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    Sobriquet 47.4

    Sunday, October 5, 2008
    As a result of staying up so late yesterday night, I've been sleepy all day even though I slept much later than I had hoped to do. I did, however, get through another article this evening, bringing me a tiny step closer to finishing what has been an incredibly draining undertaking. As much as I love Disgrace and as interested as I am in the interpretive possibilities the novel offers, I simply cannot wait to be finished reading the criticism. Lately, I have been spending whole afternoons struggling to get through an essay. I mean, I'll read a page, get up, check email, return to the text, read two lines of the article, get up again, take a walk or a drive, find a nice place to read, read a tiny bit, get bored, get up, find a new place, and repeat. It sucks. And it's not that the criticism is lousy. I just hate reading the same things over and over. After a while, one grows numb and his or her eye's begin to wander and it's harder to absorb information.

    But this, too, is something I must accept as part of the dissertation.

    And so I do.

    But I grumble, too. I occasionally grit my teeth as well. And once, in a particularly weak moment, I beat my breast and shouted lamentations to the heavens. Then again, I may have read that somewhere.

    As far as what I have been reading, today I read Rachel McCoppin's "Existential Endurance: Resolution from Accepting the 'Other' in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace," from the special Stirrings Still issue devoted entirely to Coetzee. In it, McCoppin bypasses the critical tendency to turn towards Emmanuel Levinas's conception of the other, back to the Sartrean understanding of the concept and towards Nietzsche for an understanding of the formation of David Lurie's personal ethical system in the novel. What McCoppin does most effectively is reveal just how much the poststructuralists are indebted to the existentialists they are so often said to have superseded, especially in terms of the concept of the Other. Much of her reasoning does, however, proceed along the same general lines as many other readings of the novel: Lurie's encounters with the Other -- be they with his daughter (one of McCoppin's more inspired interpretations), the three assailants, or non-human animals -- force him to recognize the ultimate value of the Other, the necessity of relinquishing the drive to dominate that which he cannot control, and the small blessings brought about by the assumption of a humility hitherto absent from his existence. In a similar -- though explicitly Levinasian -- vein, Michael Marais concludes that the humbling "responsibility [for the Other] is an effect of [Lurie]'s loss of control over that which [he] thought [he] could control" (18). Unlike McCoppin's essay, which emphasizes Lurie's conscious decision to become a better person, Marais's text -- "Impossible Possibilities: Ethics and Choice in J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Disgrace" -- suggests that "[a]lthough he becomes a better person in the course of the novel, he does not do so of his own volition" (10). Indeed, in learning to love despite himself, Lurie joins the ranks of the doctor in Life & Times of Michael K, Elizabeth Curren in Age of Iron, and Dostoevsky in The Master of Petersburg by loving the unloveable and/or unknowable: K., John, and Sergei Nechaev, respectively.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay.

    Works Cited

    Marais, Michael. "Impossible Possibilities: Ethics and Choice in J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Disgrace." The English Academy Review 18.1 (2001): 1-20.

    McCoppin, Rachel. "Existential Endurance: Resolution from Accepting the 'Other' in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature 3.1 (2006): 71-81.

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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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    Thursday, April 3, 2008
    Well, I finally started writing about The Master of Petersburg today. I'm not too crazy about what I have written so far, but I do not think it is complete crap. If anything, it is only 88% crap. The other twelve percent is shit. Or so it always seems when I start writing a new essay.

    In all seriousness, though, I rarely feel confident about my academic writing. I mean, my work has earned a few accolades over the past few years and I have published my share of scholarly writing in peer-edited journals, but none of that really changes how I feel about my current academic writing. For me, it's always a matter of what have you done for me lately? Only the "you" becomes "I" and "the academy" replaces "me."

    So that's where I am, again. I know that I was in a similar place when I began writing what was to become my chapter on Age of Iron back in January, but whatever tenuous confidence I carry from that ordeal's surprisingly positive conclusion hardly counteracts the heavy doubts that always seem to spring up when I work on academic writing.

