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    Sobriquet 42.16: On Beginning Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year

    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 It's frustrating because I actually have quite a bit to say and the excitement of instant publication has been replaced by a deflated sort of resignation.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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    Friday, March 21, 2008
    Well, I continued rereading Waiting for the Barbarians today and, happily, I have really been enjoying it. Having read Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country so recently, I think, has given me a new perspective on the novel. Although Coetzee's first two books are undeniably excellent, they do not feel fully his, if that makes sense. In other words, while Coetzee's unique vision of the world certainly emerges at many points in both Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country, the shadow of the author's influences looms perhaps a bit heavier over his prose than one might like. With Waiting for the Barbarians, however, Coetzee seems to have come utterly into his own. Not only is the Magistrate Coetzee's first likable, sympathetic character, but the prose is markedly more fluid than any of Coetzee's earlier writing (with the possible exception of "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," which is largely free of the dense prose of "The Vietnam Project" or In the Heart of the Country). One of Coetzee's great gifts, in my opinion, is his ability to wax philosophical and explore the same highly theoretical terrain as the poststructuralist thinkers of the sixties, seventies, and eighties without resorting to using the ostentatiously rarefied language so common among those folks. With Waiting for the Barbarians Coetzee achieves that difficult balance of plain language and deep thought and does so masterfully.

    So, yeah, I'm enjoying this.

    Now it's onto some pre-writing.

    For tomorrow: Same old, same old.

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    Tuesday, March 4, 2008
    I finally finished reading "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" this evening. Having completed Dusklands now, I am looking to begin reading In the Heart of the Country, which I will probably start one of the next few days. I just do not want to push myself to far away from my current focus, which is to wrap up the preparatory phase for the next section of the dissertation and begin writing on The Master of Petersburg. To that end, I have begun rereading the criticism and will work my way through the pile over the next few weeks. Still, I think reading another novel will be a pleasant break from the denser, less pleasurable texts I will be revisiting.

    I did enjoy Dusklands, especially "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," the second--and longer--of the two novellas making up Coetzee's first book. While "The Vietnam Project" is considerably more pertinent to my research, "The Narrative" was a more enjoyable read. Like much of Coetzee's work, the second novella explores many of the power dynamics at work in a colonial society as well as the role of history and counterhistory in the construction of nationhood. Unlike the psychologically disturbing Eugene Dawn of "The Vietnam Project," Jacobus Coetzee is a laughably foppish character throughout much of the text, which makes for an easier read. He is, however, a violent, vengeful racist at the center of some horrifying scenes, which can strike a very different chord of discomfiture than those involving the tragically insane Dawn. Whereas the vile behavior of Dawn can be chalked up to a lone individual's mental illness, Jacobus Coetzee's moral transgressions are bolstered by state-supported attitudes of racial superiority--something many readers will find very painful to contemplate (though, I'm sure, a similarly strong case could be made for the dehumanizing effects of military bureaucracy in "The Vietnam Project"). Not his best work, but a wonderful book nonetheless.

    For tomorrow: More criticism and, if I feel up to it, begin In the Heart of the Country.

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    Sunday, March 2, 2008
    Since I am still feeling quite ill, I won't write very much tonight. I did continue reading "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," though, which I have been enjoying. So far, the only qualm--if one could even call it that--I find I have with the novella is that it does not really sound like it had been written in the late eighteenth century. This is, of course, a relatively minor objection. After all, given the text's internal claim to have been translated from Afrikaans to English during the modern age, the English into which the fictional Coetzee translates the original text would not be noticeably dated or anachronistic. Still, the text itself feels a bit too contemporary, a bit too aware of the postcolonial discourse it would inevitably become a part of two centuries after it was written.

    For tomorrow: More of the same.

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    Thursday, February 28, 2008
    I finished reading "The Vietnam Project" today. The final third of the novella, while still dense, flowed much more quickly than the first two-thirds. I do not want to give anything away to potential readers, so I will not discuss the plot at any great length. I will, however, say that Eugene Dawn's narrative stands beside those of Bob Slocum, Humbert Humbert, and Ferdinand Clegg as one of the more disturbing confessional narratives in late-middle-twentieth century literature.

    And yes, I did get some more transcription done.

    For tomorrow: Begin reading "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" and transcribe some more.

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    Well, I didn't get the snow day the kid in me had been hoping for all last night, but I haven't any complaints about today. I did manage to get some more transcription out of the way, though what had once been a relaxing aspect of the dissertation-writing process has become a bit tedious lately. It is necessary, though, and having experienced the benefits such pre-writing provides, I'm happy to suck it up a bit and finish without complaining. I mean, seriously, I remember how much of a relief transcription seemed after having read through dozens of critical essays...

    I also read another chunk of "The Vietnam Project," and my impression of Eugen Dawn has, if anything, grown more negative. He's an unbalanced man, incapable of keeping himself out of his formal report--inserting his own warped re-interpretation of events into the text in a way that recalls Nabokov's Charles Kinbote. Furthermore, as the novella unfolds, Dawn reveals an intensely neurotic self-aggrandizing streak while simultaneously striving to paint himself as some sort of victim, singled out for his valiant efforts to speak his mind. Between his tendency to assert his intelligence--via explicit claims of intellectual superiority as well as subtly through a seemingly forced prose style ostentatiously foregrounding an exaggerated erudition--and his paranoid sense of persecution, Dawn continues to echo the Slocums and Underground Men (he even says "I am a sick man," clearly evoking the famous opening line with which Dostoevsky's bilious creation introduces himself) he channeled in the first section of the novella. The crazier he gets, though, the more compelling the read.

    Interestingly, I have found that "The Vietnam Project" has some key similarities to The Master of Petersburg and may yield an interesting degree of intertextuality to my discussion of Coetzee's latter novel. So, I'm intrigued.

    For tomorrow: More readin' 'n' more transcribin'.

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    Wednesday, February 27, 2008
    As much as I enjoy my job, I have to admit, I'd really like a snow day tomorrow. Granted, I got the chance to enjoy the winter wonderland beauty of a day-long snowfall today, but there's something particularly special about snow days. They're among the little bonuses in life; they free up time and give us a sense of having somehow beaten the system. Oh, and they mean I don't have to forgo eight hours of sleep.

    In any case, besides chipping away at the bit of transcription I hope to finish this week, I started reading Dusklands today. I really can't say too, too much about the book because I only read the first section of "The Vietnam Project," the first of the two novellas which make up Coetzee's first book. So far, though, I find the book considerably denser than the author's later work. Eugene Dawn, the "creative" propagandist penning the report around which the eponymous novella is built, strikes me as an utterly unlikeable human being. He has more than a little bit of Dostoevsky's perverse Underground Man in him but none of that sad man's pitiable qualities. He's smug, paranoid, self-important, annoyingly obsequious, and writes in a style that is emotionally detached and uncomfortably frank (not to mention self-consciously erudite, calculated, and manipulative...he is, after all, a propagandist). In that regard, Dawn resembles no one literary character more than Bob Slocum, the protagonist of Joseph Heller's Something Happened, which is not a particularly flattering comparison.

    The novella is interesting. Many of the recurring themes in Coetzee's fiction appear in "The Vietnam Project": the nature of writing, the struggle between the powerful and the powerless, the production of official history, and the unfulfilling, emotionally barren romances Coetzee's readers have come to expect.

    I look forward to seeing where the book goes.

    For tomorrow: Some more transcription and some more of Dusklands.

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