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Vol. 37 No. 10 · 21 May 2015
Short Cuts

Coetzee’s Diaries

Thomas Meaney

‘My​ only talent is for comedy,’ Coetzee writes to himself. His writer’s diaries – six small notebooks he kept in the 1970s and 1980s, now housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin – are full of musings and mock preparations:

5 October 78. This man [the magistrate of Waiting for the Barbarians] is going to bore everyone. I will have to make the relation with the girl comic, and to bring him down in the world in the second half of the book, when he becomes ? a gravedigger.

7 June 86. Project for a 40-page story: the letters of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. With none of the clever ironic shafts one might expect. The qualities of all love letters: they are touching, embarrassing, boring, frustrating.

17 July 87. Before embarking on physical description of beautiful women, reread and consider the passage in Barthes’s S/Z in which he characterises the attempt to ‘totalise’.

Coetzee is at his most profound about animals:

7 July 86. Chickens are always bad-tempered and ungracious.

8 May 87. The chicks outside: at a certain age the adolescent males start trampling their mother. How does she feel? Proud?

The entries appear in meticulous small script, very rarely crossed out, all neatly dated. They are not the observations of a writer who trusts his instincts, still less his reason. They are more like the carefully sifted, windswept relics of a dried-up saint. In these diaries Coetzee creates the sense of remove of a classical work. The romantics force their genius on you like a coat, and get you to wear it; the classical writer takes you by the hand for a few steps, points the way home, then leaves you behind. And so it is with Coetzee’s notebooks. They don’t lead you to the work; they are scattered chickenfeed for those foolish enough to come pecking in Texas.

One passion Coetzee does agonise over openly is politics. ‘What has happened between Dusklands and now is that I have become unpolitical,’ he writes in 1974 after returning to Cape Town from a teaching post in Buffalo, where he was arrested during an anti-Vietnam protest:

I can now see that D [Dusklands] was a product of the passionate politics of 1965-71, USA. I was a satirist in D – not a satirist out of moral conviction, but because I was being aroused by events in a way I feared to be aroused. Now my attitude seems to be more detached. Sex and violence – I know that my satire was an attempt to rationalise my attraction towards sadistic sex and violence. Now I feel my better hope is to take a cooler and more analytic line with sex and violence, and acknowledge that the politics is only a way of opening avenues for sex and violence.

Coetzee abandoned two novels after Dusklands that started down such a line. ‘Pornography/Inquisition’ is a series of psychoanalytic sessions featuring a patient who can no longer tolerate her unfaithful husband. ‘The Burning of Books’ concerns a government censor who works in a city based on Pinochet’s Santiago: ‘One of the questions he asks himself, paging through the novels of the realist tradition in his cubicle at the incinerator plant, is “why don’t things like this happen to me?”’ After drafting two chapters and making plans for more – ‘I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a tour de force of evocation of a dusk city after a day of random sniping and hit-and-run attacks’ – Coetzee lost the fire for the book.

There are intriguing suggestions about novels he did finish. For several months, Coetzee is determined to set Waiting for the Barbarians somewhere in Asia: ‘A Chinese commander at Loui-Lau on Lake Lop-nor, protecting the silk route against bandits.’ A curious feature of The Childhood of Jesus seems seeded in a note from 1987: ‘Set it in Latin America? At least Spanish names.’ There are sweepingly arid pensées that prefigure the journal entries of the elderly writer Señor C in Diary of a Bad Year:

16 June 86. Who shall guard the Guardians? Who shall censor the censors? The question is unanswerable without a theory of absolution. It is not answerable in a secular framework. There must be a class or caste of people outside society who are shunned or kept at a physical distance because they touch pollution. Hence the sweeper caste in India, hence the priestly caste in Gwope. Priests cannot marry because they are polluted/holy. That is why priests cannot sleep with decent women, cannot marry: they must sleep with whores. A para-priestly class like the SS (created to perform abominations) has brothels created for it: it is the idea of a domestic life for SS men that offends us most deeply.

