J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with Time

J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with Time

by David Attwell


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A moving, insightful biography of the Nobel Laureate and a study of J. M. Coetzee’s work, illuminating the creation of his exceptional novels
J. M. Coetzee is one of the world’s most intriguing authors. Compelling, razor-sharp, erudite: the adjectives pile up but the heart of the fiction remains elusive. Now, in J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, David Attwell explores the extraordinary creative processes behind Coetzee’s novels from Dusklands to The Childhood of Jesus. Using Coetzee’s manuscripts, notebooks and research papers—recently deposited at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin—Attwell produces a fascinating story. He shows convincingly that Coetzee’s work is strongly autobiographical, the memoirs being continuous with the fictions, and that his writing proceeds with never-ending self-reflection.
Having worked closely with him on Doubling the Point, a collection of Coetzee’s essays and interviews, and given early access to Coetzee’s archive, David Attwell is an engaging, authoritative source. The Life of Writing is a fresh, riveting take on one of the most important and opaque literary figures of our time. This moving account will change the way Coetzee is read, by teachers, critics, and general readers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525429616
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/29/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David Attwell is a graduate of the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa, and completed an MA in African literary theory and criticism at the University of Cape Town, where his supervisor was J. M. Coetzee. He holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently a professor at the University of York. He lives in England.

Read an Excerpt


The Coetzee Papers

J.M. COETZEE and the Life of Writing is a critical biography whose purpose is to read the life and the work of its subject, the novelist J.M. Coetzee, together. By concentrating on Coetzee’s authorship, what I have called the life of the writing – it could equally be the life in the writing – I focus on just one aspect of the life of the man John Maxwell Coetzee, the part that makes him publicly known and to which he has devoted himself most fully. It is not the whole story, and aspects of Coetzee’s life that have little bearing on his authorship have little relevance to this book.

This is therefore not a biography in the conventional sense. Nor does it pretend to be an intellectual biography. If by an intellectual biography we mean an account of the growth and development of Coetzee’s ideas and their expression in his fiction and other writings (including the translations, reviews, scholarly essays and books), then such a task would be beyond the scope of what is offered here. The book is mainly an account of my reading Coetzee’s manuscripts, which have been made available to the public in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

The background to my reading Coetzee’s papers is a relationship with his work that began in 1974, when as a student in Durban I read his first novel, Dusklands. Since then I have followed Coetzee’s career closely and have either taught or written about each of the novels at some stage. In the early 1980s, I began to get to know something of the man when I worked under his guidance as a Master’s student at the University of Cape Town, preparing a thesis on African criticism and theory. Then, over a period of three years from 1988 to 1990, when I was in the doctoral programme at the University of Texas at Austin, Coetzee and I worked together on a book entitled Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992).1 Doubling the Point is an intellectual autobiography, which collects a body of Coetzee’s academic essays and some ephemerally published pieces and links them together with a series of written dialogues. Soon after Doubling the Point I produced a work of literary criticism, based on the thesis submitted to Texas, on the six novels that Coetzee had published up to that point, entitled J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (1993).

Now, twenty years later, I take an entirely different approach, a step back in order to look again, this time not as a literary critic would, which is to say at the finished works, but at the authorship that underlies them: its creative processes and sources, its oddities and victories – above all, at the remarkable ways in which it transforms its often quite ordinary materials into unforgettable fiction.

The five weeks spent exploring Coetzee’s papers could easily have become five months, or five years, if I had had the time and means to continue, but the experience was astonishing enough – both unsettling and illuminating – for me to proceed with an account of it. I could not have done this if I had not been so deeply immersed in the published fiction for so long. Coetzee’s papers will keep scholars busy for many years – few, if any, living authors attract as much critical attention as Coetzee does – but I have found enough for an entirely different account, one that I would like to record before the spell dies.

