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    Sobriquet 40.20

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

    So, yeah, I'm enjoying this.

    Now it's onto some pre-writing.

    For tomorrow: Same old, same old.

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

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

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

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

    And yes, I did get some more transcription done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I look forward to seeing where the book goes.

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

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