Uneasy Guest

Hermione Lee

  • Youth by J.M. Coetzee
    Secker, 169 pp, £14.99, May 2002, ISBN 0 436 20582 3

By comparison with the acclaim for Disgrace, and the respectful reception of Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, Youth has been met here with some disappointed and negative reviews (‘a tortuous exercise in intellectual introspection, and not much else’; ‘as fiction it is so interior and cerebral, it fails to engage’; ‘not wholly satisfactory as either novel or memoir’). Is the tide turning against Coetzee? Or is this darkly teasing little book really so much worse than its predecessors? It’s not as if we expected to be charmed. The drab early 1960s London setting is as grim as Coetzee’s South Africa ever was; the cold, dysfunctional, misogynist central character, John, is as compromised and unappealing as the disgraced David Lurie. But perhaps Youth is being taken too seriously, and we are meant to mock this grim young man and the Conradian title that portentously frames his rite of passage.

A good deal depends on whether we read Youth as fiction or autobiography. It was published in the UK without a subtitle, and with a blurb suggesting it is meant to be read in the same way as Coetzee’s novels of alienated, unresolved quests: ‘He begins a dark pilgrimage in which he is continually tested and continually found wanting.’ Thus it has been reviewed as a novel with powerful autobiographical elements. In America, it is subtitled ‘Scenes from Provincial Life II’, a deliberate pairing with Boyhood. The subtitle (used by William Cooper for a novel in the 1960s, but that’s probably been forgotten) hovers between storytelling and remembering. Certainly, the facts of this life are Coetzee’s. After the uneasy South African childhood we read about in Boyhood, he went to the University of Cape Town in the late 1950s, where he graduated in English and Maths. At the start of Youth, we find John in 1959, aged 19, living in a flat in Cape Town, paying his way with a variety of small teaching and library jobs so that he can be independent of his parents, coldly undergoing a series of disappointing and pointless affairs, revolted by ‘the carnage of Sharpeville’, desperate to get out of the country before he is conscripted for the Defence Force. In 1962, like this narrator, Coetzee left for London, where he was employed by IBM, and then by its British rival, International Computers, as one of the first wave of computer programmers, while working on an MA thesis by correspondence on Ford Madox Ford. The MA was awarded in 1963, but that takes us beyond the end of Youth. If there were to be another memoir it would cover Coetzee’s move to America (a move which the anti-American narrator of Youth strongly resists) to study linguistics and stylistics at the University of Texas at Austin and to write a PhD thesis on Beckett. In 1968, he became a professor of literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo, finished his thesis, and started his first book, Dusklands. In 1971, he returned to teach at the University of Cape Town, and became the J.M. Coetzee we know about.

So, is Youth an autobiography? Although within a page the narrator pointedly mentions Rousseau, we also find that he has taken his flat ‘under false pretences’, yet that this was ‘not a lie, not entirely’. As the anxious, self-questioning, third-person, present-tense narrative takes hold, it is preoccupied with discovering ‘the real thing’ – in love, in writing, in national identity, in the self. Evidently, if this is an autobiography, it is one at pains to demolish the reader’s faith that this is ‘the real thing’, ‘the true story’. It’s an autobiography written ‘under false pretences’: it is never going to tell us ‘the truth’ about the self, because it doesn’t know what that is. This makes for a disconcerting, at times irritating mixture of self-importance – ‘At one moment he might truly be himself, at another he might simply be making things up’ – and ironic debunking. His favourite narrative, we discover at the end, is Beckett’s Watt: ‘Just the flow of a voice telling a story, a flow continually checked by doubts and scruples, its pace fitted exactly to the pace of his own mind.’

Coetzee has always been obsessed with confession and its limits. It’s a theme that keeps pace with, and in part grows out of, South African history: the censorship practised by the apartheid regime, the torture and questioning of political prisoners, the need for concealment and secrecy in so many areas of life (not least the sexual), the pressure on the writer to be politically committed, the post-apartheid era of accountability with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But it’s also a private obsession, and an international one: Coetzee is as much driven by his readings of Kafka and Dostoevsky as by his South Africanness. The subject recurs, from the inconsistent and neurotic first-person monologue of In the Heart of the Country, or the magistrate’s aghast, ineffectual observation on the way to resist torture and interrogation in Waiting for the Barbarians, to the desire for ultimate anonymity and inscrutability in Life & Times of Michael K, or Mrs Curran’s abject retraction of her past in Age of Iron, or the haughty refusal to confess to the politically correct commission of inquiry into sexual harassment in Disgrace: ‘What goes on in my mind is my business, not yours.’ Coetzee has also written a good deal about confession and resistance in his literary essays: on the parallels between South African and Soviet censorship, and their effects, in Giving Offence (1996); on ‘Confession and Double Thoughts’ (an essay first published in 1985) in Doubling the Point (1992). Writing there on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s use of fictional confessions, he dwells on the ‘problems regarding truthfulness’ raised by, for instance, The Kreutzer Sonata, or the chapter ‘At Tikhon’s’ in The Possessed, where confession inevitably involves mixed motives and self-mythologising. ‘The self cannot tell the truth of itself to itself and come to rest without the possibility of self-deception.’ Whether this loop can ever be broken, and any absolution or conclusion attained, is doubtful. Coetzee’s characters spend much of their time avoiding self-knowledge, playing dumb, or resisting their interpreters or interrogators. So does he. (Witness his refusal ever to show up at the Booker Prize ceremony.) He rarely gives interviews or makes public appearances, and speaks about himself and his work evasively. My favourite example was his response to a five-page written question about Foe from the South African critic (and Sartre specialist) Philip Wood: ‘I have always resisted being nudged into the role of interpreter of my own books. In this case, moreover, you do it more fluently and convincingly than I can imagine myself doing.’