    At any rate, I brushed aside as many of the doubts as I could this morning and set about starting the introduction. Having spent far more time producing less than satisfactory preparatory writing than I would have liked, it was both refreshing and uncomfortable for me to begin writing the new chapter. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I had initially intended the Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg sections to form part of a chapter on Coetzee. Now, however, since the direction of my dissertation seems to have shifted from a multi-author study in which Coetzee figured to be one of several authors whose recent fiction I would examine towards a more concentrated single author study of Coetzee, I find myself more than a little bit concerned with the amount of insightful writing I could possibly devote to a novel I had long assumed would require no more than five or six pages of my project to discuss. As a result of the new direction I have taken, I spent an additional month or so reviewing The Master of Petersburg which, while not wholly unpleasant, has added a sense of stagnation to the process. This, of course, is neither an accurate assessment of the time spent rereading the novel nor an entirely unreasonable sensation. What it amounts to, though, is a rather hefty dose of unwelcome nervousness.

    The resultant anxiety has made beginning the chapter a bit more difficult than I had hoped and I find myself forgetting the various insights I made during fits of nerve-induced academic amnesia. Likewise, although I jotted down reams of notes and have thrown together an outline flexible enough to accommodate freshly remembered ideas, I sometimes feel lost amid an overwhelmingly sprawling body of knowledge. If anything, I feel like Lucy trying to maintain order among the chocolate candies on an increasingly speedy conveyor belt:

    So I started writing and, so far, the people to whom I have shown my writing assure me that, despite my fears to the contrary, it makes sense.

    In addition to writing, I would like to continue working on the dual-track approach I have been using (reading for/preparing for/writing the present chapter while reading/preparing for later chapters), so I will probably begin rereading Disgrace soon.

    For now, though, I am going to put my still-aching body to bed and listen to a bit more of the Paul Auster novel

    For tomorrow: Write and/or plan a bit more. Begin rereading Disgrace if I find the time and energy to do so.

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    Tuesday, March 4, 2008
    Well, I finished the transcription and the reading I set out for myself today. Obviously, I have a considerable amount of reading left to do, but having finally finished the transcription work, I have to accept that I am close to resuming the writing process. I do tend to find the actual writing of the dissertation somewhat nerve-wracking, so the closer I get to picking up the proverbial pen, the more stressful my days become. I mean, damn, writing the dissertation, actually synthesizing the ideas of others and presenting one's own makes the whole thing feel real.

    Since I have re-thought the shape and direction of my dissertation after speaking with my supervisor last month, I have decided to revisit the criticism on The Master of Petersburg. When I first read the novel and the criticism it inspired earlier this winter, I had assumed the section I would be devoting to the text would be perhaps five pages long. Consequently, my focus when familiarizing myself with the critical discussion of the novel was not nearly exhaustive enough for someone preparing to write a considerably longer section on The Master of Petersburg. Fortunately, having read the criticism prior to rereading the novel, I found second read-though yielded quite a few new insights. Given the nagging sense that my limited focus may have led me to miss some of the more valuable discourse surrounding The Master of Petersburg, I have decided to reread the criticism on the novel--which, happily, is not nearly as voluminous as that centered on some of Coetzee's other books--as a final step in the pre-pre-writing phase. I hope to read an essay or two each day and, withing a fortnight or so, begin the plotting out of the next section of the dissertation. Ugh.

    Before I sign off for the evening, though, I want to thank the various people who have commented on the blog, emailed me, or linked to this little project. Over the course of the last few months, I have had the pleasure of corresponding with several people interested in Coetzee, ranging from the leader of a book club in California to scholars whose work I mention in various posts, not to mention the supportive teachers, friends and family who have been with me all along. It's been fun.

    For tomorrow: Continue reading "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" and reread one critical essay.

