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    Sobriquet 57.4

    Monday, August 10, 2009
    Since I'm writing this in the middle of an electrical storm and I haven't much confidence in either my internet connection or my apartment's ability to keep the power on, I will keep tonight's entry brief. I looked at two essays today, only one of which really offered much for scholars interested in Elizabeth Costello. The first piece I looked at, Paulo de Medeiros's "(Re-)Constructing, (Re-)Membering Postcolonial Selves," while an interesting look at identity formation in postcolonial contexts, only mentions Elizabeth Costello in passing. The second essay, Margaret Lenta's "Coetzee and Costello: Two Artists Abroad," on the other hand, deals exclusively with Coetzee's 2003 novel. Although much of Lenta's text is given up to plot summary, the critic does raise valuable questions about the role of literature in shaping peoples' ideas and the nature of Coetzee's relationship to Costello and her various literary interlocutors.

    For tomorrow: Read.

    Works Cited

    de Meidros, Paulo. "(Re-)Constructing, (Re-)Membering Postcolonial Selves." Stories and Portraits of the Self. Eds. Helena Carvalhao Buescu and Joao Ferreira Duarte. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 37-49.

    Lenta, Margaret. "Coetzee and Costello: Two Artists Abroad." English in Africa 31.1 (2004): 105-120.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, August 8, 2009
    Although I have only read a relatively small fraction of the critical writing on Elizabeth Costello, I have been impressed by the sheer amount of philosophical and interdisciplinary writing engaging with Coetzee's novel. Of course, this is not especially surprising information. After all, Costello rather explicitly abandons literary pursuits in favor of traveling the world and lecturing on a variety of themes. Still, for someone as accustomed to reading academic writing within a single discipline as I am, the transition has been an interesting one for me. I find, for example, that I appreciate the rigorous acumen of scholars working within the social sciences and, while it certainly resembles analogous patterns in my own field of expertise, I find the circuitous reasoning of certain philosophy scholars to be a touch more difficult to get through than, say, the matter-of-fact approach taken by primatologists.

    And that's really the thing about Elizabeth Costello: for a single work of fiction, it galvanizes thinkers in a staggeringly wide range of academic fields and spawns an impressive degree of interdisciplinary writing, much of which focuses on a single idea Costello expounds upon rather than the entirety of the novel.

    The essay I looked at today, for instance, Angi Buettner's "Animal Holocausts," situates Elizabeth Costello within the contemporary debate about the uses of the Holocaust as analogies for lowercase-h holocausts such as the slaughter of animals, the very comparison Costello makes to anger Isaac Stern in Coetzee's novel. In a discussion that also focuses on Stephen Wise's Rattling the Cage, Buettner suggests that, while reactions like that of Coetzee's fictional poet, Stern, are understandable, "[w]hen the Holocaust is used to point out and work against newly created suffering . . . it is not pointless" or gratuitous (41).

    For tomorrow: Read.

    Work Cited

    Buettner, Angi. "Animal Holocausts." Cultural Studies Review 8.1 (2002): 28-44.

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    ____________________________________________
    Although the bulk of today's dissertation work was of the physical variety -- collating and stapling a draft, driving an hour to campus, and stuffing it in my supervisor's mailbox, as well as finding photocopying essays on Elizabeth Costello -- I did get a bit of reading done, too.

    In Lesson 6 of Elizabeth Costello, "The Problem of Evil," a fictional version of the very real novelist Paul West attends a conference with the novel's heroine. In her speech at that conference, Costello cites West's real-life novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, as an example of the sort of text in which the author crosses a line -- bringing more evil into the world than good -- by imagining and recreating scenes of horrific cruelty. Although Costello's arguments are disjointed and frequently unconvincing, she raises a few interesting points about the power of literature to alter the real world and the ostensible duty authors have to wield that tremendous power in a way that does not damage humanity -- and she leaves West in the precarious position of having to defend himself rationally against the emotionally-charged allegations at the heart of her jeremiad.

    In "The Novelist and the Hangman: When Horror Invades Protocol," West addresses his place in Coetzee's novel, assesses the book as following somewhat in the tradition of the French New Novel, and offers a thoughtful response to Costello's comments about literature's relationship to evil. While readers will be likely be most interested in hearing West's response to Costello's allegations (a privilege Coetzee's text had denied the man), his reply is ambivalent: West is seemingly flattered by Coetzee's attention while clearly miffed by Costello's ill-formed ideas about the author's role as a potential conduit for evil. Using Costelo's words as a departure point, West revisits his own novel and reasserts his belief that writers should continue probing the depths of the human psyche, dragging muck to the surface and dragging surface-dwellers through the muck.