One element of the magic I must confess to and dispel quickly is sentimental. As a doctoral candidate in Austin himself in the late 1960s, Coetzee had read Samuel Beckett’s papers there; in my own student days in the 1980s, in the same library, I pored over the papers of writers whose formation had taken place in South Africa: Olive Schreiner, Herman Charles Bosman, Alan Paton, Roy Campbell (whose exaggeratedly unhandsome bust is still there). I did this because it connected me with home, South Africa, though in ways that home could not easily appreciate or accommodate.

Coetzee had indulged himself in a similar way when, in his twenties, he had taken time out from his studies of Ford Madox Ford in the Reading Room of the British Museum in London to look at the textual traces of early European explorers in South Africa, notably William Burchell. Coetzee’s hand-drawn map of Burchell’s travels is now in Texas, where I came across it. Circles within circles: the stuff of middle age, perhaps, and of the autobiography that seems to be embedded in the work of biography.

Certain essentials of a literary biographer’s craft, such as a writer’s most private letters, are not currently available to researchers on Coetzee. They are housed in Austin, but under restricted access until after his death. I doubt if I will go looking for them, should I live that long. I can’t envisage taking pleasure in reading Coetzee’s most personal papers after he has gone, so it will fall to others to find out how he might have used diaries when writing his partly fictionalized autobiographies, or whether his intimate correspondence played any role in the lives of the people who inhabit his novels. Aspects of his personal life that are elided in the autobiographies, such as his marriage to Philippa Jubber and the birth and early years of their children, Nicolas and Gisela, do occasionally surface in the papers, but for the most part they are off stage.

For a man who is known to protect his privacy, the collection housed at Texas is remarkably complete. In addition to the extensive business correspondence, speeches, awards, citations, press clippings, photographs, family memorabilia, and the author’s well-preserved research materials, for the fiction and the non-fiction alike, it includes the manuscripts of all the novels from Dusklands (1974) to Elizabeth Costello (2003). After his relocation to Australia in 2002, the drafts consist mainly of computer printouts. Most of the manuscripts are written on blue examination books lifted from the University of Cape Town, where Coetzee lectured for most of his academic career – one can imagine him collecting unused exam books at the end of an invigilation session.

The manuscript entries and revisions are meticulously dated, fortunately for those who wish to follow their development. The dating and self-archiving would have served the creative process, enabling the author to move blocks of text around and to recover discarded fragments. Coetzee works with the roughest of outlines. Typically, the earliest drafts are sketched quickly, provisionally, determinedly. Writing as often as he can, daily if possible, he is in search of his subject: the voice especially, embedded in a distinctive genre and a distinctive history. The plot is the least stable of the elements, always subserving the voice, and continually revised.

Contrary to a widely held assumption that Coetzee’s novels are spun from quotations drawn from literary theory, the allusions to other writers (some theorists, but more often than not novelists, poets and philosophers) are brought in only once the work has found its own legs. He records possible titles throughout the drafting process, but decisions about them are postponed to the very end. He is content to call a work by a number (‘Fiction No. 4’) until the right title makes itself known.

Such methods are built on absolute faith in the creative process, on tenaciously working through the uncertainties (which are real and made explicit, as we will see) towards a distant goal until an illumination arrives, providing direction and momentum for the next phase. Of course, this process involves revision and more revision – by hand on manuscripts, by hand on typescripts, and by retyping. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen versions of a work are not unusual. Taking full advantage of hindsight, I refer at times in the chapters that follow to a ‘writing event’, which is the point at which a quantum leap is made, when the draft becomes more like the novel it wants to be.

Of particular interest are the pocket-sized notebooks that Coetzee would have kept when he was not at his desk. From a comparison of the reflections, self-corrections and sources jotted down in these notebooks with the more extended exam-book manuscripts, a story emerges of Coetzee’s creativity, its changes of direction, insecurities, periods of confidence and fluency. Once the computer takes over, as it does in the later, Australian-based writing from Slow Man (2005) on, the evidence of the creative processes is less intimate, but the patterns are still discernible.