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    Tuesday, February 26, 2008
    Today was a bit of a struggle. After a vacation week pleasantly devoid of such workweek nuisances as alarm clocks and "reasonable bedtimes," the transition back into my ordered, pre-scheduled existence was more than a little jarring, though I'm certain it could have been much worse. There was some cursing, though, and a bit of internal whining but the day turned out quite well.

    In terms of dissertation work, I did do some of the transcription I hope to finish over the next few days. I do feel that my rereading of The Master of Petersburg has brought some of the novel's more intriguing themes to my attention and I am feeling a tiny bit better about writing a section on the book now that I have plumbed its veins and located a few generous lodes. Still, though, I worry, as I imagine I will throughout the process of writing the dissertation.

    In terms of reading, I am excited by the prospect of making my way through the rest of Coetzee's catalog. A friend of mine once commented on the unique feeling he had after reading an author's entire oeuvre, having spent great lengths of time in the fictional world of a particular writer. And it's true. Whether or not you really get to "know" an author, you do feel a certain familiarity with a writer with whom you have spent a good deal of time. This is also the appeal some people experience when reading blogs or a columnist's latest essay, the sense of communion. For me, quite simply, I look forward to deepening my familiarity with J. M. Coetzee in what The Master of Petersburg's Councillor Maximov calls the "intimate yet limited way" it is possible to "know a writer from his books" (147).

    For tomorrow: Keep transcribing and read some of Dusklands.

    Work Cited

    Coetzee, J. M. The Master of Petersburg. New York: Penguin, 1994.

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    Wednesday, February 20, 2008
    Since I am off this week, I find myself inching closer to the nocturnal existence I found so problematic during winter break. Fortunately, though, I have been keeping myself in check by planning my days around little activities. Today, for instance, was a cleaning day. Yesterday, despite the urge to nap all afternoon, I studied because I was slated to enjoy a wonderful vegan meal at my friend's house (having punk friends again, by the way, is awesome...I've missed 'em). So, I have been getting my work done and I have been maintaining a reasonably responsible sleep schedule so my return to work on Monday should not be as rough as it could be.

    I have thought about trying to get more work done over break than merely rereading a novel I'd read as recently as a month ago, but I think the slow pace I have been enjoying has given me the break I longed for while toiling away at the Age of Iron chapter while keeping me in the habit of getting work done each day...

    As I've mentioned before, I am rather amazed by how much underline-worthy material I seem to be finding in The Master of Petersburg that I missed the first time I read the novel. Other than that, though, there's not a whole lot to say, so I won't bore my handful of readers with any additional writing this evening.

    For tomorrow: More of the same.

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    Thursday, February 14, 2008
    Well, I met with my adviser this afternoon and I was amazed by how favorable her response was to my section on Age of Iron. We also discussed whether or not I should narrow the multi-author scope of the dissertation to focus exclusively on Coetzee. Essentially, I would be taking what was initially intended to be a chapter and fleshing it out into a full-fledged dissertation in itself. Now, this idea is not wholly unappealing to me. It would, for instance, shorten my reading list substantially. Other than some reservations about my ability to write enough on Coetzee to reach dissertation length, the only hesitation I felt heading into the discussion relates to my marketability as I head into the job search.

    The hard reality of the academic job market is that one must always consider how his or her scholarship will affect employment opportunities. Certainly, writing a dissertation on a recent Nobel Laureate would interest hiring committees considering offering me a contract but, as an Americanist, I wonder if writing exclusively on J.M. Coetzee would weaken my candidacy when applying for positions as an American literature specialist. I mean, it could work both ways: a potential employer could view a dissertation on Coetzee as either evidence of my working at the nexus of the critical discussion surrounding an important contemporary writer or of me devoting more energy to a global writer than of one more closely linked to the field in which I am attempting to land a job.

