15 December, 2007Issue 7.1AfricaFictionLiterature

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On the Ethics of Identification

Joshua Billings

J.M. Coetzee
Diary of a Bad Year
Harvill Secker, 2007
304 pages
ISBN 978-1846551208


While J. M. Coetzee’s themes have hardened in recent years, his forms have gained new flexibility. Like its predecessors Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, his latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year, toys with and occasionally explodes its genre, while focusing on central characters bearing undeniable resemblance to Coetzee himself. These three latest works deal with the issues that have preoccupied Coetzee throughout his career as a novelist – the act of writing, belief, sympathy. What is new in them is a melancholy scepticism towards some of the foundations of Coetzee’s art. They form a trilogy of doubt, calling into question Coetzee’s political activism, his previous works, and most troublingly, the ethics of the novel.

Elizabeth Costello presented a series of ‘eight lessons’ involving the title character, an aging novelist with a biography not so different from Coetzee’s own. The lessons range from a lecture in which Costello surprises her audience with a passionate defence of animal rights (a lecture Coetzee himself has delivered) to a Kafkaesque exploration of a way-station in the afterlife—all different, all unsettling, none providing an instant of certainty. We perhaps find a kind of unity in the book’s beautiful, enigmatic coda, the ‘Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos, to Francis Bacon’. Coetzee takes on the persona of the wife of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s crisis-stricken Lord Chandos, whose words provide a kind of epigram to the disconnected lessons: ‘I have completely lost the ability to think or speak coherently about anything.’ Coherence was precisely what the book eschewed, preferring fragmentary form and ambiguous identification, as if Lord Chandos had managed to write a novel. Elizabeth Costello seemed to be witnessing a disenchantment with the very enterprise of novel writing, and was interpreted by some as Coetzee’s farewell to literature.
But in Coetzee’s books no answer is final, and his next offering, Slow Man, seemed at first to return to the bread-and-butter of his earlier writing. Paul Rayment, a retired photographer disabled by a biking accident, struggles with his own physical decline while lusting after his Croatian nurse Marijana. The plot is familiar Coetzee: a battered older man looks to a battered younger woman for a kind of salvation (think Disgrace). Then, the novel implodes: Elizabeth Costello knocks on Paul’s door, quoting the first sentence of the novel. From there, the narrative flies in fascinating and unexpected directions, exploring the ethics of writing another person’s story while simultaneously telling those of Paul, Marijana, and Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s role is ambiguous: she is, at once, transcribing a story that comes to her through some unknown agency, watching the story unfold in person, and, for both good and bad, affecting its unfolding at every turn. Ultimately, it is Coetzee himself under question: can the sympathy of a novelist be a kind of violence?

It is no surprise that Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, as well as Diary of a Bad Year, are preoccupied with their status as novels. A consciousness of the tradition of the novel has always been a part of Coetzee’s writing. This has led many to associate him with the postmodernism of DeLillo and Pynchon, but Coetzee views the history and form of the novel not so much as a field for play, but as a burden to be overcome. Life and Times of Michael K, for example, seemed to view South Africa through Kafka’s eyes, following the great modernist by depicting a weak individual in a world transfigured by an unknown, unknowable, and destructive force. Dostoyevsky himself was the main character of The Master of Petersburg, returning to the city formerly his muse to uncover the truth about his son’s death. Most extreme in questioning the novel was Foe (a pun on Daniel Defoe), which depicted a female counterpart to Robinson Crusoe struggling for recognition in the works of the novelist Foe. The book indicted Crusoe’s colonialist England (an undeniable, if implicit, criticism of Coetzee’s apartheid South Africa) and the gender roles and assumptions of Defoe’s time and the present. And all in the words of a white male writer. For all its self-consciousness, though, Foe seemed unable to be anything but a novel; it existed to tell a story. A story of stories, but ultimately one not so different from that of Coetzee’s foe Foe. It departed from the traditional novel primarily in extending its sympathetic power to subjects usually silent. It did not, as does the latest trilogy of novels, fundamentally problematise this sympathy.

Sympathy is perhaps Coetzee’s greatest theme, and the form of Diary of a Bad Year could be construed as an exploration of the act of identifying with the other. The novel presents two voices speaking and writing in three continuous threads: two of these belong to an aging narrator (who shares Coetzee’s name and past), the third to Anya, a neighbour he meets, lusts after, employs, and ultimately befriends. ‘C’ (as he is known to Anya, and as we will call him, to avoid getting too deeply into the questions of authorship the book so bluntly poses) is writing a series of ‘Strong Opinions’ to be collected and published by a German press. They are a mixed bag: at one end of the spectrum are thoughtful meditations (‘On Zeno’, ‘On the afterlife’); at the other are angry polemics written in the shrill, moralising tone familiar from Coetzee’s political statements (‘On Tony Blair’, ‘On political life in Australia’). In counterpoint to these opinion pieces runs the first-person narrative of their author as he meets and befriends Anya. The first chapters of the book are limited to these two threads of C’s voice, each occupying a portion of the page, without clear dialogue between them. They depict a man of waning potency and increasing isolation from the world around him, yet impelled by a sense of that world’s inhumanity to rage against it.

Before long, Anya also starts speaking, narrating their meeting from her own perspective. The facts at first seem to coincide: both relate more or less the same experience of wary approach (he lusts after her, she knows it) and an unstable dance of distance and intimacy as she accepts a job typing C’s opinions. In time we learn that Anya’s boyfriend Alan is plotting to rob C electronically. The triangle feels slightly contrived (especially the robbery motive, which borders on the sensational and is not sufficiently grounded in anything we know of Alan), and predictably comes to an ugly head when the three meet at a dinner party C throws to celebrate the book’s completion. C’s voice falls temporarily silent and Anya is left to narrate Alan’s drunken verbal assault alone. From this climax, the relationships, so carefully constructed, unravel. Anya leaves Alan and the city, and C begins a ‘Second Diary’ of opinions, sadder and perhaps wiser than the first.