    For tomorrow: Read.

    Work Cited

    West, Paul. "The Novelist and the Hangman." Harper's Magazine July 2004. 89-92, 94.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, July 17, 2009
    I've had a fairly productive few days since I last posted anything. On Tuesday, I finished the mini-section I'd been working on since before my hard drive crashed, which was a nice little personal triumph. Now, at the outset of the penultimate mini-section of my chapter on Disgrace, it seems the end has finally popped into view.

    On Wednesday, I read Alan A. Stone's sympathetic review of Elizabeth Costello for The American Journal of Psychiatry. In it, Stone recounts how he, like Coetzee's fictional poet Abraham Stern in The Lives of Animals, initially baulked at Costello's likening of contemporary slaughterhouses to the death camps of Hitler's Third Reich. The "infuriatingly memorable" lectured "stuck in [Stone's] craw" and he began reading more deeply in Coetzee's oeuvre, ultimately concluding that Both Costello and Coetzee are admirable in their "unblinking search for truth."

    Other than read and write, I spent some time combing through my notes in preparation for the next mini-section, which I intend to begin rather soon.

    For tomorrow: Read, write, or plan.

    Work Cited

    Stone, Alan A., M.D. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. American Journal of Psychiatry 161.12 (2004): 2336-2337.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, July 13, 2009
    Since I had earmarked today for socializing, I hadn't intended to get a whole lot done. What I did do was review a brief essay that, in the end, only touched upon Elizabeth Costello in the most cursory of ways: Lynn Meskell and Lindsay Weiss's "Coetzee on South Africa's Past: Remembering in the Time of Forgetting." Although it does not add much to my current project, the essay is a well-written and thought-provoking examination of J. M. Coetzee's engagement with South African history, especially in Waiting for the Barbarians.

    I also spent a bit of time reviewing some of the essays I encountered in May, when I first started reading up on Elizabeth Costello. The best essay I read then, Thorsten Carstensen's "Shattering the Word-Mirror in Elizabeth Costello: J. M. Coetzee's Deconstructive Experiment" includes one of the better discussions of the political implications of literary production while also interrogating the decidedly postmodernist structure of the novel.

    I also glanced over some of the book reviews I'd read:

    Oliver Herford's "Tears for Dead Fish" reads Elizabeth Costello as a deliberately confrontative text designed to rankle readers with its "terminal, comfortless" content.

    Siddhartha Deb's "Mind Into Matter" is a thoughtful, sympathetic reading of the novel that resists the temptation to dwell on formal issues in order to focus on deeper thematic concerns.

    Andrew Marr's "He is Both Fish and Fowl" is typical of many reviews, focusing largely on the difficulty of presenting serious philosophical inquiry as part of a serious literary project.

    Judith Shulevitz's "Author Tour" is one of the most comprehensive, penetrating reviews of Elizabeth Costello to appear outside of academic journals.

    Sarah Coleman's "Thanks, But No Thanks" is a fairly negative take on the form of Coetzee's fiction, though not  dismissively so.

    For tomorrow: Read or (preferably) write.

    Works Cited

    Carstensen, Thorsten. "Shattering the Word-Mirror in Elizabeth Costello: J.M. Coetzee's Deconstructive Experiment." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 42.1 (2007): 79-96.

    Coleman, Sarah. "Thanks, But No Thanks." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. San Francisco Chronicle 2 Nov. 2003.

    Deb, Siddhartha. "Mind Into Matter." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. Boston Globe 26 Oct. 2003.

    Herford, Oliver. "Tears for Dead Fish." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The Times 5 Sept. 2003.

    Marr, Andrew. "He is Both Fish and Fowl." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The Telegraph 8 Sept. 2003.

    Meskell, Lynn and Lindsay Weiss. "Coetzee on South Africa's Past: Remembering in the Time of Forgetting." American Anthropologist 108.1 (2006): 88-99.

    Shulevitz, Judith. "Author Tour." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. New York Times 26 Oct. 2003.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, July 12, 2009
    Having lost several hours of prime internet access to the vicissitudes of summertime electrical storms, I find myself writing tonight's entry quite a bit later than I would otherwise have done. I mean, I am routinely awake after two in the morning, but I am a bit sleepier than I would prefer to be when trying to write something of even marginal readability. Oh, well. At least I have the Descendents to keep me energized this evening...

