Diary of a Bad Year

( 5 )


An utterly contemporary and deeply thought-provoking novel which addresses the profound unease of countless people in modern democracies around the world.

An eminent, seventy-two-year-old Australian writer is invited to contribute to a book entitled Strong Opinions. It is a chance to air some urgent concerns. He writes short essays on the origins of the state, on Machiavelli, on anarchism, on Al-Qaida, on intelligent design, on music. What, he asks, is the origin of the state ...

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An utterly contemporary and deeply thought-provoking novel which addresses the profound unease of countless people in modern democracies around the world.

An eminent, seventy-two-year-old Australian writer is invited to contribute to a book entitled Strong Opinions. It is a chance to air some urgent concerns. He writes short essays on the origins of the state, on Machiavelli, on anarchism, on Al-Qaida, on intelligent design, on music. What, he asks, is the origin of the state and the nature of the relationship between citizen and state? How should the citizen of a modern democracy react to the state’s willingness to set aside moral considerations and civil liberties in its war on terror, a war that includes the use of torture? How does the state handle outsiders?

In the laundry-room of his apartment block he encounters an alluring young woman. When he discovers she is between jobs he claims failing eyesight and offers her work typing up his manuscript. Anya has no interest in politics but the job provides a distraction, as does the writer’s evident and not unwelcome attraction toward her.
Her boyfriend, Alan, an investment consultant who understands the world in harsh neo-liberal economic terms, has reservations about his trophy girlfriend spending time with this 1960s throwback. Taking a lively interest in his affairs, Alan begins to formulate a plan.

Diary of a Bad Year is an utterly contemporary work of fiction from one of our greatest writers and deepest thinkers. It addresses the profound unease of countless people in democracies across the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Richard Eder
J. M. Coetzee's novel Diary of a Bad Year is something of a self-managed funeral, but a lavish one: mordant, funny and wise. Mr. Coetzee writes circles around any attempt to pin him down…Mr. Coetzee moves through the country of old age as if it were a fresh journey, this one traveling second class. As C. explores the place, he shifts from arrogance to anger to humility and finally to something like mystical acceptance. All this indicates what Diary does, and quite misses what it is: Mr.Coetzee somewhere close to his most serious, and having—and giving—lovely fun. I think of the childlike simplicity of late Beethoven on a profound return trip from profundity.
—The New York Times
Kathryn Harrison
Diary of a Bad Year coerces us to harden what Coleridge identified as "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith" into a willed suspension of disbelief, an act that is conscious, purposeful and informed. To want to be told a story built up "out of nothing," to have our edification with a spoonful of fiction, would seem to be an old-fashioned, even prelapsarian desire. This novel's fall from the grace of a purely imagined world is a matter of self-conscious nakedness, of insisting we see undisguised rhetorical tricks we might prefer cloaked with artifice.
—The New York Times Book Review
Louis Begley
Diary of a Bad Year is an ingenious work that rivets the reader's attention, and it cannot have been easy to write.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Nobelist Coetzee's 19th book features a stand-in for himself: Señor C, a white 72-year-old South African writer living in Australia who has written Waiting for the Barbarians. C falls into a "metaphysical" passion for his sexy 29-year-old Filipina neighbor, Anya, and quickly plots to spend more time with her by offering her a job as his typist. C's latest project is a series of political and philosophical essays, and Coetzee divides each page of the present novel in three: any given page features a bit of an essay (often its title and opening paragraph) at the top; C's POV in the middle; and Anya's voice at the bottom. C's opinions in the essays are mostly on the left (he despises Bush, Blair & Co., and is opposed to the Iraq War) and they bore Anya, who wants something less lofty. Meanwhile, Anya's lover, Alan-a smart, conservative 42-year-old investment consultant who's good in the sack, and who stands for everything C despises-becomes increasingly scornful and jealous, and eventually concocts an elaborate plan to defraud C. of money. Unfortunately, Anya is little more than a trophy to be disputed, and Alan as an unscrupulous, boorish reactionary is a caricature. While C's essays, especially the later ones inspired by Anya, hold some interest, this follow-up to Slow Yearis not one of Coetzee's major efforts. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
O The Oprah Magazine
Coetzee is one of the English-speaking world's great tragic storytellers. . . . [This novel] offers exciting formal evidence of a literary artist's capacity to keep up with the chaotic malfunctions of our time.
Richard Eder
J. M. Coetzee's novel Diary of a Bad Year is something of a self-managed funeral, but a lavish one: mordant, funny and wise. Mr. Coetzee writes circles around any attempt to pin him down.
The New York Times
Library Journal

