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".


  1. Anonymous5:15 pm

    "How to read like a child?" ... this strikes me as more than strange, as children work with great energy to find their way to the real. While their ideas are certainly infused with magical thinking, this is not the same thing as "wishful thinking?" My sense of the latter is that it is not childlike at all, but borne of the resistance to give up magic thinking in the struggle to engage with the real world--a resistance that implies the capacity to move beyond it--a symptom that marks the passage to maturity.

    A novel that foregos wishful thinking is not "experimental," but realistic in a deeper sense than those works we normally name as such. A better term for what I look for in a novel might simply be--if the word hadn't been hijacked for other uses, Adult Fiction.

  2. "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?"

    Stephen M, had you bothered to quote (or read) my entire "it's all about taste" comment, you'd have noticed that the taste riff was the set up for a joke about *my taste* versus *bad taste*. Now, I reference this joke well knowing that *massive displays of humourlessness* are the foundation of perceived gravitas in the high stakes game of literary opinion, but I'm willing to live with the loss of gravitas, love and income this flippancy causes.

    On a more serious note, I'm sure you're capable of conceding that a fellow can acknowledge the utter subjectivity of valuation in Art while retaining the right to argue his preferences. It's no paradox, and if you think it is, it's because you haven't given the matter adequate thought.



  3. So once again, you're claiming somebody is not reading properly. Maybe you should try stating things less flippantly. Humourless is sometimes less tiresome than relentless levity.

    And I don't need to concede the point about subjectivity in valuation. Evaluating art in the first place depends on shared ground. One might say shared ground is sought and questioned in Coetzee's recent novels; hence the form.

  4. "One might say shared ground is sought and questioned in Coetzee's recent novels; hence the form."

    I have no problem with the form of "Diary", and was quite excited to read it at the beginning, having read of the form in the reviews: that kind of thing is right up my alley.

    The problem I have is with the kitsch schematic of the melodrama that spools out across the lower half of the page. Philip Roth did more (and more cleverly) with a strikingly similar triangle in The Counterlife, and I was turned off by the self-serving piety that Coetzee smuggles into "Diary" under the cover of half-arsed gestures towards a supposedly ruthless self-criticism.

    I read the book twice (readings separated by a careful cooling off period) and was *still* not persuaded (even less so), the second time through. The whole of the narrative had an underworked and almost glibly Hollywoodish quality to it that I wouldn't have been surprised to find in one of Peter Carey's weaker efforts.

    Teasing out the text's *meaning*, I'm afraid, is less important to me than trusting in the author's handling of the literary elements the meanings are built into. That's why I judge it as a novel and not a text book.

  5. Anonymous6:33 pm

    Steven, to talk about the "utter subjectivity of valuation in Art" is to talk about taste, and in matters of mere taste there can be no basis for argument -- there simply aren't any of the conceptual, articulated connections in which argument can take root.

  6. Yes, you're right about The Counterlife. Was that the last good book by Roth?

    I'm not saying Diary of a Bad Year is a great novel, I just think it's been misread.

  7. Ste*ph*en, please!

    Mere taste is not evaluation, is it? Anyway, this is for postmodernists and obsessive democrats only. I'm outta here.

  8. Gus:

    "Steven, to talk about the "utter subjectivity of valuation in Art" is to talk about taste, and in matters of mere taste there can be no basis for argument..."

    If you're positing a counter-condition, you're trafficking in illusions, in my opinion. I.e., "prove" *definitively* that "House of Mirth" is "better" than "Valley of the Dolls". I defy you to.

    In the end, we argue our preferences (Lucian Freud over Chaim Soutine? Luigi Nono over Patti Page?) and some agree and others don't; the reputations of our favorite artists rise and fall over the seasons and centuries: rinse and repeat (ad inf).

    I don't like it any more than you do (O, to be right on an *absolute* scale when it comes to Art), but there you have it.

