The Exhaustion of Being Coetzee

Reading his restrained, austere prose I have always thought that it must be exhausting to be J.M. Coetzee, the novelist. The discipline! The editing! After reading his “fictionalized memoirs” Boyhood and Youth, it seems clear that it is exhausting to be J.M. Coetzee, the man, and always has been. Or, at least that’s the impression he gives the reader – there is the line-blurring, “fictionalized” aspect to the books. In what sense is this “Coetzee” really Coetzee? There are elements of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in the memoirs (A Portrait of the Artist as the Underground Man?) and Coetzee the author is brutal with Coetzee the character. The project as a whole is unsettling in that Coetzee offers no mercy to his past self; it is a confession where all hope for absolution is banished from the outset. Perhaps this is to be expected from the author of Disgrace.

But, there are unexpected moments in the books, like this one in Boyhood, describing Bible classes at the Jesuit school he attends:

His resistance to Mr Whelan’s Scripture lessons runs deep. He is sure that Mr Whelan has no idea of what Jesus’ parables really mean. Though he himself is an atheist and has always been one, he feels he understands Jesus better than Mr Whelan does. He does not particularly like Jesus – Jesus flies into rages too easily – but he is prepared to put up with him. At least Jesus did not pretend to be God, and died before he could become a father. That is Jesus’ strength; that is how Jesus keeps his power. …

But there is one part in Luke’s gospel that he does not like to hear read. When they come to it, he grows rigid, blocks his ears. The women arrive at the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. Jesus is not there. Instead, they find two angels. ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead?’ say the angels: ‘He is not here but is risen.’ If he were to unblock his ears and let the words come through to him, he knows, he would have to stand on his seat, and shout and dance in triumph. He would have to make a fool of himself for ever.

The unexpected moment here is not Coetzee’s atheism. His novels (at least the ones I’ve read) are among the most “atheistic” I know. God is entirely (unrelentingly) absent in the worlds of Disgrace or The Life and Times of Michael K and I had assumed he was an atheist. The unexpected moment is the description of his suppressed desire to believe, the confession that if he were to accept the resurrection, “if he were to unblock his ears and let the words come through to him, he knows, he would have to stand on his seat, and shout and dance in triumph. He would have to make a fool of himself forever.” Of course, J.M Coetzee is the one of the last people one could imagine dancing on his seat in triumph; the Coetzee of the memoirs works hard to make sure no one can make a fool of him, ever. But the desire to believe, the recognition of the magnitude the angel’s statement, speaks to the Dostoevsky-ian streak in Coetzee: if this is true, if Christ really rose from the dead, everything is different – we kiss the earth, we dance for joy, we are transformed. But, for Coetzee, it isn’t true: his difficult, brutal novels are testaments to what the world looks like where Christ still lies buried in the tomb (the way the world really is, he would say).

The feeling is echoed later in Youth when he describes seeing Pasolini’s Gospel According to St Matthew in London:

It is an unsettling experience. After five years of Catholic schooling he had thought he was forever beyond the appeal of the Christian message. But he is not. The pale, bony Jesus of the film, shrinking back from the touch of others, striding about barefoot issuing prophecies and fulminations, is real in a way that Jesus of the bleeding heart never was. He winces when nails are hammered through the hands of Jesus; when his tomb is revealed to be empty and the angel announces to the mourning women, ‘Look not here, for he is risen,’ and the Missa Luba bursts out and the common folk of the land, the halt and the maimed, the despised and rejected, come running or hobbling, their faces alight with joy, to share in the good news, his own heart wants to burst; tears of an exultation he does not understand stream down his cheeks, tears that he has surreptitiously to wipe away before he can emerge into the world

The Coetzee of Youth is an anxious, bitter, narcissistic mess (like every young writer, I suppose) – he is “one of the maimed, the despised, the rejected” but he can’t go running to Christ. He can’t go running to anyone (“If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry. But warmth is not in his nature“). He just sinks deeper and deeper into the pit of his own misery.

Like I say, it gets exhausting. Coetzee is exhausting.

There is not much relief in Youth and Boyhood. Cricket. The open vistas of the Karoo. The hope of escape. In Youth the only glimmer on the horizon is Coetzee’s growing realization that failure is necessary and inevitable, in writing and in life:

What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again? What is wrong with him is that he is not prepared to fail. He wants an A or an alpha or one hundred per cent for his every attempt, and a big Excellent! in the margin. Ludicrous! Childish! He does not have to be told so: he can see it for himself. Nevertheless. Nevertheless he cannot do it. Not today. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow he will be in the mood, have the courage.

There is a third book apparently, more polyphonic in structure. While I assume the fictionalized Coetzee gets past his early artistic failures, I don’t have high hopes that he casts aside his burdens and finds rest, despite the warm title (Summertime). But, I need a break from Coetzee. Perhaps tomorrow.