Señor C, an aging and ailing writer in Australia, has been asked by his publisher to contribute political essays to a book called Strong Opinions. Having become infatuated with Anya, a beautiful young woman who lives in his apartment building, he hires her to type his manuscript. While Señor C is writing his essays on politics and morality, a morality tale of a different sort is playing out in his apartment, as the young woman's boyfriend tries to tap into the old writer's online bank account. The result reads like a literary hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, with each page alternating between Señor C's observations for Strong Opinionsand dialog among him, Anya, and her boyfriend, Alan. As Anya remarks, we've all got opinions, but if you tell a story at least people will shut up and listen to you. Nobel prize winner Coetzee's thought-provoking and cerebral novel is recommended for academic and larger public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/15/07.]
—Leslie Patterson

Kirkus Reviews
The 2003 Nobel winner's latest (Inner Workings: 2000-2005, 2007, etc.) is another drama shaped as intellectual argument, unhappily akin to its immediate predecessors Elizabeth Costello (2003) and (the somewhat livelier) Slow Man (2005). Its protagonist, an eminent and aging author initially identified as Se-or C., has agreed to contribute his thoughts about the state of the contemporary world to a volume presenting its several contributors' "Strong Opinions." As C. undertakes this task, he simultaneously develops an avuncular relationship with Anya, the gorgeous young woman he meets in their building's laundry room, and eventually establishes a more formal acquaintance with Anya's lover Alan. The latter is an "investment consultant" who tests Anya's resolve by suggesting strategies to exploit C.'s evident appreciation of her beauty, and embezzle funds from his presumable great wealth. In a narrative that we read both from top to bottom of each page and horizontally, following arguments continued on facing pages, C. fulminates, Anya frets and Alan schemes. C.'s strong opinions consider the formation of political states; the current administration's rampant contempt for law and the related "crimes" of its enablers; radical feminism's attacks on pornography; the inhumane treatment of animals and indifference to their rights; the devaluation of modern culture; and the "authority" with which great writers (notably Tolstoy) render the warp and woof and detail of human experience. Late in the book, Coetzee's serial drone, the aforementioned Elizabeth Costello, shows up (doesn't she always?), and any pretense that C. is not Coetzee is airily abandoned. Otherwise, there's no development. C.brandishes his erudition. Anya is, fleetingly, intriguingly fiery. And Alan is a bloody bore. There's something wrong with a novel in which a twisted, exploitative sexual relationship is far less interesting than are dozens of pages of discursive commentary. But that's the new, improved Coetzee for you. Maybe we should blame the Swedish Academy.
The Barnes & Noble Review
J. M. Coetzee's 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello opens with a bold announcement: "We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory, where we want to be." In Diary of a Bad Year, it is safe to say we are still there. Taken together with 2005's Slow Man, Coetzee's most recent novels form a strange conceptual trilogy: he seems to have abandoned the familiar shores on which he built his Nobel Prize–winning reputation to engage with the more troubling underside of his vocation. There is, beneath the increasingly experimental turn in Coetzee's 21st-century incarnation, a sort of extreme ethical urgency about what exactly, if anything, fiction can offer.

Diary of a Bad Year is the story, if one can call it that, of "Se?or C," an aging South African writer who meets a beautiful younger woman named Anya in the laundry room of his apartment building. C hires Anya as his typist, and the resulting plot -- the novel's only real gesture of deference to traditional narrative -- is embedded within a series of essays entitled "Strong Opinions" that C is writing at the behest of his German publisher. Like the orations that provide the structural mortar of Elizabeth Costello, C's essays comprise the bulk of the text. Alongside these inflammatory expositions unwinds the story of their making, Anya transposing the words of the lustful writer.

