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.

Coetzee’s wariness about the terms in which he and his writing have been criticised or championed is not motivated by a lofty belief in the writer’s inviolable unworldliness. He has always recognised that literature is ineluctably ‘in the event’, as Derek Attridge’s subtitle puts it, and that he has, as a consequence, to negotiate the identities and forms of authority thrust on him. His wariness, as Attridge rightly insists, can be more properly understood as a manifestation of his sustained commitment to the ‘singularity of literature’. This phrase, the title of Attridge’s most recent theoretical work,[*] encapsulates a number of ideas which have been central to Attridge’s reflections on the category of the ‘literary’. It revisits the question with which he began Peculiar Language (1988) – ‘if literature does not employ a special language, from what does it derive its appeal and its strength?’ – by defining literature as a ‘peculiar’ use of language, as ‘difference’, and by emphasising its precarious ‘distinctiveness’ from other modes of public discourse. The term ‘singularity’ also adds something new, and becomes especially pertinent to a fuller understanding of Coetzee by tracing a line through Derrida, Barthes and the later Blanchot to a reading of the upheavals in French literary culture precipitated by the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria and by the events of May 1968.

As Barthes declared in 1977, these upheavals marked the final demise of the sacrosanct nationalist ‘myth’ of the Great Writer as ‘the sacred depository of all higher values’, and the equally powerful, sometimes rival, universalist ‘myth’ of Great Literature ‘as the implicit model of the human’. This ‘gentle apocalypse’ left literature ‘desacralised’, but in Barthes’s view this was not a cause for nihilistic despair. It was more of a liberation. ‘It is not that literature is destroyed,’ he emphasised, ‘rather it is no longer protected, so that this is the moment to deal with it.’ By then, dealing with it meant, for Barthes, being free to enjoy the singular ‘pleasures of the text’, without worrying about the generalised values or identities that literature was classically supposed to enshrine.

If the Barthesian ‘myths’ of literature were crumbling, they were also living on in South Africa and, in some cases, being rewritten, whether in the Afrikaner Nationalist cause or in that of the struggle against apartheid and the legacies of colonialism. Coetzee sidestepped all this and resolutely committed himself to ‘storytelling’ as ‘another, an other mode of thinking’, as he put it in his 1987 talk.

Attridge believes that thinking about Coetzee’s work means engaging directly with the cultural, ethical and political implications of this commitment. What this means, in practice, is recognising that ‘our’ most cherished critical assumptions and vocabularies might not be up to the demands of reading, say, The Life and Times of Michael K. This challenge begins with the trickiest term of all, ‘literature’ – is this what we are to call Coetzee’s third-person, present-tense autobiographies, for instance, or Elizabeth Costello’s lectures? – but it has implications for all the labels used in literary criticism. Take the designation ‘late Modernist’, which David Attwell, one of Coetzee’s most astute early champions, applied to his fiction in the 1990s. Though Attridge prefers this term to the even more fraught ‘postmodernist’, another favourite among Coetzee’s critics, he also acknowledges its limitations, ‘since it implies a narrative in which contemporary uses of Modernist methods are merely survivors, soon to be eliminated altogether’.

Calling Coetzee a ‘late Modernist’ can also be unhelpful if it is used to underpin two common responses to his work: one praising him for being a brilliant exponent of Modernist methods, the other condemning him for rehashing Beckett, Kafka or Joyce. Both these readings overlook the significant differences between Coetzee and his precursors. In a telling footnote, Attridge offers an explanation as to why it seems less easy to derive ‘general statements about the human predicament’ from Coetzee’s fiction than from Kafka’s or Beckett’s. For one thing, for all its experimental displacements, Coetzee’s fiction has always remained ‘directly concerned with the economic and political fabric of cultural existence’; for another, his preoccupation with ‘the inadequacy of representation’ has focused as much on the ‘inadequacy of a particular set of available discourses’ – notably the racialised discourses of apartheid or colonialism – as on the limits of language itself. The shift between these two levels is illustrated most dramatically in the disturbing final section of Foe, in which the tongueless Friday, the culturally unvalidated silence at the heart of ‘white writing’, suddenly becomes a powerful embodiment of all that remains more generally unrepresentable.

Attridge’s chapter ‘Against Allegory’ – an allusion to Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ (1964) – suggests that responses such as Gordimer’s to Coetzee’s fiction reflect long-standing cultural anxieties about how to read Modernist texts. It is ‘hardly surprising’, as Attridge acknowledges, that ‘one of the terms in the critical lexicon most frequently applied to Coetzee’s novels and novellas is allegory’:

Their distance – with the exception of Age of Iron and Disgrace – from the time and place in which they were written, the often enigmatic characters (the barbarian girl, Michael K, Friday, Vercueil and many others), the scrupulous avoidance of any sense of authorial presence, the frequently exiguous plots: all these encourage the reader to look for meanings beyond the literal, in a realm of significance which the novel may be said to imply without ever directly naming.

