Friday, March 27, 2020

The last novel

"(We are, it seems to remind us, always saying goodbye to our children.)"

John Self's aside in his review of JM Coetzee's The Death of Jesus captures the pervasive anxiety experienced while reading this novel better than even the most detailed plot summary, which is anyway likely to mislead the potential reader because it would highlight what, in the regular parts of his review, John calls the book's "unexplained developments, unrealistic dialogue and overcooked analogies". In fact, these features ease such anxiety as simply as any other workmanlike fiction might because judgments are set aside as one gets caught up in the drama, curious to see how it will resolve. And while this novel's drama does resolve with, as the title suggests, a definitive event, our anxiety doesn't fade, because of the title.

Coetzee may have enough control over the generic elements of novel writing for us either to overlook the unexplained, unrealistic and overcooked (or regard them as deformations of the medium) but we cannot overlook the title, which undoes all resolve.


Never has a title caused such consternation and speculation among professional reviewers. The setting of the story is convincing enough in its generic clarity, but for that very reason everything appears out of nowhere, so everything can be read as random and hollow even as it builds a bustling world. Or, rather than appearing out of nowhere, everything appears out of literature, which for many is the same thing: this "bizarre allegorical trilogy" writes Alex Preston "never hits home, having no real-world corollary". If there is no real-world corollary, you might wonder if it's an allegory at all, or, if it is, you might wonder if it's an allegory of something other than the real world. But it's too late: "I’ve given up trying to force meaning into these novels", he declares, and is joined by Claire Lowdon, who writes "I will not be returning to these books to puzzle over them further", even if she does mention the obvious corollary, which anyway she suspects is a trick: "We try to map what we know of Jesus onto David’s story, but it doesn’t really fit. Nothing fits. There is no guide to life." It's fair enough not to puzzle on, as one could indeed spend an age speculating over the Biblical allusions and what Stuart Kelly calls the boy David's "pseudo-enigmatic utterances". Why not just enjoy the ride, as I did? After all, Lowdon admits that "the story as a whole slips along quite easily".


I want to know why I am here

Why not enjoy the ride? Because of the title. It is an undertow beneath the reader surfing back to shore; a tugging question that follows David's curiosity about how he came to be, which he tries to solve by asking his long-suffering guardian Simón: "How do you say aquì in other words?". He thinks an answer may arrive if another word for the Spanish for 'here' can be used. As readers, we too seek other words to understand what is going on here. James Womack is right when he says the reader sees a "story we recognise in the shadows of the story we are being told" but we can't quite make it out, and it is Womack who offers the reason why:
The trilogy is a work of speculative fiction, geared towards answering a particular question: what kind of Christ might grow from the Enlightenment?
The answer is given in the title of course: not grow at all. The world of the novel reflects a world with no place for an exception to the parched landscape of the setting in which science and reason have squeezed out speculative thought. Steven Poole gives the reason for David's alternative name:
“Jesus” is the label for a “wild creature” (as someone calls David) with a gentle contempt for the norms of civilisation; a disruptive force of ceaseless questioning that irrupts into ordinary domestic existence but not of it – as David insists.”
This too comes from literature, and not only from the New Testament. Coetzee has written elsewhere about Rilke's eighth Duino elegy in which the poet writes of 'das Offene', the open, a place outside the ordinary domestic existence in which animals live and children too until adults turn them towards conformity.
Was draußen ist, wir wissens aus des Tiers
Antlitz allein; denn schon das frühe Kind
wenden wir um und zwingens, daß es rückwärts
Gestaltung sehe, nicht das Offne, das
im Tiergesicht so tief ist. Frei von Tod.
Which Coetzee transposes as: 
What is out there, we know it from the animal’s face alone; for even the young child we turn around and compel to look back, seeing form/formation, not the open, that in animal vision is so deep. Free from death.
For animals and children the world is experienced as a "Nirgends ohne nicht", a nowhere without no. Death is unknown and the world is "a pure space into which flowers endlessly open". While the escapism of generic fiction may tease us with a return to this state for a time, 'no' is always provided by one's inner reviewer. Rilke says it is possible that a lover draws near to the condition for a time, while those nearing death no longer see death and stare ahead, merging life with death. In a letter, he explained in other words:
Death is the side of life averted from us, unshone upon by us: we must try to achieve the greatest consciousness of our existence which is at home in both unbounded realms, inexhaustibly nourished from both. The true figure of life extends through both spheres, the blood of the mightiest circulation flows through both: there is neither a here nor a beyond, but the great unity in which the beings that surpass us, the "angels", are at home. [Translated by Greene and Norton]
If we cannot return to childhood innocence of death, it must become part of our life. And it doesn't take a critical genius to see that the family dog, Bolívar, with whom David has a special affinity, is the animal and David both the child and the one facing death. So merely asking "Why am I here?" is disruptive to the settled world of the novel, even if it is answered easily by rational discourse and science. One may then ask: why is rational discourse and science here? Given that Simón and Inés are not David's biological father and mother, no science can explain why he is here, and while theology may answer, there is no theology in this world. It's why the trilogy has a monochrome clarity and why David appears to be a contrived presence: both are exaggerations of the condition of the reader's world in which the enchantment comes from works of imaginative fiction yet whose features are as predictable and as empty as pre-Enlightenment religious rituals that, when disturbed, cause howls of rage from the faithful. Every portentous statement David makes that frustrates Simón is also what frustrates the gatekeepers of literary fiction: they promise a revelation while only increasing the disruption of the generic conditions that are specifically in place to prevent revelation of any kind.

