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    Sobriquet 56.11

    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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    Saturday, August 16, 2008
    I read Kai Easton's "Coetzee's Disgrace: Byron in Italy and the Eastern Cape c. 1820" this evening and really haven't much to say about the essay. If anything, I'm grateful to Easton for providing me with a bit of a break from reading "straight" literary criticism since she devotes a significant portion of the text to a survey of historical and artistic depictions of the Salem region of the Eastern Cape. Although Easton does acknowledge that Rita Barnard, Grant Farred, and Gareth Cornwell have all made significant contributions to the critical discussion surrounding Coetzee's decision to place Lucy's smallholding in the vicinity of Salem-Grahamstown, she feels critics have largely neglected the ways in which the story of Lord Byron's time in Ravenna relates to a region of the Eastern Cape weighed down by the burden of history. Admitting that linking "these two seemingly unrelated plots" may strike readers as peculiar, Easton proceeds in her reading despite sensing that "[t]hese two story-lines may only be tangentially linked by intersecting facts and dates, empirical histories and a network of coincidences and geographical placements" (113, 134). In fact, it occasionally seems as if Easton tries a bit too hard to establish such links. There are undeniably several similarities between the brand of European Romanticism we (perhaps erroneously) associate with Lord Byron and the hyperbolic idealism with which the Eastern Cape has been depicted but the connection remains a loose one. Still, despite relying perhaps a bit too heavily on coincidental points of convergence between the history of the Eastern Cape and Lord Byron's life, Easton's essay does highlight several very interesting aspects of Coetzee's novel and is a valuable companion to the aforementioned studies by Barnard, Cornwell, and Farred.

    For tomorrow: Read an article on Disgrace, a bit of Inner Workings, or work on the bibliography.

    Work Cited

    Easton, Kai. "Coetzee's Disgrace: Byron in Italy and the Eastern Cape c. 1820." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 42.3 (2007): 113-130.

    Edited on 2/2/09

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    Thursday, April 24, 2008
    I'm not going to write much tonight. In fact, I'm just going to say thank you to Mike Kissack and Michael Titlestad of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg for having written an extremely readable, highly insightful essay on Disgrace. I want to thank them because I found the essay so readable that I finished today's workload much earlier than I had expected, leaving me with that ever-elusive free time I have been longing for. So, yeah, I got to play Sid Meier's Civilization without feeling guilty. 'Twas glorious.

    Their essay, "Humility in a Godless World: Shame, Defiance and Dignity in Coetzee's Disgrace" is a wonderful example of what scholarly writing can and should be: a clear, concise, focused reading of a difficult text. The essay discusses the concept of a secular humility as a redemptive force in David Lurie's life, enabling the disgraced academic to achieve some measure of peace in his life. Although the essay is pretty solid all the way through, I found the discussion of the rift between David Lurie's secular conception of humility and Mr. Isaacs's Christian understanding of the concept especially interesting.

    For tomorrow: Dissertate.

    Work Cited:

    Kissack, Mike and Michael Titlestad. "Humility in a Godless World: Shame, Defiance and Dignity in Coetzee's Disgrace." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 38.3 (2003): 135-147.

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    Saturday, February 2, 2008
    Having gone to bed somewhat later than I would have liked yesterday night, I woke up at six this morning with the sort of displaced resentment only possible when you blame a work schedule you willingly accepted for your own poor time management. Hearing the grains of ice tinkle against my window reminded me to check if we'd gotten a snow day, but there was nothing listed on the college's website. Disappointed, I putzed around for the next hour or so, checking email and reading news stories. As 7:20--the absolute latest time I feel comfortable leaving the house for work--neared, I sought something, anything to procrastinate just a tiny bit more. So I checked the college's website a second time.

    And lo and behold, there it was, in red letters: no school.

    I got myself a snow day!

    And this was the best possible day for a snow day, too. Mid-week snow days are nice surprises, but lack the added oomph of a weekend-extending snow day. Mondays are nice to have off, but those Monday-extended weekends never feel long because you only find out that you're off after you've already spent all day Sunday believing that you have work or go to school the next day...but Fridays...the moment you learn that you're off on Friday, you have a three-day weekend ahead of you.

    Mighty pleased, I was. This little bit of frozen serendipity made it possible for me to get a few more hours of sleep so that I could write a bit more of the dissertation in addition to reading the article I'd assigned myself for the day. Again, I can't say I am terribly pleased with the quality of my dissertation...I seem to have some weird, unrealistic and unreachable ideal in mind for it...but I am pleased that I have written as much as I have. If my supervisor approves of it, even with a few suggestions, I think I will be quite satisfied.