The novels might seem to invite such readings, just as Waiting for Godot, say, tempts the unwary to ‘interpret’ in Sontag’s negative sense, but they do so only to undo them. Their power to produce political effects by literary means is, in part, dependent on this double gesture. They disturb engrained habits of reading by staging the allegorising process, whether through the liberal Medical Officer’s insistence that Michael signify something, or Mrs Curren’s numerous attempts to make sense of Vercueil in Age of Iron, or David Lurie’s desperate efforts to understand his daughter’s rape in Disgrace. Coetzee’s fictions also challenge the urge to allegorise by throwing their ideal reader (i.e. the one who is willing to be thrown) into a ‘terrain outside the familiar moral world’.

Attridge’s illustration of this is a ‘characteristic meditation by K, prompted by the comment “People must help each other, that’s what I believe,” spoken by a stranger who has, unasked, given him food and lodging’:

K allowed this utterance to sink into his mind. Do I believe in helping people? he wondered. He might help people, he might not help them, he did not know beforehand, anything was possible. He did not seem to have a belief, or did not seem to have a belief regarding help. Perhaps I am the stony ground, he thought.

To appreciate the full force of this passage, Attridge suggests, it is necessary to go beyond observations about the strangeness of Michael K’s bafflement at the ‘fundamental injunction of neighbourliness’. We need to attend to the testing mode of narration: the combination of ‘directly represented thought and something that hovers between free indirect discourse and narratorial reporting’. The unstable textual movement from the ‘quasi-philosophical speculation’ of ‘a belief regarding help’ to the biblical echo, which is in keeping with Michael’s institutional upbringing, has a powerful effect, not least because it makes it difficult to dismiss Michael as ‘some kind of amoral being, more animal than human’, or as the hapless drifter described by Gordimer. ‘Passages like this,’ Attridge comments, ‘provide a taste of what it might mean to resist the urge to apply pre-existing norms and to make fixed moral judgments – which, as I’ve suggested, is one form of allegorising reading – and to value instead the contingent, the processual, the provisional that keeps moral questions alive.’ Michael’s use of the word ‘perhaps’ is indispensable here, Attridge notes, since ‘allegory cannot handle perhapses.’

For Attridge, if we fail to attend to these complex literary operations we risk treating the novel ‘not as an inventive literary work drawing us into unfamiliar emotional and cognitive territory but as a reminder of what we already know only too well’. This is not a vain appeal for a ‘return to formalism’. In Attridge’s view, overlooking the intricate texture of Coetzee’s writing means also ignoring the wider political import of his commitment to the singularity of literature:

The task Coetzee seems to have set himself is to convey the resistance of these figures to the discourses of the ruling culture (the culture, that is, which has conditioned the author, the kind of reader which the novels are likely to find, and the genre of the novel itself) and at the same time to find a means of representing the claims they make upon those who inhabit this culture.

Crucially, these claims should not be understood in ‘traditional humanist, Enlightenment or Romantic terms: it’s not simply a question of sympathy for a suffering fellow human being, or of the equal rights of all persons, or of the inscrutable mystery of the unique individual.’ The demands that Michael, Vercueil, Friday and all Coetzee’s other Others make on ‘us’ can, in the end, be experienced only as a discomfiting kind of symbolic violence, since they put all the familiar discourses of the ruling culture ‘under pressure to abandon their universalising pretensions and to recognise their historical origins and contingent existence’.

Given the shape of the critical debate to date, Attridge understandably focuses on the seriously serious Coetzee, who found himself in the impossible position of having to work ‘in the language and discursive conventions that have historically been one of the instruments ensuring that this other is kept subordinate’. As Attridge brilliantly demonstrates, Coetzee’s response to this was to attempt the difficult and delicate task of undoing the discursive crime against Africa from within, without presuming to be able to speak for, or on behalf of, its real victims. This emphasis comes at a certain cost, not least because it downplays other aspects of Coetzee’s work. Like Vercueil’s bounding dog, they keep jumping up and unsettling things, disturbing the boundaries between the ‘serious’ and the ‘non-serious’. Coetzee is committed not just to the singularity of literature but to the singular history of the novel. Whether targeting South African, or specifically Afrikaans genres such as the plaasroman (‘farm-novel’), or the founding authority of Robinson Crusoe, or the bankrupt ideals of the epistolary form, Coetzee’s books set out to provincialise the novel by taking on its pretensions and conventions in a spirit of Erasmian (and Joycean) jocoseriousness.

