J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee

by David Attwell

David Attwell defends the literary and political integrity of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee by arguing that Coetzee has absorbed the textual turn of postmodern culture while still addressing the ethical tensions of the South African crisis. As a form of "situational metafiction," Coetzee's writing reconstructs and critiques some of the key discourses in the


David Attwell defends the literary and political integrity of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee by arguing that Coetzee has absorbed the textual turn of postmodern culture while still addressing the ethical tensions of the South African crisis. As a form of "situational metafiction," Coetzee's writing reconstructs and critiques some of the key discourses in the history of colonialism and apartheid from the eighteenth century to the present. While self-conscious about fiction-making, it takes seriously the condition of the society in which it is produced.

Attwell begins by describing the intellectual and political contexts surrounding Coetzee's fiction and then provides a developmental analysis of his six novels, drawing on Coetzee's other writings in stylistics, literary criticism, translation, political journalism and popular culture. Elegantly written, Attwell's analysis deals with both Coetzee's subversion of the dominant culture around him and his ability to see the complexities of giving voice to the anguish of South Africa.

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Perspectives on Southern Africa Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.37(d)

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J.M. Coetzee

By David Attwell

University of California Press

Copyright © 1993 David Attwell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520078123


J. M. Coetzee's first six novels constitute a form of postmodern metafiction that declines the cult of the merely relativist and artful. Coetzee has absorbed the lessons of modern linguistics—the textual turn in structuralism and poststructuralism—yet seriously addresses the ethical and political stresses of living in, and with, a particular historical locale, that of contemporary South Africa. This book is an account of that achievement.

Despite the acclaim that Coetzee has received, both in South Africa and outside it, his fiction has been slow to attract sustained critical attention.1 This is as true in South Africa as it is elsewhere: in South Africa the sheer power of the novels and—to an ear trained in the comfortable anglophone and positivist conversation of the South African liberal tradition—the strangeness of their idiom seem to have warned away many commentators, certainly those of Coetzee's own generation. A change came in the early to mid-1980s, when a number of essays established a certain consensus on the Left. Although it was by no means watertight, it held that Coetzee was a philosophical idealist whose fiction graphically portrayed the breakup of the dominating, rationalist subject ofcolonialism but who offered—depending on where the argument was grounded—neither an analysis of the play of historical forces nor a moral anchor in the search for a humane response to colonialism and apartheid.2

In 1988 the first full-length study appeared, Teresa Dovey's The Novels of J. M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories. 3 Dovey made it possible to speak properly of a critical debate; she challenged previous readings in a strongly theoretical discourse that showed, among other things, that the charges brought against Coetzee were blind to the strategies employed in the novels, and in particular that the parodic, allegorical, and deconstructive tendencies of the fiction had never been adequately recognized. In her relocation of the novels in a field designated "criticism-as-fiction, or fiction-as-criticism" (9), Dovey was able to make the startling but justifiable claim that the novels possessed a preemptive theoretical sophistication that disarmed the critics in advance. After Dovey's intervention it is no longer possible to ignore the novels' discursive complexity and self-consciousness.

Incisive as Dovey's critique was, it was also the victim of its own strengths, for in arguing against a naively referential view of novelistic discourse, Dovey seems to have erred on the other extreme. In her study Coetzee's novels are allegories of Lacanian theory, illustrations of a universalizing discourse on the self and its residence within language. If, as Coetzee objected in an address at a book fair in Cape Town in 1987, historicist criticism turns fiction into a "supplement" to the discourse of history ("The Novel Today" 2), then Dovey's theoretical allegory turns Coetzee's novels into a supplement to Lacan. Although Dovey does attend to the specificities of the South African context, she does so mainly in order to argue that, unlike Coetzee's novels, the discourses from the South African literary traditions that Coetzee parodies are unaware of their discursive conditions of possibility.4

Since Dovey's study, a number of essays have taken up her implicit call to postmodernist and poststructuralist theory, with the consequence that we now have a considerably oversimplified polarization between, on the one hand, those registering the claims of political resistance and historical representation (who argue that Coetzee has little to offer) and, on the other, those responsive to postmodernism and poststructuralism, to whom Coetzee, most notably in Foe, seems to have much to provide.5

