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    Sobriquet 47.31

    Friday, October 31, 2008
    Technically, it's Hallowe'en . . and I'm still not quite done reading the criticism on Disgrace that I'd hoped to have finished by the end of August . . . The good news is that I only have three more essays to read before I can begin the long prewriting phase of this chapter. Three! Seriously, I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to see an end to this long process. Honestly, I never thought I'd be spending anywhere near as much time as I have reading criticism on a novel published less than a decade ago.

    Anyway, today's reading was a brief discussion of two recent books by Derek Attridge, one of which deals with Coetzee. Although there is relatively little in the review to interest Coetzee scholars, Christine Boheemen-Saaf does do a nice job of establishing the importance of Derek Attridge's body of criticism (including his work on Coetzee) to students of contemporary global literature.

    For tomorrow: Read or prewrite.

    Work Cited

    Boheemen-Saaf, Christine. "After Effects." James Joyce Broadsheet 75 (2006): 1.

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    Tuesday, July 29, 2008
    All right. It's been nearly a fortnight since I have had the time to sit down and write about my dissertation. Between long hours spent behind the wheel, time devoted to my family and friends, excessive humidity, hard (non-academic) work, and an unfortunate lack of internet access, I have barely had the opportunity to read, let alone post any blog entries about that reading. Still, I did manage to read Youth as well as several (admittedly brief) critical essays on Coetzee.

    Of the five critical readings, two were book reviews. The first, Michael Upchurch's "Facing 'Disgrace,'" is a solid, if run-of-the mill, reading of Coetzee's novel. Despite finding fault with Coetzee's depiction of females and the novel's often oblique literary allusions, Upchurch ultimately praises Coetzee for his ability to weave a multi-layered narrative out of deceptively "spare...arid" prose ("Facing"). The second review, Susan Ram's excellent "A Comprehension of Life" is one of the most thorough and insightful reviews I have come across, touching on both the novel's more commonly discussed themes as well as several of the book's less obvious concerns.

    I also read Derek Attridge's introduction to Coetzee's Inner Workings. Despite reading the essay with the cynicism of someone struggling to muster the energy to keep reading the seemingly endless pile of literary criticism sitting atop his desk, Attridge's argument for the value of reading a single critic's essays makes an awful lot of sense to me. I mean, if we regard the literary critic as a thinker first and foremost, it stands to reason that a comprehensive reading of his or her criticism will often yield a worldview as complex and unified as that of a philosopher.

    I also read two journal articles, which I will try to discuss tomorrow. Now, though, I think it's time for bed.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay, read some of Coetzee's criticism, or work on my bibliography.

    Works Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "Introduction." Inner Workings. By J. M. Coetzee. New York: Penguin, 2007. ix-xiv.

    Ram, Susan. "A Comprehension of Life." Frontline. 16.25 (1999). Available online.

    Upchurch, Michael. "Facing 'Disgrace' -- J . M. Coetzee Creates a Flawed, Intriguing Character in Post-Apartheid South Africa." Seattle Times 7 Nov. 1999. Available online.

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    Sunday, June 22, 2008
    About half an hour ago, a friend of mine lamented that she has been suffering from a bout of writer's block and -- BAM! -- it hit me. I have been suffering from reader's block. That's why it has been taking me so long to get through some of the criticism I have been reading. Once the flashbulb went off in my mind (I should emphasize that the flashbulb in question is metaphorical; I am not, as far as I can tell, some sort of Philip K. Dick/Ridley Scott replicant), I felt a tiny bit better. Once in a while, I find, it's nice to label something, compartmentalize it, and make it manageable. So there, reader's block! I stick my tongue at thee!

    Anyway, once I stomped the reader's block into submission, I finished reading the introductory essay Derek Attridge penned for the special issue of interventions devoted to Disgrace. As always, Attridge synthesizes an extremely large amount of material (in this case, the rapidly-expanding critical discussion of Coetzee's 1999 novel) into an extremely readable and thoughtful essay. For anyone interested in a quick introduction to the various strains of scholarly debate surrounding Disgrace, Attridge's essay is a wonderful place to start. One of the more pleasing aspects of Attridge's essay, too, is his staunch support for reading Coetzee's novel as literature rather than "historical reportage, political prescription, or allegorical scheme," defending literature as "a challenge to other discourses, including the discourse of politics, which so often attempts to close it down" and as a text that "disturbs. . .any simple faith in the political efficacy of literature - a faith upon which some styles of postcolonial criticism are built" (319-320).

    For tomorrow: Read another essay.

    Work Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace: Introduction." interventions 4.3 (2002): 315-320.

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    Saturday, June 14, 2008
    Again, since it's quite a bit later than I had hoped it would be when I finished my reading for the day, I will have to keep this entry on the briefer side of things.

    When I began seriously working on the dissertation in December, I made it a point to look back at my years in college and graduate school, analyzing what has and has not worked for me in terms of academic success and personal satisfaction. As an undergraduate, I learned that one ultimately has the choice of whether or not to succeed. For someone like myself, this meant restricting my extracurricular activities to my weekly two-hour punk rock radio show and postponing socializing until I had finished whatever homework I had to do. Often, I would be in the library for ten hours a day. When I did hang out with my friends, though, I had the benefit of knowing that I had not left anything undone, so I enjoyed myself more than I would otherwise have done.