Until 2011, the manuscripts of the early fiction up to the mid-1990s were held in the Houghton Library at Harvard, where Coetzee had lodged them for safekeeping. They were available to researchers, among whom was John Kannemeyer, Coetzee’s first biographer. Between 2009 and 2011, Coetzee gave interviews to Kannemeyer and provided access to many of the papers he kept at his home in Adelaide, Australia. The result was J.M. Coetzee: ʼn Geskryfde Lewe (‘A Written Life’), written and published in Afrikaans and simultaneously published in English translation as J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, by Jonathan Ball in Johannesburg (2012).

Kannemeyer’s biography is a feat of collation, monumental in scale and full of information about Coetzee’s genealogical background, childhood, education, close relationships, academic career, dealings with publishers, censors and filmmakers, and the publication and reception of each of the novels.2 The work is all the more useful for being empirically minded, indeed conservative in its approach to biography. Since Coetzee is uncooperative with most enquirers, in the absence of reliable knowledge a good deal of anecdote is in circulation, much of it embellished, a malaise that Kannemeyer has largely dispelled. Given that, by admission, his attention was trained on Coetzee’s life rather than the work, Kannemeyer was unable to pay more than cursory attention to the manuscripts.

All good writers dread biography, of course, even when it is not contemptuous. Biography is one of the ways in which the present generation puts the previous one firmly in the past. Lytton Strachey, the man who started the trend by pouring irony over his Victorian subjects, eventually became a victim of it himself. Coetzee was anticipating this kind of treatment when, in Summertime (2009), he invented the English biographer Vincent (a conquering name), who was going to write a biography of the departed John Coetzee.3

But while he was still writing Summertime, history dealt Coetzee a surprising card in the form of the arrival of John Kannemeyer, whose purposes were not to overthrow the past at all but to archive the present in a spirit of generational fellow feeling, and out of respect for Coetzee’s contribution to South African and world literature. That this could happen is related to the fact that while Coetzee’s work is intellectually anchored in the cultural metropoles of Europe and the United States, it also belongs to a regional literature whose canons are barely known outside South Africa.

In being cooperative with Kannemeyer, though without authorizing him (Coetzee would not authorize any biography), he would have understood that biography is an inescapable consequence of success. Whether they like it or not, successful authors, especially Nobel laureates, have to come to terms with biography, as much as they have to endure migraines and toothache. And when, as Ian Hamilton shows in Keepers of the Flame,4 writers try to ghost-write or in some cases even write their own biographies, or try to do so by remote control from the grave, the results are usually mixed. Coetzee said much of what he needed to say about biography in Summertime, which, as an autobiography, uses as its fictional pretext a biography-in-the-making. On these terms, it takes pre-emptive evasive action. Nevertheless, Coetzee gave John Kannemeyer courteous attention, assistance and, most importantly, a free hand.

Most ordinary readers, among whom I include myself, remain fascinated by biography, especially the insights it affords into the creative processes that produce the fictions we treasure most. When I introduced J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing twenty years ago, I said that I was uncertain whether the book was a tribute or a betrayal, ‘infinitely wishing’ that it were the former. I am caught in the same quandary today. I respect the novels as public documents no less than I did then, but my admiration has undergone a major change, from the finished work to the immense labour, and the openness to the difficult and the strange, that have produced one of the exemplary authorships of our times.



Autobiography – The uses of impersonality

Her books teach nothing, preach nothing; they merely spell out, as clearly as they can, how people lived in a certain time and place  . . . they spell out how one person lived, one among billions: the person whom she, to herself, calls she, and whom others call Elizabeth Costello.1

IF WE THINK of Coetzee as a cerebral writer, a weaver of clever palimpsests, then the ordinariness of his fictions’ beginnings will come as a surprise. Typically, the novels begin personally and circumstantially, before being worked into fiction. The Coetzee who emerges from his papers turns out to be a little more like the rest of us: more human or, at least, less Olympian, though only up to a point, because the question remains: if he started here, how on earth did he get there?

