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    Sobriquet 42.25

    Monday, May 26, 2008
    Well, I did it. I finished reading Diary of a Bad Year and, in doing so, have made my way through the entirety of J. M. Coetzee's published fiction. It's satisfying. I do have a lot I'd like to say about the novel, but it is late and I have to be getting to bed, so I will leave off with the promise to address the novel at greater length when I have the opportunity to do so.

    For tomorrow: Either write, read an article on Disgrace, or transcribe.

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    Friday, May 23, 2008
    So, despite today being a rather busy day, I did manage to read a bit more of Diary of a Bad Year. There are times when I am really into it, and other moments when the book strikes me as having hit a false note, where Coetzee's alter-ego seems to resemble Joseph Heller's Eugene Pota, the fictional author struggling to write one last novel in Portrait of the Artist as An Old Man. Like Pota, the fictional Juan Coetzee realizes that he hasn't the time left to write everything he wants to put on paper and, consequently, crams as many half-formed ideas as he can into his strange little book. Then, at other times, the novel seems to shine with the sort of energy and insight only a true master could produce at the zenith of his powers. So, yeah. It's a weird one, that's for sure.

    Just for fun (especially since I was so glum-sounding yesterday), and since one of the more entertaining essays in Strong Opinions is Juan Coetzee's screed on grammatical and linguistic entropy, I'll leave you with a grammatically terrible Coca-Cola slogan I found painted on the side of an old soda machine this evening:


    For tomorrow and Sunday: Read.

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    Wednesday, May 21, 2008
    I've continued reading Diary of a Bad Year and, save for a few passages of relatively run-of-the-mill anti-Americanism, I have found the "strong opinions" well worth poring over. I have also enjoyed reading the contrapuntal voices of the fictional author and his equally fictional typist. What I have found most interesting, however, are the ways in which the information revealed in the diaries seem to shape the development of the ostensibly non-fiction essays and, given the author's reputation for exploring the nature of the writing process, I am pretty certain that much of the critical discussion on the novel will focus on this relationship.

    For tomorrow: Read and/or write.

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    Saturday, May 17, 2008
    Yeah, so I'm still reading Diary of a Bad Year and I'm still really enjoying it. My plan to read "traditionally," however, may soon have to be scrapped. You see, whereas each sub-text fragment would end neatly with a period on each page of the first few chapters of the novel, the pattern does not continue into the middle of the book, almost forcing the reader to read each section before returning to another.

    I also wrote a few more pages on The Master of Petersburg, which I had not expected to have gotten done.

    And I finished Matheson's I Am Legend.

    And now I am going to bed.

    For tomorrow: Read and/or write.

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    Friday, May 16, 2008
    Although I would have liked to have gotten some writing done today, I decided to spend some time tidying up my workspace instead. Now, I have always been the sort of person for whom clutter is normal. If anything, I prefer the chaotic to the ordered, if only because the law of entropy tells me that anytime I clean something, it's just going to get dirty again. (Seriously, why make a bed if you're only going to unmake it later? Unless you're having guests over, of course.). The problem, I find, is that during periods of heightened stress (marathon paper-writing sessions, especially) my manageable mess evolves into a sort of all-encompassing mass of clutter, which can be depressing to look at and can make the simple act of walking a treacherous ordeal. So, I cleaned up and already I feel better. Furthermore, though I thrive in clutter, I loathe the other, non-human entities that flock to piles of paper and books, clusters of empty diet soda cans and discarded packaging materials. So, yeah. I have the feeling writing will be a bit more pleasant now.

    Other than that, I have made some more progress in Diary of a Bad Year. I especially enjoy Coetzee's skewering of university life. Like Elizabeth Costello before him, the protagonist of Diary of a Bad Year regards universities as business enterprises wholly unrelated to education. Elsewhere, the fictional author at the center of the novel, blames the over-usage of poststructuralist theory in literature departments for the increasingly absurd misappropriation of its relativistic thought by paranoid, dimwitted politicians eager to find meaning hidden where nothing is hidden.

    I'm also finding that, by reading the novel in the traditional mode I described yesterday, the book reads very smoothly, enabling the reader to make subtle (and not-so-subtle) connections between the various characters and sub-texts. So, yeah. I'm enjoying it.

    For tomorrow: It's a busy day, so just read some more.