The question posed across the trilogy may be: what revelation is possible in genre fiction? Alex Preston sees a lack of answers as part of Coetzee's "elaborate joke" at the expense of his readers while Claire Lowdon thinks he's seeking a guarantee of posterity among academics (Purgatory after an Inferno of reviews), and yet they never question the assumption that there must be a clear intention and conclusive message, even though this would compel us to turn backwards to see the form/formation of the adult world. Despite his scepticism, Simón succumbs to this assumption by searching for the final message that David is supposed to have left before he died. The message, however, is there in David's apparent naivete and curiosity; a message embodied in his outrageous, inexplicable presence in the world, entering with no past and no future. It's no coincidence that, when David dies, Bolívar goes missing.

Our anxiety then is as much to do with saying goodbye to our children as saying goodbye to the novel.


Like Don Quixote, this is a fiction about fiction.

What's strange about the seven reviews I've read (some are behind paywalls) is that there are only nine brief references to the only other book to be mentioned throughout the trilogy, with only John Self noticing it as the most blatant hint of The Death of Jesus' inheritance. David has peculiar reverence for Don Quixote, the only book he's ever read, from which he learned to read and which he treats "not as a made-up story but as a vertible history", including the belief that Don Quixote is a real person in the world. Simón wants him to read other books because "reading means learning about the world – the world as it really is, not as you wish it to be”. But David is not interested. It's strange that it is passed over so readily in the reviews because the differences between David and Simón embody the modern reader's internal relation to fiction, which emerges so powerfully in the anxiety of the negative reviews: Simón loves his adopted son and believes he is special, even if he can't make sense of his enigmatic utterances and despairs over his resistance to reason.

Don Quixote is generally considered to be the first novel and a satire on idealism. The famous example of the Don jousting with a giant when there is only a windmill before him is enough to sum up its relevance: when people refer to someone 'tilting at windmills' it indicates that we know better, that someone is comically deluded. And yet this is a novel, so the windmill is as ideal as the giant, and any knowing superiority we feel over the Don is possible only if we have succumbed to the same condition. The enchantment of fiction is a disruptive force because it offers the possibility of the opening of a world other than the one in which we are settled, while allowing us to pat ourselves on the back for knowing better than to believe that it is real. And yet, here we are, enthusiastically devouring novels and earnestly discussing them, expecting and indeed demanding something more than brief escapism. Our enthusiasm is usually understood as nothing more than this branch of consumer culture, often mitigated with virtuous recommendations that by reading a certain novel we can learn about another country, a particular time in history, a minority identity, or a news story dominating the newspapers. Reviewing always takes the upperhand by co-opting this mitigation as criteria for judgment, and is fiercely protective of its ground.
[Coetzee's] late novels are a scholar’s dream, precisely because of their opacity, their exponential proliferation of meanings. You can go symbol-hunting; you can read him as allegory; you can read him as anti-allegory. Everything that can be argued can be counter-argued in another journal article, another critical study. It’s a guaranteed route to posterity: if your file can’t be closed, then you’ll never really die.
Claire Lowdon's disdain is pure projection of the anxiety that reading and reviewing cannot accommodate the deeper reason why we read and feel the need to discuss novels. Still, it would be fair enough if the evidence didn't suggest Coetzee is attempting to close the file not on himself so much as on 'the novel'.

