Sobriquet 45.17

This post is a continuation of Sobriquet 45.16.

The remainder of my reading consisted of relatively brief articles and reviews. In "J. M. Coetzee's Cultural Critique," Harald Leusmann provides a reading of the novel that would likely fit under the umbrage of what Marais terms an "orthodox response," viewing the novel as a reflection of "the collective mood of present-day South Africa's white population at the end of the dark twentieth century" (60). As is common with such readings, Leusmann regards Lurie's development over the course of the novel as a journey of self-discovery in which the protagonist eventually realizes that loving the other is more rewarding than the brand of self-love with which he begins the book. In Sarah Lyall's brief article on Coetzee's second Booker Prize, the critic briefly reviews the same ground as Leusmann. David Attwell, in his excellent review of Disgrace, the critic delivers what amounts to one of the most definitive readings of the novel, emphasizing many of the issues Leusmann and Lyall consider as well as highlighting (among other things) the linguistic, sexual, and historical ideas so many later critics have elaborated on. As is the case with much of Attwell's work, "Coetzee and Post-Apartheid South Africa" is required reading for any student of Coetzee. Sarah Ruden's brief review of Coetzee's novel, while short, draws attention to the spiritual aspect of the novel several later critics discuss at greater length when she notes that the "novel brings to mind the theology of kenosis, the self-emptying necessary for spiritual growth." In "After the Fall," Michael Gorra praises Coetzee for his brave willingness to depict "an almost unrelieved series of grim moments" and, presciently, implies that the novel will likely bring the author the Nobel he would eventually win in 2003.

For tomorrow: Read another article.

Works Cited

Attwell, David. "Coetzee and Post-Apartheid South Africa." Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. Journal of Southern African Studies 27.4 (2001): 865-867.

Gorra, Michael. "After the Fall." Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. New York Times 28 Nov. 1999: BR7+.

Leusmann, Harald. "J. M. Coetzee's Cultural Critique." World Literature Today 78.3 (2004): 60-63.

Lyall, Sarah. "J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace Wins Booker Prize." New York Times 26 Oct. 1999. Available online.

Ruden, Sarah. Rev. of Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. Christian Century 16 Aug. 2000. Available online.


Anonymous said…
Someone blogging in a major way about Coetzee: feels like release, or, shall we say, a state of grace.

In one of your posts you commented on an article dealing with the supposedly misogynistic side of Coeetzes ouevre. However, I find this reasoning somehow too distanced from the texts themselves; ironically enough, since the texts themselves seem so distanced. In Waiting for the Barbarians, for example, is the Magistrates attempt to decipher, as it were, the girl really an expression of Coetzee's misogyny? Isn't Coetzee instead, through a character which he, the first-person narration notwithstanding, views with the cold eye recommended in Age of Iron, critiquing the inability-of the liberal white, of the colonial masculine subject?- to, I suppose, face the other, in an Emmanuel Levinasian sense, while we're at it?

And do you really think a supra-analytic like Coeetze would allow closeted homoerotic currents to escape his "cold eye"? Doesn't it rather seem more probable that his obsession with eroticism, more often than not grotesque, more often than not just plain odd, is somehow, like so much of Coetzee's work seems to be, a purely fictional affair, that is to say, that it somehow relates to what he in his seminal or shall we say self-seminal essay on Dostoyevsky declares, namely: Fiction is prision? To me it always seemed that Coetzee was somehow making statements or, perhaps ... literature games; games theory? using eroticism as one distorted but queerly clear ingredient. Recall, for instance, the protagonist of Foe acting as Muse in a what seemed to me uneasy or simply de-dramatized coupling with Foe.

I don't know, I just can't shake the frustrating suspicion that most commentators on Coetzee fail to fully account for the odd analytic estrangement, I guess, of his works. Can you really even critique the gender policies expressed in a text such as Foe, or Disgrace, or Boyhood, or Elizabeth Costello, where everything is so mercilessly contorted or analyzed out of life, somehow? For example, when Coetzee, in Diary of A Bad Year, recounts or rather makes the female co-protagonist (the attractive young woman) recount her being raped, isn't he rather doing what he in one interview confessed to be indulging in together with his students, namely simply constructing an inventory of stories, of what can be done before a story is no longer a story. Her account of the rape seems somehow an attempt on Coetzee's behalf to void the mouldy depository of rape-stories passed on to us from innumerable, indeed innumerable newspaper articles, women's magazines accounts, newsbreaks, reality shows and what have you? He never lets these snippets of supposedly chocking scenes develop a dramatic current. Instead, I think, he cuts them short in order to show us how voided of meaning these recurring themes have become through the decharging discourses of media, making titillation and consumerism-craze out of, for lack of a less worn-out word, tragic occurrences, "fates"? Could this be the self-voiding to which one of the articles you have read refers?
Hello, Mattias!

Thank you for what is probably the single most thoughtful comment I have received since beginning this blog project. Indeed, you cut right to the heart of several extremely key issues.

Firstly, I think many readers would agree with your first paragraph. Levinas, of course, figures prominently in several discussions of Coetzee's fiction and the impossibility of the colonial masculine subject to confront the other, as you suggest, is undoubtedly a concern as early as Dusklands.

Furthermore, I completely agree with you regarding Coetzee's "cold eye." I cannot imagine that a writer as text-conscious as Coetzee could possibly miss the currents you speak of. For someone as notoriously deliberate as Coetzee, one can only assume that he is only too aware of the implications of such thematic ground. This is, I think, precisely what interests several of the critics I've mentioned (Boehmer, Munro). Why he chooses to broach the subject when he does really seems to interest some readers. Munro, in particular, sees Coetzee's willingness to discuss gay themes in a time of tumultuous social upheaval as an especially important detail.

Of course, with a writer as deliberate and intelligent as Coetzee, it is difficult to say with any certainty "this is a fiction" and "that is true." His texts often blur these categorical distinctions to such an extent that one must necessarily reflect on the very natures of narrative and knowledge. Also, in Boyhood (and later, during the episode in Youth when John has an awkward homosexual liaison), the reader is struck by the candor with which a famously reclusive author describes extremely personal encounters. This surprise, one must assume, is at least part of Coetzee's intent, for he must be aware of his reputation as standoffish and reticent. Thus, one might assume that Coetzee is playing with the notion of authorship. The public's perception of a writer as intensely private as Coetzee seems unable to accommodate such bold honesty. Then again, given the general belief that Coetzee's memoirs are fictionalized, one cannot help but to wonder if these are fictional episodes intended to bring about such confusion. Add to this Coetzee's comments on confessional narratives and you have one incredibly ambiguous, unsettling book...which, I suspect, is precisely the author's intent. That unsettling feeling, after all, runs through the entirety of Coetzee's oeuvre and forces us to ask the sort questions you raise.

As for the "grotesque" eroticism, I do think Coetzee's texts present an uncommonly bleak view of sex. There is little joy to be found in any of the trysts in the author's work and violence is frequently a major theme. You raise an interesting point: does Coetzee drain these scenes of their essence and shock value in order to say something about the ways in which their real-world counterparts are treated? Quite possibly. There are, certainly, many readers who would agree with you.

Thanks so much for reading!

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