    At any rate, I used my Saturday to read a bit more criticism on Elizabeth Costello. Well, actually, I thought I would be reading about Elizabeth Costello but the article I plucked from the stack -- Kate McInturff's "Rex Oedipus: The Ethics of Sympathy in Recent Work by J. M. Coetzee" -- ended up having more to do with Disgrace than Coetzee's subsequent novel. This, of course, is likely the result of the essay having been indexed by the MLA after I last scoured the database for Disgrace-centered criticism.

    So. Getting to the article: McInturff draws on Elizabeth Costello's oft-discussed fascination with the human capacity for a sympathetic imagination that dissolves the species barrier in an effort to establish the ways in which Coetzee explores intergender, interracial, and interspecies power dynamics. The theoretical framework with which McInturff shapes her discussion of Coetzee borrows heavily from previous research by Anne McClintock and Judith Butler and stages a well-reasoned critique of the patriarchal ideologies influencing post-Enlightenment familial structure and the socio-political analogues that have shaped so much of the troubled post-apartheid culture Coetzee examines in Disgrace. Extending Costello's desire to do away with the human/non-human binaries justifying the abusive treatment of those beings (both human and non-human) that people regard as somehow inferior to themselves to the exploitative racial and gender hierarchies at the heart of Coetzee's 1999 novel, McInturff adds a passionate voice to one of the more crucial veins of Coetzee criticism.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

    Work Cited

    McInturff, Kate. "Rex Oedipus: The Ethics of Sympathy in Recent Work by J. M. Coetzee." Postcolonial Text 3.4 (2007).

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, July 11, 2009
    I've had a fairly productive two days, making some progress on both the chapter I am currently in the process of writing as well as the chapter I intend to write next. So it's been a satisfying, if unpleasantly humid, couple of days at my desk.

    The article that I read yesterday evening, Chris Danta's "'Like a dog . . . like a lamb': Becoming Sacrificial Animal in Kafka and Coetzee," was one of the more interesting bits of criticism that I have read lately. Focussing largely on the figure of the scapegoat, Danta mounts a strong case for viewing animals -- particularly those designated as sacrificial -- as bearers of narratives. What Coetzee scholars will find most interesting, however, is likely to be Danta's reading of Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace as texts in which animals -- and, more specifically, the bodies of animals enable -- the human being to confront and grasp his or her own mortality.

    This afternoon, I returned to my chapter on Disgrace and ended up writing a few more pages, bringing myself ever-so-slightly closer to the end of this behemoth.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

    Work Cited

    Danta, Chris. "'Like a Dog . . . Like a Lamb': Becoming Sacrificial Animal in Kafka and Coetzee." New Literary History 38 (2007): 721-737.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, May 6, 2009
    Last night, in my effort to traverse a metaphoric glacier, I decided to get some reading done for the Elizabeth Costello chapter I hope to begin fairly soon. I am, of course, still writing the Disgrace chapter, too, but given a confluence of situations beyond my control, it may be a week or so before I can sit down and really write anything in earnest. At any rate, I read three reviews of Elizabeth Costello and one on the pre-Elizabeth Costello volume, The Lives of Animals:

    1. Of the four, Diana Nelson Jones's assessment of the novel is easily the most disparaging, regarding the book as a "highly dissatisfying work" with unknowable characters and an off-putting protagonist. Predictably, Jones does not seem especially fond of the format of the book, echoing the common refrain that the book is not a novel.

    2. Caroline Moore, too, wonders if Coetzee "has come to the end of writing fiction," though in a considerably less negative tone. Moore's review is concerned with the book's commentary on the relationship between art and artist, fiction and reality and suggests that Coetzee, in speaking through Costello, may actually be inviting people to speculate about his place in the creation of the book and the exchange of ideas rather than attempting to hide behind Costello.

    3. Contrary to the viewpoint espoused by readers such as Jones, Janet Maslin finds the "string of metaphysical pit stops" Coetzee has fashioned into a novel "improbably inviting at the simple narrative level."