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    Thursday, May 15, 2008
    For whatever reason, I have not been able to get my blog to publish properly this evening, so while I am writing this late Wednesday evening, I have no idea whether or not it will appear anytime soon. It's frustrating because I actually have quite a bit to say and the excitement of instant publication has been replaced by a deflated sort of resignation.

    At any rate, I began reading Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year this evening. I bought the book back in the fall, when it had only been released in parts of Europe and South Africa (that's the cover in the upper left-hand corner), paying the extra money to import the novel before it hit U.S. shelves (the American cover is further down on this page). My intention, of course, was to read the novel as soon as I could, seeing if it would fit into what was then supposed to be a dissertation chapter on Coetzee's fiction I'd planned to write between semesters. I'd hoped to write a solid fifty pages or so on the author's fiction since 1990, in an attempt to flesh out and expand the brief essay I'd written on Disgrace a few years ago. Then I was going to move on to Philip Roth or Joseph Heller.

    Now, after somehow stretching what I'd intended to be five or ten pages on Age of Iron into a full chapter in its own right, I find myself looking at Diary of a Bad Year, wondering if it will yield a full chapter, too.

    Strange how things change.

    I just wish I'd have known then that I would be spending the next six months reading all of Coetzee's other novels so that I wouldn't have spent the extra cash to import the book. Mais, c'est la vie, n'est-ce pas?

    So, anyway, getting to the book. Diary of a Bad Year is not a normal-looking novel. In fact, it's the sort of novel whose structure Alain Robbe-Grillet would have been defending had it been published a half-century earlier. Indeed, Diary of a Bad Year forces the reader to contemplate what he or she believes about what makes a novel a novel. Each page of Coetzee's text presents multiple sub-texts, each separated by a thin black line. The topmost passage, invariably, comes from a series of essays that the fictional author ostensibly writing the novel intends to publish as part of an anthology titled Strong Opinions. The second and third passages, taken from the diaries of the fictional author and his secretary, form a metafictional narrative of the events surrounding the preparation of the manuscript, especially the interactions between the author and his newly-hired typist.

    Of course, the question of how to read the novel has already generated some buzz in the blogosphere and in more mainstream reviews. Does one, for instance, simply read each page from left to right and top to bottom, as is customary? Or do we read each section individually, following one narrative from beginning to end before flipping back to page one and starting with the next narrative? Do we read each essay and the accompanying diary entries as separate sections? Does it matter?

    I, for one, have decided to read this untraditional novel in the most traditional of ways. I will start at the first page, read it from top to bottom, then turn it over and repeat the process until I have finished the book. My reasoning is this: if Coetzee really, really wanted up to read each section separately, wouldn't he have written the novel in such a way as to make that the logical choice? You know, by placing each section one after the other like Fowles did in The Collector, by placing Ferdinand's journal before and after Miranda's...

    We'll see how it turns out.

    In naming the fictional book of essays Strong Opinions, Coetzee makes a clear reference to Vladimir Nabokov, whose assorted essays, interviews, and other bits of non-fiction were collected in a volume with the same title and, like the Russian-American master's Pale Fire, Diary of a Bad Year seems poised to question the nature of textuality and authority. This is, of course, familiar terrain for Coetzee, who has long placed the act of writing under a microscope, scrutinizing the boundaries between author and fiction in nearly all of his work. In Dusklands, for instance, both "The Vietnam Project" and "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" feature characters with the author's last name, a Kafkaesque trick (Joseph K., anyone?) he reprises in Diary of a Bad Year by bestowing both his own last name as well as elements of his own biography to the fictional author. In both Foe and The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee fictionalizes actual novelists and spins new tales from Robinson Crusoe and The Possessed, respectively. In his memoirs, Coetzee writes about himself in the third person. Elizabeth Costello has served as his mouthpiece in The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello, penning essays that could easily have appeared in Strong Opinions (not to mention problematizing things by appearing in Slow Man and suggesting the possibility that she, not Coetzee, writes the novel). I'm sure critics and scholars will be as eager to revisit these texts after reading Diary of a Bad Year as I am.

    But it's late, and I still can't get this thing to publish. So I will call it a night.

    For tomorrow: Read some more of Diary of a Bad Year and/or write a bit more on The Master of Petersburg.

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