Coetzee's tandem construction of these separate strands is visually jarring. Every page is partitioned into segments, each progressing at its own pace and often breaking disruptively. Beneath the essays, we have C's take on his budding relationship with Anya, then Anya's own. It's as if Coetzee decided to be as taxing on the eye as he so often is on the soul. The result is a typesetter's nightmare. And Coetzee's flight of structural fancy poses a dilemma not least for his reader: it's hard enough to read a novel built upon a series of unconnected philosophical pronouncements, but harder still when faced with uncertainly about where even to direct one's gaze. Do we read according to the logic of story, or as the pagination dictates? It is, as Anya laments, "difficult to get into the swing when the subject keeps changing."

But Coetzee is not a showman. If he adopts a measure of formal ostentation worthy of Pynchon, it is because his interests, at least of late, involve pushing the parameters of fiction to the brink. In Diary, the flamboyance of the postmodern exists at the service of a grander concern about how the ethical sensitivity of the novel, and by extension of the novelist, might exert a force on the world immediately around them. Given the extent to which our present political climate appears in its foreground, Diary represents a timely expansion of Coetzee's long-standing fascination with fiction's singular capacity to command our empathy.

Diary of a Bad Year begins gruffly, as C's "Strong Opinions" are just that -- disquisitions on the ills of modern life that, if more often than not accurate in their diagnoses, have a distinctly curmudgeonly bent. "Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo!," C writes. "A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and desperate...In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs. One day it will be done, though not by me." While there is a certain shock in seeing the ignoble figures of our headlines appearing in the pages of a novel, C's essays are less a coherent reaction to their wrongdoings than a sequence of angry riffs. Topically, they are wide-ranging, from an attack on Tony Blair to meditations on Australian immigration policy and more abstract matters of writerly authority and "national shame."

How best to parse the connection between what is expressed in these opinions and the stance of their author, between the quasi-fictional C and his creator J. M. Coetzee, is perhaps the greatest mystery of Diary. Unlike Coetzee's previous alter ego, Elizabeth Costello, or the third-person boy of his memoirs, C would seem to represent Coetzee's unmediated voice. In addition to sharing some of the technicalities of Coetzee's biography -- a relocation from South Africa to Australia, a strict adherence to vegetarianism -- C at one point dispels all doubt with an allusion to one of his earlier works, Waiting for the Barbarians. And yet, the story of C's relationship to Anya feels every bit like the fiction it is. Coetzee has elsewhere described the "unmistakable accents of personal truth" that may unintentionally leave their mark on an author's fiction, and Diary of a Bad Year simply doesn't have them. There is something too unbelievable in the immensity with which C and Anya come to bear on each other's lives.

In particular, Anya's voice is almost aggressively tone deaf to the realities of feminine consciousness (echoes of the deficiencies that plagued Marijana in Slow Man -- both are vessels for the desires of others more fully than they are people). "El Se?or's eyesight isn't that good, according to him," she observes. "Nevertheless, when I make my silky moves I can feel his eyes lock onto me. That is the game between him and me. I don't mind. What else is your bottom for? Use it or lose it." Her boyfriend, Alan, is an even rougher character sketch. A right-winger with a monomaniacal faith in the free market, Alan hatches a plan to profiteer off C.'s ill-managed bank account. His worldview -- one in which "the economic not only sums up the individual, but it also transcends it" -- settles into too easy a polarity with the earnest politics of C, whom Alan dismisses as a "leftover from the Sixties." Meanwhile, the hapless Anya is left to navigate the breach.