  9. "Yes, you're right about The Counterlife. Was that the last good book by Roth?"

    Well, the last *masterpiece* out of Roth was Sabbath's Theater (in my etc), but there've been worthy reads since. The Dying Animal and Exit Ghost: no and no, resp.

  10. These conversations though occasionally amusing, are, as StePHen points out, useless unless evaluative criteria are agreed upon.

    Apropos of what the original post was about: I recently came across a quote from an obscure and gloriously named literary critic Wylie Sypher that I think aptly describes what goes on for me at least when reading much of J.M. Coetzee’s work. "The deepest ‘meanings’ of art therefore arise wherever there is an interplay between the patterns of surface-perception and the pressures of depth perception. Then the stated meanings will fringe off into unstated and unstatable meanings of great power, felt dimly but compellingly. Behind the trim scaffolding of artistic ‘form’ and logic there whispers, for a moment, the wild voice of the unconscious self -using the disturbed language of the dream and the jest, as well as the language of tragedy."

    Of those novels I have read, Disgrace is the greatest written in the second half of the 20th century.

  11. "These conversations though occasionally amusing, are, as StePHen points out, useless unless evaluative criteria are agreed upon."

    What never ceases to "amuse" *me" is the faulty logic of this mantra of yours about "evaluative criteria", when it's obvious that conversations *about* "evaluative criteria" don't require an agreement on "evaluative criteria" as a starting point. And this is just such a conversation, at root... as most of them are: it is *about* "evaluative criteria" (i.e., how to judge Coetzee's work). Which is, by the way, not resolvable, though interesting ideas (ahem: theoretically) can spin off from the wrestling match.

    No: there will *be* no culture-wide agreement on "evaluative criteria" because this is not 19th century New England or 17th century Holland. Long for the return of monolithic hegemony all you want: it (or its illusion) ain't coming back. What you are calling for, in the cloaked voice of the unctuous reactionary, is "order".

    "Order" is over, though you can simulate it pleasantly by surrounding yourself with a circle of bloggers who more or less, often, agree. Which is surely part of the lure. But in the wider world: no. No "order". No broad agreement possible on "evaluative criteria".

    Which means, I'm afraid, that the pressure is on you to A) come up with your very own beguilingly wonderful critical toolkit or B) ape/parrot/pretend.

    "Of those novels I have read, Disgrace is the greatest written in the second half of the 20th century."

    Welcome to the club of people with opinions. 7 billion strong and counting.

  12. Anonymous12:34 am

    I love this quote posted by nigelbeale. I was going to mention something about fairy tales, and I think this quote by Mr. Sypher speaks well to what is known of the oral, non-Grimm tradition. I attended an AWP seminar in Altlanta a couple of years ago called "Fairy Tales for Adults." The work of all of the writers/readers - all of whom were women, and many of whom have been published in Un. of Alabama's "Fairy Tale Review" - was sheer inventive play. I can't help but make the connection between those women on the panel and earlier women who created an oral fairy tale tradition. And this kind of untamed inventiveness makes me think of what's being noted here, that "wild voice of the unconscious self." Yes, and I can see this applied to Coetzee as well. Thanks for providing so much food for thought, Steve.

    Meg Sefton

  13. There never was a time when there was an absolute, universally agreed standard of literary judgement (though some historical epochs came nearer to it than others) and of course there certainly isn't now so that's all a red herring. But it is perfectly possible for people to agree some working principles that enable them speak in common about certain texts otherwise we simply dissolve into arbitrariness and say that there is no distinction between airport fiction and Coetzee. There will be differences about those principles as this series of exchanges shows and they are important, meaningful differences, that have to remain in debate, but there is no alternative to, in the end, staking your aesthetic bets somewhere and enough of us see the uniqueness and value of Coetzee's recent work to want to go on reading it and being stimulated by it. "Agreeing to differ" sounds wet but what alternative is there?

  14. Violence, Nicholas.



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