    4. David Fraser, in his reading of The Lives of Animals, praises Coetzee for his unique contribution to the debates on animal ethics:
    Rather than raising new issues or proposing new solutions, he uses narrative, allusions, and conversation to capture the moral confusion that our use of animals creates. He helps us see this confusion not as an abstract debate, but as real people in conflict, with a host of differences in personality and worldview, making resolution (even dialogue) difficult and sometimes painful.
    Today, I read Louise Bethlehem's "Materiality and the Madness of Reading," a highly poststructural discussion of corporeality in Elizabeth Costello. Although her ostensible aim is to establish, in Derridean terms, how Coetzee's novel contains traces "of South African literary culture" despite being written by an Australian and set primarily away from Africa, Bethlehem's study spends far more time entering into the rarefied discourses of body, language, and representation. Those of a more theoretical bent will likely find this essay thought-provoking.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

    Works Cited

    Bethlehem, Louise. "Materiality and the Madness of Reading: J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello as Post-Apartheid Text." Journal of Literary Studies. 21.3-4 (2005): 235-54.

    Fraser, David. Rev. of The Lives of Animals, by J. M. Coetzee, et. al. The Quarterly Review of Biology 76.2 (2001): 215-216.

    Jones, Diana Nelson. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 9 Nov. 2003. Available online.

    Maslin, Janet. "The Mockery Can Still Sting With a Target in the Mirror." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The New York Times 21 Oct. 2003. Available online.

    Moore, Caroline. "Lessons Drawn From Fiction." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. 8 Sept. 2003. Available online.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, May 3, 2009
    When I read James Wood's review of Disgrace last August, his contemptuous tone left a bad taste in my mouth, and I said so in the post I wrote that day. Today, with some curiosity, I picked up Mr. Wood's write-up of Elizabeth Costello and was somewhat surprised by the near-reverent language with which the critic assesses the novel.

    Wood, of course, is one of the world's better English-language literary critics and, when a novel piques his interest or evokes his passion for literature, he tends to pen some of the most insightful and assessable reviews you'll ever come across. Happily, his review of Elizabeth Costello falls into this category. After dismissing the understandable aversion some readers have to the author's curious framing of the novel and positing that Coetzee is not simply "protecting himself by pre-empting criticism" or shying away from taking ownership of often unreasonable ideas, Wood insists, rather lyrically, that the then newly-minted Nobel Laureate has crafted a supreme defense of literature and emotion against the unfeeling onslaughts of some of the modern world's more disarmingly rational approaches to existence. Ultimately, Wood argues, Elizabeth Costello "inclines towards death" while celebrating the beauty of the sympathetic possibilities of the human imagination.

    Recently, I also read Rebecca Ascher-Walsh's dismissal of the novel as a "near miss," Adrienne Miller's generous assessment of the book as a highly effective novel of ideas, and  D. J. Taylor's seemingly reluctant embrace of Coetzee's difficult text. Wood's review, though, is by far the most insightful of the lot.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

    Works Cited:

    Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. EW.com. 17 Oct. 2003. Available online.

    Miller, Adrienne. "Great Writing About Not Writing." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. Esquire 22 Oct. 2003. Available online.

    Taylor, D. J. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The Independent 30 Aug. 2003. Available online.

    Wood, James. "A Frog's Life." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. London Review of Books 23 Oct. 2003. Available online.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, April 17, 2009
    I would have posted something last night but was unable to do so because of a rather perplexing software issue. Right now, it seems I might be able to publish a post or two, but there may be some glitches.

    At any rate, I did get some writing done today, trudging a tiny bit closer to an end that still seems quite a distance away.

    Yesterday, owing in large part to a particularly long day at work, I only read a brief review of Elizabeth Costello. In "The Rest is Silence," The Guardian's Hermione Lee gives a brief synopsis of each "Lesson" in Coetzee's text, ultimately concluding that, "[j]udging by this difficult and unforgiving book," Coetzee is a better novelist than essayist.

    For tomorrow: Read, plan or write.

    Work Cited

    Lee, Hermione. "The Rest is Silence." Rev. of Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. The Guardian 30 Aug. 2003. Available online.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, April 16, 2009
    I accomplished very little today and it was entirely my own fault. Last night, after I finished my reading for the day, I set about tweaking one of the little art projects with which I occasionally amuse myself. Before I knew it, it was quite a bit past four in the morning and I could hear the first birds cheeping merrily outside my window. So I slept in. Then, when I woke up, I felt the familiar twinge of anxiety I associate with those moments I feel pressed for time. So, rather than write, I decided to take a long walk, enjoying what I hope will be the first of many pleasant spring days, socialize, watch South Park poke fun at the economic stimulus package, and read Adam Mars-Jones's rather negative review of Elizabeth Costello.

