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.

This is not the case with Diary of a Bad Year, a maddening, brilliant novel which courts the accusation of being a set of essays and then acquits itself of all charges; it is a completely realised work of fiction: a cold country full of tears. It’s maddening because Coetzee indulges all kinds of repellent opinions and gets us to give them more credence than they deserve. Should we really believe in intelligent design because ‘not one of us . . . has the faintest idea of how to go about constructing a housefly’? Are arguments about probability wrecked by the mere fact that we can think of exceptions? ‘Death is absolute,’ sure, but does it follow that it’s meaningless to say six million deaths are worse than one? Who would want to say that and why? The book is brilliant because all the opinions it pitches – there are more attractive and compelling ones too – start to migrate from character to character and indeed become something like characters themselves. Dishonour itself travels, gets lost and found in strange places. And when, as I did, you abruptly find yourself agreeing with a noxious, greedy, bullying fellow who goes on about modernity and ‘the managerial state’ because he has sounder ideas about probability than our ostensible hero, you know where you are: in a novel.

I’m probably over-reading this shift, but it does seem that the more Coetzee’s novels make use of the essay form the more his essays settle into a straight and sober version of the genre. A 1999 piece on Musil, for example, included in Stranger Shores (2001), opens: ‘Born in the autumn years of the Habsburg Empire, Robert Musil served His Imperial and Royal Majesty in one bloody continental convulsion and died halfway through the even worse convulsion that followed.’ A Musil piece in Inner Workings, which takes up some material from the earlier essay verbatim, starts: ‘Robert Musil was born in 1880 in Klagenfurt in the Austrian province of Carinthia.’ No-nonsense stuff, and this is often Coetzee’s method in this collection: some solid biography, a plain man’s discussion of a particular work (‘What is his book “about”?’), and, where relevant, some attentive and intelligent comment on different translations. As Derek Attridge says in his preface, ‘we have little sense of a moonlighting novelist: there are few literary flourishes, and no sign of that rather grumpy internal voice that has characterised much of Coetzee’s recent fiction.’ It is in this mode that we hear, in Inner Workings, of Italo Svevo, Bruno Schulz, Joseph Roth, W.G. Sebald. The method is less biographical for Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, Nadine Gordimer and others, and a long, frosty essay on Walter Benjamin engages crucial concepts thoroughly and ends in a magnificent, if ambiguous tribute: ‘From a distance, Benjamin’s magnum opus’ – The Arcades Project – ‘is curiously reminiscent of another great ruin of 20th-century literature, Ezra Pound’s Cantos.’ There is a remarkable brief piece on John Huston’s film The Misfits, and the tone changes entirely for two writers who clearly matter a great deal to Coetzee: Beckett and Celan. This is how we learn of ‘the distinctive prose that Beckett, using French models in the main, though with Jonathan Swift whispering ghostly in his ear, was in the process of perfecting for himself, lyrical and mordant in equal measures’. And are told that Celan’s poem ‘Death Fugue’

makes two huge implicit claims about what poetry in our time is, or should be, capable of. One is that language can measure up to any subject whatsoever . . . The other is that the German language in particular, corrupted to the bone during the Nazi era by euphemism and a kind of leering doublespeak, is capable of telling the truth about Germany’s immediate past.

‘Coetzee is an ideal reviewer,’ Attridge says; precisely because he doesn’t treat the review as if it was something else.

The grumpy voice is back with a vengeance in Diary of a Bad Year, and it’s not even internal any more. Our writer has been invited to contribute a series of opinions to a German book, and he confesses his delight in the chance to pontificate – and, more obliquely, his need of such a chance. ‘Six eminent writers pronounce on what is wrong with today’s world.’ ‘An opportunity to grumble in public, an opportunity to take magic revenge on the world for declining to conform to my fantasies: how could I refuse?’ The book is to be called Strong Opinions, a glance at Nabokov’s work of that title, as Coetzee certainly knows even if his imaginary German publisher doesn’t. But Nabokov wasn’t grumbling (he never grumbled), he was extravagantly playing the part of the mandarin, and the contrast highlights the worries of Coetzee’s character, sowing doubt where there’s an attempt at confidence, even arrogance. ‘Strong Opinions’ is the title of the first section of the novel too, although it doesn’t quite translate the German terms the writer is playing with: Harte Ansichten or Feste Ansichten – ‘hard views’ or ‘firm views’. He likes Ansichten better than Meinungen, ‘opinions’, because he thinks, perhaps wrongly, that the former term is stronger. But then he falls out of love with his own firmness, and perhaps gives up his magic revenge. His later views are different, softer, and the second part of the book is simply called ‘Second Diary’. What has happened?