    At any rate, I read Rachel Lawlan's "The Master of Petersburg: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee and Dostoyevsky," an essay examining, among other things, literature as a counterhistorical narrative, aspects of confessional literature, and the intertextual relationship Coetzee cultivates with Dostoyevsky. Over the past few days, I also read Stephen Watson's "The Writer and the Devil: J.M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg," Gerald Gaylard's "Mastering Arachnophobia: The Limits of Self-Reflexivity in African Fiction," and T. Kai Norris Easton's "Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel." As is common with many Coetzee scholars, both Easton and Gaylard evaluate The Master of Petersburg as in relation to specifically (South) African fiction while Watson and Lawlan look more closely at the themes of authorship in the novel.

    Without dwelling too much on any one essay that I have read, I have to say I am both disappointed by the extreme lengths to which some critics go to include a political discussion in every Coetzee novel as well as pleased to see the variety of reasonable readings of The Master of Petersburg, especially those which, like Watson's, provide extended considerations of the act of writing.

    With my free time, I watched Population 436, a wholly mediocre "thriller" featuring a surprisingly competent Fred Durst in one of the lead roles. Although I appreciate the unhappy ending of the film, I wasn't terribly engrossed by how the movie takes an idea that is only marginally interesting and, with a sub-stellar cast and average writing, makes a moderately entertaining, ultimately forgettable "thriller" about a town of religious fanatics. But, hey, free time is free time, innit?

    For tomorrow: Read another essay or write a bit more.

    Works Cited

    Gaylard, Gerald. "Mastering Arachnophobia: The Limits of Self-Reflexivity in African Fiction." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37.1 (2002): 85-99.

    Lawlan, Rachel. "The Master of Petersburg: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee and Dostoyevsky." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 29.2 (1998): 131-157.

    Norris Easton, T. Kai. "Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel." Journal of Southern African Studies 21.4 (1995): 585-599.

    Watson, Steven. "'The Writer and the Devil': J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg." New Contrast 22.4 (1994): 47-61.

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    Wednesday, December 19, 2007
    Anyone who has ever attended graduate school in the humanities, especially those folks in fields where the odds of landing a tenure-track job are not particularly high, will be familiar with the phrase "publish or perish," the unofficial motto of academia. Essentially, we are told from the moment we set foot in our first graduate seminar that if we do not publish research in our respective fields, the likelihood of securing a comfortable living teaching at a college or university is essentially that of the Miami Dolphins making the NFL playoffs this year. In other words, your dreams of a twenty hour work week perish if you do not publish a sufficient amount of research to prove your worth as a scholar. Now, for some people, research is a great joy and the primary reason for attending graduate school. For others, the research is something to do in order to secure a teaching post. I place myself in the latter camp; though I genuinely enjoy reading and researching the authors and ideas I find fascinating, I am primarily concerned with teaching. That is where I find the most joy in life and, ironically, classroom discussion often inspires the critical thinking behind the articles I write.

    In any case, I find myself at a rather interesting place in my academic career. As an ABD student, I am qualified to teach at many schools and have, fortunately, not had a great deal of difficulty finding employment. As a fifth-year doctoral student, however, I am entirely off funding at my graduate school and must teach more classes than would optimally enable me to work on my dissertation at the pace I feel it deserves. (Note: the following passage is painfully cyclical and may make the reader dizzy). As a result, I find that I have to do the thing I most want to do (teach) in order to afford to support the completion of my doctoral studies (research), which I need to finish in order to land the sort of teaching job that will give me time to research and be an effective educator. Thus, teaching becomes the means to an end (that is, in itself, essentially, another means to another end) rather than the end to a means, which can be frustrating. I feel as if I am both where I want to be and about as far from where I want to be as one can be.

    Add the pressure to publish on top of all this and one may well find oneself taking on research duties unrelated to his or her dissertation in order to prove his or her scholarly value to a potential employer which, with the deadlines such extracurricular work carries with it, often pushes the deadline-free dissertation to the proverbial back burner's back burner. Having spent a significant time producing such "extra" research, I have been fortunate enough to forge good relationships with a number of publishers who occasionally solicit additional work from me. Naturally, I really want to keep writing for these publications. Unfortunately, I find that I am at a stage in my career where I actually have to decline such flattering solicitations if I am to free up the time I need to work on my own, increasingly burdensome, projects. Again, I am both where I want to be and, in being there, preventing myself from securing a comfortable position in the spot I am already in.

    This is the place I find myself in at the moment. I am slowly finishing up a few projects I took on, including a few for publications I am honored to be affiliated with. The reason I bring all this up is to justify why I will be assigning myself somewhat smaller dissertation readings for the next little while. In other words, I am not lazy, I promise! So, here's my plan: finish up the stuff pushing the dissertation back, work on the dissertation, focus on teaching. Makes sense, right?

    In any case, I did review the two essays I assigned to myself for today. The first article I read was Mike Marais's "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg." This essay, like the article of Marais's I reviewed a few days ago, devotes most of its space to a discussion of several key critical debates surrounding Coetzee's writing: those dealing with power, language, and their effects on one another. What I found most interesting, however, was Marais's discussion of the ways in which Coetzee uses the physical states of his protagonists to mirror and comment upon the social and political conditions of their respective environments, an issue I found myself contemplating as I re-read Age of Iron last week.