My subtitle, Face to Face with Time, is taken from a draft of Life & Times of Michael K, the novel for which Coetzee won his first Booker Prize in 1983.2 The relevant passage sees K escaping from his captors by retreating into the Swartberg mountain range where he muses,

I have retreated and retreated and retreated, till I am on the highest mountaintop and there is nowhere more to go save up into the heavens. Now I am face to face at last with time: everything else is behind me, only the huge block of the day is before me everyday when I wake, and will not go away. Now there is nothing for me to do but live, through time, like an ant boring its way through a rock.3

There is much here that is suggestive of Coetzee’s authorship: the inwardness and isolation of the voice; the sense of being embattled; the desire for meaning, even when it is thwarted. The ant boring its way through rock is a good metaphor for all of Coetzee’s writing.

‘Face to face with time’ conveys the way Coetzee puts fiction between himself and history, between himself and his mortality. It does this in highly self-conscious ways, with the result that Coetzee criticism is filled with commentary on the novels’ metafictional qualities – the writing about writing. The most trenchant of the purposes of Coetzee’s metafiction, however, is that it is the means whereby he challenges himself with sharply existential questions, such as, Is there room for me, and my history, in this book? If not, what am I doing? The book must in some sense answer to the mystery of its author’s being. Coetzee’s writing is a huge existential enterprise, grounded in fictionalized autobiography. In this enterprise the texts marked as autobiography are continuous with those marked as fiction – only the degree of fictionalization varies.

Each text in the trilogy of Coetzee’s autobiographies, Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009), is subtitled Scenes from Provincial Life. The omnibus edition containing all three of these texts has this as its main title. It goes a long way towards explaining the existential emphasis.

Writing about C.P. Cavafy, the Greek poet from Alexandria who is one of the many poets Coetzee has followed, Orhan Pamuk remarks, ‘For those who lead a provincial life, life and happiness are always to be found elsewhere, in another city, in another country’ – a place ‘perpetually out of reach’.4 In Coetzee, the condition Pamuk describes involves perpetual anxiety, too, the source of which would be related to the fact that for the thirty years that Coetzee lived and wrote in Cape Town, he did so without being comfortably settled. He was forced to return to South Africa from self-imposed exile in 1971 and never fully got over it until he left for Australia in 2002. The result, which is equally an expression of Coetzee’s temperament, was a fear of living inauthentically, a brutal honesty about facing up to the conditions of one’s existence.

The other side to this story is an equally strong desire for self-masking. Coetzee is always deliberately present and not present in his work. The desire for self-actualization is a function of needing to bear witness to one’s existence in a situation in which one is in danger of culturally disappearing; but the culture in whose terms one wants to be recognized also regards such acts of self-testimony as crude, gauche. The solution is to vacillate: knowing that one can’t simply return, and embrace with conviction the fate of being provincial (as Cavafy did, in living out most of his life in Alexandria), one has to remind the dominant culture that its representations are representations. Self-consciousness about language is often related to the problem of not-belonging.

Two of Coetzee’s most powerful forebears are T.S. Eliot and Roland Barthes. These mentors arrived in Coetzee’s developing artistic universe at different times, though at the right time in each case, and in the right order. The cumulative effect was to confirm, and provide a language for, Coetzee’s preference for impersonality. But the important point is that, for all three, impersonality is not what it seems. It is not a simple repudiation of self in the name of art; on the contrary, it involves an instantiation of self, followed by an erasure that leaves traces of the self behind.

It is important to grasp this if we are to follow the creative paths left by such writers in their papers. Despite all the taboos, we continue to read biographically, not in order to limit the truth of the work to its biographical sources, but in order to understand how the self is written into the work and then written out, leaving its imprint as a shadowy presence. As Pamuk puts it beautifully in the same essay on Cavafy: ‘Great poets can tell their own stories without once saying “I”, and in doing so, lend their voice to all of humanity.’5

To continue with Coetzee’s autobiographical writing: in June 1993, with seven of his novels behind him, Coetzee returned to the manuscripts of Boyhood, which he had started writing in 1987 and then suspended. Why he stopped would probably have had to do with other projects that were in play at the time, Age of Iron and Doubling the Point. It is also clear from the early manuscripts that he had not yet resolved the formal questions he was wrestling with.

