Posted by: zhiv | February 13, 2008

Diary of a Bad Year

Almost at mid-February/Valentine’s Day, and I’m writing about my second book of the year.  Not so great.  I guess I got a late start (on blogging, not reading) and I’ve been getting organized, but still.  It may get worse before it gets better too, with work getting a little more demanding these days, but I do have another book in the bank to write about, as well as a bunch of other stuff.

Writing about Coetzee is intimidating, but I’m hoping it’s mostly a matter of getting started, although I don’t expect to have anything worthwhile to say.  There are some great reviews around for this great, fascinating, challenging new novel, and I’ve looked at a few and want to dig up a few more.  For me it’s more a matter of timing.  Five months ago I was vaguely aware of Disgrace and even less conscious of Coetzee’s Nobel Prize, and I had no real interest in reading his work.  I might have read a few paragraphs of Disgrace.  And then everything changed at the end of September, as mentioned in the previous posts.  I’ll cover my progress through a number of his other novels and other works separately.

But this book and the timing of my reading of it reminds me of one of my favorite experiences as a reader.  For a while, years ago, one of my jobs was to read manuscripts.   This was between ’87 and ’91 I think.  I had been in graduate school fairly recently, and there was a certain romance to learning about the world of publishing and contemporary authors.  At any rate, I’m not sure how it started, but I went on a Jane Smiley kick.  I read a couple of her shorter books and then plowed through The Greenlanders, which was just amazing.  And just as I was finishing it, within the hour more or less, the manuscript of 1000 Acres showed up on my desk.  My guess is that I was probably one of the first 100 people, outside of her friends and close associates to read it, so I knew nothing about it.  And within a couple of hours, as I was getting into it, reading about three sisters and their old, troublesome father, I had the joy of discovery, able to figure out completely on my own, hey, I know what she’s doing here, and very soon after it was clear that this was a contemporary King Lear, it became started getting into the sexual abuse that was perfectly organic and quite topical at the moment.  As it happens, I have another story of a related brush with a literary moment and Jeff M. Masson and Janet Malcolm and the Freud Archives and sexual abuse, but I don’t want to get too far off the track so I’ll save it for another time.

The issue of old men and their sexual interest in young women on the mark in talking about Diary, and a fair amount of Coetzee’s work, including Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians.  It’s a powerful undercurrent of the book, though it’s on the surface of things too and gets talked about and analyzed a fair amount, and it’s something that one could write about at length, especially in comparing it to some of the other books.

But the headline in talking about Diary is the structure, and the actual process of reading the book.  We’re all sick of excessive experimentation that doesn’t do much or anything at all for the reading experience; nobody cares.  So there’s a certain skepticism when you see a page divided in two parts, top and bottom, and then a little while later it becomes three parts.  And if I was just picking up a book by Coetzee for the first time, and didn’t know anything about him or his work, I doubt that it would work for me.  But a big part of the accomplishment of the book is what it does for the informed, prepared, inquisitive, eager reader, who couldn’t ask for much more than he or she gets out of this text.  Coetzee is already a master of postmodern, postcolonial fiction, and he’s won the Nobel and a couple of Bookers and doesn’t have anything to prove.  So you wonder, does he have anything to say, and there it is:  opinions, serious commentaries on a number of deep topics.  Coetzee is there, but he isn’t.  And the fiction that he creates, in the second and third blocks of the page and the novel, brings him closer.  He’s there, through the eyes of the alluring Filipino private secretary he hires, as Senor C.  We as readers know more about him than she does, and the value of his opinions is more meaningful.  And then she begins to affect his opinions, to change his thinking.  I’ll let any number of smart reviewers work through the layers and effects.  Not surprisingly for Coetzee, it’s pretty simple and brilliant and extremely effective all at the same time.

Then there’s the process of actually reading the book, which different people are going to do differently.  Reading the full two- or three-part text of every page didn’t work for me.  I read ten or twelve pages of one level, then went back to read the second, and then the third.  You’re reading three stories (one is “opinions”), so it’s a book that can be analyzed within itself over and over again.  You know, the basic postmodern stuff. 

But at the same time, there are the opinions and actions and thoughts within the book itself.  These seem isolated and crystalline and not especially resonant at first, but the effect builds and builds.  Senor C becomes more evidently Coetzee, even mentioning that he wrote Waiting for the Barbarians at one point, and he’s figuring out how he feels and what he, as a great writer and a master and an aging man with dwindling strength, thinks of things like Tolstoy and watching birds in the park.  He has been isolated, grouchy, and withdrawn, and this woman, Anya, brings him out of his shell and helps him feel and regain some strength and compassion, but he’s aware that he’s lost his potency and won’t be making many more trips out of himself. 

One of my impressions in reading Coetzee and trying to talk about him a little bit over these last few months, is that it’s easiest to say and to think that his work is allegorical or generalized, like Kafka.  In Waiting for the Barbarians you have a nameless frontier, and a State and Torture and Barbarians, for instance; Michael K is solitary, inarticulate figure wandering around and witnessing a crumbling, dystopic South Africa, connecting to the land in the most primitive and elemental way.  But when I think of Kafka or Camus–work that I admire and seem to have a vague handle on from a long time ago–I think of a profound, specific philosophical problem, sometimes with an important political element as well,  and an anonymous representative character.  Coetzee, whose writing is every bit as fine and simple in its magnificence, seems to be working with the same tools and trying to generate similar effects.  But then I step back, having reached the end of the story, and realize that these stories and the writing is powerfully emotional.  Again, I’m just going to try to say that I loved this book and I’ll let the smart set explain more about what it does and why and how.  But I find all of it impressive and fun and challenging.  And the snowball of precise, evocative, seemingly cold and detached writing and attitude turning into deep emotional involvement and effect is perhaps the best part of it for me.

So after reading a bunch of Coetzee’s books and his two memoirs, all in the course of a couple of months, and then haunting the bookstore after the new year and grabbing it,  reminded me of the Smiley 1000 Acres experience.  And that was one of my best reads ever.          


  1. I feel ambivalent about Coetzee; I’ve never read him and the reviews sometimes intrigue me, sometimes make me want to stay far away. Your description of this book is appealing, though, and I really like your sentence near the end about the snowball of writing turning into emotional involvement (to shorten the sentence a bit!) — that sounds like something I would enjoy.

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