Thursday, October 04, 2007

Metaphysical ache: JM Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year

When Booker Prize judge Giles Foden brushed aside the challenge of JM Coetzee's new novel as "a piece of radical literary theory" and because "theory is not fiction", I was prepared to let this go as an overstatement based on the novel's apparent aesthetic astringency. From glancing at reviews, the impression was that the novel consisted of self-indulgent essays written by lightly-disguised Coetzee figure with a cursory and slightly pervy sub-plot about his friendship with a much younger woman. I could appreciate how this might not appeal to consumerist demands, even those pretending to Literature. Bring on Mister Pip.

However, now that I've read Diary of a Bad Year, Foden's judgement appears at best incompetent, at worst disturbingly intolerant. To say this novel is "a subversion of the whole commercial and promotional mechanism whereby books are distributed" is about as accurate as saying The Last King of Scotland is about the British constitution. Yes, the novel is aesthetically astringent – the relationships remain formal, the opinions under-developed and on each page the narrative jumps from one voice to another - but these constitute much of the novel's originality as well as providing its emotional and intellectual ballast.

Diary of a Bad Year is an exceptionally moving investigation of what it means to have singular opinions in a plural universe. The short, diverse essays at the top of each page signal a diminishment of writerly power. They might evoke a hollow echo if published alone. At least one reviewer sees this as a problem to the success of the book. Yet if they were more fully-developed, they would crust over what is currently an open wound. And it is the gaping wound with which Coetzee's is concerned. Success, in this sense, would be failure.

The writer character begins by making a distinction between freedom and democracy. He sees the hand-over of power to the state in liberal democracies as irreversible. Freedom is threatened for the sake of democracy. It leads to another brand of totalitarianism. As readers we can agree, disagree or remain indifferent; that goes without saying. The point is: how might our response be included in such opinions? Or rather, how might the opinion appear if it tries to include the plural? How can we reconcile democracy with freedom? Such is the task of the novelist, hence the distinction, albeit narrow, between the author JM Coetzee and the writer in this novel.

The writer asks along the way: "Why can there no discourse about politics that is not itself political?". We might wonder in turn: why can there be no novel that is not also just a novel – a work of a masterful imagination? The questions are essentially the same. To say the least, Diary of a Bad Year is as close to answering as any published this year. The writer praises Harold Pinter's trenchant Nobel acceptance speech for its brave indifference to the scorn it would attract: "there comes a time when the outrage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act, that is to say, speak." The same words can be applied to the form of the novel we're reading, where calculation and prudence would have demanded fully-developed essays and a rounded relationship between writer and muse.

Instead, Coetzee imagines two people of the world – Anya and Alan – with whom he has nothing in common. You know all this from the innumerable reviews. He lusts after the body of one and perhaps for something else. Below the essays, we read his apparently private observations on the couple and how he pursued the "metaphysical ache" Anya aroused in him by getting her to type up his dictaphone ramblings. At first this undercuts the writer's seriousness with the petty concerns of bodily existence. But then Anya's voice appears below his, engaging with his ideas, setting them against her assumptions and suspicions about his person, as well as discussing her own life with Alan, a philistine, commercially-minded brute. This suggests the ache is more than prurient. You might say it is religious (which might answer Nicholas Lezard's question from yesterday).

Then Alan's voice appears too. The intertwining of each separate voice, how one influences the other and how the ideas find their way in the world, encourages us to think not of the specific greatness of the novel with regard to our own readerly demands, but of the possibilities for a different kind of discourse. Not one of self-isolating opinions but something more inclusive, even if isolation (and low sales) is inevitable.

In this case, we can think of a new kind of novel; one that resists both the spirit of impotent scorn to which the isolated writer tends and the self-assured denial of prize-winning novels in which the freedom of the imagination is an unquestioned good. That someone considered fit to judge Britain's most prestigious literary prize did not notice any of this and indeed dismisses such an intrepid novel as "theory", suggests there is something very wrong at the heart of British literary culture.


  1. Has anyone compared this with Roth's latest? Some remarkable thematic overlapping.

    What is it both Roth and Coetzee have revealed here?

  2. I don't think the essays per se were antithetic to Coetze's novel. I mean, that kind of thing has been in fiction ever since it started. You can't pick up, say, a French erotic novel from the 18th century without finding, among the seduced nuns and engorged cocks, page after page of a-moral lectures by the seducers - until finally, in De Sade, both the orgies and the lectures become unbearable.

    What I did not like at all about the Coetze novel is that the essays were really weak, and they dominated the actions and characters in a book in an unpleasant way. I am mostly on Coetze's side, politically - except for the odd pseudo-scientific piece about evolution - and against the conservative banker, Alan, but one felt sorry for Alan, as though he were being forced to gamble using loaded dice in a house of ill repute. His easy slide towards moustache twirling villainy, that embarrassing dinner that climaxes the novel and succeeds in prying Anya away from him, was simply limp, an exhibition of sentimentality. The limpness of the whole performance was a certain novelistic shirking before the voices that novels unleash - the voices that aren't under the control of the author's viewpoint or ideology - to be Bakhtinian about it. And so, instead of the form of the page showing us certain fissures in the essays, weak in themselves, instead of some tension growing up there, instead of even some self awareness and anguish about old age and beautiful young bums, such as Anya's, I felt much more like the essays were stepping on the marginal action. I took Anya's remark, that J.C.'s essays were best when directed at concrete things, as a way Coetze tried to externalize, capture and neutralize something he must have felt himself about this writing.

  3. Anonymous12:52 am

    Can anyone tell me where exactly Coetzee stands "On Intelligent Design." I hate to think of Coetzee as some type of sophisticated creationist.

  4. Anonymous5:58 pm

    "On Intelligent Design" is only one of the dumbest of a set of dumb essays that don't reflect Coetzee's actual beliefs. Coetzee must have cringed as he was writing them.

    I was hoping that people would have picked up on this trick the third time, but no, they're content not to question their own prejudices and assumptions.

    More here. I had a similar reaction to Steve, but I don't find this new novel so different than the two that preceded it.

  5. Anonymous5:48 pm

    Just a little point: the Costello essays were all lectures given by Coetzee earlier.
    Nice review, btw.

  6. In "The Lives of Animals", yes. Given by Coetzee *as* Elizabeth Costello, though not in drag one presumes (sadly).



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