Coetzee is a curious case in contemporary review culture because his novels have always attracted mainstream attention for their relevance to current affairs without quite convincing reviewers that he's a state-of-the-nation type author, able to weigh in where journalism floats by, yet without being able to stick a permanent label on his work. Many lament a falling away from the greatness they have bestowed in the past or claim they had doubts from the start, while Martin Amis says Coetzee had "no talent" in the first place (a statement about which Steven Poole is brilliantly cutting). For example, Stuart Kelly begins his review by saying he:
admired works such as Waiting For The Barbarians, Life & Times Of Michael K, and Disgrace. But here’s the rub: I admired them but I never really enjoyed them. There is a frostiness to his work, an almost deliberate opacity. They hint at being profound, but are they?
All three novels – to which Foe and Age of Iron may be added – can be counted as novels ostensibly about racism and colonialism, and Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa in particular, which you wouldn't necessarily expect to be heartwarming, especially if they were written from within those brutal conditions. But what comes after Disgrace suggests anyway that Kelly's rhetorical question is disingenuous. Alex Preston notes how the allusions have changed since the early work:
It’s striking that the most powerful moments in Coetzee’s great earlier books were strongly allegorical and carried deep religious undertones: the washing of the feet of the “little bird-woman” in Waiting for the Barbarians; Lurie’s prostration in Disgrace; Michael K's journey to deliver his mother’s ashes. These work because, while they are clearly symbolic acts, they also propel the narrative of novels grounded in real human emotion. Now it feels as if all of the pleasures left to the reader of a Coetzee novel are pleasures of the head, not of the heart.
While damning Coetzee's later work to his newspaper's dilettantish, middlebrow audience, these apparently heartfelt allusions to a pre-Enlightenment traditon are purely novelistic gestures, grounded in generic law; enough for a worthy if sentimental response to the injustices and conditions described, but no more than that. Such Lazarus-like resurrections of a buried tradition have disappeared since at least Elizabeth Costello not only because they are part of "the genre of the oppressor" (as Leo Robson calls it in his superb overview of Coetzee's career) thereby appropriating for itself the suffering of the victims of imperialism, but also because of the genre's oppression of the world, of the nowhere without no. With his veld-dry wit, the Jesus novels are clearly very different from Don Quixote, but the teasing, allusive, ungrounded content confirms the inheritance of an immanent critique of the novel. This has a background with which Coetzee is familiar.


"As a whole, [the Jesus novels] make you wonder what novels are even for" (Tim Smith-Laing)

Walter Benjamin's great essay The Storyteller argues that the rise of the novel was the product of a decline in everyday storytelling, which always contained something useful for the listener, whether that was a moral or practical: "In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers." Storytelling was a form of wisdom "woven into the fabric of real life" gradually removed by "the secular productive forces of history", one of which was the printing press, and what distinguishes the novel from storytelling is its dependence on the book. The novel is written by an author isolated in his room. He cannot give or receive counsel as it is no longer living speech. Benjamin says if the word 'counsel' has an old-fashioned ring, it's because "the communicability of experience is decreasing". It communicates something else instead:
To write a novel is to take to the extreme that which is incommensurable in the representation of human existence. In the midst of life's fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living. [Translated by Jephcott, Eiland and unnamed others]
Benjamin even cites "the first great book of the genre" as the prime example:
Don Quixote teaches how the spiritual greatness, the boldness, the helpfulness of one of the noblest of men, Don Quixote, are completely devoid of counsel and contain not a scintilla of wisdom.
The reader of Coetzee's Jesus novels will recognise this perplexity, in themselves and the protagonists. What has replaced counsel in our time is information: "no event comes to us without already being shot through with explanations", something that these novels noticeably lack, while "half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation" because it allows the reader to absorb its counsel in their own way. In The Death of Jesus, David reads Don Quixote to an audience as if it was useful like this, but the audience, like a chattering of reviewers, only ask questions, needing information and explanation.

If this suggests an opposition between storytelling-fact and novel-fantasy, leading to the hope that 'creative non-fiction' may be the modern form of regaining counsel, we must remember this too remains a book. And, anyway, Benjamin confounds such expectations by linking the decline in the communicability of experience and the rise of the novel with the decline of the idea of eternity, taking us back to Rilke's Eighth Elegy:
All great storytellers have in common the freedom with which they move up and down the rungs of their experience, as if on a ladder. A ladder extending downward to the interior of the earth and disappearing into the clouds: this is the image for a collective experience to which even the deepest shock in every individual experience – death – constitutes no impediment or barrier.
The ladder into the clouds is the sign that the story is timeless and can continue beyond its telling, whereas the novel is confined to earth and burial, which follows from its rise in the decline of faith in transcendence. The reader of the novel is confronted with the question of the meaning of life without it ever being addressed, hence "the perplexity of the living".
The novel is significant...not because it presents someone else's fate to us...but because this stranger's fate, by virtue of the flame which consumes it, yields to us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to a novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.
What warmth is there from David's death? Apparently none; only unease, anxiety. What makes Coetzee unusual is that, while he has appealed as a writer of the earth, his later novels stare ahead, and from our perpective they are unsatisfactory because they reveal the inadequacy of the genre as a means of climbing into the clouds, which would explain the perplexed reception of the post-Disgrace novels, albeit directed at the author rather than the genre.

"It has been rightly said that all great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one – that they are, in other words, special cases" writes Benjamin in his essay on In Search of Lost Time. JM Coetzee's Jesus trilogy is probably not great literature and certainly does not establish a new genre, but perhaps it does put an end to one, and is special for this reason: The Death of Jesus may be the last novel.

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