Two cows, one enigma

J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading
April 15, 2005

The only writer to have been awarded the Booker prize twice, J. M. Coetzee, did not turn up on either occasion to receive it. When accepting the Nobel prize for 2003, he resorted to his favourite fiction-as-lecture format, which few in the audience understood. He is, perhaps, the only Nobel laureate whose very name remains a mystery: some works cite him as "John Michael Coetzee", others as "John Maxwell Coetzee", while Le Nouvel Observateur presents him as "Jean-Marie Coetzee". Being a reluctant interviewee, Coetzee does not think it necessary to clarify this.

The South African writer Rian Malan describes Coetzee as "a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing desk each morning. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word."

In his books, as apparently in his life, he is sparing with detail. His first six novels, written at a point in South Africa's history when the norms of realist fiction were considered necessary so that literature would engage in the struggle for change instead of remaining hermetic, were modernist works of self-referentiality. His last two novels, written since the end of apartheid, are works of realism.

How does Derek Attridge deal with this change in Coetzee in his new critical study of the author? Unevenly, is the answer. Attridge begins by articulating a key question: is modernism, as a self-reflexive school, a bad model for the politically responsible artist, or is it a possible source for such an artist? Supporting the latter position, Attridge moves swiftly to champion Coetzee as an exemplar.

The weakness in this argument is that it cannot satisfactorily be applied to Coetzee's work as a whole. Attridge starts by confining himself to the early works, focusing his early chapters on the notion of literature as "an event" - that is, not a fixed text to be researched for any historical significance but a site for continuing reinterpretation, each reader bringing his own perspective. He disavows the search for "national allegories" in these works, but contradicts himself in later chapters by offering just such readings.

Coetzee himself, irritated by continual questioning about the lack of a clear historical grounding in his earlier works, responded: "In times of intense ideological pressure like the present, when the space in which the novel and history normally coexist like two cows on the same pasture, each minding its own business, is squeezed to almost nothing, the novel has only two options, supplementarity or rivalry." He advocated rivalry.

Attridge's support for the modernist trend in Coetzee is a definite weakness when he comes to read Disgrace . Coetzee's second Booker winner is a sparsely narrated story of a literature professor's fall from grace after an affair with a young student and his subsequent move to his daughter's farm, where he encounters post-apartheid realities. Disgrace turns its back completely on modernism and is securely moored in the violent politics of present-day South Africa.

Attridge focuses on the reading self and the perspective it brings to Coetzee's text. Not only does this approach not address Coetzee's relationship to South Africa in the early works, or his responsibility as a creative artist, it overlooks the fact that Attridge, as a South African himself, brings to his study of Coetzee values and sociopolitical experiences not open to the average reader of Coetzee in, say, Britain or the US. In other words, the reader does not begin to arrive at an understanding of South Africa through modernist self-referentiality.

In discussing any literature, the privileging of one school of interpretation over another is transitory: one method soon gives way to another. The historical reality of South Africa under apartheid is less mutable. Where does Coetzee's early fiction stand vis-a-vis that history? Attridge, by restricting himself to the "performance" of the texts and their "literariness", and disengaging himself from politics, skirts around the issue. But he gives us an intriguing hint in a footnote - that Coetzee may have chosen to write as a modernist without specifying racial backgrounds and geographical settings as a way of preventing government censors from banning his novels.

Still, despite its weaknesses, this book is perhaps the closest reading of Coetzee to date. More important, in fairness to Attridge, its unevenness is not surprising given the nature of Coetzee's development as an artist.

Aware of the contradictions in his own work, Coetzee once asked if criticism could reveal those truths of literature that literature itself could not reveal. If it can, the task remains to be done for his writing.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in literature from Bristol University.

J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event

Author - Derek Attridge
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 225
Price - £33.50 and £13.50
ISBN - 0 226 03116 0 and 03117 9

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