The queasy force of J. M. Coetzee's books perhaps explains his weird position in the literary culture
I first tried to read J. M. Coetzee in 1994, when I was twenty-three. I failed. The book was In the Heart of the Country, the anguished song of an aging virgin living an exile’s life on her father’s farm in rural South Africa. I think I got to page 12, where, after an awkward start, Magda imagines murdering her father and stepmother in their bed with an axe:
Leaning forward and gripping what must be one of their four knees, I deliver much the better chop deep into the crown of her head. She dips over into the cradle of her lap and topples leftward in a ball, my dramatic tomahawk still embedded in her. (Who would have thought I had such strokes in me?) But fingers are scratching at me from this side of the bed, I am off balance, I must keep a cool head, I must pick them off one by one, recover (with some effort) my axe, and hack with distaste at these hands, these arms until I have a free moment to draw a sheet over all this shuddering and pound it into quiet.
At this point I experienced what I will call the Dark Heart Paradox: the book was so brilliant and so disturbing that I had to put it down. (I choose “Dark Heart” because the two other books that come immediately to mind when I think of this phenomenon are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.)
The Dark Heart Paradox is slightly different from the paradox of admiring a book so much that you’re afraid to read anything else by the author in case it doesn’t measure up (I’m tempted to call this the Good Soldier Paradox, after Ford Madox Ford’s one-hit wonder). Nor is it simply a matter of faintness of heart, though clear, cruel violence animates each of these books. Cormac McCarthy’s excesses, which I love, are—like Quentin Tarantino’s—the cadenzas of a virtuoso, essentially aesthetic. They show damage; they do not, like the Dark Hearts, do damage.
The queasy force of Coetzee’s books perhaps explains his weird position in the literary culture. Shunning the cult of celebrity, he refused to turn up to collect either of his two Booker Prizes (for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999). He wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and you can’t get Michael K at the Chapters in downtown Vancouver (I had to tell the clerk who eventually ordered it for me how to spell “Michael”). There’s nothing sexy, nothing cool, about either the author’s public persona or his work. Coetzee, like William Gass, is not so much a writer’s writer as a writing geek’s writer. Book club notes are not helpfully provided at the end of Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee’s latest novel. Nor does this book fit well in the bag with the scented candles, the kitty-cat bookmark, and Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café Diaries. No wonder bookstores can’t figure out how to sell him: he’s hard enough to get your mind around, let alone imagine as your friend.
Hence, perhaps, the lukewarm critical reception of Elizabeth Costello. Praise of Coetzee tends to sound grudging, with the critics using words like “icy” and “precise.” They accuse him of a Becketty bleakness, ignoring the mica flecks of humour (“much the better chop” in the passage quoted above) that, as in Beckett, make the bleakness glitter. Then, prose style aside, there are his characters, who tend to express themselves in lengthy monologues. The subtitle of Elizabeth Costello is Eight Lessons, which only somewhat ironically describes the speeches of an elderly Australian writer (presumably Coetzee’s alter ego) who travels the world trying—and mostly failing—to explain herself to “her kind, intelligent, sensible auditors” (one imagines a roomful of comfortable, latte-sipping critics) in various “enlightened, rationally organized, well-run” cities. For the fiction reader used to the comfortable bolsters of convention (quirky characters in neat stories with eleventh-hour morals along the lines of “mean people suck”), Costello’s lessons evoke nothing so much as Plato’s dialogues, a body of argument clad in the skimpiest of fictional clothing. Many of these arguments come back to the human capacity to tolerate evil, and the writer’s ticklish role of elucidation without complicity. Costello is another Socrates: more prone to hand-wringing than merry deking and buzzing, perhaps, but no less the gadfly, pricking minds and consciences with her troubled, troubling uncertainties.
Beckett, Plato, guilt, evil, long pages of people trying to teach things to each other: that is, to paraphrase Yeats, no country for young men. Young of mind, that is; little wonder a culture like Canada’s, which embraces reality television and recreational shopping and tries to create a national literature through prize-giving, can’t bring itself to embrace Coetzee. He is an adult in a world of teenagers; callowness is not his bag.
In fact, it is difficult to read Coetzee without risking whatever jejune innocence one may have had left: that is what I mean by his ability to do damage. In the second volume of his memoirs, Youth, he writes of himself:
He is not a fool. As a lover his record is undistinguished, and he knows it. Never has he provoked in the heart of a woman what he would call a great passion. In fact, looking back, he cannot recall having been the object of a passion, a true passion, of any degree. That must say something about him. As for sex itself, narrowly understood, what he provides is, he suspects, rather meagre; and what he gets in return is meagre too. If the fault is anyone’s, it is his own.
In “The Lives of Animals: The Philosophers and the Animals” from Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee has the vegetarian Costello say:
We are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.
Even if you disagree with the rhetoric—and Coetzee is wise enough to show several characters taking intelligent and articulate exception to this particular analogy—once you acknowledge the horrors to be found “in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world,” it’s hard to deny Costello’s conclusion: “I return one last time to the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh holocaust, yet, as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched. We do not feel tainted. We can do anything, it seems, and come away clean.”
Anything, perhaps, but read Coetzee. Loss of innocence—the fake innocence peddled by popular culture—seems to be his goal. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child,” wrote Saint Paul. To read Coetzee is to be forced to think and understand as an adult. “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is Coetzee’s achievement to look into the glass and speak of his own dark heart, to those who can bring themselves to listen, and are willing to suffer the knowledge.