    I have since revised this approach, partly because I have come to realize that some semblance of a social life really improves one's mood and often makes working considerably easier to get through. Now I try to prioritize my friends and family whenever possible, which occasionally disrupts my study patterns. After all, their lives do not revolve around the same academic calendar as mine does. Likewise, my friends no longer live in the same building or dine at the same eateries as I do. So, when the opportunity to socialize comes up, I put down my books and head out to wherever it is that my friends and I have decided to spend time. The problem, of course, is that I have to ensure that I do not neglect my work, either. In other words, I have my cake and I want to make sure that I also eat it. Thus, I must work before and/or after having fun.

    Today was one of those days. I was to spend some time with friends, but had not finished reading the article that I'd set aside for the day. So, I had to stay up late reading.

    Fortunately, I only had to reread Derek Attridge's "Age of Bronze, State of Grace: Music and Dogs in Coetzee's Disgrace" today. I say that I am fortunate not only because I have already read the essay but because Attridge is one of the absolute best Coetzee critics out there. His articles are always comprehensive, extremely readable, and often, among the handful of "definitive" studies of the work in question. This essay focuses primarily on David Lurie's time in and around his daughter's smallholding outside of Grahamstown, attempting to identify and locate what might be considered the former professor's attainment of grace. Recalling his earlier essay on The Master of Petersburg, in which the Derridean concept of the arrivant plays a central role, Attridge suggests that grace "is the arrival of the unexpected in unexpectedly beneficent form" (112). Like many of his fellow commentators, Attridge devotes significant attention to Lurie's work with the doomed canines at Bev Shaw's veterinary clinic. It is here, among the unwanted dogs of the Eastern Cape, Attridge suggests, that Lurie's grace descends upon him. As the former professor composes his quirky chamber opera about Lord Byron and cares for the dogs about to be euthanized, Lurie senses a change in himself that, for lack of a better word, may well be described as "grace."

    There is, of course, a great deal more in the essay, but I will call it a night and stop here.

    For tomorrow: Either do library work, bibliographical work, or read an essay or review on Disgrace.

    Attridge, Derek. "Age of Bronze, State of Grace: Music and Dogs in Coetzee's Disgrace." Novel 34.1 (2000): 98-121. Also available online.

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    Sunday, February 10, 2008
    Amazingly, I managed to finish today's rather hefty load of grading by early evening and finished a fascinating--seriously--essay on sexuality among older individuals (it mentions several of Coetzee's texts), all before ten pm.

    Of the three essays I've read this weekend, Thomas Walz's "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons" is, by far, the best. It says quite a bit about the state of contemporary literary criticism that the most interesting, most readable journal article I have read since I began working my way through the critical writing for my dissertation in December was written not by a literary scholar but by a gerontologist from the University of Iowa's School of Social Work. Although Walz's essay only marginally addresses Coetzee's novels, I found myself happily reading through the entire article, taking notes and reflecting upon the many acute observations the author makes regarding sex and sexuality among the aging.

    On Friday, before a night of bowling with my friends, I somehow found the energy to resist napping all afternoon and read one of the essays I was dreading the most. Now, I should emphasize that it was the subject matter (Derrida's philosophy) and not the author of the essay (Derek Attridge) that had contributed to the dread. In fact, had the essay been written by anyone other than Attridge, with whom my correspondence has been extremely cordial and whose previous articles on Coetzee have struck me as extremely solid examples of criticism, there is an exceedingly good chance that I would have skipped over the essay entirely.

    Jacques Derrida, for the uninitiated, is one of the biggest names in the pantheon of poststructuralist theorists whose collective impact on literary (and other cultural) studies effectively redefined the field between the sixties and nineties. Known as much for his radically new, post-Nietzschean, post-Heiddegerian deconstruction as for the abstruse language with which he delivered his ideas, Derrida gained legions of followers and detractors. While I can acknowledge the presence of interesting ideas and clever wordplay in Derrida's writing, I count myself among the large number of Derrida's detractors. I find his writing needlessly abstract, the bulk of his ideas mundane, and the misappropriation of his work irreversibly damaging to my field of study. Like that of Gayatri Spivak, Derrida's writing defeats itself by effectively rendering the ideas it expresses almost impossible to decipher for the vast majority of hominids. Over time, as I read through literary scholars eager to cite Writing and Difference or Margins of Philosophy, I developed an aversion to any and all criticism drawing upon Derrida's theory. So, when "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing" appeared among my search results, I shuddered.

    Fortunately, Attridge is one of the few scholars out there capable of taking Derrida's philosophy, distilling it into more coherent language, and applying it to literature in a way that illuminates the fiction. I find Attridge's application of Derrida's concept of arrivant (from Aporias) to Coetzee's novel actually provides a good deal of insight into the dark sense of waiting pervading The Master of Petersburg. Furthermore, unlike some of the poststructuralist literary critics one encounters every so often, Attridge writes in clear, precise language, a trait of his for which I am particularly grateful.