    Faulting Coetzee for the author's absent "sense of play" in the book, Mars-Jones dislikes the literary effect of the novel's strange structure, finding the Costello family a bit too conveniently arranged "to dramatise the divide between the arts and sciences" or bring about a "confrontation between humanist and religious" worldviews. Interestingly, this type of arrangement is a quality of realist fiction Coetzee's narrator discusses rather early on in the novel when (s)he claims
    Realism has never been comfortable with ideas. It could not be otherwise: realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can only exist in things. So when it needs to debate ideas. . .realism is driven to invent situations - walks in the countryside, conversations - in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them. (9)
    The result of such philosophical embodiment in Elizabeth Costello, for Mars-Jones, is that "[e]ven the heroine's inmost experiences, of sexual pleasure, generosity or trauma, feel like enrichments of the debate rather than revelations of the character." Furthermore, Mars-Jones continues, "[a]s the book goes on, it becomes more abstract, not less," effectively alienating readers with an imperfectly crafted hybrid text that is, by turns, didactic and confusing.

    For tomorrow: Read, write, or prep.

    Works Cited

    Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. Penguin: New York, 2003.

    Mars-Jones, Adam. "It's Very Novel, but is it Actually a Novel?" Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The Observer 14 Sept. 2003. Available Online.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, April 14, 2009
    Although I would have liked to have fit some writing into my schedule today, the reality is that my Tuesdays are simply too busy for me to find the time it takes for me to dissertate effectively. So, rather than frustrate myself by attempting to write, I decided to get a bit of reading done for the next chapter.

    I ended up selecting the introductory essay to the American Anthropologist symposium devoted addressing several of the anthropological issues Coetzee raises in Elizabeth Costello. As one might expect of an introduction, the essay offers relatively little insight into the novel. Instead, it provides a thoughtful, accessible overview of the critical reception of Elizabeth Costello while also, predictably, making a case for the sort of interdisciplinary discourse it introduces.

    For tomorrow: Read, write, or plan. Preferably write.

    Work Cited

    Mascia- Lees, Frances E. and Patricia Sharpe. "Introduction to 'Cruelty, Suffering, Imagination: The Lessons of J. M. Coetzee.'" American Anthropologist 108.1 (2006): 84-87.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, March 6, 2009
    One of my students stopped by my office yesterday afternoon to discuss some of the reading she has been doing for an independent study and, among other things, we talked about a tendency both of us have experienced to contextualize the world in Sartrean terms after reading Being and Nothingness. Our discussion reminded me of a similar conversation I'd had while still a Master's student in 2001. One of my classmates walked out of the seminar room, somehow wincing and grinning at the same time. I can't look at the world the same way anymore, she said. I keep looking at other people and wondering "are you creating me" or "am I creating you?" Like my student yesterday, my classmate had just finished reading part of Sartre's massive text and, mind spinning, found that his phenomenological ontology had utterly changed the way in which she perceived the world.

    Few authors have had such an impact on me, though Sartre is undeniably one of the few who have. I mean, there's hardly a day that goes by without my reflecting upon mauvais foi and I often think of the vivid illustrations the philosopher uses to convey his observations.

    Lately, J. M. Coetzee has become another such figure in my intellectual life. Every discussion I have about fast food or animal rights, for instance, recalls Elizabeth Costello and each time my friend and I discuss politics over dinner, I remember the "Strong Opinions" Juan Coetzee expresses in Diary of a Bad Year. So, I wasn't especially surprised when, in the middle of Sherman Alexie's presentation of Cornell's annual Olin lecture this evening, I began to reflect on Elizabeth Costello's invocation of Kafka's Red Peter and her own difficulty in performing for an audience. Then, like the proverbial floodgate unleashing its symbolic deluge, Coetzee's comments about the writer-as-performer in Elizabeth Costello (both the titular character and Emmanuel Egudu joined Red Peter in my mind) as well as in the interview Coetzee granted Stirrings Still a few years ago prompted me to reflect on Mr. Alexie's thoroughly engrossing performance. As a fan of Coetzee (not to mention the similarly performance-shunning William Gaddis), I have often thought about what it is that makes us beg writers to speak. And, correspondingly, what prompts writers to speak.