The writer has hired a typist, but I need to say something about the form of this book before I answer the question any further. The work opens with a split page: the beginning of an essay on Hobbes and the idea of the state, and below it, marked off by a slim horizontal line, a first-person narrative by the writer himself. The narrative recounts his meeting with the young woman who will become his typist. This structure continues for some twenty pages. Then the page splits into three and the typist gets her own first-person narrative. From now on the three modes occupy almost every page of the novel, although every now and again one goes silent, or says very little. The essays have titles: ‘On Democracy’, ‘On Machiavelli’, ‘On Music’, ‘On Political Life in Australia’, ‘On Compassion’, ‘On the Birds of the Air’. These are presumably the pieces that will go into Strong Opinions. The other two modes, the writer’s and the typist’s narratives, include thoughts and conversations, and carry the plot. We can read the pages any way we like: across the top, all the essays; across the middle, the writer’s story; across the bottom, the typist’s story. Or we can mix the modes. I found myself sometimes reading down the page and sometimes following a story for several pages and then going back. I’m sure there are complicated counterpoint effects all along the way, however we read, and that the prominent mention of Bach and the fugue is not accidental.

The typist’s partner, the noxious fellow I mentioned, an ‘investment consultant’, has hatched a plot to put the writer’s money to work by an elaborate and supposedly undetectable computer fraud (‘there is a reporting programme on the computer in his flat. It reports back to me on what he is up to’), and one day, when his contribution to the book is finished, the writer invites the typist and her partner for dinner. The partner, Alan, gets very drunk and insults the writer, tells him about the (now abandoned) scheme to shift his money and offers his opinion that

in the English-speaking world, the world of hard heads and common sense, a book of pronouncements on the real world won’t get much traction, coming from a man whose sole achievement lies in the sphere of the fanciful. Whereas in places like Germany and France people still tend to drop to their knees before sages with white beards.

This is gross, but not different in substance from what Elizabeth Costello’s sister, a nun in Africa, tells her about the value of literature: ‘I do not need to consult novels to know what pettiness, what baseness, what cruelty human beings are capable of.’ This is Coetzee’s recurring question. What do we need to consult novels or novelists for? Soon after this disagreeable scene the typist splits up with her partner, and leaves town. She sends a long letter to the writer.

Is this all? Well, a late Coetzee novel could hardly do without a whiff of transgenerational sex, and it is true that the typist, Anya, is Filipina, very beautiful, wears skimpy clothes, and has ‘a derrière so near to perfect as to be angelic’. These are the writer’s words: he does desert the grumpy high ground now and again. He is 72 and Anya is 29. She is just the bimbo he thinks she is and knows he wants her to be. She wiggles her perfect derrière to perfection, knowingly catering to what he calls his ‘metaphysical ache’, which mercifully remains entirely metaphysical. But a bimbo is not all she is. She doesn’t make a fetish of honour as the writer does and yet she is perfectly honourable. ‘I always do what I say,’ she says, and she does. He, it seems, just says what he says. She hates Alan’s scheme of theft and she hates his drunken insults, although she would not give a grand name to her disapproval.

She and the writer have an argument about honour. ‘When you live in shameful times,’ he says, ‘shame descends upon you, shame descends upon everyone, and you have simply to bear it, it is your lot and your punishment. Am I wrong?’ Anya tells him a story that involves the rape of herself and her friends by some American college boys. When the women get away they go to the police. The police captain asks if they are sure they want to lay charges, ‘because, you know, dishonour, infamia, is like bubble gum, wherever it touches it sticks.’ The writer’s view exactly, give or take a simile. ‘You know what I said?’ Anya asks. ‘I said: This is the 20th century, capitano (it was still the 20th century then). In the 20th century, when a man rapes a woman it is the man’s dishonour.’ The writer doesn’t let go. ‘No man is an island,’ he says. Anya, not surprisingly, doesn’t get the allusion. ‘We are all part of the main,’ he continues. ‘Your three American boys – I have never laid eyes on them, but they dishonour me nevertheless.’ But then he goes too far. ‘And I would be very surprised if in your inmost depths they did not continue to dishonour you.’ Anya is outraged. ‘Don’t you tell me how I feel,’ she says. ‘What do you know!’ She resigns her typing job.

This is a complex reframing of the argument offered more cryptically in Disgrace. There the dogs who are being put down because they are superfluous – ‘too menny’, as a quick quotation from Jude the Obscure assures us – seem to ‘feel the disgrace of dying’. There is more disgrace than they know. Their corpses are left out in the open like carrion, and the protagonist of the novel, David Lurie, rescues them from this fate because ‘he is not prepared to inflict such dishonour upon them.’ There is worse still. Because of the effects of rigor mortis the dead dogs will not then go into the incinerator, and their limbs have to be smashed with shovels before they will fit. Lurie takes on this job himself because he doesn’t want to leave it to the workmen. Why not? ‘For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?’ Lurie’s answer makes only an intimation of sense: ‘For himself then. For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing.’ There is a powerful moral idea lurking here. If we don’t respect the dead, whom shall we respect? But there is also an absurdity, the posturing sentimentality of a puritan, made clear by the abstraction of the corpses from the dogs and the tendentious use of ‘processing’. Coetzee cares about both perspectives, and lower down the page has Lurie think he ‘saves the honour of corpses because there is no one else stupid enough to do it’. ‘Stupid’ is Lurie’s ironic bit of self-congratulation. But Coetzee wants us to see that the stupidity may be more real than the honour because the corpses really don’t care.

