Sunday, July 06, 2008

The anguish of farewells: The Guardian on Coetzee's Disgrace

Three years ago, the TLS ran review by Gabriel Josipovici of a new edition in English of folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. It concentrated on the changes made to the many editions produced by the brothers. One passage was quoted by at least three bloggers (Waggish, The Mumpsimus and me). It's worth repeating even out of context:
What happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of fifty years of "revision" was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore added scene-setting, morality and psychology to make them both attractive and meaningful. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had (and still has) the effect he had on his readers: he was one who knew "how to be a child" [according to Kierkegaard, the way an adult might read stories to children]. However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers of the century who really grasped what was at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors, and, by and large, nineteenth-century novelists and storytellers took the path of Midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth-century fiction, with neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.
I was reminded of the final line as I read Sam Jordison's reaction to JM Coetzee's Disgrace in his Looking Back at the Booker sequence in The Guardian, or rather some of the comments responding to his contention that the novel "isn't so much a narrative as a thesis" and that it "just isn't a good *novel*". Like a teacher at the end of term, Billy Mills writes: "I think Coetzee is a wonderful writer and has it in him to be a great essayist, but he is not, for my money, a great novelist because he seems incapable to either dispense with plot or make plot work." Steven Augustine says this "hit it right on the noggin" despite earlier claiming that "it's all about *taste*, and taste is *purely* subjective". If it's all about taste, all subjective, as Jordison agrees it is, then where is the "noggin" for anyone to hit? It doesn't stop Jordison providing criteria for judging: Scene-setting: "Coetzee provides a compelling portrait of a man"; Morality: "the suitably unpleasant seduction of one of his students"; Psychology: the author is "unwilling or unable to provide anything approaching human motivation for the females". Whatever the criteria and however subjective one's taste, the problem remains that "Coetzee fails to make it real". His readers need to believe is unfulfilled and the writer is blamed. Hence the emperor's-new-clothes tone of many of the comments; indeed, their childishness.

The solipsism-lite on display unwittingly discounts the value of the debate even as the thread seeks to guarantee it. Not only that, it questions the status of the novel under discussion without appreciating how this destablises the novel as a genre. Again, the author is blamed. If there is problem with Disgrace, it is that it bridges the gap between the stark power of his early novels with the darkly playful nature of recent years. The anguished farewell to wishful thinking is too much for some readers. The novels that follow – Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007) – do address what it means to write in the modern world; its relation to the world and what follows: our own relation to the world. I covered this in a brief review of the latter novel, proleptically rebutting Augustine's impatient reading of the novel as "a lazily postmodernish wedding of occasionally worthy essays to consistently second-rate screenwriting". He might think the reason why they're "occasionally worthy" is all about his "purely subjective" reading yet it doesn't take long to realise the erratic subject matter and quality of the essays are both necessary to the logic of the novel. Another, far subtler commenter provides a useful link in which Coetzee suggests the essays and ideas expressed in novels are there (and not in a collection essays) for a reason: "If there were a better, clearer, shorter way of saying what the fiction says, then why not scrap the fiction?". He won't scrap fiction because there something urgent to say and fiction is the only way of saying it. We won't read another like Disgrace, at least not from Coetzee. Perhaps it's no coincidence that not one of the novels since have even made the Booker shortlist. Leave that to those who know "how to be a child".

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