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    Sobriquet 45.2

    Friday, August 1, 2008
    For some reason, I struggled to get through my reading yesterday. I kept procrastinating and biking from one cafe to another, trying to focus. In the end, my inability to focus got the better of me and I ended up reading until three or so this morning. Today's reading, fortunately, went a bit more smoothly for me. I find that, on the days when I visit Cornell's campus, I tend to be more productive. Part of the reason for this increased diligence, I'm sure, stems from the fact that visiting the venerable old institution requires that I spend more time, energy, and money than I would otherwise do, essentially making the afternoon an outing and cultivating a certain sense of obligation in my mind. I'm also convinced that the gothic architecture and breathtaking scenery have a favorable effect on my mindset. The school I currently attend, having been built during the pragmatic years of the American twentieth century, consists almost exclusively of the featureless, squat brick buildings one associates with the utilitarian values of the Cold War. Needless to say, the bland functionality of the buildings' design does not inspire the same set of emotions as the sweeping columns and decorative friezes common among older institutions. To be honest, I like the musty old buildings, the well-worn marble floors, the exquisite latticework, and the grand, sweeping curves of Cornell's campus because they remind me of similarly "academic" features of the institutions where I did my Bachelor's and Master's degrees. And I like the oldness of the campus because, it makes it easier to envision Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Farina, Vladimir Nabokov, M. H. Abrams and several of my favorite professors working in the same spot in years past. I mean, there's a reason we humans flock to certain historical places. We go to the Pyramids or the Tower of London or Chichen Itza because we know something happened in those places and we wish to imbibe what we can of those historic events or, at the very least, draw inspiration from them.

    And that's what I do when I sit among the trees overlooking Ithaca.

    Now, I'm not saying that a muse will descend upon me or that some quasi-spiritual force permeates the air I breathe when at the university. No. That's a bit too quixotic for me. But I do like the scholarly feel of a tradition-rich academic milieu and I do like to be reminded of the intellectual lights that have gone before me because such things get me thinking about scholarship and put me in the mood to push through my own work.

    And speaking of my own work, I'd like to briefly mention the essays I read these past two days. The first essay, co-authored by Jerzy Koch and Pawel Zajas, draws upon an immense collection of Polish and Dutch reviews of Coetzee's fiction to address instances where foreign critics have misread the author's fiction. The duo's most significant contribution to the canon of Coetzee criticism, in my estimation, is their discussion of the plaasroman and the author's critical engagement with the genre. Like Rita Barnard, Koch and Zajas make an exceedingly strong case for reading Disgrace with the conventions of the plaasroman in mind.

    The essay I read this afternoon, John Douthwaite's linguistic analysis of the opening chapter of Disgrace is clearly the work of a master linguist, though much of the essay simply explains how Coetzee's writing creates the emotional response most readers have when confronting the text of the novel. Where Douthwaite really shines, however, is in his meticulous unpacking of Coetzee's prose to reveal the text's "conversational, or dialogic" nature, thereby opening Disgrace up to a host of intriguing readings rarely discussed among the novel's commentators (53).

    For tomorrow: More of the same.

    Works Cited

    Douthwaite, John. "Coetzee's Disgrace: A Linguistic Analysis of the Opening Chapter." Towards a Transcultural Future: Literature and Society in a 'Post'-Colonial World. Geoffrey V Davis, Peter H. Marsden, Benedicte Ledent, and Marc Delrez, eds. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004. 41-60.

    Koch, Jerzy and Pawel Zajas. "'They Pass Each Other By, Too Busy to Even Wave': J.M. Coetzee and His Foreign Reviewers." A Universe of (Hi)stories: Essays on J. M. Coetzee. Ed. Liliana Sikerska. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2006. 111-150.

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    Sunday, December 16, 2007
    Again, I find myself happy to report that this weblog project has done its job. Despite the fatigue, despite the nagging I doan wanna echoing in my mind, I did make the trek out to Ithaca and I did read two articles.

    The nice thing about the trip to Cornell today--other than the fact that their library subscribes to many of the periodicals my home library does not--is that I can now make certain lofty-sounding statements that are undeniably, if misleadingly, true. For instance:

    I worked on my doctorate at Cornell.

