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    Sobriquet 45.22

    Thursday, August 28, 2008
    Okay, so I finally sit myself down with the intention of discussing some of what I've been reading the past few days and, just as I begin typing, I find myself suddenly feeling much, much more sleepy than I thought I would. I was up pretty late last night re-reading the Book of Revelation, preparing for what ended up being a lively classroom discussion this afternoon. Between spending the wee hours of the morning envisioning rivers of blood and other bits of Judeo-Christian eschatology and waking up early to prepare for classes this morning, I didn't get nearly enough sleep, so you'll have to bear with me if tonight's post is a little disorganized.

    That said, I would like to mention two of the articles I've read before succumbing to sleep:

    Brenna Moremi Munro: "Queer Democracy: J. M. Coetzee and the Racial Politics of Gay Identity in the New South Africa." Like Elleke Boehmer's essay, Munro's study of Coetzee's fiction finds the author's strikingly candid descriptions of homoerotic longing in Boyhood to be a compelling point of departure for an examination of queer themes in both Boyhood and Disgrace. Although I initially found some of Munro's reading to be a bit unconvincing, I think she makes some really interesting observations, especially in relation to "Twilight at the Globe Salon," the fictional play in which Melanie Isaacs performs in Disgrace. Read allegorically, Munro suggests, gay identity may form part of Coetzee's commentary on race relations and alterity in South African society.

    Patrick Smith: "'I Wrote Books About Dead People': Art and History in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." This extremely brief bit of commentary looks at the ways in which Coetzee's book presents the failure of artistic endeavors to improve the bleakness of life in post-Apartheid South Africa.

    I hope to use some of my not-so-sleepy weekend hours to review a few more essays at greater length.

    On a final note, I would like to draw my readers' attention to two particularly thoughtful comments posted by Mattias earlier this afternoon. Here is my response to the first comment:

    "Hello, Mattias!

    Thank you for what is probably the single most thoughtful comment I have received since beginning this blog project. Indeed, you cut right to the heart of several extremely key issues.

    Firstly, I think many readers would agree with your first paragraph. Levinas, of course, figures prominently in several discussions of Coetzee's fiction and the impossibility of the colonial masculine subject to confront the other, as you suggest, is undoubtedly a concern as early as Dusklands.

    Furthermore, I completely agree with you regarding Coetzee's "cold eye." I cannot imagine that a writer as text-conscious as Coetzee could possibly miss the currents you speak of. For someone as notoriously deliberate as Coetzee, one can only assume that he is only too aware of the implications of such thematic ground. This is, I think, precisely what interests several of the critics I've mentioned (Boehmer, Munro). Why he chooses to broach the subject when he does really seems to interest some readers. Munro, in particular, sees Coetzee's willingness to discuss gay themes in a time of tumultuous social upheaval as an especially important detail.

    Of course, with a writer as deliberate and intelligent as Coetzee, it is difficult to say with any certainty "this is a fiction" and "that is true." His texts often blur these categorical distinctions to such an extent that one must necessarily reflect on the very natures of narrative and knowledge. Also, in Boyhood (and later, during the episode in Youth when John has an awkward homosexual liaison), the reader is struck by the candor with which a famously reclusive author describes extremely personal encounters. This surprise, one must assume, is at least part of Coetzee's intent, for he must be aware of his reputation as standoffish and reticent. Thus, one might assume that Coetzee is playing with the notion of authorship. The public's perception of a writer as intensely private as Coetzee seems unable to accommodate such bold honesty. Then again, given the general belief that Coetzee's memoirs are fictionalized, one cannot help but to wonder if these are fictional episodes intended to bring about such confusion. Add to this Coetzee's comments on confessional narratives and you have one incredibly ambiguous, unsettling book...which, I suspect, is precisely the author's intent. That unsettling feeling, after all, runs through the entirety of Coetzee's oeuvre and forces us to ask the sort questions you raise.

    As for the "grotesque" eroticism, I do think Coetzee's texts present an uncommonly bleak view of sex. There is little joy to be found in any of the trysts in the author's work and violence is frequently a major theme. You raise an interesting point: does Coetzee drain these scenes of their essence and shock value in order to say something about the ways in which their real-world counterparts are treated? Quite possibly. There are, certainly, many readers who would agree with you.

    Thanks so much for reading!"

    And to the second comment, I replied:

    "Well, I do try to add some of my views from time to time, but the blog is more of an attempt to document the process of writing a dissertation than it is to present my opinions on Coetzee. Also, to be honest, I have kept myself from discussing the novels largely because I have so much to say and not nearly enough time to say it. I often intended to reflect upon the books but, as one who teaches full time as well as works on his dissertation, I found that I simply lacked the hours it would take me to express myself. I do, however, have an old review of Disgrace on this site, written a few years ago when I first read the novel.

    As for Coetzee's style...good Lord, what a question! I mean, there are certain elements that permeate many (if not all) of his books: linguistic and semiotic meditations, for instance, as well as literary allusions and metanarrative strategies, but the prose is often very different from one book to the next. You have the insane verbiage of Eugene Dawn, the Faulkneresque density of Magda in In the Heart of the Country and the ever-so-slightly accented prose of Juan Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year.

    As for David Lurie's language. . .I can certainly see instances where one might say "hmm." I mean, I think Lurie can be read satirically, though I am not certain if he is intended to be so. If anything, I believe Coetzee does satirize academia (think of Elizabeth Costello's reflections on the role of the university) in several of his books, especially in Disgrace, so it would certainly be well within the realm of possibility that Lurie is, at least partially, satirical. Perhaps not so much so as, say, Jacobus Coetzee, but he does come across as pathetic, out-of-touch, and petty at times, traits often given to satiric characters.

    Your final question is a difficult one. Is Coetzee's style character-specific? Well, yes and no. You're right: each of his novels has a certain academic quality, a certain linguistic deliberateness but his characters do, often subtly, differ from each other. Paul Rayment, for instance, speaks a rather proper English similar to Juan Coetzee's because both men are foreign-born residents of Australia. Magda's vocabulary seems to burst with her desire to prove herself worthy of being preserved. You can almost feel her trying to present herself as something she wishes to be but does not necessarily believe herself to be. Jacobus Coetzee's words are clearly the bombastic hot-air balloons of a pompous, self-righteous buffoon while the Magistrate's language belies a gentle disposition quite different from that of, say, the narrator of Life and Times of Michael K, who describes the epitome of gentle as he becomes a pastiche of Kafka's Hunger Artist. And there's a certain indignation that's always just beneath the surface of the frustrated Susan Barton's prose while the narrator of The Master of Petersburg seems geared to describing the Dostoevsky in such a way as to heighten the reader's disgust (think of the choice to include descriptions of food flying out of the man's mouth, for instance).

    Unfortunately it is quite late, so I will have to cut this short, but I hope I made at least a little sense."

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Works Cited

    Munro, Brenna Moremi. "Queer Democracy: J. M. Coetzee and the Racial Politics of Gay Identity in the New South Africa." Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 10.1 (2003): 209-225.

    Smith, Patrick. "'I Wrote Books About Dead People': Art and History in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Notes on Contemporary Literature 34.5 (2004): 6-8.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 28, 2008
    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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