    I also read over Sue Kossew's "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993), which, while not wholly original in scope, does provide a reasonable reading of Coetzee's novel, focusing on the creative process and the role of writing in an author's life.

    For tomorrow: Transcription.

    Works Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing." Applying--to Derrida, eds. John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins, and Julian Wolfreyes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. 21-40.

    Kossew, Sue. "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993)." English in Africa 23.1 (1996): 67-88.

    Walz, Thomas. "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons." Journal of Aging and Identity 7.2 (2002): 99-112.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, December 29, 2007
    Today was one of those eerily solipsistic days I find myself experiencing more often. Living alone, feeling the need to make use of the rare days when I do not have to wake up early to teach, I throw myself headlong into my work, forcefully cultivating a sense of urgency that seems to deemphasize the world outside of my dissertation to such a tremendous extent that my existence, for the moment, is inseparable from my work. I do not like this tendency of mine because I needlessly heap feelings of loneliness and desperation onto shoulders already stooped under the weight of a sizable (though voluntarily assumed) academic burden, producing a rather negative mood in which I refrain from socializing (saying to myself: I need to get "this" done first. . .) and fight the temptation to wallow in a self-pity in which I am wholly undeserving to wallow. When I am in such a state, I have learned, I become increasingly disorganized, allowing what might otherwise be playfully called "a little mess" to grow into a painfully ubiquitous layer of clutter taking over my living space. Accompanying this physical messiness is the rather vexing tendency to disregard healthy eating habits, the cumulative effects of which, I imagine, could very easily trigger a manic pessimism if I am not too careful. So, I am hereby resolving to clean my home tomorrow. Not entirely, perhaps, but certainly enough to make me feel in control of my life again. I have also determined to regularly take a night off to enjoy the company of my friends and family. That way, I hope, I can minimize the cumbersome weight of an unwelcome solipsism.

    In any case, I did go over two more articles, putting me within spitting distance of actually starting to write the first chapter (though this is a bit misleading since I already published a small piece on Disgrace a few years ago, which I intend to revise and incorporate into this chapter. . .so I guess I kinda-sorta started it already). All right, to get down to business: I tackled Derek Attridge's "Trusting the Other: Ethics and Politics in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" and another of Ina Grabe's articles on Coetzee, "Fictionalization of Current Socio-Political Issues in J. M. Coetzee's Writing: Narrative Strategies in Age of Iron and Foe." Again, as the title indicates, Grabe focuses on issues of writing, narrative structure, and socio-political content, delivering a highly theoretical though not terribly unique reading of Coetzee's fiction. I found the article to be a prolix and occasionally repetitive discussion of insights more clearly and concisely expressed in the work of other critics. I also felt that the author was somewhat ineffective in her assertions about the relationship between Foe and Age of Iron, relying at times on reed-thin theoretical connections to support her case. Still, I applaud Grabe for addressing Age of Iron's relationship to the author's earlier novels. Without the benefit of having yet read The Master of Petersburg, Disgrace, The Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Costello, or Slow Man, Grabe struggles with the same issue many of her fellow critics faced with the publication of Age of Iron: there was simply nothing like it in Coetzee's previous work and, though not altogether convincing in retrospect, Grabe's essay does probe the author's oeuvre for signs of critically neglected themes underlying his entire body of work. In doing so, it would seem, Grabe paved the way for some of the later studies which, with the benefit of having read the author's post-apartheid fiction, explore those connections.

    Attridge, like Grabe, has been recognized as one of the foremost Coetzee scholars active in the academy. In fact, when assembling the editorial board for our journal's Coetzee issue a few years back, we were delighted to have Dr. Attridge assist us in vetting submissions. Having always found Attridge's treatment of Coetzee to be insightful, I looked forward to reading "Trusting the Other." Using a discussion of the epistolarity of the novel as a departure point from which to explore Coetzee's meditations on themes such as trust, love, (un)knowing, and alterity--themes of continued critical interest in the discourse surrounding Age of Iron--Attridge lays the framework for countless subsequent studies. I found Attridge's cautious treatment of Vercueil, in particular, quite useful; like several other readers, I did not explicitly read race into Vercueil and find his undefinability to be a fundamental aspect of his character. I have always felt that the man is more significant than simply serving as the emblem of middle-aged non-white poverty some critics construe him to be--and, like Attridge, find that that importance resides, at least partially, in his "unknowable" nature (67).

    For tomorrow: Two more articles and work on extracurriculars--including cleaning. . .

    Works Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "Trusting the Other: Ethics and Politics in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." South Atlantic Quarterly. 93.1 (1994): 59-82.

    Grabe, Ina. "Fictionalization of Current Socio-Political Issues in J.M. Coetzee's Writing: Narrative Strategies in Age of Iron and Foe." Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskrif Vir Literatuurwetenskap. 9.3-4 (1993): 284-301.

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