Tables and Chairs

Christopher Tayler

  • J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing by J.C. Kannemeyer, translated by Michiel Heyns
    Jonathan Ball, 710 pp, R 325.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 86842 495 5
  • Here and Now: Letters 2008-11 by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee
    Viking, 256 pp, $27.95, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 670 02666 1
  • The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
    Harvill Secker, 210 pp, £16.99, March 2013, ISBN 978 1 84655 769 9

A few months before the publication of Dusklands in 1974, J.C. Kannemeyer reports, Peter Randall, the director of Ravan Press in Johannesburg, asked J.M. Coetzee to consider supplying ‘a few more personal details’ for the jacket of his first novel. ‘We are often criticised,’ Randall wrote, ‘for not telling readers about our authors. While I do not want to overdo this, some more information about your school education, for example, or your family background, may be useful.’ Coetzee, who was 33 and a lecturer in the University of Cape Town’s English department, replied:

The information you suggest suggests that I settle for a particular identity I should feel most uneasy in. A few words about my schooling, for example, make me a player in the English-South African game of social typing and can even be read as a compliment to those monsters of sadism who ruled over my life for 11 years. As for my family background, I am one of the ten thousand Coetzees, and what is there to be said about them except that Jacobus Coetzee [a historical frontiersman reimagined in Dusklands] begat them all?

Among his interests, he added, were ‘crowd sports; other people’s ailments; apes and humanoid machines; images, particularly photographs, and their power over the human heart; and the politics of assent’. These warning shots, if that’s what they were, backfired: Randall put a list of the author’s interests on the novel’s back cover along with details of his family tree. Coetzee had them removed from subsequent editions, complaining that his letters had been misused, and for many years the original Dusklands jacket was the only instance of arch self-display in an otherwise spotless record of authorial impersonality.

In the 1980s and 1990s Coetzee’s dislike of being interviewed led to fraught encounters with journalists and much recourse to the Cape Town rumour mill. ‘A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once,’ Rian Malan wrote in a famous profile filled with words like ‘reclusive’, ‘cold’ and ‘aloof’. (‘I have met Rian Malan only once in my life,’ Coetzee responded later. ‘He does not know me and is not qualified to talk about my character.’) His unease with what was expected of ‘committed’ writers in late apartheid South Africa caused Nadine Gordimer to speak of his work’s ‘stately fastidiousness’, and it was plain long before Disgrace (1999) that he felt no duty of optimism towards the democratised state. Outside South Africa, meanwhile, his media non-appearances were received as ‘a critique of the entire economy of prestige’, in one reader’s words, while adding to his non-authoritative authority. The tight-lipped, technical interviews in Doubling the Point (1992), and the icy ironic distance of Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), were seen as being splendidly in character.

‘After retiring from UCT and settling in Adelaide,’ Kannemeyer writes, ‘John Coetzee became a far more relaxed person.’ One symptom of this relative relaxation is the emergence, or re-emergence, since 2002, of a playful, inscrutably teasing side to his writing. In the essays collected in Inner Workings (2007) a dry sense of humour sometimes surfaces (‘Senilità grew out of an affair Svevo had in 1891-92 with a young woman of, as one of his commentators delicately puts it, indeterminate profession, later to become a circus equestrienne’); it can also be detected here and there in Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Slow Man (2005). But it was still surprising that comedy was so prominent in the interrogatory toolkit he then took to using on opinionated figures closely modelled on himself. ‘My guess is he unbuttons himself when I am gone,’ an attractive typist says of ‘C’ in Diary of a Bad Year (2007), ‘and makes himself come. And then buttons up and gets back to John Howard and George Bush, what villains they are.’ In Summertime (2009) a biographer of ‘John Coetzee’ hears endlessly of writerly and personal failings: ‘After Disgrace I lost interest… Too lacking in passion.’ ‘To sum up: sex with him lacked all thrill.’