But then the idea of honour doesn’t die just because the dogs do. What the writer doesn’t understand in Diary of a Bad Year is that Anya’s idea of honour is not a state of denial but a recognition of where responsibility lies and a refusal of an old moral contamination. He doesn’t see, as even the civil servant in Waiting for the Barbarians does, that ‘the shame of office’ is a matter of active collaboration, not merely of a heightened sensibility and a willingness to carry everyone else’s can. Even so, his anxious stance has considerable appeal in a world where accepting responsibility for anyone’s actions, including one’s own, seems about as antiquated as art nouveau. Joan Didion reminded us last year that when Dick Cheney shot a fellow hunter in the face his impulse was not to apologise or even ask how the chap was but to mix himself a drink.

Diary of a Bad Year extends the idea of honour even beyond its explicit usages. The dogs in the earlier novel who ‘feel the disgrace of dying’ have after all not done anything wrong – the dishonour is with those who don’t want them. The writer in Diary of a Bad Year preserves this logical structure but reverses the terms. The dogs are dying because they are abandoned. Humans, the writer argues, influenced by his sense of his age and by a dream in which he saw himself dead, are abandoned because they are dying. The writer imagines a story and tells it to Anya, who understands it so perfectly that she is willing to come back to Sydney and see him as far as the gate of death when the time arrives. The story would be called ‘something like “Desolation”’:

One holds on to the belief that someone, somewhere, loves one enough to hold on to one, keep one from being torn away. But the belief is false. All love is moderate, in the end . . .

The story of Eurydice has been misunderstood. What the story is about is the solitariness of death. Eurydice is in hell in her grave-clothes. She believes that Orpheus loves her enough to come and save her. And indeed Orpheus comes. But in the end the love Orpheus feels is not strong enough. Orpheus leaves his beloved behind and returns to his own life.

The moderation of love, its inevitable return to self and reason, is the last dishonour of humanity. This is the writer’s implication, but again, Anya has a different idea. She will come back and see the writer to the edge of death, save him from the disgrace of unloved loneliness, not because she loves him but because she knows honour is stronger than love or reason or self, or at least capable of going the full distance allowable to a human relation. ‘It is not his death that concerns me,’ she says, ‘so much as what may happen to him on the way there.’ She does it for the sake of her idea of the world, a world in which we do not leave to their own devices those whom it would cost us so little to help.

In Diary of a Bad Year, as in all Coetzee’s novels, there is a practical answer to Elizabeth Costello’s sister’s charge against novels and Alan’s attack on those ‘whose sole achievement lies in the sphere of the fanciful’. We need novels because we can’t reread the ones that matter to us – different for each of us, of course – without being uncontrollably delighted or devastated. I was infuriated by Disgrace but I couldn’t get it out of my mind for years. I still can’t. The writer in Coetzee’s new novel sobs at the end over The Brothers Karamazov, but it is worth looking a little more closely at what he is reacting to. It is the passage, fleetingly evoked in Elizabeth Costello also, in which Ivan Karamazov, talking to his religiously minded younger brother Alyosha, and quoting Schiller, says he wishes to return his ticket of admission to the universe. Because there is too much suffering in it and no one has the right to forgive the world’s torturers, even if their hapless victims and collateral cripples do. ‘Is there in the whole world a being who could and would have the right to forgive?’ Ivan asks. Dostoevsky has rigged the argument here by giving Ivan the wrong question, or by giving him a question at all. Alyosha, who doesn’t accept the horrors of the universe any more than Ivan does, knows what his author wants him to say. ‘There is such a being, and he can forgive everything, forgive all and for all’ – the phrase apparently echoes the Eastern liturgy. But Ivan’s truly urgent implied question was different. Not, can anyone forgive these atrocities or has anyone such a right, but should anyone, even a god, offer such forgiveness, and why would we be looking for a right where we know there is none?

Coetzee’s writer sobs over these pages because although he has read them ‘innumerable times before’ he finds himself ‘more and more vulnerable before them’. Why? He says he is not ‘in sympathy with Ivan’s rather vengeful views. Contrary to him, I believe that the greatest of all contributions to political ethics was made by Jesus when he urged the injured and offended among us to turn the other cheek, thus breaking the cycle of revenge and reprisal.’ What the writer responds to is Ivan’s anguish. ‘It is the voice of Ivan, as realised by Dostoevsky, not his reasoning, that sweeps me along.’

I think almost everything is wrong here. Ivan’s reasoning is impeccable; we don’t need to exchange logic for anguish. It would be wonderful to break all cycles of revenge and reprisal, but not at the price of giving torturers a free pass. Just wait a while, Joseph Goebbels says. They’ll forgive us. They like forgiving. But it doesn’t matter what I think, or what Coetzee’s writer thinks, or indeed what Coetzee thinks. What matters, as the writer says on the next page, is that we see ‘the battle pitched on the highest ground’. We need to read novels because in the best cases the battle could not be pitched higher and is ultimately decided only in the shaky moral imagination of the reader.