Over the course of the novel, Anya’s voice gradually takes over from C’s. The ‘Second Diary’ is a response to her opinions about his opinions. Her farewell letter forms the final part of C’s story, and her passages grow longer and her character fuller as the book progresses. The counterpoint of the two voices is often poignant, though it is made uneasy by their lack of common ground. The introduction of this second voice is Diary of a Bad Year’s most radical step, and to my mind, where it goes wrong. Sympathy has always been unidirectional in Coetzee’s works—the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, for example,or David Lurie in Disgrace, both self-sufficient solitary men tested in their powers of identification by creatures, human and animal, that they cannot fully comprehend. Indeed, Coetzee’s concern with animal rights is based on the principle that those who cannot reciprocate also demand our moral attention. His preoccupation has been sympathy for an object we cannot fathom.

Diary of a Bad Year presents an optimistic solution to the problem of the novelist’s authority that has so weighed on Coetzee in recent years. It seeks to abdicate this authority, to open it to another voice. Two sympathetic voices coexist in the text, each seeking and failing to understand the other, each with wholly different concerns and motivations. They speak about, around, and occasionally to one another, without ever attaining genuine recognition. As if to underline this point, their stories are told in different temporal frames. The perspectives do not coincide in reading any more than they do in the story. In a sense, this kind of reciprocity is the logical conclusion to Coetzee’s project, a final proof of the incommensurability of subject and object. But it also brings us back to the recurrent fear that nags all sympathy in Coetzee: is the object really worthy?

Diary of a Bad Year’s sympathy, though reciprocal, is frustratingly asymmetrical. We hear both voices, but only one feels fully imagined. While the narrator speaks to us with the authority of a lifetime of writing and thinking, Anya’s voice is juvenile and often annoying. When we first meet her, she does not seem to warrant any interest—either C’s or the reader’s. The early passages in her voice suggest that she is little more than what C first perceives her as: a body for sex. ‘When I make my silky moves,’ she writes, ‘I can feel his eyes lock onto me. That is a game between him and me. I don’t mind. What else is your bottom for? Use it or lose it.’ Coetzee’s regard for his object has always made an ethical demand on the sympathy of the reader, but when the object speaks in this voice, it is hard to comply.

Coetzee’s art works by creating an ethical compulsion to sympathise out of the aesthetic urge to identify. Without this hard-won identification (which the reader feels twice, with both the subject and the object of sympathy) the novel’s ethical import falls flat. We need the depth of one of Coetzee’s great protagonists to follow them in assuming an ethical obligation. Here, Coetzee has resorted to a disappointingly crude characterisation of his lead female character. True, she does not remain so shallow. By the end, much of her self-absorption and immaturity have fallen away, and she writes C a deeply felt letter of farewell. Yet even this development feels trivial, a cliché we know all too well from My Fair Lady. Galatea should have remained a statue.

C’s passages, by contrast, show the moral weight typical of Coetzee’s characters, a restless need to understand what it is to be human. For C, the question is particularly pressing at what he knows to be the end of his life: ‘Perhaps it is the nature of death that everything about it, every last thing, should strike us as unsuitable.’ This profound attempt to extract some kind of universal truth leads C always to imagine the other:

Whose heart is so hardened as to feel no sympathy at all for the man who, his family having been killed in an Israeli strike, straps on the bomb-belt in full knowledge that there is no paradise of houris waiting for him, and in grief and rage goes out to destroy as many of the killers as he can? No other way than death is a marker and perhaps even a definition of the tragic.

Tragedy is endemic to Coetzee’s world view; his protagonists find themselves in worlds that offer no solace, except perhaps that of the audience at a tragic drama, of catharsis from pity and fear.

Diary of a Bad Year seems to aim for recognition, for a mutual ethical commitment between its two voices. Yet the attempt fails. Sympathy is not, and perhaps cannot be, premised on reciprocity. It must be one-sided, imaginative. This is why the genre of the novel has served Coetzee so well. It is premised on a reader’s sympathetic identification. Coetzee’s concern is the process of identification that makes literature possible. His novels thus thematize their own reading. This may be the root of his interest in novelistic form. As the outside world seems more and more to erode the capacity for sympathy, (a prospect, C’s opinions show, that is ultimately Coetzee’s greatest fear), Coetzee’s latest novels have come to question the ethics of identification, beginning with the novelist’s own. Diary of a Bad Year pins its hopes on recognition, which seems to offer a more comprehensive ethical commitment.

But this transformative experience of recognition, of seeing and being seen, is not the province of the novel, which, for Coetzee at least, is inextricably tied to the subjectivity of its narrator. The protagonists of Coetzee’s novels have always used others as mirrors in which to see themselves. In Coetzee’s recent works, this one-sidedness has become problematic: the mirror now demands a voice as well. Diary of a Bad Year thus proposes a solution to the complex ethics of sympathy exposed in Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. But the solution diminishes the unflinching scrutiny of self and world that make Coetzee’s novels so powerful. By introducing a second subjectivity, Coetzee seems to be attempting to counterbalance the authority of the first, but ultimately only dilutes the moral claim intrinsic to a novel’s subject. It strives towards an objectivity that is foreign to Coetzee’s art of the novel. In attempting to transcend its novelistic character, Diary of a Bad Year points us towards recognition in our own lives, but this is an ethical achievement, not an aesthetic one.

Joshua Billings studies the German reception of Greek tragedy at Merton College, Oxford.