    The logical compromise, it seems, would be to write a multi-author dissertation including Coetzee as well as an American or two (Joseph Heller and/or Philip Roth), as I had originally planned, but working on the Coetzee section while bearing in mind the idea of possibly transforming it into a stand-alone work. That way, I can focus on writing the best section on Coetzee as I possibly can without worrying about de-Americanizing my dissertation to a point where potential employers would raise a perplexed eyebrow.

    Of course, one of the reasons I am glad I took one of my field examinations in contemporary global literature is because, as someone interested in ideas, I would like to teach books based on theme rather than nationality once in a while. I never really liked the idea of pigeonholing myself, taxidermically sorting my academic interests into areas that I can and cannot teach. I realize that it is a necessity in today's milieu, but such hyper-specialization can sometimes feel restrictive...In the end, though, I think I will be most happy teaching literature to bright, young people, so whatever it takes to get from here to there, in my mind, is well worth it.

    At any rate, speaking with my adviser really gave me a renewed sense of energy and purpose not to mention a boost to my self-confidence, knowing now that what I have written thus far is, in fact, good enough.

    For today: Begin rereading The Master of Petersburg so that I can begin writing a section on the novel sometime in the near future with the book fresh in my mind.

    For tomorrow: Read another twenty pages of the novel.

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    Sunday, February 10, 2008
    Amazingly, I managed to finish today's rather hefty load of grading by early evening and finished a fascinating--seriously--essay on sexuality among older individuals (it mentions several of Coetzee's texts), all before ten pm.

    Of the three essays I've read this weekend, Thomas Walz's "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons" is, by far, the best. It says quite a bit about the state of contemporary literary criticism that the most interesting, most readable journal article I have read since I began working my way through the critical writing for my dissertation in December was written not by a literary scholar but by a gerontologist from the University of Iowa's School of Social Work. Although Walz's essay only marginally addresses Coetzee's novels, I found myself happily reading through the entire article, taking notes and reflecting upon the many acute observations the author makes regarding sex and sexuality among the aging.

    On Friday, before a night of bowling with my friends, I somehow found the energy to resist napping all afternoon and read one of the essays I was dreading the most. Now, I should emphasize that it was the subject matter (Derrida's philosophy) and not the author of the essay (Derek Attridge) that had contributed to the dread. In fact, had the essay been written by anyone other than Attridge, with whom my correspondence has been extremely cordial and whose previous articles on Coetzee have struck me as extremely solid examples of criticism, there is an exceedingly good chance that I would have skipped over the essay entirely.

    Jacques Derrida, for the uninitiated, is one of the biggest names in the pantheon of poststructuralist theorists whose collective impact on literary (and other cultural) studies effectively redefined the field between the sixties and nineties. Known as much for his radically new, post-Nietzschean, post-Heiddegerian deconstruction as for the abstruse language with which he delivered his ideas, Derrida gained legions of followers and detractors. While I can acknowledge the presence of interesting ideas and clever wordplay in Derrida's writing, I count myself among the large number of Derrida's detractors. I find his writing needlessly abstract, the bulk of his ideas mundane, and the misappropriation of his work irreversibly damaging to my field of study. Like that of Gayatri Spivak, Derrida's writing defeats itself by effectively rendering the ideas it expresses almost impossible to decipher for the vast majority of hominids. Over time, as I read through literary scholars eager to cite Writing and Difference or Margins of Philosophy, I developed an aversion to any and all criticism drawing upon Derrida's theory. So, when "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing" appeared among my search results, I shuddered.

    Fortunately, Attridge is one of the few scholars out there capable of taking Derrida's philosophy, distilling it into more coherent language, and applying it to literature in a way that illuminates the fiction. I find Attridge's application of Derrida's concept of arrivant (from Aporias) to Coetzee's novel actually provides a good deal of insight into the dark sense of waiting pervading The Master of Petersburg. Furthermore, unlike some of the poststructuralist literary critics one encounters every so often, Attridge writes in clear, precise language, a trait of his for which I am particularly grateful.

