In a Cold Country

Michael Wood

  • Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee
    Harvill, 231 pp, £16.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 84655 120 8
  • Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 by J.M. Coetzee
    Harvill, 304 pp, £17.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 1 84655 045 4

A new novel by J.M. Coetzee is always an event, although often a disconcerting one. ‘Disconcerting’ will be too polite a word for many readers, who can’t bear the chill that emanates from these works, especially Disgrace (1999), Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Slow Man (2005). The same chill can be picked up in Coetzee’s critical essays, where it is likely to appear as offhand authority. A poem by Paul Celan, we learn in the collection Inner Workings, ‘absorbs from the Surrealists everything that is worth absorbing’. So much for those excitable fellows with their politics and their attempts to reimagine the world. I’m a devoted admirer of the fiction but I do have some difficulty with the bleak emotional weather of autobiographical works such as Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002). Coetzee may not actively seek this response, but he can hardly be surprised by it. In Diary of a Bad Year a character who closely resembles the author – more of this figure later – imagines his father’s opinion of him. ‘A selfish child, he must have thought, who has turned into a cold man; and how can I deny it?’

How can he deny it? Coetzee’s characters are fond of the rhetorical question. Does this man mean his coldness is undeniable or only that he cannot plausibly deny it? Does he want to deny it? Does he think he should? Behind a writer’s ‘every paragraph’, this character writes, ‘the reader ought to be able to hear the music of present joy and future grief.’ Perhaps a writer so sure of future grief can’t really be convincing about present joy. But then even grief has its music, and Coetzee’s novels are anything but cold in the end. Their road lies through harsh, stunted country but arrives at a region of desperate feeling.

Does the question of coldness translate into a question of aloofness? Into the temptation of aloofness, let’s say. ‘I wanted to live outside history,’ the narrator says to himself in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). ‘I wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them. How can I believe that that is cause for shame?’ He is a magistrate in a far outpost of an unnamed empire where the people called barbarians appear to be the quiescent and impoverished original inhabitants of the place. Now the central government claims the natives are restless. ‘The barbarian tribes were arming, the rumour went; the Empire should take precautionary measures, for there would certainly be war.’ How could this man live outside history? He is a civil servant, he himself speaks of ‘the shame of office’ that will not go away. He understands perfectly that his own apparent decency and the brutal methods of the colonel who has come to wage war on the local barbarians are instruments of the same regime. ‘I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow.’

Still, the wish to live outside history is not itself shameful, only unavailing, and with time it has lost the standing even of a plausible wish. In Diary of a Bad Year an author, a South African writer living in Australia, who can’t be Coetzee because he is six years older and doesn’t appear to have won the Nobel Prize, and who must be Coetzee since he has written at least two of Coetzee’s books (a set of essays on censorship and Waiting for the Barbarians), brings the story up to date. After a reading in Canberra, he tells us, a journalist reported that ‘my novel Waiting for the Barbarians “emerged from the South Africa of the 1970s”,’ but he didn’t report what he went on to say, switching the terms as his novel already had, so that, as in Conrad, the true savages become the men at work imposing so-called civilisation on others. ‘I used to think that the people who created these laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians. Now I know they were just pioneers, ahead of their time.’ There is plenty more of this quietly savage tone in Diary of a Bad Year, and lots about the facility at Guantánamo Bay and ‘national shame’. ‘Dishonour is no respecter of fine distinctions. Dishonour descends upon one’s shoulders, and once it has descended no amount of clever pleading will dispel it.’

I am deeply drawn to this language, as I am to similar language in Coetzee’s Disgrace, but what if talking like this is just a way of wanting to live outside history? This is the subject of all Coetzee’s recent work, going back perhaps to Giving Offence (1996), his book about censorship: not just dishonour but the question whether the term still means anything. It’s important too to see that in spite of the high moral tone of many speakers in these works, Coetzee is staging an argument, not trying to win one or even, finally, to assert one. He uses fiction to think with, and in Elizabeth Costello the arguments are stern and rich and the book is indispensable for anyone who worries about why literature matters, but the thinking does perhaps rule the fiction rather than the other way round. The subtitle ‘Eight Lessons’ acknowledges this tilt.

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