How do you evaluate a novelist whose works are littered with scathing self-assessments? The Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee has articulated so many harsh criticisms of himself and his fiction within his own novels that it sometimes seems the only thing left for critics to do is praise him. He’s already got the negatives covered.
In his 2007 novel Diary of a Bad Year, an elderly novelist known as Señor C offers this bracing critique of his own writing: It is “not great-souled, as the Russians would say.” It “lacks generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.” Given Coetzee’s famous remark that “all writing is autobiography,” this reads as a not particularly veiled self-reference. The character also wonders whether the critics who say that he is merely a pedant who dabbles in fiction are actually right.
His 2009 Summertime, an ingeniously structured novel that masquerades as a biography of John Coetzee, offers another spectacle of self-belittlement. The book presents itself as the notes and interview transcripts collected by a young biographer researching the life of Coetzee. The fictional biographer speaks with various people who knew him in many capacities: as lover, colleague, family member. Once again, the portrait that emerges is not flattering: Coetzee looks like “one of those flightless birds; or like an abstracted scientist who had wandered by mistake out of his laboratory. There was an air of seediness about him, too, an air of failure.” As a lover, he’s equally disappointing: “He did not love anybody, he was not built for love… In his lovemaking I now think there was an autistic quality.”
Coetzee’s dim self-appraisal may be just another manifestation of the broader gloominess that characterizes his view of things. Or it might be a defensive tactic, a way of defusing the sharpest criticisms by making them first himself. But more is at stake here than the self-image of an aging, celebrated novelist. Coetzee’s books dramatize fundamental questions about the possibilities of self-knowledge: Can we trust our own sense of ourselves, or must we attempt to behold ourselves refracted through the many perspectives of those we encounter? Do dark moments of self-doubt and self-loathing stem from a momentary inability to see the truth, or are these moments in fact rare glimpses of a truth we typically ignore?
Two new Coetzee-related books provide new insights into his life and mind. The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction, and Psychotherapy, features a wide-ranging discussion between Coetzee and the clinical psychologist Arabella Kurtz on the function of fiction, of both the literary and psychological variety. A new biography by David Attwell, J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, draws on notes and drafts from Coetzee’s archives to interpret the subtle self-exposures of his novels.
Attwell studied under Coetzee at the University of Cape Town, but his book is not a work of literary gossip-mongering. On the contrary, it’s a fascinating and nuanced reading of Coetzee’s fiction, a genre that in his case is largely indistinguishable from autobiography. This is not to say that everything in his novels is true in some straightforward, confessional way. For one thing, Coetzee is not a realist in any traditional sense. Even if he were, he would likely feel a strong epistemic skepticism about the possibility of representing oneself accurately.
Coetzee once wrote that more than “the simple urge to represent,” he is interested in “second-order” questions, such as “What am I doing when I represent? What is the difference between living in the real world and living in a world of representations?” This impatience with realism dates back to the start of his career. In notes for his first novel, Dusklands, he floats the sarcastic suggestion that perhaps the traditional realist padding the novel lacks could be relegated to an appendix: “So, why not a massive appendix, an alphabetized list of all the people and places with heavy, solid histories and descriptions of them.” The technique of narration through numbered paragraphs that Coetzee deploys in his novel In the Heart of the Country is, in his words, “a way of pointing to what is not there between [the paragraphs]: the kind of scene-setting and connective tissue that the traditional novel used to find necessary.”
His straining against the limits of traditional realism does not derive—as in some arid schools of postmodernism—from a lack of interest in the world beyond his own text. When preparing to write Dusklands, he took extensive notes on the chronology of colonial history, beginning with Portuguese explorers of the 1470s and continuing through to the 1950s. When contemplating a never-completed novel that was going to be called The Burning of the Books, Coetzee went so far as to apply for a position as a government censor of literature in South Africa. The application was not successful.
Coetzee’s frustrations with straightforward realism echo those voiced by Virginia Woolf in her classic 1923 essay Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. And like Woolf, Coetzee departs from traditional models not to flaunt a fashionable avant-garde aesthetic but to try to approach “the real”— conceived broadly as human truths—with new tools and techniques.
At first blush, the “second-order” questions that interest Coetzee might seem like abstract topics of primarily academic interest. But as his conversations with Arabella Kurtz show, trying to discern the difference between “living in the real world and living in a world of representations” is a matter of universal human interest. The distinction corresponds roughly to the difference between self-delusion and self-knowledge.
A basic question in the exchanges between Kurtz and Coetzee is whether it’s possible to disentangle convenient fictions from uncomfortable truths. Coetzee is genuinely conflicted on this point: “On the one hand I am alarmed by the prospect of a world in which people’s notion of liberty includes the liberty to reconstruct their personal histories endlessly without fear of sanction. On the other hand, if an individual who is deeply miserable can be cheered up by being encouraged to revise the story of their life, giving it a positive spin, who could possibly object?”
A therapist might argue—and Kurtz does—that ignoring or forgetting certain unsavory aspects of our individual histories is sometimes an essential component of psychic health. Coetzee is sympathetic to this, but scruples nag at him: “What happens to justice, I ask myself, if we are free to ignore aspects of the past in the name of personal growth?” As a white South African, of course, Coetzee sees both personal and political dimensions to the ethics of forgetting. How can he ignore the atrocities committed by his own ancestors?
To which most people respond: Is that worth dwelling on? Coetzee, however, seems unable not to notice human-caused suffering in all its manifestations, both past and present. Alluding to Freud, he wrote in his notes to Waiting for the Barbarians: “Somewhere, always, a child is being beaten.” This is true, and appalling, and yet it’s something most people have little trouble ignoring for vast stretches of their lives.
The disquieting moral implications of Coetzee’s novels seem inextricably linked to his unusually persistent anguish over the qualities of human nature that make outrages such as the beating of children possible. He seems constitutionally incapable of the kind of forgetting that individuals and nations routinely practice, and this helps explain both his appeal and his oddness as a novelist.
There’s something doggedly myopic in Coetzee’s fixation on the least laudable aspects of our species. The pervasive bleakness of his books can make it tempting to dismiss him as a novelist who has merely mistaken his own depression for an objective feature of the world. The Coetzee doppelgänger in Diary of a Bad Year even considers a version of this explanation. What if, he wonders, his feelings of moral disgrace over Guantánamo detainees and the world’s countless other injustices, are in fact something else, “something punier and more manageable, some overload or underload of amines in the cortex that could loosely be entitled depression or even more loosely gloom and could be dispelled in a matter of minutes by the right cocktail of chemicals.”
And yet to reduce Coetzee’s unsparing vision to a symptom of mental imbalance is dangerous. If the world really is as awful as his characters generally feel it is, then unhappiness is a correct and ethical response. The truth ultimately matters more than a version of the truth that promotes happiness. Coetzee encourages us to ask ourselves the most unsettling and difficult of questions, something that literature does better than any pharmaceuticals.