Another sign of Coetzee’s increased relaxation is his decision to co-operate with Kannemeyer, a specialist in Afrikaans literature from Stellenbosch University who approached him in 2008, during the writing of Summertime. ‘He told me,’ Kannemeyer writes, ‘that his major concern was that the biography should be factually correct. He would in no way interfere with my interpretation of the data.’ Coetzee gave Kannemeyer access to his papers, put him in touch with friends and relatives and submitted to two weeks’ worth of interviews, answering questions ‘succinctly and pertinently’ while sidestepping requests for explanations of his work. Kannemeyer – who died in 2011, having finished only a first draft – seems to have been more than comfortable with his subject’s just-the-facts stipulations. His biography’s most conspicuous interpretive aim is to show that Coetzee’s knowledge of Afrikaans writing ‘might actually influence his work more than he admits’. For the most part, though, it uses review cuttings, a trawl through the academic literature and lengthy excerpts from honorary degree citations to illuminate the work. Thanks also to slapdash editing, a lack of reportorial deftness and the local literary politics around Coetzee, the book has been widely mocked in the South African press.

Though Kannemeyer doesn’t have much to add to Coetzee’s own writings about his origins, he fills us in on the degree of their fictionality. (Extensive in Summertime, partial in Youth, smaller in Boyhood: the main change is the removal of his wife and children.) After Coetzee’s career gets underway the biography stints the personal side, only now and then depicting him off-duty. (Cooking and cycling, mostly.) When it comes to sensitive matters – Coetzee’s unhappy youthful marriage; his son’s estrangement after the divorce; the son’s death at 22 after falling from a balcony; his daughter’s agoraphobia and alcoholism – Kannemeyer gives the available facts and leaves it at that. There are sad lines: Coetzee’s daughter told Kannemeyer that her father wasn’t really cut out to be a parent – wielding authority appears to have been a problem – but ‘did his best, his very utmost best, without sacrificing himself’. There’s also a claim that he once let a dog get run over. Otherwise Kannemeyer’s Coetzee is much as you’d expect: intense, morally sensitive, a bit remote, severe with himself but gentle to others, capable of laughter but ‘by no means a party animal’. The meta-message of Coetzee’s co-operation comes across as ‘nothing much to see here’, and that’s mostly the case with the biography too.

The same can’t be said of Here and Now, a collection of communications between Coetzee and Paul Auster sent between July 2008 – a month after Kannemeyer’s approach – and August 2011. This extraordinary book comes with no explanations other than the flap copy:

Although Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee had been reading each other’s books for years, the two writers did not meet until an Australian literary festival brought them together in February 2008. Not long after his return to New York, Auster received a letter from Coetzee suggesting they begin exchanging letters on a regular basis, that it might be fun and that they might even, ‘God willing, strike sparks off each other’.

There’s no indication whose idea it was to publish or who provided the scattering of footnotes. Instead the reader is dropped cold into their correspondence (‘Dear Paul, I have been thinking about friendships, how they arise, why they last’) and left to figure out a narrative background of Portuguese film festivals and the like. Coetzee’s ‘letters’ are sent by email until he switches to faxes in order to accommodate Auster, who has what Coetzee takes to be a principled aversion to computers. Auster’s temperamental fax line causes further complications.

According to the flap copy, Auster had ‘proposed that they engage in an open-ended dialogue on any subjects that interested them … “But not mere dinner-table chat – something more rigorous.”’ With courteous asides to Auster’s wife, Siri Hustvedt, and intermittent references to get-togethers at international symposia, Coetzee supplies a series of bulletins resembling looser versions of the mini-essays in Diary of a Bad Year. His topics and jumping-off points include sport, Israel-Palestine, Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other, the 2008 crash (‘It is all there in Plato … down to the details of the hunched shoulders, the flickering screens, and the myopia’), the place of mobile phones in fiction and the rigours of writing (‘I know there is a lot of romantic bullshit spoken about the writing life, about the despair of confronting the blank page, about the anguish of inspiration that won’t come … But it’s not entirely bullshit, is it?’). As in Diary of a Bad Year, the thoughts are oddly angled, often wise and sometimes cranky, lit by ghostly flickers of irony and invariably illustrative of the gulf between Coetzee and ‘what I would loosely call the Anglo Weltanschauung’:

Our cities stand intact, our farms remain productive, our shops are full of goods.

What then happened to make us poorer?

The answer we are given is that certain numbers changed. Certain numbers that used to be high suddenly became low, and as a result we are poorer …

Why not, I ask, simply throw away this particular set of numbers, numbers that make us unhappy and don’t reflect a reality anyway, and make up new numbers for ourselves, perhaps numbers that show us to be richer than we used to be, though it might be better to make up numbers that show us exactly as we are, with our well-stocked larders and our tight roofs and our hinterland full of productive factories and farms?