Looking back on the years of his childhood spent in rural Worcester that he was about to describe, he wrote in his notebook: ‘Deformation. My life as deformed, year after year, by South Africa. Emblem: the deformed trees on the golf links in Simonstown.’6 He was referring to the pines on the Simonstown golf course in Cape Town. These are alien trees that have been exposed to the south-easterly wind blowing perpetually from the southern Atlantic Ocean. Planted to mark the fairways and give shade, they have assumed contorted shapes, as if in mockery of the club’s wistful founders. Simonstown’s pines are certainly gloomy emblems to choose for the effects of place and history on one’s character, but in the writing of his memoirs Coetzee would find affirmation, too, in being a child of South Africa.

The context was a private argument that he was conducting with Barthes, and in his notebook he wonders how he will navigate around Barthes’s influence. In his autobiography, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, Coetzee says, Barthes is a father figure who not only wrote the kind of autobiography he, Coetzee, now wishes to write, but who also stands in his way. Worse, Coetzee worries that Barthes would have ‘no interest in recognizing a rude colonial offspring’. Despite the misgivings, Coetzee feels that he has a trump card to play over Barthes: ‘something different and welcome’ – ‘a solidity to my concerns, a world-relevance’.7 The Simonstown trees, symbols of malformation though they are, are also emblems of distinction, of a feeling for history in extremis, of a life arguably less sheltered than Barthes’s was from the prevailing winds of the modern world-system.

‘Emblem: the deformed trees on the golf links in Simonstown.’

Barthes, too, used images of trees to mark his autobiographical passage. The first part of Roland Barthes includes photographs of his childhood printed alongside reflective and self-quizzical captions. Then, as the text takes over from the photographs, in a section headed ‘Towards Writing’, Barthes includes a photograph of palm trees and a poem by Heinrich Heine. In the poem, the speaker is standing near a hemlock tree in a frozen northern climate, but daydreams about ‘a palm tree/ That far in an eastern land/ Languishes lonely and silent/ Upon the parching sand’.8

Barthes is implying that as his writing takes over from the photographs – a new beginning marked by the inclusion of Heine’s poem – the self is more obviously refashioned and transformed: it becomes the product of a desire that flows with the energies of the writing. Barthes glosses the poem as follows: ‘According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets. Of all the tree letters, the palm is loveliest. And of writing, profuse and distinct as the burst of its fronds, it possesses the major effect: falling back.’ The falling back of the palm frond is Barthes’s way of drawing attention to writing’s ability to unfold luxuriously, and also to double back and reflect upon itself.

All of this would have been agreeable to Coetzee. Like Barthes, he would believe that what is written as autobiography is only the ‘figurations of the body’s prehistory – of that body making its way toward the labor and the pleasure of writing’. The period covered by the narrative of autobiography, Barthes continues, ‘ends with the subject’s youth: the only [auto]biography is of an unproductive life’.9 This would accord with Coetzee’s choosing to end his autobiographical trilogy just at the moment when he begins to publish his fiction: the last of the trilogy, Summertime, is organized around the publication of Dusklands (1974). Thereafter, Coetzee’s autobiography is the fiction itself.

Famously, in ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes wrote of literature’s ability to invent a ‘special voice’ that consists of ‘several indiscernible voices’, voices to which ‘we cannot assign a specific origin’. The voice of the words on a literary page is ‘the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes’.10 Barthes’s example is Balzac, but he writes about Mallarmé in the same vein. He might also have been writing about Flaubert, who with more than a hint of intellectual bullying chided his lover, Louise Colet, on her enthusiasm for L’Éducation sentimentale by saying, ‘What I’d like to do is a book about nothing, a book with no external attachment, one which would hold together by the internal strength of its style, as the earth floats in the air unsupported.’11 What in Flaubert is a style so distinctive that it floats free of all attachments becomes in Barthes a play of ‘indiscernible voices’ to which we cannot assign an origin.