    I also read over Sue Kossew's "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993), which, while not wholly original in scope, does provide a reasonable reading of Coetzee's novel, focusing on the creative process and the role of writing in an author's life.

    For tomorrow: Transcription.

    Works Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing." Applying--to Derrida, eds. John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins, and Julian Wolfreyes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. 21-40.

    Kossew, Sue. "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993)." English in Africa 23.1 (1996): 67-88.

    Walz, Thomas. "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons." Journal of Aging and Identity 7.2 (2002): 99-112.

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    Tuesday, February 5, 2008
    Like most Monday-Wednesday-Friday afternoons, I returned home from work today and promptly napped for several hours. Despite the sleeping, however, I did manage to go over another article on The Master of Petersburg. Michael Marais, it seems, is one of the more prevalent names among Coetzee scholars, as this is the third essay of his I have encountered in a relatively short period of time.

    Marais's "Death and the Space of the Response to the Other in J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg," like many of the other essays dealing with the novel, focuses on the relationship between fiction and history. Using the rather common criticism that Coetzee's fiction does not engage with the politics of South Africa in any defined way as a starting point, Marais examines the author's claim that literature can rival rather than supplement history. Although it will in all likelihood have little bearing on the shape of my own work with Coetzee, Marais's essay does strike me as the type of criticism many other critics-to-be would benefit from reading.

    For tomorrow: Try to write some more...

    Though I do not want this blog to veer too far away from the documentation of my dissertation, I am compelled to briefly address tomorrow's massive "Super Tuesday" primary elections. A number of my friends have been swept up by the political fervor of certain campaigns and I find it disturbing how readily some of the brighter people I know take the words of particular politicians at face value. At any rate, having gotten emails from a number of my friends urging me to vote for a particular candidate, I want to say that I will not be voting for Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, Ron Paul, or any of the other candidates in tomorrow's primaries. I am, contentedly, politically unaffiliated. Furthermore, despite the oddly idealistic glasses through which some of my brighter friends have somehow decided to view certain unnamed candidates, I have very strong doubts about the front-running candidates. All of them.

    Granted, the president is largely America's diplomatic figurehead and I would hope the next president will represent our nation abroad with dignity and class, so I would prefer certain candidates over others strictly on the basis of their charisma...having lived abroad, I can say that the difference between the international response to Bill Clinton or George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush is night-and-day...we need someone the media in other countries will like. Still, I will not be voting for Hillary Clinton or Barak Obama or John McCain or Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee, no matter how charismatic they may be.

    Again, I will not attack any one candidate, though I do think there are more than a few sociopaths running and, like Ted Bundy before them, they've got people fawning over them...

    I will, however, endorse one candidate for tomorrow: Mike Gravel. Whether or not he'd make a good president, I respect what he has done with his career and he says things that none of the top-tier candidates want to say or hear. A vote for Gravel, it seems, would be a nice way of sending a message, however small, that common sense and individual liberty are important. If Sen. Gravel runs as a third-party candidate (with some Libertarians drooling at a cross-party Gravel-Paul ticket), I say vote for him there, too. You're not throwing your vote away by voting for a third party; you're making a small voice that much louder. And, believe me, we need that voice to get louder, we need third parties. Imagine if the Greens and Libertarians had a few seats in Congress...If you want a government to represent the people, you'll want a Communist, a Fascist, a handful of Libertarians, a smattering of Greens, a few dozen Socialists, a bunch of Democrats and a slew of Republicans. Take that first step now...take a voice away from the Big Two and vote for a small three.

    Work Cited

    Marais, Michael. "Death and the Space of the Response to the Other in J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg." J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual, ed. Jane Poyner. Athens: Ohio UP, 2006. 83-99.