    Now, certainly, some writers are natural performers and, to be sure, Mr. Alexie is one of the finest I have seen. Like Egudu, Alexie effortlessly draws his audience into the web of his storytelling, entertaining while he edifies. But, despite my conviction that Mr. Alexie was quite at home on stage, I could not help but wonder about the deeper implications of asking a writer to give a lecture to a crowd of folks trained to dissect the words he writes. Nor could I put from my mind the fact that, like the fictional African novelist in Coetzee's text, Alexie speaks from (and, some would argue, for) a group of people for whom storytelling has traditionally been an oral medium. And yet, despite Alexie's remarkable ability to speak publicly, I ended up in that auditorium because of the man's written words, because I enjoyed the solitary act of reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

    And, ultimately, this is one of the great joys of writing a dissertation on a writer like Coetzee. The more I immerse myself in his fiction, the more I reflect upon the questions he raises, the more deeply I experience my own existence. Like Sartre, Coetzee has changed the way I look at the world, adding a degree of reflection to many of my day-to-day activities.

    On the work front, I wrote a few more pages on Disgrace and came across even more philosophy I will want to read before I write one of the later sections of the chapter.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Since it's already half past one in the morning, I'm going to have to keep tonight's post on the brief side. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Tuesdays and Thursdays are my busiest days this term, so I rarely have the time (and, even less frequently, the energy) to get make any substantial progress on my dissertation, so I have had to satisfy myself with reading a bit of criticism on Elizabeth Costello. The review I read this evening, David Lodge's "Disturbing the Peace," is probably one of the longer reviews of the novel that you're likely to come across and, I am guessing, one of the more comprehensive discussions of the book to appear in a popular (though, certainly, quasi-academic) publication. As one might expect from a piece in The New York Review of Books, Lodge devotes the majority of his attention to an uncommonly detailed summarization of the text's plot, though he frequently interjects with his own thoughtful reflections on the book (and its place in the author's oeuvre), raising what I imagine will turn out to be some of the most frequently discussed aspects of the novel among subsequent critics: the novel's dizzyingly complex metafictional structure, Coetzee's bold decision to place fictionalized versions of his literary contemporaries in the text, the ethics of human-animal relations, literary authority, and artistic transcendence. 

    I especially appreciate Lodge's handling of the rather difficult question of authority in Elizabeth Costello, refusing as he does both the temptation to gloss over the author's multi-faceted exploration of the theme as well as the urge to offer a definitive interpretation. Instead, Lodge poses questions about the ways in which the unidentified narrator of Elizabeth Costello, the novel's eponymous heroine, and the book's creator interact with and comment upon one another without allowing the fragile narrative labyrinth to implode.

    Of further significance is Lodge's treatment of Elizabeth's physical and pathological frailty and their bearing on her struggles to connect with others throughout the book. At once critical of her shortcomings both as a character and as a fictional construct and sympathetic to Coetzee's ambitious artistic aims, Lodge's analysis of the book questions Elizabeth's sanity, moral convictions, and ability to reason while engaging with her on an intellectual level, even going so far as to include a discussion of the Paul West novel at the center of one of the book's "Lessons," concluding that, while her logic may be lacking, her impressions are valid.

    Work Cited

    Lodge, David. "Disturbing the Peace." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The New York Review of Books 50.18 (2003). Available Online.

    For tomorrow: Read, transcribe, or -- preferably -- write.

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    Saturday, February 14, 2009
    I've been struggling a bit these past few days to get my work done. As much as I would like to place the blame on the fifty-odd student essays I had to grade in less than two days, I can't. I had plenty of time to sit down and read and, despite loving Elizabeth Costello, I procrastinated during my free time on Wednesday and Thursday and ended up reading into the wee hours of the morning just to get a bit of work completed. Now, while I rarely give myself a set number of pages to read, I usually have an idea in my head, a secret threshold I'd like to hit each day. That number has been anywhere from a handful of pages to a pretty hefty chunk of reading. And, for the past two days, I read about half of what I wanted to read and I've been a bit disappointed with myself as a result.

    That said, I have been thinking a good deal about Elizabeth Costello. Like Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee's 2003 novel consists largely of the philosophical speculation of a fictional character some readers are tempted to interpret as a stand-in for the novelist himself. What I enjoy most about both novels, but find especially appealing in Elizabeth Costello, is Coetzee's ability to present deeply thoughtful philosophical dialogues that truly present multiple sides to an important question. Never does Coetzee lapse into the sort of soapbox preaching into which so much of such highly philosophical fiction often disintegrates. Instead, he depicts the eponymous protagonist as fundamentally fallible and, accordingly, leaves her open to the often ruthless critiques of those who disagree with her. Coetzee's genius lies here, in leaving the reader with the raw material for personal speculation and inward growth. While I tend to agree with Elizabeth on many issues, I find, I also agree with her detractors. Thus, I am left with the not unpleasant burden of finding out what I actually believe. Of course, critics have long taken Coetzee to task for not answering the questions he raises in his fiction, have, since the publication of Dusklands in 1974, accused him of political evasiveness. This slipperiness, this adamantine refusal to provide a definitive perspective, though, is largely responsible for Coetzee's towering stature among contemoorary writers. I mean, good writers get people talking about the issues of the day, great writers get people talking about the eternal problems of mankind, but the masters, an elite group in which I would place Coetzee, get people to think before they talk.

