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Michael Gorra on J.M. Coetzee's 'Diary of a Bad Year'

Michael Gorra
Contributor
Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith College. His books include "The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany" and his book, "Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of An American…
Michael Gorra

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.

book cover

Diary of a Bad Year

By J. M. Coetzee

Viking Adult, 240 pages

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book cover

After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie

By Michael Gorra

University Of Chicago Press, 218 pages

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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.Take the first chapter, “On the origins of the state.” JC’s notes here draw on both Hobbes and Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” but while his ideas are interesting in themselves, provocative and at times even wise, the chapter also gives us another origin — his first meeting with Anya, and the birth of a lawless new desire. That link seems easy enough to spot; later ones are more delicate. A chapter called “On apology” begins with a meditation on restitutive justice, while the middle of the page contains JC’s response to a story Anya tells him about sex and dishonor; the bottom has her engaged in the kind of argument with Alan for which he ought to apologize, but won’t. Not that I noticed those connections at the time — the web connecting the different parts of these pages is too airily spun for that, the engineering too perfect. Moreover Coetzee works to mask their relation, for while JC’s notebooks take up and then drop a variety of subjects, the narrative is continuous; it’s as though their rhythms were cutting across one another. Still, about two-thirds of the way through the terms of this counterpoint do seem to shift their key. Anya’s sense of JC begins to change, and he begins a “Second Diary,” this one containing “soft” opinions instead of strong ones, thoughts on compassion or boredom or children. This notebook stresses his literary response rather than his political understanding, casting it in an emphatic first-person that avoids the cool impersonality of his earlier one.

One of those soft opinions defines the debt any serious writer owes to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, those mountains toward which he “must toil, even if without the faintest chance of getting there.” Dostoevsky has long fascinated Coetzee, and in his 1994 “Master of Petersburg” Coetzee even took the Russian for his protagonist; the novel asks what it must have cost Dostoevsky to be able to imagine the things he did. JC’s invocation of both writers reminds me here of the Russian proverb about the hedgehog and the fox, which the intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin used to distinguish between the two Russian writers. The hedgehog — Dostoevsky — knows one big thing; the fox many. Berlin suggested that Tolstoy was a fox trying to act like a hedgehog, but Coetzee flips it around: He’s a hedgehog who has spent a career hoping to turn into a fox. He will write in first-person and third, adopt a woman’s point of view, approach allegory in one book and realism in another. But there remains one big thing at the center of his work, a particular dramatic situation that he has come back to again and again.

Most of his best books — “Life and Times of Michael K” is the great exception — turn on an older man’s pursuit and indeed use of a younger woman. She might be a student or an employee or even near to a slave, but that sexual relation shapes both “Disgrace” and “Waiting for the Barbarians,” among others. Such exploitation is common enough in colonial societies, but it’s hardly limited to them, and in Coetzee it isn’t always marked by race. For the man it usually brings ruin, although the ensuing shame can sometimes work to save him; what it brings the woman is less clear. Coetzee has used that situation again here, and this time finds in it not only his material but his form too, in that spatial division of the page. Put it crudely: The man’s on top, but he never gets the last word. Yet nothing in “Diary of a Bad Year” develops in quite the way one expects, and the book seems finally to belie its title, to resolve itself into an unexpected major chord. It isn’t quite a comedy, but it is a kind of late romance, in every sense of the term, and as close to a jeu d’esprit as one can imagine from this most saturnine of writers.

The most obvious — and the most difficult — part of that game lies in the connection between JC and Coetzee himself. The character shares pieces of his creator’s biography, though not apparently the big prizes. JC is a few years older, but he too was born in South Africa and has written a book called “Waiting for the Barbarian,” and his oeuvre seems to touch Coetzee’s at other points as well. Coetzee likes to speak through masks, especially about ethical or political subjects. He has written his memoirs in the third person, and in speeches he likes to hedge his argument around with a fictional frame, so that its views aren’t “his,” but those of a character, an ironic presentation of what appears to be his own beliefs; as if to say, these are not truths, but strong opinions only, which he invites us for a time to inhabit. His 2003 novel, “Elizabeth Costello,” even makes a gathering of such things, stories masquerading as essays, and in his 2003 Nobel lecture he himself said nothing; instead he gave voice to Robinson Crusoe’s thoughts about “his man” Defoe.

I don’t think Coetzee would dispute anything JC says, and yet one of the exhilarating things about this book is that it’s not only about the link between creator and character, artist and artifact. “Diary of a Bad Year” doesn’t loop back upon or consume itself, and the resemblance between JC and Coetzee seems to me in some way contingent, almost a matter of chance. Bach would at times improvise on a theme someone else had given him, most famously in the “Musical Offering,” and it seems here as if Coetzee has done something similar. He has treated himself as though he were a found object: picked up a few stray pieces, played the hand he’s been dealt, looked into the fridge of his life to see what he can make. His mask is so transparent — too transparent — that it invites us to notice his resemblance to JC and yet forget about it too. This book is clothed in the illusion of nakedness.

Or maybe it is naked; JC is a man of second thoughts, and it’s inevitable that his readers will have them too. These pages aren’t only divided between JC and Anya, they’re also split between the world of politics and ideas on the one hand and the private life on the other. Which takes precedence? And to what, in reading Coetzee, should we most give our attention — his “message” or his form? That puts it crudely; these are not final distinctions. Nevertheless, JC seems to address that question when, late in these pages, he looks to Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov as a way to describe his sense of a writer’s authority. He remains unpersuaded by Ivan’s attack on Christian ethics but shattered by his “accents of anguish. … It is the voice of Ivan, as realized by Dostoevsky, not his reasoning, that sweeps me along.” And that statement can perhaps stand as an allegory of Coetzee’s own career. We can’t avoid politics, but the core of our life is elsewhere. The voice is what matters, not the ideas — the character, the soul.

“Diary of a Bad Year” is the most rigorously planned of Coetzee’s novels, right down to the design of the page. Most of its bits are end-stopped, though there is an occasional missing period, a bit of grammatical drama, that tempts you to turn before you should. Yet it all feels as casual as a sweater tossed across one’s shoulders, a book seemingly made out of nothing at all, and two central novels of the 20th century came repeatedly to mind as I read, even across vast distances of style and temperament. One was Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” that flayed comedy of half-madness. The other was Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler,” an account of an ever-delayed fulfillment that tells the same story in a dozen ways. It’s an unlikely pairing, and yet this novel’s sense of ever-sprouting potential has something of each of them. Probably both JC and Coetzee himself would shun that comparison’s implicit note of evaluation and rank, but Coetzee is not the loser by it. This is the most cunningly made new book I have read in years.

Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith College. His books include “The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany” and, as editor, “The Portable Conrad.” He is a frequent contributor to the (London) Times Literary Supplement, among other publications.

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