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Michael Gorra on J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Diary of a Bad Year’
Posted on Jan 17, 2008
Halfway through J.M. Coetzee’s 11th novel there’s a chapter called “On music,” a series of elegantly phrased pensées that moves from bird songs to the heroic narrative of the 19th-century symphony before it ends by marking the difference between two masters of the German Baroque. For Bach, we read, it seems that “any musical germ ...[contains] endless possibilities for development,” but with Telemann the work “sounds like the execution of a plan rather than the exploration of a potential.” “Diary of a Bad Year” is not precisely a self-reflexive novel, the kind of book in which the writer pulls himself out of his own hat; it’s nothing so simple. It does, however, provide an implicit set of instructions for reading, and none more pregnant than these words about music. No one will doubt either this book’s intelligence or its artfulness. A final judgment, however, will depend on which composer one thinks it most resembles.
Diary of a Bad Year
By J. M. Coetzee
Viking Adult, 240 pages
After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie
By Michael Gorra
University Of Chicago Press, 218 pages
Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940, English-speaking but of Afrikaner stock, and grew up in a world in which almost every human relation received the impress of apartheid, the strict separation between the races imposed by the white minority government. He left the country as a young man, but after receiving a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas he returned to begin a teaching career in his native Cape Town and first gained international attention with his third novel, “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1980). Yet where other important South African writers—figures like Nadine Gordimer or Andre Brink—chose to write explicitly about their nation’s ills, Coetzee adopted a more elliptical, indeed almost allegorical mode. He set “Waiting for the Barbarians” on the border of an unnamed and apparently preindustrial empire and wrote in the voice of a local magistrate, a man forced to acquiesce in the new violence imposed by the central government. Soon he himself becomes subject to torture, and soon the government’s fears produce the frontier rebellion it had hoped to forestall. The novel’s relevance to South Africa was at once clear and imprecise. It brought us the news, as Gordimer did, and yet it had no documentary value as such—seemed both to address and yet refuse the burden of its local conditions.
Coetzee won Britain’s Booker Prize for his next novel, the 1983 “Life and Times of Michael K,” a fable that set an innocent Everyman wandering through South Africa’s violent landscape. The book’s geography is exact, but though the author leaves no doubt about the man’s race, he never once mentions it. Coetzee has a deeply political mind, yet he prefers to use a moral language instead—to couch his book’s questions not in terms of justice so as much as in those of guilt and shame and conscience. Most of his characters would be happy to avoid politics all together, to be left alone in their gardens, and the conflict between that desire and the demands of their world is reflected in the obliquity with which the author himself approaches such issues. He received a second Booker for “Disgrace” (1999), in which he chose, atypically, to write directly about a recognizable national present. But its picture of post-apartheid South Africa was far from celebratory. Indeed it suggested a world of spreading disorder, and the book was sharply criticized at home, a criticism given extra fuel by the book’s international success. Coetzee had for years spent much of his time abroad, often at American universities, but by the time he won the Nobel Prize in 2003 he had moved to Australia, where he recently became a citizen.
His prose is always accessible but his books are always difficult, as one might expect from a disciple of Kafka and Beckett, and they have been praised as much for their formal qualities as for their acts of witness. I suspect that will be especially true with “Diary of a Bad Year.” The situation Coetzee invents for us here is at once rudimentary and complex. He uses an Australian apartment building for his setting and employs just three characters, each of them defined, at first, by little more than his or her narrative role. There is a writer in his 70s whom we know as JC. Then we have the half-Filipina Anya, whom JC first sees in a “tomato-red shift” of startling brevity, and her boyfriend Alan, a “plump and ever-sweaty” investment counselor. JC meets Anya in their building’s laundry room and almost immediately hires her, at three times the going rate, to transcribe his thoughts for a book called “Strong Opinions,” an “opportunity to grumble in public” commissioned by a German publisher. There’s a suggestion he has Parkinson’s, that he can no longer manage a pen or a keyboard, but really he’s paying for her wiggle, and she knows it; knowing too that “If I were a man I would not be able to keep my eyes off me.” And Alan encourages her—suspicious, yet also drawn by what he learns about JC’s money.
They will each have their steps to perform, a dance so spare as to seem abstract. But that trio is not, in itself, the most important of the possibilities Coetzee has for development. Go back to those words about Bach. They come from a chapter called “On music,” and their rhetoric of argument and example belongs to an essay, not a novel. In fact, every one of this book’s 55 short chapters begins with that preposition, as though we were reading Montaigne, and anyone who opens this book will immediately notice something strange about it. In Flannery O’Connor’s words, “it looks funny on the page.”
Choosing at random, I crack the book to Page 102. It’s split into three pieces of text, with lines to separate them and a lot of white space too. The top of the page offers an extract from “Strong Opinions”—here, on risk and the laws of probability. The second, rather short section contains JC’s narrative of his relations with Anya. These two bits are present from the start, unequally dividing the page, but once Anya enters JC’s employ they are joined by a third, her own account of the book’s two men. To complicate things, JC’s narrative is in places entirely composed of Anya’s words—that is, of what he has heard her say—and Anya’s of Alan’s. Coetzee will use this layout in many ways, and in practice it proves easier to follow than it looks. I found it best to read straight through, rather than taking a chapter’s worth of JC’s notebook observations on Guantanamo or pedophilia and then going back to follow out the narratives. For the different parts of the page talk to one another, and though the relation between its head and its foot rarely becomes obvious, it is never in the least accidental.
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