‘At this point I think I should quit my role as commentator on world economic affairs,’ he writes a few weeks later, adding that he’s reminding himself of Ezra Pound’s ‘unhingement’. Auster, for his part, tries to lay out a more conventional understanding of the credit crisis while taking pains not to sound too economistic. As Coetzee wrote in another context, ‘the comedy is rich.’

Sometimes Auster endeavours to match Coetzee’s otherworldly tone, but it’s obvious that he’s too embedded in a world of opening nights and the New York Times: the best he can manage is a suggestion that Israel relocate to Wisconsin. Soon he begins to seem less than wholly confident of being a sufficiently heavyweight figure to go toe to toe with Coetzee in the realm of thought. He tries to interest his correspondent in baseball, in vain. Increasingly he tells rather self-admiring anecdotes, among them an account of a week in which he kept running into Charlton Heston – in Cannes, at a Chicago book fair and in Manhattan while on the way to lunch with Juliette Binoche. ‘What am I to make of this, John? Do things like this happen to you, or am I the only one?’ Answer: ‘It doesn’t seem strange to me that, operating in a film environment, you should keep running into another person from that environment. What is bizarre is that it should be Charlton Heston.’ He refers Coetzee to pieces in ‘my Collected Prose’ and sends him books and movies. Updates on Auster’s projects elicit polite responses: ‘So you have completed a 200-page history of your body. What an interesting idea … I’ll wait to see whether you deal with your body part by part or treat it integrally.’

Auster’s willingness to play a faintly buffoonish role, and be seen playing it, seems generous in the end. He’s touchingly solicitous when Coetzee says that he rarely gets four hours’ sleep a night: ‘Siri … was alarmed. She said she wanted to write to you … Would that be okay?’ Elsewhere he explains as gently as possible that, however things might look from Adelaide, he, Auster, does not have a similar status in New York to Philip Roth’s. Coetzee, in turn, never seems condescending or even to notice Auster’s relative non-nimbleness: Auster is a fellow novelist with similar modernist allegiances, and, one imagines, good company at public events where others might be either awestruck or importuning. From time to time you get a strong impression that both men are having a laugh, though I don’t think Coetzee is joking when he spends a page demonstrating that ‘the equation “I = JMC” is false,’ or when he writes:

One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.

All the best,

John

*

Quite a few passages from Here and Now, and various scraps of biographical data, can be brought to bear on The Childhood of Jesus. It’s probably helpful in some sense to know that Coetzee disapproves of meat-eating and the commercialisation of sport; that he’s been thinking about Plato and ‘radical-idealist’ solutions to a perceived conflict between humane values and fetishised symbolic systems; that he embarked on a new life in another country 11 years ago and sometimes feels at odds with changing social mores; that he occasionally thinks his work too bookish, his language ‘a little bloodless’; that he gave a reading in 2011 from what he described to Auster as ‘a piece of fiction … about life and death and the soul’; and that he advised the young men graduating from Witwatersrand University in 2012 to seek careers in primary education (‘it will be good for you, good for your soul, to be with small children’). But the sense in which it’s helpful isn’t a very strong one. Of her function as a writer Elizabeth Costello says: ‘I have beliefs but I do not believe in them.’ And the new novel, like much of Coetzee’s recent fiction, seems to touch on its author’s views only in order to subject them to prolonged Socratic or Dostoevskian querying.

The Childhood of Jesus tells the story of Simón, a man of indeterminate age who presents himself and a small boy, David, at a resettlement centre in a city called Novilla. They have come from the camp at Belstar, Simón explains, and need a place to live; the boy is ‘not my grandson, not my son, but I am responsible for him.’ The young woman behind the counter takes this in her stride. Simón asks if there are any organisations that help reunite separated family members: ‘No, I’ve never heard of such an organisation,’ she says. A room is free at the centre but the key can’t be found, so the woman, whose name is Ana and whom Simón finds rather attractive, sits them down in her back garden, gives them bread and margarine, and says: ‘There are some leftover building materials in that corner … You can make yourself a shelter, if you like.’ She goes inside and locks the door; in the morning the centre’s staff continue to be ‘polite but in the end not helpful’. Yet in no time Simón has secured a room, a generous-sounding resettlement allowance and a job unloading grain at the docks.