Diary, ultimately, makes for a thin story. As a treatise, it is equally thin. Where does this leave us? Somehow, against all the odds, Coetzee has managed to find at the intersection of these two endeavors a striking addition to his exploration of the responsibilities of fiction. Without the collapse of theory into story, of sweeping moral claims into the texture of lived experience, both halves of the equation come up short. It is not until the second half of the novel that this collapse fully completes itself. In contrast to the cantankerous homilies C. offers up in his "Strong Opinions," the pieces in his "Second Diary" are softer, more self-aware, their bitterness supplanted by a wistful irony. As C himself acknowledges, "Do I really qualify as a thinker at all, someone who has what can properly be called thoughts, about politics or about anything else? I have never been easy with abstractions or good at abstract thought." The second set of essays is written privately, not for publication but for Anya, in answer to the criticisms she has levied: "You bring things to life," she offers cannily. "If I have to be honest, the strong opinions on politics and so forth were not your best, maybe because there is no story in politics, maybe because you are a bit out of touch, maybe because the style does not suit you."

Coetzee's gift for self-subversion, his willingness to play with the fact of his own didacticism, is what rescues Diary of a Bad Year from the weight of its ambition. As C.'s political tracts and Coetzee's initial plotline are each rendered hollow, something honest begins to emerge in their wake: a work of genuine engagement between our political world and the fictional characters who move through it. Anya's voice may still ring with an intermittent falsity, but in the personal digressions that are the product of her influence, it is possible to see how her promise of empathy has enlivened C's writing, restoring his ability to create a work of authentic force. Where Diary of a Bad Year fails to join the ranks of Coetzee's greatest novels, it leaves no question that he is one of our great minds. --Amelia Atlas

Amelia Atlas's reviews have appeared in the New York Sun, 02138, and the Harvard Book Review.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143114482
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 677,289
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

J.M. Coetzee
J.M. Coetzee’s work includes Waiting For The Barbarians, The Life & Times of Michael K, Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life, Youth, Disgrace and, most recently, Slow Man. He was the first author to win the Booker Prize twice and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

From the Hardcover edition.


John Maxwell Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa. He is of both Boer and English descent. His parents sent him to an English school, and he grew up using English as his first language.

At the beginning of the 1960s he moved to England, where he worked initially as a computer programmer. He studied literature in the United States and has gone on to teach at several American universities, the University of Cape Town, and the University of Adelaide.

Coetzee made his debut as a writer of fiction in 1974. His first book, Dusklands was published in South Africa. His international breakthrough came in 1980 with the novel Waiting for the Barbarian. In 1983 he won the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom for Life and Times of Michael K. In 1999, he became the first author to be twice awarded the Booker Prize, this time for his novel, Disgrace. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The Academy cited the astonishing wealth of variety in Coetzee's stories, many of which are set against the backdrop of apartheid.

In addition to his novels, Coetzee has written numerous essays and interviews. His literary criticism has been published in journals and collected into anthologies.

Good To Know

Described by friends as a reclusive and private man, Coetzee did not make the trip to London in 1984 to receive the Booker Prize for Life and Times of Michael K, nor when he again won the prize for Disgrace in 1999.

His 1977 novel, In the Heart of the Country, was filmed as the motion picture Dust in 1985.

Coetzee has also been active as a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature.

In 2002, Coetzee emigrated to Australia.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Maxwell Coetzee
    2. Hometown:
      Adelaide, Australia
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 9, 1940
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cape Town, South Africa
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Cape Town, 1960; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in Literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1969

Reading Group Guide


J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year is a meditation on the current state of the world from one of our most important authors. The book begins with a short essay on the idea of “The State” with reference made to Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seven Samurai. At the same time, via text sharing space on the same page, the reader is made privy to an aging man’s story of his blossoming obsession with a female neighbor. Soon his object of desire, Anya, claims her own portion of each page.

In this ingenious game of a book, the plot itself is relatively simple. The aforementioned older writer bumps into a young woman in the laundry room of his apartment building. Infatuated even as he is aware they will never become romantically involved, he hires her to be his typist. The manuscript she’s typing, titled Strong Opinions, turns out to be the series of deeply moral and soul-searching essays that occupy the top third of each page of Diary of a Bad Year. While Señor C hires Anya based on her physical charms, he gradually learns she has more to offer than sex appeal. Her plain-spoken critique of the essays she’s being paid to transcribe goads him into rethinking his view of his opinions and the audience for his writing. At the same time, his interest in her ideas makes her truly embrace the fact that she is a person with a mind in addition to physical beauty.