Inevitably, Nadine Gordimer surfaces in Coetzee’s papers as an antagonist. He considers basing the heroine of Age of Iron on her: ‘She writes novels, has cancer, faces the failure of her career.’ Coetzee doesn’t have the stomach for Gordimer’s hunt for political positions: ‘Try to give the book a more imaginative feel, not the Gordimer-type imprisonment within an environment. Play fast and loose with the facts. Dump social relations.’ In a draft of an essay later collected in Stranger Shores, Coetzee compares her to Isaiah Berlin:

In describing the complex and highly ambivalent feelings of Russian liberals to Russian radicals, Berlin captures much of Nadine Gordimer’s attitude towards South African leftist radicals, at least prior to 1975 or 1976: siding instinctively with them while reserving her position on the cleansing power of violence, sympathising with their ardour and dedication while resisting their indifference towards what they saw as the museum of the past, yet all the while doubting her own right to reserve her position, or even to have any position at all.

Gordimer’s political due diligence is too limiting, or at least Coetzee can’t square his own temperament with it: ‘The pressure for so-called relevance in SA too much for me. That is to say, I am capitulating before it. The book [Age of Iron] will only work if I work on things like angelhood. And perhaps not even then.’

The bulk of the writer’s notebooks are a dense weave of doubts, moments of confidence, then doubts again. Apparent frustrations that run for pages suddenly harden into aperçus – ‘Fiction is about what is possible. That is the problem with realism’ – or surge into self-declarations: ‘I have no interest in telling stories; it is the process of storytelling that interests me,’ ‘I can only write about love when I am in love.’ He sometimes exhibits a desire to write his way around the desire to write:

19 October 73. Fiction, being a serious affair, cannot accept pre-requisites like (1) a desire to write, (2) something to write about, (3) something to say. There must be a place for a fiction of apathy towards the task of writing, towards the subject, towards the means.

The overriding concern is to keep the coals lit: ‘His art not an art of chipping but an art of moulding, more suitable to a blind person,’ Coetzee writes in 1987, testing out the clipped third-person voice he will come to apply to himself. ‘Moulding and baking. The problem of making a hot enough fire.’

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Vol. 37 No. 13 · 2 July 2015

Thomas Meaney makes a number of errors in his discussion of J.M. Coetzee’s notebooks (LRB, 21 May). The unrealised novel The Burning of the Books is set in Cape Town, not Santiago, and is a response to the pervasiveness of apartheid-era censorship. Coetzee was not ‘determined’ to set Waiting for the Barbarians in China; having moved the milieu away from Cape Town after a revolutionary war, he drew on the ethnography of China for realistic detail in a deliberately unspecific setting. The notebook entry of 16 June 1986 (the tenth anniversary of the Soweto uprising) launched Age of Iron. He doesn’t ‘compare’ Gordimer to Isaiah Berlin, but uses Berlin’s assessment of the intergenerational tensions in mid-19th-century Russia to compare her to the Turgenev of Fathers and Sons.

It is true that Coetzee’s notebooks ‘are a dense weave of doubts, moments of confidence, then doubts again’ and that an overriding concern is ‘to keep the coals lit’. But there is little justification for Meaney’s assessment that they ‘don’t lead you to the work; they are scattered chickenfeed for those foolish enough to come pecking in Texas.’ Perhaps Meaney should have trusted his instincts better and engaged with what is surfacing from the Coetzee papers: an authorship whose creative processes are more autobiographical, more vulnerable, and more intensely felt than the public reputation has led us to believe.

David Attwell
University of York

Thomas Meaney writes: Attwell is right about the Berlin passage. And Coetzee only cites his knowledge of ‘Asian reality’ as a ‘compositional aid’ for Waiting for the Barbarians, so I should have phrased that differently. But the Santiago setting is in the notes for The Burning of the Books: ‘The junta is clearing out the universities in Santiago.’ And there are many ‘pensées’ in the notebooks that don’t benefit from a Soweto anniversary. My point was that much of Coetzee’s writer’s diaries are highly stylised fragments. Attwell says Coetzee’s ‘creative processes are more autobiographical, more vulnerable, and more intensely felt than the public reputation has led us to believe.’ But what literary biographer has not said that about his subject? I was looking at something that makes Coetzee different.

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