies, he replied: ‘I would rather die than join a faction.’

The essay can be read not just as a discreet reply to Gordimer but as an exercise in displaced autobiography. In a wide-ranging analysis linking Derrida’s critique of Foucault’s conception of madness to Erasmus’s idea of folly, Coetzee offers a radically different account from Gordimer’s of a writer’s political responsibilities, and defends the risky refusals of a disaffiliated intellectual, with reference not only to Erasmus but also to Joyce. (Coetzee’s responses to his critics have not always been so oblique. In a talk given in Cape Town in 1987, subsequently published as ‘The Novel Today’, he justified his own literary practice in forthright, even combative terms.)

Coetzee’s sensitivity to criticism impugning his sense of responsibility is unsurprising. That he has consistently been just as uneasy about the terms in which he is praised is more unusual. He has shown little enthusiasm for the razzmatazz of celebrity authorship: he failed to turn up to collect either of his Booker Prizes and has always been a testy award-winner on principle. When he won the CNA Prize in 1977 for In the Heart of the Country, he used his acceptance speech to attack the nationalistic and racialised conceptions of South African literature that the prize implicitly endorsed. (Sponsored by the Central News Agency, South Africa’s equivalent of W.H. Smith, the prize was at the time the white establishment’s most important literary award. In the Heart of the Country also won the anti-CNA Mofolo Plomer Prize founded by Ravan Press, the progressive, anti-apartheid publisher that gave Coetzee his first break.) When he won the Nobel in 2003, he was equally wary: if the CNA Prize was problematically nationalist, the Nobel was anachronistically universalist. Interviewed after the award was announced, he noted various gaps in the list of prizes given – no music, no mathematics, no philosophy – and added that the literature prize ‘belongs to days when a writer could still be thought of as, by virtue of his or her occupation, a sage, someone with no institutional affiliations who could offer an authoritative word on our times as well as on our moral life’. This idea is ‘pretty much dead today’, he said. ‘I would certainly feel very uncomfortable in the role.’ His darkly comic, fictionalised portrait of the artist as a young bungler, Youth (2002), published a year before the Nobel Prize, reveals just how far he was prepared to go to refuse it.

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[*] Routledge, 178 pp., £12.99, April 2004, 0 415 33593 0.