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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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    Sunday, January 27, 2008
    Although today was largely spent wrapping up an incredibly enjoyable weekend, I did manage to locate and copy a few articles at the library this afternoon/evening as I had planned to do. Furthermore, I reviewed Margert Scanlen's "Incriminating Documents: Nechaev and Dostoyevsky in J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg," a study of, among other things, the relationship of history to fiction. Clearly-written and convincingly-argued, Scanlen's essay also provides an excellent close reading of Coetzee's novel, paying particular attention to the troubling affinities between terrorists and writers, pathos and creation, and author and text.

    For tomorrow: Read another article. Write a bit if I'm not too tired. Otherwise, transcribe a bit more.

    Work Cited

    Scanlan, Margaret. "Incriminating Documents: Nechaev and Dostoyevsky in J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg." Philological Quarterly 76.4 (1997): 463-477.

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    Thursday, January 24, 2008
    I'm going to have to keep tonight's entry fairly brief because I have a few things I need to get done for class tomorrow and I do want to get to bed at a reasonable hour. In any case, I did get another piece of the dissertation written and hope to wrap up the bit on Age of Iron shortly, which will be nice. I've actually been enjoying working with the book lately, but it will be nice to shift my focus from South Africa to Russia, if only to give myself a bit of variety. Plus, there's always that nice feeling of having completed something to look forward to.

    In addition to the bit of writing I worked my way through, I read Graham Pechey's "The Post-Apartheid Sublime: Rediscovering the Extraordinary," which deals with several texts other than The Master of Petersburg in addition to Coetzee's 1994 novel. As I am beginning to suspect is true of most of the articles dealing with the novel, Pechey's essay again seeks to identify issues relevant to South Africa in the novelist's fictional Russia. Elsewhere, however, the article provides an insightful consideration of the confessional mode of writing. Furthermore, Pechey's analysis moves fluidly from topic to topic in eminently readable prose, which was delightful.

    For tomorrow: Try to read a bit more. Write if there's time.

    Work Cited

    Pechey, Graham. "The Post-Apartheid Sublime: Rediscovering the Extraordinary." Writing South Africa. Eds. Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 57-74.

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    Wednesday, January 23, 2008
    I took a break from writing today, largely because I had to wake up early for work and spend the morning and early afternoon on campus before having a chance to sit down and get anything done. In any case, I did read two brief essays on The Master of Petersburg, or, rather, one brief essay and one review. I have been curious to see how critics respond to the novel, especially since the book takes place in nineteenth century tsarist Russia as opposed to, say, a thinly-veiled twentieth century South Africa. I am even more curious to see how they handle the fact that, after Disgrace, Coetzee's fictional characters accompany him to Australia.

    As is so often the case, the two critics I encountered today sought to somehow explain how Coetzee's increasingly un-South African settings are, in fact, representations of South Africa. There seems to be a definite tendency among Coetzee scholars to dwell on the specifically South African aspects of the author's fiction while ignoring some very significant universal themes. I am guessing that this is one of the reasons for dearth of articles on The Master of Petersburg.

    I suppose that one of the flaws of literary criticism--or, at least, one of the lingering effects of the poststructuralist hyper-politicization of all cultural production--is the reluctance of many critics to shake off the temptation to read politics into a given text. I anticipate the discourse enveloping the The Master of Petersburg to put this surmise to the test and, oddly, I am driven to read critical writing for precisely this reason.

    In any case, I read Gary Adelman's "Stalking Stavrogin: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg and the Writing of The Possessed" and Bert Beynen's review of the novel and, despite my somewhat jaundiced response to the respective authors' 'South Africanization' of the text, I found both essays to be well-written, thoughtful pieces of criticism. In the former, Adelman argues that "J. M. Coetzee's situation as a South African writer living under a repressive regime must have contributed to the genesis of The Master of Petersburg," while also addressing the far more interesting ways the novel creates a counter-historical narrative to rival 'official' history (351). Additionally, Adelman proceeds with a solid close reading of the text, analyzing the dark, often perverse path the fictionalized Dostoyevsky embarks upon in order to find the inspiration he requires to begin writing The Possessed. Here, as elsewhere in the canon of Coetzee scholarship, the process of writing takes center stage in a discussion of literary authority. The difference, in the criticism surrounding The Master of Petersburg, however, is the increasingly bleak, almost (dare I use a charged word?) evil form the life of a writer can take.