However, as Dovey herself later pointed out, such polarization is false, for "it overlooks the potential area between the two, which is concerned to theorize the ways in which discourses emerging from diverse contexts, and exhibiting different formal assumptions, may produce different forms of historical engagement" ("Introduction" 5). I share this point of view. Indeed, one of the major premises of this study is that Coetzee's novels are located in the nexus of history and text; that

is, they explore the tension between these polarities. As a novelist and linguist with a European heritage, working on the experimental fringes of his genre, Coetzee leans toward a reflexive examination of the constitutive role of language in placing the subject within history; yet as a South African, and one who returned to the country after a prolonged but finally unsuccessful attempt to emigrate, Coetzee cannot avoid having to deal with his national situation. Every attempt in the novels to hold South Africa at arm's length, by means of strategically nonspecific settings or socially improbable protagonists, simply confirms the intensity and necessity of this struggle. In the chapter that follows, I look into various forms of the relationship between reflexivity and historicity, examining these categories, as far as possible, within the South African situation. My critical apparatus entails a description of Coetzee's oeuvre as a form of situational metafiction, with a particular relation to the cultural and political discourses of South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although Coetzee respects the claims of both reflexivity and historicity, he does not seek a mediating or neutral role in the field of cultural politics. Behind the narrative subjects of each of the novels, behind Eugene Dawn, Jacobus Coetzee, Magda, the Magistrate, the Medical Officer, Susan Barton, and Elizabeth Curren, lies an implied narrator who shirts stance with and against the play of forces in South African culture. In other words, Coetzee's figuring of the tension between text and history is itself a historical act, one that must be read back into the discourses of South Africa where one can discern its illuminating power. We might call this narrator the self-of-writing, or the "one-who-writes," as Coetzee himself puts it ("Note on Writing" 42). Edward Said speaks of the "worldliness" of texts, which have "ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society—in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly" ("The World" 35). This is no less true of Coetzee's novels; however, I would draw attention to the question of agency within this broader concept of worldliness. In South Africa a writer's worldliness expresses itself within a fragmented national context in which positionality is always at issue; thus, certain questions continually resurface: Who is the self-of-writing? What is his or her power, representativeness, legitimacy, and authority? (It is logical that the problem of agency, as defined here, should be so prominent a feature of white South African writing, yet no writer has examined the question quite as rigorously as Coetzee has done.) In the story told in this study, the movement of agency in Coetzee can be traced schematically: beginning with intervention and subversion

(Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country ), agency passes through a moment of displacement, in the realization of its association with colonialism (Waiting for the Barbarians); it then finds a limited freedom in the moment-by-moment enunciations of textuality (Life and Times of Michael K) before ending in abnegation (Foe ). In Coetzee's most recent novel, Age of Iron, there is a certain recovery of agency, but it is qualified in particularly somber terms.

The question of agency is linked to that of canonicity. It has often been remarked that Coetzee writes within a Western European tradition. This is a simple fact of his intellectual biography, a consequence not only of the global distribution of culture under colonialism but also of Coetzee's turning—like thousands of other South Africans before and after him— to the metropolis of Western culture for a better life and further education—hence his employment as a computer programmer in England, his studies in linguistics and stylistics at the University of Texas at Austin, and his subsequent appointment as professor of literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. With this background Coetzee returned to South Africa in 1971and began publishing fiction that not only draws on the European heritage—in particular, on novelists of high modernism and early postmodernism, notably Kafka, Beckett, Nabokov, and Robbe-Grillet—but that also continues to participate in some of the major intellectual currents of the West from the 1960s to the present, from the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics to Continental structuralism and, finally, to poststructuralism. It is perhaps too easily forgotten now that in the early to mid-1970s certain Western intellectual discourses offered to South Africans the possibility of cogent and liberating critiques of local conditions. For this reason the following chapter ends with a brief description of this moment in South African intellectual life and of the place of Dusklands within it.

In South Africa, however, Coetzee writes not as a citizen of the First World but of the Third—or perhaps the First within the Third—and therefore, like other white South African writers, he faces the problem of cultural authority. Bluntly put, his relationship with the European canon entails an accusation of complicity in a history of domination. Coetzee's response to this situation is to interrogate the specific form of marginality he represents. Although it is true that his novels are nourished by their relationship with canonical Western literature, it is equally true that through his complicated postcoloniality he brings that situation to

light and finds fictional forms wherein it can be objectified, named, and questioned. As Derek Attridge correctly puts it, speaking of Foe:

A mode of fiction that exposes the ideological basis of canonization, that draws attention to its own relation to the existing canon, that thematizes the role of race, class, and gender in the processes of cultural acceptance and exclusion, and that, while speaking from a marginal location, addresses the question of marginality—such a mode of fiction would have to be seen as engaged in an attempt to break the silence in which so many are caught, even if it does so by literary means that have traditionally been celebrated as characterizing canonic art. (217)

In Foe, Friday's enforced silence represents what a monocultural, metropolitan discourse cannot hear; but the silence also overwhelms and closes the novel itself, in an act of authorial deference on Coetzee's part. Friday's silence is therefore not only the mark of Coetzee's unwillingness to receive the canon as the natural breath of life; it is also the mark of history, and the mark of South Africa, in the text of a novel that scrupulously acknowledges its own limited authority.

