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Reflections of a working writer and reader



JM Coetzee in York

We were at a reading by JM Coetzee at the University this afternoon.

Coetzee’s early life was in South Africa. In the early sixties he lived in England, working as a computer programmer while doing research for a thesis on the English novelist Ford Madox Ford.
Later in that decade he was in Texas studying for a PhD in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages. His doctoral dissertation was on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.

JM Coetzee
He was denied permission to stay in the USA and returned to South Africa, where he worked as a novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, and is now a resident of Australia.

In his Nobel acceptance speech he fantasized at length about Robinson Crusoe and his man, suggesting that perhaps we are all cast upon our individual islands. Expanding upon the metaphor, intimating the necessity of finding that footprint of hope on the sandy beach. He had finished that day with a depiction of the two of them, Crusoe and Friday, as deckhands toiling in the rigging, the one on a ship sailing west, the other on a ship sailing east. Their ships pass close enough to hail. But the seas are rough and stormy: their eyes lashed by the spray and their hands burned by the cordage, they pass each other by, too busy even to wave.

Today he read us a short-story narrated by a South African boy who tries to understand the place of his birth, only to come to the realization that the country has been turned into a theme-park.

He followed that with a sequence of dated journal entries, almost like a blog, which gave him the chance to discourse on international politics, the Iraqi war, Machiavelli, the teaching of English, Harold Pinter, the origins of the State and Tolstoy.

He was rather distant and ironic throughout the reading, but with a keen mind that kept you engaged at every stage of the proceedings.

JM Coetzee as a speaker is no less provocative than he is as a writer and I had to remember his riposte to the publisher who asked him, about the manuscript of his prose piece, Boyhood:

“Is this fiction or memoir?”

Coetzee answered, “Do I have to choose?”

The question and answer underscoring the ways that we, as readers, depend on categories to shape our understanding of texts.

9 Responses to “JM Coetzee in York”

  1. “The question and answer underscoring the ways that we, as readers, depend on categories to shape our understanding of texts.”

    A very perceptive observation. A corollory might be that the function of the writer is to deepen, transgress and break (show the contradictions) in the categories.

  2. […] Also, the veracity of this “memoir” has been called into question. Was her marriage as happy as she portrayed it? Or was it dissolving even as she wrote? Etc., etc. According to the introduction, she originally wrote it as a novel and no publisher would accept it. Only when she called it a memoir . . . sound familiar? John Baker commented yesterday that “we, as readers, depend on categories to shape our understanding of texts.” Certainly that’s true for this book. […]

  3. Rebecca Jane says:

    Thanks for this post. I read Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and am still profoundly provoked by the character Costello and her idea that the Chicago stock yards were a model for the Nazi concentration camps. How is it, exactly, that Coetzee gets away with pushing envelopes? Three cheers for him! Any idea of HOW he does it, or why it works for him?

  4. john baker says:

    This question of readers’ dependancy on categories is not easy to fathom. But it is patently true that publishers and booksellers, at least, believe that we won’t buy their wares unless they put a label on each text describing it as ‘literary’ or ‘romantic’ or ‘crime’, etc. etc.
    Within these categories, of course, there are sub-categories and sometimes sub-sub-categories. ‘Noir’, for example, describes a sub-category within the general ‘crime’ genre. But you might well find historical-noir, or some such label, as the entrepreneurs within the publishing industry try another trick to tie you in to their latest offering.
    After that there are the names of the individual writers, and these, as well as the other categories are all, in one sense, expressions of ‘brand loyalty’.
    This situation has brought about the various initiatives, mainly through the library and reading-group communities, in reader development.
    Reader development attempts to sell the reading experience and what it can do for individual readers, rather than selling individual books or genres or writers.
    It builds the audience for literature by moving readers beyond brand loyalty and helping them develop the confidence to try something new.
    Reader development is also at the heart of the lit-blogging community. It involves active intervention to increase readers’ confidence and enjoyment of reading. It consistently opens up more reading choices. And it offers opportunities for people to share their reading experiences.

  5. Lee says:

    Elizabeth Costello pushes the envelope of the novel altogether, for which Coetzee has been roundly criticised, as if a writer of his ilk might not know what a novel is ‘supposed’ to be.

  6. Polaris says:

    Just yesterday, at the airport bookstore in SFO, I leafed through the first few pages of Disgrace. I think I would like to read Coetzee. Which book do you think is a good one to start with?

    I realize that it might be a little too late to leave a comment here, but I thought of asking anyway since I remembered reading this post last month.

  7. john baker says:

    Disgrace is a fine novel and a very good place to start.

  8. spirulina says:

    I read Disgrace, and i am very impressed of this novel

  9. Sandhya Nambiar says:

    I am reading all of Coetzees works and oh my what an amazing man!