Having returned Age of Iron to the shelf, after absorbing its enigmatic final pages, I am left with a feeling of literary bereavement. There is, at least for the time being, no more J.M. Coetzee to read.
No more fiction, that is. Although I couldn’t resist his three slim volumes of memoir published under the banner of Scenes from Provincial Life –Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009) – I abided by a considered decision not to read any of the author’s critical and topical essays until I had finished all of his novels. As an author who frequently grapples, provocatively and arrestingly, with sensitive and ideologically charged material, I didn’t want his opinions to interfere with my reading of his fiction. One of the highest purposes of literature derives from its ability to refresh and renew our entire view of the world – philosophically, politically and empathetically – which is conditional upon a certain degree of openness on the reader’s part that we would rarely be willing to grant of overtly political non-fiction. The less I knew, therefore, about the extents to which the protagonists of Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007) resembled their creator, the better, as far as my engagement with them on the critical first reading was concerned.
I first dipped my toes into the remarkable Coetzee oeuvre with Disgrace (1999) – the troubling, unsettling (an adjective that Coetzee’s fictions frequently summon up) and utterly compelling narrative that bagged him his second Booker Prize and was surely a strong factor in his being awarded the Nobel in 2003. Some years later, I chanced upon Elizabeth Costello,which was equally as compellingly provocative, albeit that it lacked something of Disgrace‘s devastatingly purposeful artistic unity. Fast forward a couple of years more, and then, via Youth, the inevitable breakneck gallop, just concluded, through the Coetzee oeuvre ensued.
Taking an overview of Coetzee’s achievements in fiction, it is impossible not to be powerfully impressed by the intense moral seriousness of his artistic mission, as applied to the tumultuous history of the country of his birth, to contemporary ideological contests and affairs, and to meditative reflection upon the nature of literary enunciation and its place in the life of the human spirit per se. The dark intensity of the early narratives of Dusklands (1974) and In the Heart of the Country (1977) introduced the world to his striking gifts of imaginative empathy, while his Booker prize winning fourth novel, The Life and Times of Michael K. (1983), was distinguished by a pitch-perfect purity of narration and marked by an eloquence that I can only describe as Steinbeckian, in terms both of its overwhelming pathos and its transmogrification of stone-hard brute reality into the stuff of fable. In between, there is that masterly novel of political conscience, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), some central themes of which were taken up again in Age of Iron (1990), with its vivid depiction of the violence of apartheid lurching towards its death-throes. The latter novel is also notable for a more intimately personal turn that points the way to much of the later fiction, and is surely not unrelated to the author’s recent dedication to memoir. A word, and an emotion, that recurs repeatedly in Age of Iron is ‘shame’, and I am convinced that the seeds of the late masterpiece Disgrace were sown in its author’s mind at this point, as he strove to relate ever more compelling individual histories that invite us to reflect critically upon history (specific and localised, as well as the grandest sweeps) as a determining force in the destiny of individuals. Coetzee’s later fiction – including Elizabeth Costello (which expanded upon the 1999 novella The Lives of Animals, with its frank engagement of the philosophical and ideological dimensions of animal rights debates), Slow Man (2005), in which Elizabeth Costello reappeared to provide an impish counterpoint to the protaganist’s worldview, and Diary of a Bad Year – added a Rothian preoccupation with physical decay to the author’s insistent concerns. The latest novel, for me, might well have been titled Impotence; a condition that resonates in its pages on multiple levels, while also chiming with the overarching bleakness that many readers – rather glibly and superficially, to my mind – bemoan of Coetzee’s work.
Standing somewhat outside this career trajectory, in my experience of the Coetzee canon, are two marvellous performances, Foe (1986) and The Master of Petersburg (1994), which resoundingly attest to the gifts of imaginative empathy earlier alluded to, cast across land, sea, and the reach of centuries; the former is a virtuoso extended riff – if I may be so bold – upon Robinson Crusoe and the latter, a compulsive novelisation of an episode in the life of Dostoevsky that brings the subterranean world of radicalism and nihilistic rebellion in nineteenth-century Russia vividly to life. Across all of this work, it is intriguing to trace the development of the distinctive, laconic Coetzeian voice (which – disorientingly – is equally a feature of the volumes of memoir as of the novels), that masks his artistic designs with a kind of sly elegance, granting his work its powerful capacity to shock and surprise. Significantly, in my reading, Coetzee’s novels invite us to entertain that old, deeply unfashionable, notion of literature as ‘improving’ – not necessarily at the level of top-down ethical didacticism, but certainly in terms of sharpening the reader’s clarity of thought and depth of perception. In these terms, I would suggest, it merits strong commendation for its universal impetus.
In sum, I fervently hope that, contra my title, I have not, in fact, ‘finished’ Coetzee. I certainly look forward to dipping into the volumes of essays he has turned out, and am confident that this worthy Nobel laureate has a few books left in him yet. Juicy ones, if recent performances are anything to go by.