What looks like a mid-twentieth-century anti-bourgeois polemic in Barthes’s ‘The Death of the Author’ was therefore already a late-nineteenth-century anti-bourgeois manifesto in Flaubert, who in the same letter to Louise Colet writes, ‘There are no beautiful or sordid subjects and one could almost establish it as an axiom that, from the point of view of pure Art, there is no such thing as a subject, style being solely itself an absolute way of seeing things.’12 Art for art’s sake was Flaubert’s solution to an embarrassing problem: the perfection of style provided the licence that he needed to work with a subject, adultery, which he had already judged to be sordid and mundane.

Barthes’s polemic was in a longstanding tradition of French modernism. Aimed at the idea of dismantling the author as a cultural institution, his essay should not be confused with what he had to say about the psychic and existential demands of authorship itself. In The Preparation of the Novel, the posthumously edited collection of notes for seminars he gave at the Collège de France, he says that writing is a compulsion – the result of an interruption in the normal course of a life. To illustrate the point he quotes the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno: ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’ (‘In the middle of the journey of our life’).13

A bereavement would do the trick, as it did for Proust, who lost his mother, and for whom writing then became a matter of the ‘use of Time before death’ (Barthes’s emphasis). The monument to Proust’s desire to write was, precisely, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).14 In Barthes’s own case, he recalls exactly the date on which he decided to begin writing: 15 April 1978, in Casablanca. (It is surely his resolve, unfulfilled, to write fiction, since he had written so much else by then.) For Coetzee, the critical date came on 1 January 1970. In Coetzee, bereavements would also play their part. Once the novel is under way, continues Barthes, then its own priorities soon take over. He writes, ‘In reality, it’s not memory that creates [the novel] but its deformation’ (his emphasis).15 The triggers for Coetzee are similar to those described by Barthes. In his notes for The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee writes, ‘A story is like a road. What do we hope to find at the end of the road? Oneself. One’s death.’16

In one of the interviews in Doubling the Point, Coetzee famously says, ‘all writing is autobiography’ and ‘all autobiography is storytelling’.17 These aphorisms are now much quoted as general truths. While critics have applied them in discussions of Boyhood, Youth and Summertime, with their third-person treatments of the autobiographical persona, they have not been much discussed in relation to Coetzee’s fiction.

Coetzee himself tells us in these aphorisms that the self is always present, but as narrative rather than as raw truth. If we are to understand the equation created here between what is revealed and what is hidden – that is, if we are to understand Coetzee’s creative processes – first we need to see the self inside the fiction, and then we need to see how, in telling the story, Coetzee reaches for the aesthetic and achieves something larger and more representative.

A law of diminishing returns is also operative here, of course: the more rigorous and resourceful the ars poetica, the more elusive the self is likely to prove. The difficulty in our generally failing to grasp this has been Coetzee’s famed impersonality, which is a distinguishing feature of his authorial signature. He disappears behind those masks. Many readers feel rightly that the disappearances are a game, that he is deliberately both there and not there at the same time. The several ‘Coetzees’ of Dusklands, the ‘JC’ and ‘Señor C’ of Diary of a Bad Year, ‘John’ of the autobiographies, ‘John’ in the stories in Elizabeth Costello, are all, in some measure, Coetzee himself, but because they appear in fictional or partly fictionalized works, we are inclined to distrust them as tokens of identity.

Even the authorial name, formalized and depersonalized by the initials ‘J.M.’ in place of ‘John’, makes us think twice about ascribing the same signature to the living author. His Nobel Lecture, ‘He and His Man’, which is based on Robinson Crusoe, addresses this question in terms of an allegory of the relationships between authors and their creations.