No surprise, then, that in Boyhood, Coetzee distanced himself from his childhood through the use of the third person, as in this sequel, or that that was a story of the child as secret agent or changeling, as an alien in his own family, school and country. At home, he resents his closeness to his mother, tyrannises his younger brother, and thinks of his father as an unwanted intruder. He leads a double life, and keeps his aggressive behaviour in the home completely separate from his docile, abject behaviour in school. He hides away in class so that he will never be punished. He pretends to be a Roman Catholic (this is funny) because he thinks it has something to do with Rome and his hero Horatius. Part German, part English, part Afrikaner, he doesn’t know what kind of South African he is, ‘since not everyone who lives in South Africa is a South African, or not a proper South African’. He secretly prefers the Russians to the Americans, but keeps this dark. (This is the late 1940s.) He loathes and fears the Afrikaners and idolises the English. He passionately loves his family farm on the Karoo, but knows that – unlike the Coloureds and the Afrikaners – he has no rights of ownership there: ‘he will never be more than a guest, an uneasy guest.’ ‘His heart is old, it is dark and hard, a heart of stone.’ He wants to be singular: ‘I hate normal people.’ He wants to be unrelated, ‘to live . . . without belonging to a family’. The fascinating paradox of Boyhood is that this highly observant and objective narrative tells of a person who cannot see beyond his own version of things. He is ‘living the only story he will admit – the story of himself’.

Voluntary self-exile seems the inevitable outcome of all this. In Youth, John ruthlessly turns his back on his mother and family, gets out of the country whose politics, cultural standards and dominant ideology appal him, resists any kind of political involvement, treats all the women he makes love to with cruelty, contempt or resentment (presumably in order to be revenged on his mother’s unbearable devotion, though this isn’t spelled out), and makes no close friends, though he longs for friendship. He is as proud, lonely, scornful and gloomy as Lucifer. But moral judgments on this unpleasant, snobbish, self-regarding misogynist seem rather beside the point. Besides, ‘the story of his life that he tells himself’ is so full of self-loathing that he does the judging for us. Rather, the null extremism of the character could be read, not censoriously (as that of David Lurie is always read in Disgrace), but as an exercise in comic futility.

Youth is a story of failed aspiration. John is attracted to the idea of cutting loose and becoming an anonymous, unidentifiable wanderer, like Michael K, but he ‘is too prim, too afraid of getting caught’ to sign off, to fall out of the system. Though he reads avidly about explorers and longs to be an existential stranger, he is, in fact, a timidly law-abiding character. ‘He has never liked people who disobey the rules.’ He ‘is better at tests than at real life’, and relies heavily on schedules and systems, teaching himself (unsuccessfully) to play Beethoven by practising the same piece at first very slowly and then quicker and quicker. He wants to be isolated, without ties or human concerns, but keeps being snagged back into his ordinary humanity – by the cousin who reproaches him for his callous behaviour to her girlfriend, by the young woman whose stoicism after her abortion of his child is a reproach to him, by the Indian colleague who shows him how much worse it would be to be an immigrant of colour in England in the early 1960s. (Part of the grim pleasure of Youth is its vivid account of how unfriendly, cold and dark London could seem to incomers at that time.) He wants to be the perfect Englishman (hence his attraction to Ford Madox Ford’s Tietjens as ‘the quintessence of Englishness’) but knows (as once at school) that he can never really fit in. The true Londoners can spot him a mile off as ‘not the real thing’. He wants to be uprooted and disinherited, but realises bitterly that his gloom is inherited from his Dutch Puritan forebears. And much as he would prefer to be free of his country and all it means to him – boredom, philistinism, ‘atrophy of the moral life’ – he is tugged back by the memory of the farm, and the pull of the land. He wants to be apolitical, ‘an onlooker’, but can’t avoid historical complicity: so, with suspiciously fictional irony, he is assigned to work on the data for the development of a new British bomber, and ends up installing the software for the atomic weapons research centre at Aldermaston.

Above all, he aspires to be the perfect artist, the perfect stylist, a Wildean aesthete. His unpleasantness to women comes wreathed in ridiculous ideas about how they ‘love artists because they burn with an inner flame’, how it is ‘in quest of . . . the fire of love, that women pursue artists and give themselves to them’. They are merely stages on his way through the requisite dark night of the soul. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist – as a young alien – looms over this, and Coetzee is even harsher towards his younger self than Joyce is to Stephen’s high aspirations. Like many proud isolationists, he is intensely concerned with how he appears and who to model himself on. He is attracted to writers who have made themselves at home in England: Conrad, James, Pound, above all Eliot, whose protective disguise and horror of ‘spilling mere emotion onto the page’ he emulates. The writers he most admires are all style and no confession, like Ford or Beckett. But his own attempt at aesthetic self-construction fails miserably. He ends up ‘killing time’, playing chess with himself, stuck inside a Beckettian ‘endgame’, passive, cynical, without grace. He writes hardly any poems, except for some computer-generated verse, the most extreme exercise possible in impersonality and formalism. Youth is at its most artificial in the parallels it draws between the state of mind of the character and his work on computers. Like him, the Atlas (‘Britain’s rival to IBM’) is a ‘self-interrogating’ machine, ‘asking itself what tasks it is performing’: it has ‘self-consciousness of a kind’.

This all seems too Coetzeean to be true. But then what is ‘true’? We go round in the loop once again. ‘At one moment he might truly be himself, at another . . .’ Youth is the ultimately alienated and alienating autobiography: not an inward exploration, or an ethical indictment of the author/subject, but a self-parody.