This study addresses the developmental features of Coetzee's writing. Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country are paired as the early fiction; Life and Times of Michael K and Foe as the later. Waiting for the Barbarians is treated as the pivotal text in the corpus as it currently stands. Broadly speaking, the early fiction constitutes an attack on the rationalist, dominating self of colonialism and imperialism. In Dusklands the critique involves a bitter parody of scientific objectivity, of positivist historical discourses and narratives of exploration; In the Heart of the Country examines the ontological consequences of settlercolonialism's lack of social reciprocity. Both early novels make use of a teleology of decolonization to frame their critiques: by extension, Waiting for the Barbarians deals with the moment of the end, presenting a state of frozen anticipation that both subverts the semiotic supports of Empire and undermines the transcendental subject of History. Barbarians also begins the process whereby the limitations of white South African authorship are dramatized, though this dramatization is developed fully only in the later fiction, where Coetzee deals with the situation of writing in South Africa, writing, that is, in a crisis of authority. The logic of this development, from the semiotic emphasis of Waiting for the Barbarians, is plain: whereas Life and Times of Michael K explores the freedom of textuality, or of textualizing, Foe examines the

conditions governing this freedom by historicizing them within the discursive conditions obtaining in South Africa—what I call its state of colonial postcolonialism. I conclude with a brief discussion of Age of Iron, which is both a summation of these trends and a departure from them. Coetzee seems to have won through to a position of being explicit about South Africa and its obsessions, more so, it seems, than at any earlier stage of his career; yet Age of Iron is also about death, about writing through and after death: we receive Elizabeth Curren's narrative of South Africa only once she herself has perished in her own, and the nation's, age of iron.

The "history" recovered here is partly the store of primary texts against which Coetzee positions his novels. It is made up of key discourses produced by colonialism and apartheid: the early fiction parodies "frontier" narratives, pioneer histories, and colonial pastoralism; at the midpoint of the oeuvre the historical text becomes the discourse of the apartheid state in its definitive moment of paranoia, that of "total strategy"; in the later fiction, although there is an ironic nod to another version of apartheid in the notion of "multinationalism," the primary texts are provided by the overwhelmingly politicized nature of South African culture—a kind of predatory hermeneutics—and, finally, by colonial storytelling, in the form of one of its founding narratives and its prototype, Robinson Crusoe.

In these readings I make selective forays into relevant areas of literary theory and draw, wherever appropriate, from Coetzee's own nonfictional writings in stylistics, metropolitan and South African literary criticism, political journalism, interviews, and essays and reviews on popular culture. Readers who have become accustomed to the notion that Coetzee's fiction represents a form of allegorized theory will find here a different emphasis; although he does borrow liberally from theoretical sources, the influences on his work are as often, and sometimes more decisively, literary rather than strictly theoretical. The essays in stylistics and criticism provide especially useful keys to understanding these influences. Dovey is correct to say that "with a writer like Coetzee, personal biography does not, indeed, seem very important" ("Introduction" 12). The readings offered here are by no means exercises in biography or biographical criticism. I have taken account of the nonfictional writings so as to return to the novels with what, I hope, are useful insights, in a project that has the more limited goal of explication. I would, of course, be pleased if these readings did not traduce what

appears of Coetzee's intellectual biography on the surface of his writings; this seems to be a question of good faith, of being attentive to the life produced in, and by, these texts.6

Is "good faith" such a simple matter, however? In its own self-scrutiny Coetzee's writing forces such questions on us (traducement, it seems to say, does not depend on conscious choices). But my deeper misgivings in this study are more specific: for Coetzee to be the novelist that he is, he must pursue the path of fictionality; he is a specialist of the story and has declared his allegiance to this vocation without apology. Against this position—though, I trust, in ways that respect his versions of fictionality—I assert again and again the historicity of the act of storytelling, continually reading the novels back into their context. In this sense, I read Coetzee "against the grain." Uncertain, then, as to whether what I offer here is a tribute or a betrayal—infinitely wishing it to be the former—I turn to the theoretical and historical contexts brought into play by Coetzee's reflexive South African fictions.


Excerpted from J.M. Coetzee by David Attwell Copyright © 1993 by David Attwell. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

David Attwell is Senior Lecturer at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Attwell is also the editor of J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992).

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