As a younger man Coetzee had cultivated this self-masking through an affinity with his modernist forebears, although he has always insisted that there is more to impersonality than it seems. He said of Eliot, ‘for a poet who had such success, in his heyday, in importing the yardstick of impersonality into criticism, Eliot’s poetry is astonishingly personal, not to say autobiographical’.18

Eliot’s most famous statement on the subject is this: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’ The less frequently quoted corollary, in the same essay, is just as important: ‘But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.’19 When these two statements are put together, this is what they add up to: in Eliot’s own words, ‘What happens [to the poet] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’20

This was congenial to Coetzee. In a lecture given in 1974 at the University of Cape Town, he quotes one of Eliot’s letters to the effect that ‘the creation of a work of art is a painful and unpleasant business; it is a sacrifice of the man to the work, it is a kind of death’.21

Impersonality is not an a priori quality inherent in a work of art, nor is it simply a function of the aesthetic. It is an achievement, an effect of labour in which the self is partially but not wholly buried beneath the superstructure. It is an effect that was sought after and prized in modernism of an erudite kind, with Coetzee’s forebears T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound leading the way.

Coetzee was drawn initially to Eliot’s version of impersonality not only because it suited his personality, but also for cultural reasons. Later, his training in linguistics enabled him to bring a certain academic detachment to his search for an entrée into fiction. From the linguistics of the period when he was a graduate student, the late 1960s, when American structuralism was giving way to transformational grammar, he derived the broad idea that we have limited power over the cultural systems we inhabit, that language speaks through us. That view was reinforced in the 1970s and 1980s by the post-structuralism of Barthes and of Jacques Derrida and others whom Coetzee followed, and with whom he was often in ideological sympathy.

A passage in the drafts of Youth is especially revealing because it points to ways in which Coetzee’s adoption of impersonality contributed to his deliberations when weighing up a vocation in poetry as against the novel.

There are certain dicta in T.S. Eliot that he clings to because they are all there is to prove that he is still a poet. Poetry is an extinction of personality. Only people who  . . . [sic]. He has a horror of spilling emotion on to the page. Once it has begun to spill he will not know how to contain it. It will be like cutting an artery and watching his lifeblood pulse out on to the floor.

Yet the driplets of feeling that emerge are so weak, so colourless, that he knows he will never find his salvation in the medium. He will have to turn to prose. He has never written prose, but he sees it as a more tranquil medium, each page a virtual lake on whose surface he can tack about unhurried, finding his way, where there will be space, lots of space, but no storms, no high waves.22

Like Eliot, Coetzee finds impersonality convenient, but the difference is that while Coetzee inherits it from Eliot like furniture from an ancestral home, he has too much appreciation for the volatility of psychology, and the sheer capriciousness of language, to take it too seriously. It is, in part, a game. He is also, like Eliot, just as interested in irony, and irony’s ability to pull the rug from under one’s feet, although even this is a position in which he does not invest too deeply.

I suspect that Coetzee would prefer to think of himself as a writer of dark, ironic comedy, rather than, say, as a diagnostician of the postcolonial condition. His comedy can, at times, be very dark indeed, unbearably so. The reason for this has everything to do with the quality that he once thought gave him the edge over Barthes: the history that he has lived through, the history that has marked him – the ‘world-relevance’. Those trees on the golf course in Simonstown.



Identity drift


Excerpted from "J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing"
by .
Copyright © 2016 David Attwell.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vii

Chronology xi

Preface: The Coetzee Papers xvii

1 An alphabet of trees: Autobiography - The uses of impersonality 1

2 Recusant Afrikaners: Identity drift 11

3 1 January 1970: The beginning - Dusklands 25

4 Karoo: The beloved landscape - Life & Times of Michael K, In the Heart of the Country 40

5 'The Burning of the Books': Censorship in the life of writing 55

6 Writing revolution - Waiting for the Barbarians 81

7 Suburban bandit: Michael K as outlaw 105

8 Crusoe, Defoe, Friday - Foe 124

9 Mother - Age of Iron 137

10 Father - Summertime 153

11 The Shot Tower - The Master of Petersburg 163

12 Migrations: Irreconcilable lives - Elizabeth Costello, Disgrace 187

13 The third stage: Australia - Slow Man, Diary of a Bad Year, The Childhood of Jesus 209

Notes 223

Bibliography 239

Index 243

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