    Or, alternately:

    I did graduate work at Cornell.

    Granted, statements like I did graduate work at the Charlotte International Airport and I worked on my doctorate at the International House of Pancakes in Vestal, New York are also equally valid.

    I can recall visiting Cornell several years ago with my best friend and feeling absolutely miserable. Both of us had been rejected by what was, for us, the one school we most wanted to attend. Both of us had turned down the University of Chicago and other top-tier universities to take advantage of the opportunity not to go into debt by accepting a full ride from a school of lesser renown, and both of us found the grass to be considerably greener on Ithaca's side of the fence. I imagine much of my longing stemmed from the fact that I had been told, repeatedly, that a school's name matters and that a degree issued by a less well-known institution would make finding a job in an oversaturated market that much more difficult

    In any case, the impressive buildings and decidedly collegiate feel of Cornell's campus still elicits--though in a markedly duller form--that fear-tinged sense of "had I gone here, I'd get a job no problem." Still, if there's anything I learned from my thesis supervisor at the "Ivy of Canada," it is that a school's name is not nearly as important as a scholar's work, which was my reason for being in Ithaca in the first place. I decided not to dwell on the pining.

    So, I enjoyed my time at Cornell's excellent Olin Library, exploring the nooks and crannies of the venerable library and taking some satisfaction in noting that my carrel at school is much nicer than those of my peers at Cornell (is it just me, or does that scene in the film version of American Psycho when Patrick Bateman pathetically compares his business card to those of his colleagues come to mind?). Of the articles I managed to locate, I selected two to review today.

    The first, a rather brief essay called "In Pursuit of the State: Uses of the Detective Novel Form in Recent South African Fiction," examines Age of Iron alongside novels by Andre Brink and Alex La Guma and posits that Coetzee fiddles around with the conventions of detective fiction to "confound [the reader's] expectations" (29). While not terribly convincing in its assertion that any genre-specific aspect of detective fiction is actually present in the novel, Susan Thornton's article is refreshingly clear and readable and, ultimately, provides a few precious nuggets of information I may actually be able to build upon in the chapter I plan to begin later this month.

    If anything, Thornton's essay provides me with insight into two aspects of the novel's plot that I had overlooked: Vercueil, Mrs. Curren's consort, is black and Mr. Thabane, Florence's cousin, is a police informer. The latter information actually surprised me, leading me to wonder how I had been oblivious to certain--retrospectively obvious--clues while the former reminded me of a similar issue one encounters in several articles dealing with Disgrace. Although South African critics seem to take it for granted that Melanie Issacs's surname implies that she is not white, many international critics simply assumed the young woman was white, thereby missing an extremely important dimension of her and David Lurie's "affair." Here, in Age of Iron, I had envisioned Vercueil as Caucasian. Clearly, one's cultural ignorance can color what someone like myself sees in his or her mind's eye. Although the information has little bearing on my own use of the novel to discuss broader themes in Coetzee's ouevre, it is an interesting reminder that, as a reader, I must not always trust my uninterrogated interpretation of a given text, lest I overlook any number of potentially misleading subjective cultural biases.

    The second essay I read, in stark contrast to Thornton's, is one of those tediously abstruse pieces of literary criticism weighed down by unwieldy poststructuralist language. At times I felt as if Johan Geertsema was more interested in using the novel to illuminate linguistic theory than vice versa, and I found myself frustrated by the author's persistent use of theory-laden argot in lieu of equally effective, less specialized language. In the end, however, "'We Embrace to Be Embraced': Irony in an Age of Iron," despite its anfractuous prose, does provide some support for my own reading of the novel and will, in all liklihood, make an appearance in my bibliography.

    That said, it is time for bed.

    For tomorrow: Read no fewer than four articles on Age of Iron.

    Works Cited

    Geertsema, Johan. "'We Embrace To Be Embraced': Irony in an Age of Iron." English in Africa. 24.1 (1997): 89-102.

    Thornton, Susan. "In Pursuit of the State: Uses of the Detective Novel Form in Recent South African Fiction." Griot: Official Journal of the Southern Conference on Afro-American Studies, Inc. 10.2 (1992): 29-39.

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