Anya lives with her boyfriend, an intelligent, arrogant, and ruthless investment banker named Allan who has begun reading the essays Anya is typing. Anya and Allan argue about the ideas in the essays as well as about Señor C’s designs on her. Allan believes the despairing Señor C is an idealistic dinosaur who is using Anya to fuel his sexual fantasies. Anya recognizes that there is another way of thinking besides Allan’s purely economic view of human interaction and believes Señor C’s affection for her is sincere rather than lecherous. Ultimately, she feels trapped between the two men (and their points of view).

These clashing worldviews are brought into sharp relief when Señor C asks Allan to become his financial advisor. Allan soon reveals to Anya that he has implanted a spying program on Señor C’s computer and has learned he is dying of Parkinson’s disease and plans to leave all of his small fortune to an animal welfare charity. Reasoning that he and Anya would put the money to better use, Allan has created an elaborate plot to steal Señor C’s estate upon his death. Anya, often bullied by Allan, stands up to him and forces him to abandon the scheme. Finally, after Allan rages at Señor C during a drunken tirade, Anya leaves them both behind.

Provocative in its ideas and satisfying as a story, Diary of a Bad Year exhibits the steady and straightforward tone for which Coetzee has been known throughout his career. Here, his lucid prose is in service of a passionate statement against the current state of affairs in Washington D.C. and London as well as a poignant story of a dying man yearning, ultimately, for love.


John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1940 where he grew up speaking English despite the fact his parents were not of British descent. He holds a PhD in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages from the University of Texas and has taught widely in the United States including the State University of New York, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Chicago. Coetzee began writing fiction in 1969. His early books, including Waiting for the Barbarians, which won him an international following, were generally more allegorical than his current work. Life & Times of Michael K won Britain's Booker Prize in 1983, an award he won again in 1999 for his novel Disgrace. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.


  • The form of the book is radically different from most novels. What effect did the way Coetzee chose to tell his story have on the way you read it?
  • Señor C. writes: “The modern state appeals to morality, to religion, and to natural law as the foundation of its existence. At the same time it is prepared to infringe any or all of these in the interest of self-preservation.” He goes on to say that the average person can live with this contradiction. Do you believe either or both of these ideas are true?
  • In the essay titled “On Terrorism,” Señor C. offers something of a defense or justification for the actions of suicide bombers. Are you convinced?
  • Anya later explains her real life encounters with Muslim fundamentalists. How do the ways she and Señor C discuss these ideas reveal their characters? What might Allan say about the debate?
  • “So what is going to save you from dishonor, Señor?” Anya asks in Chapter 18. She is referring to the dishonor that citizens of America, England, and Australia suffer through the actions of their governments. “Who are you expecting to rescue you?” she asks. This idea of “rescue” seems an odd idea. To what do you think they are referring?
  • Following the idea of shame being something that can come form one’s own actions or actions taken in one’s name, Anya tells a story of being raped in Mexico. She tells Señor C. that if something happens that isn’t one’s fault, you ought not feel shamed. When Señor C. suggests that the actions taken by the young men who raped her bring him shame and probably make her ashamed, too, she becomes angry. How do you feel about this idea of collective versus private shame? In what ways are they different and in what ways the same?
  • How does the way Anya sees Señor C. in her diary differ from the way we see him in his own? And vice versa?
  • What do Señor C, Anya, and Allan want? What is the deepest desire of each of these characters?
  • The section titled “On Birds of the Air” reads as something of a fable. It discusses notions ranging from tolerance and freedom to ideas of human nature. It is on the same pages as some of Allan’s tirade. How do the two narratives play off of one another?
  • In the end, Anya leaves both men behind. What do you make of the letter that closes her narrative? What does it reveal and not reveal?
  • Coetzee provides very little in the way of visual detail or back-story about these three characters and the places where they live and work. Why do you think he chose this strategy?
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2008

    A reviewer

    I have a deep respect and admiration for Coetzee and have read all his works. This book struck me as too clever in an artificial if not arrogant way.

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