    In his review of the novel, Beynen asks "what will [Coetzee] be writing about now that the old South Africa is no more?" (447). Although he opens the review with a brief discussion of the possibility that Coetzee chose to use "Petersburg" (not, Beynen emphasizes, "Saint Petersburg") in the title of the novel to evoke the "conservative" South African town of Pietersburg--thereby drawing parallels between the two societies--Beynen joins Adelman in emphasizing the text's concern with writing fiction. In the end, the reviewer concludes--again, like Adelman--that Coetzee's novel challenges 'official' history (whether it be South African or Russian) by offering a case for the re-creation of reality through the process of fiction-writing.

    I also worked on my bibliography, so today was not a waste.

    For tomorrow: Try to write a bit more about Age of Iron or, at the very least, read another essay or two.

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    Thursday, January 10, 2008
    I woke up this morning with a tremendous amount of anxiety. I mean, usually, when I wake up it takes me a few minutes to assess the situation. There are those first few moments when, in that liminal not-quite-awake, not-quite-asleep state, I basically look at the time and try to figure out whether or not I can go back to sleep. Usually the only anxiety I feel at that point stems from the occasional realization of "oh, shit, I need to get dressed and off to work!" Today, though, the anxiety was already approaching the high water mark when my lead-heavy lids reluctantly admitted daylight. "Shit," I thought to myself, "I've got to start writing the dissertation today."

    And I did.


    First, though, I sat in front of the computer screen, paging through notes, trying to figure out where, exactly, I should begin. It took me a few hours to finally produce a first paragraph, writing and rewriting the same sentences over and over, trying vainly to find an arrangement with which I felt comfortable. When I finished, capitalizing on the teensy-weensy bit of confidence the completion of a paragraph fleetingly provides, I called loved ones and asked if hey, would'ja mind if I read somethin' to ya?

    By the time I finished the second paragraph, I realized that I was tired, but in a better position than I had been in earlier in the day. I mean, there it was: the beginning, the first three-hundredth or so of my doctoral dissertation. So I decided to call the day a success, having pushed through the wall and put some words on paper (or, more properly, pressing a bunch of keys that resulted in binary code being stored on my hard drive which, through the miracle of modern-day technology, could be translated into a little over a page of 12-point Times New Roman text).

    I used to have the somewhat arbitrary goal of writing five pages a day which, I think, stems from the fact that I would routinely write roughly that much in a day while I was an undergraduate. Having found that I rarely wrote more than seven pages in a given day, five struck me as a reasonable daily target throughout grad school but, as I progressed further in my studies, I found that I often wrote less. I don't know if it is the sense of having burnt myself out or if I have somehow developed a style of critical writing that requires more time to produce, but I was pretty wiped after that page-plus today. So I stopped, happy that the first step, even if it turns out to be a false one, has been taken.

    I spent the rest of the day watching Seinfeld and knitting the scarf I have been working on. As with the candle-making, I have attempted to pick up knitting so that, after I finish my dissertation, I can have something other than a sprawling pile of academic writing to show for my time. Plus, it relaxes me. And may well result in something that will keep my pretty little neck warm...

    I also read a few chapters of The Master of Petersburg. Since I did not write as many pages as I would ideally have written, I thought I could be productive by reading the novel, which, of course, is really interesting. So far, I like it a good deal more than Age of Iron and, depending on where the story takes me, I would not be surprised if it ends up standing beside Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello, and Slow Man as one of my favorite Coetzee novels. We'll see.

    For tomorrow: A few more steps. Read another twenty pages of The Master of Petersburg, if I can.

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