    At any rate, I wrote a few more pages on Disgrace this afternoon and, as is so often the case for me, I have been doubting the quality of my writing all day.

    For tomorrow: Read or dissertate.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, February 7, 2009
    My dissertation anxiety may have gotten the better of me today, though it did not prevent me from getting some work done. The part of me that I'd managed to spur into action last night, the part that had gotten some outlining done, froze today. I realize I could have nudged myself back into gear, forced myself to confront the tauntingly regular blink of the cursor on the page, but I opted instead to read a little bit in Elizabeth Costello.

    Now, while re-reading the novel was not my ideal approach towards dissertation work for the day, I did find that the reading reminded me of a couple of things I need to work into the Disgrace outline when I settle down and try to finish it in the next day or two. So, really, I oughtn't complain. Still, I dislike acknowledging that the anxiety surrounding this chapter affects me so thoroughly. This is part of the rationale for "assigning" myself an alternative reading each day, of course. I mean, sometimes one simply needs a break from the intellectual intensity of writing but other times, the need is more emotional or psychological. One needs to remind oneself of certain things, think and feel one's way through a relevant worry before proceeding.

    At any rate, I have really been enjoying Elizabeth Costello, which ranks as one of my favorite Coetzee novels. I enjoy the metafictional and philosophical musings (trends that the author continues to develop in both Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year) Coetzee weaves into the fabric of the narrative and, admittedly, I find the actual ideas the fictional Australian novelist presents in her rationally-flawed, emotionally-charged speeches to be among the more though-provoking passages in contemporary fiction. Elizabeth Costello is one of those novels that I enjoy both as a reader and as a student, a book I feel challenges me intellectually to question my assumptions about the world and the art it produces as well as provides me with a pleasant way to spend a chilly winter evening.

    For tomorrow: What I said yesterday for today said today for tomorrow.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, September 30, 2008
    If there were any doubts that an advanced degree in the liberal arts appeals to employers, I suggest you read the following announcement sent to the English graduate student listserv at my university this afternoon under the title "Job Opening":
    JOB POSTING: [Company name removed for privacy] has an immediate opening for a full-time receptionist/administrative assistant. The successful applicant need not have knowledge of the window tinting industry, but must be willing and able to learn the company's trade. This position requires a personable and responsible employee with a professional attitude and outstanding phone etiquette. An understanding of scheduling, invoicing, and accounts payable is required for this busy, rewarding position.
    When headhunters looking for "a full-time receptionist/administrative assistant" begin targeting people with MAs and PhDs, one cannot help but reflect upon his or her decision to attend graduate school. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a receptionist position in the window tinting industry, but from a certain jaded perspective, one has to wonder what this says about the relative value of a decade of post-secondary education in an economy like ours . . . I mean, theoretically one need not attend college to qualify him- or herself for a career in the service industry or in retail, yet many people I know with fancy-sounding degrees end up working in fields they need not have spent so much time and money in school to enter. Obviously, the psychological, intellectual, and spiritual value of an education should be enough of an incentive for an individual to attend post-secondary schools, but the reality of the situation is that the vast majority of people in the United States who attend college and graduate school with the explicit goal of obtaining a particular type of job and lifestyle theoretically only possible with an expensive and time-consuming education. And, sadly, it seems, many of these dreams will go unfulfilled despite the best efforts to succeed. This, too, is another throbbing anxiety in the mind of many a graduate student: will all this work pay off and position me for a satisfying career in academia? The answer in all its painfully unsettling glory: maybe.

    And speaking of emails, I received this message yesterday:
    A request you have placed:

    Cape Argus
    10 August 1999
    Title: Coetzee thinks publicly about new SA
    Author: Michael Morris

    TN: 339109

    has been cancelled by the interlibrary loan staff for the following reason:

    We have exhausted all possible sources.

    There is no library who can supply this item.
    I have a hard time believing that no library has a copy of the Cape Argus from less than a decade ago, so if there's anyone who might have a copy of this brief newspaper article, I would be elated if you could contact me.