That this is not an emptying gesture of exhaustion or disenchantment is powerfully attested to by Coetzee’s latest novel, Slow Man. Set in Australia in 2000, with a cast of immigrants, Slow Man both is and is not a radical new departure. For one thing, it revisits the quandaries raised in Foe by centring on a testy encounter between a ‘character’, Paul Rayment, the eponymous slow man, and an ‘author’, who is, once again, Coetzee’s Australian ‘lady novelist’, the redoubtable Elizabeth Costello. Yet this is Foe with a difference. Though the gender reversal is important – Foe is in part about a woman struggling against the suasive powers of a male author – more emphasis is placed on what the two central figures have in common: Paul is ‘sixtyish’ and Elizabeth is 72. For Paul this is not a mere fact of life. After a bicycle accident, the ‘modern state’, in the person of the youthful and dutifully caring Dr Hansen, turns him into an amputee – one of the many identities Paul resents having imposed on him – because he is too old to warrant extensive reconstructive surgery. One of the things Paul and Elizabeth share is a deeply felt adherence to outdated technologies of communication and representation.

Paul is a retired portrait photographer, who also collects photographs of early immigrant life in Australia – he especially prizes the work of the flamboyant Antoine Fauchery (1823-61) – which he intends to bequeath to the nation. Unlike the ‘rising’ digital generation, more interested in ‘a techne of images without substance, images that could flash through the ether without residing anywhere’, he is enchanted by the ‘old magic of light-sensitive emulsions’. He also ‘tends to trust pictures more than he trusts words’, a feeling that does little to ease his awkward relations with Elizabeth: ‘Not because pictures cannot lie but because, once they leave the darkroom, they are fixed, immutable … Whereas stories … seem to change shape all the time.’

This innocent faith is a further testament to his outdatedness. In a key episode, Drago Jokic´ , a teenager whom Paul, a childless divorcee, tries to help through college, copies a Fauchery photograph of mid-19th-century Irish and Cornish immigrants. In a gently subversive act of historical revisionism, the technologically adept Drago then digitally inserts his Croatian father among the group. Paul gets steamed up about this ‘theft’, as he sees it, and has to be instructed in the powers of the new media – Drago has loaded his revised national archive onto the web. Paul also has to be reminded that he does not have guardianship of the ‘national memory’, to which the Jokic´ family too now belongs.

Unlike Paul, Elizabeth, who is enchanted by the ‘old magic’ of the novel, is alert to the historicity of changing media. When the incorrigibly slow Paul attempts to sort out his fraught relations with the Jokic´ family by writing an elaborately phrased ‘missive’, Elizabeth berates him with a characteristically barbed comment: ‘This is not the age of the epistolary novel, Paul … Life is not an exchange of diplomatic notes. Au contraire, life is drama, life is action, action and passion!’ And yet Elizabeth too finds her resources, as a novelist, being put to the test not just by the advent of a new modernity, but by Paul himself, or, more accurately, by the waywardness of desire. When she dramatically enters Paul’s life, she tries to lure him away from his doomed infatuation with Marijana Jokic´ , his married nurse (and Drago’s mother), by setting him up with a blind would-be prostitute, Marianna. This darkly absurdist encounter, in which the one-legged Paul also has to be blindfolded, results in ‘an act of sex’ but not ‘the act of sex as generally understood’. This creates an opportunity for some macabre fun at another kind of canonical text: ‘Australian Gothic. Matilda and her bloke, worn down by a lifetime of waltzing, parts of their bodies falling off or falling out’.

Having failed to distract Paul from his obsession, Elizabeth then invokes the history of the novel in an attempt to inspire him to find the means ‘within your tortoise variety of passion, of accelerating your wooing of Marijana’:

Think of Don Quixote. Don Quixote is not about a man sitting in a rocking chair bemoaning the dullness of La Mancha. It is about a man who claps a basin on his head and clambers onto the back of his faithful old plough-horse and sallies forth to do great deeds. Emma Rouault, Emma Bovary, goes out and buys fancy clothes even though she has no idea how she is going to pay for them.

Once again, Paul disappoints. And so, in a last-ditch effort to turn him into a character fit for a novel, Elizabeth tries, again unsuccessfully, to get him to join her on a series of quixotic pensioners’ ‘adventures’. She imagines them setting off into the ‘wide brown land’, one in a bath chair, the other on a specially designed tricycle, destined to become ‘a well-loved Australian institution’.

Though peculiarly his own, Paul’s resistance to Elizabeth’s authorial desires, like his resistance to the discourses of masculinity and national identity – both thread their way through Slow Man – recalls the resilient otherness of Michael K, Friday and Vercueil. It also makes him more like a hero in an anti-novel than an anti-hero in a novel. And yet, for all its playfully serious subversions of the realist tradition, Slow Man is not an annihilating or ‘merely literary’ exercise. If it turns its back on the traditional novel, and exposes the limits of various other discursive conventions, it does so in order to affirm the truculent, dignified singularity of things, which, like Paul’s ‘labile’ self or Robbe-Grillet’s ‘awkward residue’, by definition exceeds the machinations of representation.

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