He’s paid in reals, Cervantes-style rather than Brazilian: Spanish is spoken in Novilla and, it seems, in the rest of this ‘new land’. It turns out that Simón and David only learned the language during their six-week stay at the camp, where they were also given their names and ages. (David’s passbook says he’s five, Simón’s that he’s 45, though people tend to think he’s older and ‘he does not feel of any particular age.’) Before that, there was a voyage by ship in the course of which ‘a letter … that might have explained everything’ got lost, a letter apparently concerning David’s mother. (It was hanging from a piece of string round David’s neck; ‘the string broke,’ he says. ‘It fell in the sea … The fishes ate it.’) The details are hazy because new arrivals are ‘washed clean’ of their memories as a condition of starting a new life in Novilla, but Simón ‘took on the responsibility of helping him find his mother’. Neither of them knows anything about her, but Simón is sure he’ll recognise her when he sees her.

At first it looks as though life in Novilla is going to resemble the knowingly clichéd afterlife in Elizabeth Costello (‘Kafka reduced and flattened to a parody’, as Costello calls it). Before long, however, the city seems more the kind of utopia that a brisker vegetarian sage than Kafka – Tolstoy, for instance – might draw up on a wet afternoon. Bread is abundant, meat isn’t on the menu, buses are free, the dignity of manual labour is upheld, there are parks everywhere and plentiful opportunities for further education. The stevedores devote their lunch breaks to philosophical debate (sample topics: ‘Do we die or are we endlessly reincarnated? … Is this the best of all possible worlds?’). On a trip to a football match with the benevolent foreman, Alvaro, Simón asks about tickets. ‘Alvaro regards him oddly. “It’s football,” he says. “It’s a game. You don’t need to pay to watch a game.”’ The highest civic value, mentioned constantly, is ‘goodwill’.

From Simón’s point of view, though, there are drawbacks. The boy doesn’t like the food and Simón too comes to feel that he cannot live on bread and saltless bean paste alone: ‘Beefsteak dripping with meat juices’ would be more to his taste. The country strikes him as being ‘bloodless … No one swears or gets angry. No one gets drunk.’ He is ‘positively borne along on a cloud of goodwill. But it all remains a bit abstract.’ These complaints elicit deadpan responses and he starts to miss irony as well, though he sometimes suspects that he’s being made the butt of ‘a very deep joke’. He visits a doctor to complain that the diet is making him weak and dizzy. ‘My advice is simple,’ the doctor says: ‘don’t look down.’ The stevedores persuade him to give the philosophy class they go to a try:

He takes a seat in the back row, apart from his comrades, so that he can slip out if he gets bored.

The teacher arrives and silence falls. She is a woman of middle age, rather dowdily dressed, to his eye, with tightly cropped iron-grey hair and no make-up. ‘Good evening,’ she says. ‘Let us resume where we left off last week, and continue our exploration of the table – the table and its close relative the chair. As you will remember, we were discussing the diverse kinds of table that exist in the world, and the diverse kinds of chair. We were asking ourselves what unity lies behind all the diversity, what it is that makes all tables tables, all chairs chairs.’

Quietly he rises and slips out of the room.

Later, after being quizzed by David while unblocking a toilet, and finding himself speaking of humanity’s ‘double nature’ (‘We partake of the ideal but we also make poo’), he wonders what the teacher would have to say about ‘the pooness of poo’. Later still, a stevedore brings him a book to read while he’s in hospital after an accident. ‘The book is, as he feared, about tables and chairs.’

*

Simon’s impatience with philosophy as practised in Novilla is closely related to his main area of disgruntlement, which is sex. Life in Novilla is about agape, not eros, though no one puts it quite like that. Ana invites him and David on a picnic, but when he contemplates making a pass at her (he’s decided to overlook the garden incident) she announces that she’s repelled by his evident wish ‘to grip me tight and push part of your body into me’. Rapidly the picnic seems to mutate into a satirical rehash of Plato’s Symposium: ‘If you found me to be an incarnation of the good, you would not want to perform such an act upon me. So why wish to do so if I am an incarnation of the beautiful? Is the beautiful inferior to the good? Explain.’ He finds a woman, Elena, who is more accommodating, but after doing ‘the business of sex’ she says: ‘It doesn’t advance us, does it?’ Only many pages later does Simón counter this line of thinking with the appropriate Socratic metaphor: ‘Ask yourself where we would be if there were no such things as ladders.’