    As far as reading goes, I finished two articles since yesterday evening, both of which deal heavily with poststructural theory. Of the two, the essay I read this afternoon -- Zoe Wicomb's "Translations in the Yard of Africa" -- struck me as most relevant to my dissertation. In her discussion of the correlations between the act of cultural transformation and literal and figurative translation, Wicomb cuts to the heart of one of the central issues in postcolonial studies: the palimpsestic nature of cultural production. Indeed, the traces of apartheid-era society is never fully erased and, in Coetzee's book, they often foil attempts at translating experience. This, in Wicomb's estimation, can be shown to reveal "the failure of transition as a crossing over to democracy" (Wicomb). The essay I read last night, Lucy Graham's "'Yes, I am Giving Him Up': Sacrificial Responsibility and Likeness With Dogs in JM Coetzee's Recent Fiction," like so many others, deals with the connections between The Lives of Animals and Disgrace. Although Graham is one of the Coetzee scholars I most enjoy, I wasn't as impressed by this essay as I normally am. This is not to say that her essay is not very good -- it is -- but I feel that the weight of the theory she brings into the article detracts from her astute reading of the novel. Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others, each make an appearance in this brief (eleven pages!) essay. Although many academics are quite familiar with what amounts to a who's who of postmodern thought, Graham's tightly-packed essay demands a certain readerly vigilance not to get lost in the waves of complexly-wrought theoretical language running throughout the text. That said, Graham reads against the Mike Marais's Levinasian interpretation of Disgrace, arguing that Coetzee's texts "challenge the limitations of autrui and dissociation implicit in notions of transcendence," providing a slightly different (yet valuable) interpretation of the oft-cited "sympathetic imagination" at work in both Disgrace and The Lives of Animals / Elizabeth Costello (4). While I do not wholly agree with Graham's reading, I applaud her focus on the body as a site of suffering as well as the negative presence of silenced suffering in the two texts.

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Works Cited

    Graham, Lucy. "'Yes, I am Giving Him Up': Sacrificial Responsibility and Likeness With Dogs in JM Coetzee's Recent Fiction." scrutiny2 7.1 (2002): 4-15.

    Wicomb, Zoe. "Translations in the Yard of Africa." Journal of Literary Studies 18.3-4 (2000): 209-33.

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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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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, April 29, 2008
    I just finished reading the brief essay I'd set out for myself today, Elizabeth Lowry's duel review of Disgrace and The Lives of Animals. Like most pieces from the London Review of Books, Lowry's "Like a Dog" is written in language highly influenced by literary-critical writing but does not get bogged down by the often super-specialized argot one typically associates with such prose. I think Lowry's understanding of both Disgrace and the two fictionalized lectures in The Lives of Animals that would later form the center of Coetzee's excellent Elizabeth Costello is far superior to that of many fellow critics. She is both attuned to the novel's relationship to the author's well-established (and oft-criticized) oblique engagement with South African power dynamics, colonizer-colonized relationships, and postmodern undermining of narrative authority as well as some of the less-discussed developments in Coetzee's later work, which translates to an exceptionally insightful review that any budding Coetzee scholar would do well to read.

    For tomorrow: Dissertate.

    Work Cited

    Lowry, Elizabeth (1999) "Like a Dog." London Review of Books 21.20 (1999): 1-12. Available online.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, April 6, 2008
    As much as I would like to write this evening, I really haven't the time to devote to anything worth reading, so I will keep this on the brief side. Although I enjoyed the all-too-rare company of my parents for much of the weekend, and while I spent a good deal of time walking around the jetties on Seneca Lake, snapping pictures of gulls and enjoying the sixty degree weather, I actually got a decent amount of work done. I read a hefty chunk of Disgrace, which looks like it will be the focus of my next chapter and, as is always the case when reading Coetzee's 1999 novel, enjoyed the experience.

    Like many other Coetzee readers, I consider Disgrace to be his best novel, though I enjoy Waiting for the Barbarians, Elizabeth Costello, and Slow Man nearly as much. The book has become a major focus of my academic work over the past few years, yielding a term paper, part of a field examination, a conference paper, and even work appearing in peer-reviewed publications. Needless to say, I have quite a bit I could say about Disgrace, but I will direct anyone interested in my impression of the book to a review I wrote after reading the novel for the first time. It's considerably less academic in tone and much easier to locate.

    For tomorrow: Read more of Disgrace. Write some more, if possible.

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