    A year or so ago, when the tiny academic journal I edit was assembling an issue devoted to Coetzee, several noted Coetzee scholars served on our editorial advisory board. One of the critics kind enough to work with our staff, Lidan Lin, penned the second essay I read today, "J. M. Coetzee and the Postcolonial Rhetoric of Simultaneity," a fact which sparked a bit more interest in the essay than I might otherwise have had. I am pleased to share my favorable impression of Lin's scholarship. This is another of the more accessible articles I have encountered and one with a pleasingly critical tendency to engage with poststructural and postcolonial theory in such a way as to problematize some of the more sweepingly poststructural readings of Coetzee's work while simultaneously acknowledging their value. Although the essay dealt overwhelmingly with Foe, Lin's exploration of Coetzee's "rhetoric of simultaneity" provides a valuable insight into the author's entire body of work. Whereas some critics fault Coetzee for seemingly avoiding a specifically South African literature, Lin rightfully praises the author for his "willingness to de-essentialize the uniqueness of colonial oppression by bringing it to bear on similar human experiences outside the historical specificity of colonialism" (43). Though brief, Lin's discussion of Age of Iron is insightful and adds to the discussion surrounding Curren's relationship with Vercueil by focusing on the role the other (the vagrant) plays in forming the self (Curren).

    For tomorrow: Read one article, work on the aforementioned "extras," and have a delightful evening socializing with my wonderful coworkers because, hey, I deserve a break!

    Works Cited

    Lin, Lidan. "J. M. Coetzee and the Postcolonial Rhetoric of Simultaneity." International Fiction Review. 28.1-2 (2001): 42-53.

    Marais, Mike. "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 31.1 (1996): 83-95.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, December 16, 2007
    I'm going to keep today's entry brief because I've been up late addressing some non-dissertation work that's due tomorrow, the sort of loose ends one always finds oneself tying together at semester's end.

    In any case, I did review the four articles I assigned myself last night, which puts me in pretty good position to begin writing within a week or so...finally.

    I found Gilbert Yeoh's "Love and Indifference in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" somewhat more thought-provoking than most criticism I have read regarding the novel. I also learned a new word: chiasmic, not to be confused with the equally cool "chimeric." Regardless, though I do not agree with Yeoh's almost purely negative interpretation of Mrs. Curren as a selfish, ultimately unloving woman, I do appreciate his attempts to prove the unreliability of her narration. In doing so, the author opens Coetzee's novel up to a broader range of interpretations. Additionally, in foregrounding Curren's preoccupation with literal and figurative motherhood, Yeoh rightfully invites readers to consider the metaphysical and existential importance of maternity when evaluating the relative morality of the elderly woman at the center of the novel. Furthermore, Yeoh's advocacy of Vercueil as the true hero of the novel is both refreshing and convincing.

    Both Rosemary Jolly's "Voyages in J.M. Coetzee's Novels: Narrative Conquests in Foe, Narrative Exploration in Age of Iron" and Mike Marais's "Writing With Eyes Shut: Ethics, Politics, and the Problem of the Other in the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee," on the other hand, seem to focus on many of the same issues critics regularly discuss in relation to Coetzee's fiction. Still, Jolly does identify Age of Iron as a thematic departure from Coetzee's previous work, even as she treads familiar critical ground while Marais admirably attempts to wrest Coetzee's fiction away from the postcolonial readings of Jolly and Kossew. Although neither essay seems poised to figure into my dissertation in any but the most cursory of contexts, the depth of their readings do make me question my initial evaluation of the novel as lacking universality.

    The fourth essay I read, Sheila Roberts's "'City of Man': The Appropriation of Dante's Inferno in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron," is an interesting specimen of good criticism taken a bit too far. Although Roberts does a nice job exploring the intertextual aspects of Age of Iron, she occasionally fails to provide adequate support for her assertions, thereby weakening what could be a very strong interpretation. Still, despite the odd unsubstantiated comment, Roberts's essay stands out as one of the better--and more sympathetic--considerations of Curren's spiritual and psychological isolation as well as a fine assessment of the mother-daughter dynamic present throughout the text. So, while some of the references to Charon and Virgil seem forced, Roberts does succeed in furthering the critical discourse surrounding two of Age of Iron's most significant themes.

    For tomorrow: Review two articles more.

    Works Cited

    Jolly, Rosemary. "Voyages in J. M. Coetzee's Novels: Narrative Conquests in Foe, Narrative Exploration in Age of Iron." Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society. 11 (1994): 61-70.

    Marais, Mike. "Writing with Eyes Shut: Ethics, Politics, and the Problem of the Other in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee." English in Africa. 25.1 (1998): 43-60.

    Roberts, Sheila. "'City of Man': The Appropriation of Dante's Inferno in J M Coetzee's Age of Iron." Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa. 8.1 (1996): 33-44.

    Yeoh, Gilbert. "Love and Indifference in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 38.3 (2003): 107-34.

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