In addition to finding Novilla’s ways too abstract, Simón has concerns about narrative development: life is ‘too lacking in ups and downs, in drama and tension’. But one day, walking in the country with David, he sees a woman playing tennis; ‘there is something obscurely familiar about her.’ The woman, whose name is Inés, hears him out over sherry and cucumber sandwiches. After some hesitation, she agrees to accept the role of David’s mother. Almost instantly, Inés – the name connotes purity; ‘in the name’, Simón thinks, ‘the essence!’ – has taken charge of both the boy and Simón’s apartment. She makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with Simón, who starts sleeping in a shed at the docks and observing from a distance as she dresses the boy like a doll or a young prince. Elena tells him he’s mad to have handed David over to a virginal, humourless, spoiled and ignorant woman. Give her time, he says: ‘I believe she is acting under a force stronger than herself.’ And in time she permits him to spend time with David, chiefly to teach the boy reading and arithmetic, though she doesn’t stop being grumpy and suspicious.

A letter arrives: David must go to school. The troping of the child as Jesus, previously given limited stage time, starts to intensify. Having already done some turning of the other cheek and displaying of enigmatic charisma, David now prattles about magic, escape artists, saving people and bringing the dead back to life. Simón doesn’t find this particularly surprising in an imaginative child but he’s strongly affected by what he thinks of as ‘the boy’s resistance to the science of numbers’. David likes to make up his own numbers – asked what’s after 888, he says ‘92’ – and has a similar attitude to words. It seems to Simón that the boy perceives numbers as ‘islands floating in a great black sea of nothingness’, that at times a distant voice from another sphere of being is issuing from the boy’s mouth. The authorities diagnose a ‘specific deficit linked to symbolic activities’ and set about transferring David to a special boarding school. Inés balks, the authorities overrule her and Simón reluctantly agrees to help her and David flee Novilla for the hinterlands, where the story abruptly ends.

With the increasing tempo of events comes a proliferation of biblical tropes around David, who’s last seen inviting strangers to follow him to a new new life. But the novel discourages clear-cut interpretations of his story as an invitation to learn from the wisdom of small boys or a lesson in the coerciveness of instrumental reason. The authorities to whom Simón offers Dostoevskian pleas – ‘What kind of crime is it for a child to say that two and two make three? How is it going to shake the social order?’ – are, in Dostoevskian fashion, given a strong say in the argument. David, they say, is a gifted child who’s acting up at school because of his bizarre domestic situation, and Coetzee scrupulously keeps in play the possibility that they’re right. Via an overlay of tropes from Don Quixote, he also adds the ideal worlds of fiction to the many kinds of idealism being mobilised. David becomes especially obsessed with the episode of the Cave of Montesinos, in which Cervantes riffs on Christ’s resurrection and Plato’s cave.

At the level of narrative The Childhood of Jesus is laid out with total efficiency in Coetzee’s hushed but resonant present-tense mode. Technical problems, such as not tying yourself in knots when you’ve decided to call your central characters ‘he’ and ‘the boy’, restricting their newly given proper names to dialogue, are made invisible to the reader. The inherent staginess of Jesus-figures is held off too: most of the time David is a completely plausible five-year-old, which is one of the things that sometimes makes Simón seem a little crazy. As a reading experience it’s utterly absorbing, with almost painful levels of meta-suspense as you try to work out where the story is aiming to lead you. Questions are as close as Coetzee comes to direct statements, and the novel is richly generative of these. Is the world it depicts an afterlife, a pre-life, a mere stage in an unending transmigration of souls, a realm of ideal images as discussed in Coetzee’s recent essay on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books, or none of the above? How does the Jesus plot fit in with this? How come Inés has access to sausages? Do the deadpan jokes get less frequent or just ascend to a higher sphere? I’d like to think that at least some of these mysteries are cleared up in Dutch translation, ‘in which’, Coetzee once said, ‘I feel myself to be a somewhat more humorous writer than in the original English’.