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    Sobriquet 42.16: On Beginning Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year

    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 It's frustrating because I actually have quite a bit to say and the excitement of instant publication has been replaced by a deflated sort of resignation.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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    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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    Wednesday, April 16, 2008
    In addition to reading a bit of Life & Times of Michael K. today, I read Charles Sarvan's "Disgrace: A Path to Grace?" Although I vaguely remember reading the essay a few years ago while researching the novel for my last-ever paper for my last-ever graduate seminar, I'd forgotten virtually everything about the article.

    To be honest, I did not find Sarvan's essay particularly helpful. In fact, the essay reads like a rather uninspired book report, albeit with good grammar. The bulk of the article is plot summary, though the occasional critical insights do make the piece a bit more substantial than, say, your average scholarly book review. To Sarvan's credit, he does pick up on and discuss some of the novel's more overlooked content (the incestuous overtones of David Lurie's relationship with Melanie Isaacs, for instance). Otherwise, the essay retreads fairly common critical territory such as the various meanings of (dis)grace and the novel's commentary on post-Apartheid South Africa. The essay's big fault, however, is its over-reliance on a strangely eclectic group of classic literary and philosophical texts to "support" what often amounts to merely pedestrian observation. Citing everyone from novelists as varied as Thomas More and Nadine Gordimer to poets like W. H. Auden and William Butler Yeats to philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Boethius as well as canonical works of Eastern religious thought (The Upanishads and The Dhammapada, in particular), it often seems like Sarvan is more eager to display the breadth of his learning than he is in probing Coetzee's novel -- and, in doing so, often derails what has the potential to be a thoughtful and provocative discussion. Indeed, "A Path to Grace?" does little more than scratch the surface of an intricate novel, leaving readers with the level of insight one might expect from a casual reading.

    For tomorrow: Write. If I find the energy, read a bit as well.

    Work Cited
    Sarvan, Charles. "Disgrace: A Path to Grace?" World Literature Today 78.1 (2004): 26-29.

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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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    Monday, March 24, 2008
    Well, it's been an interesting day. I've been having quite a bit of computer trouble lately, which has limited my access to the internet and certain research avenues, but this morning the machine committed electronic suicide, quite literally offing itself and seemingly taking with it scads of documents and other precious data. Needless to say, I was not terribly pleased with the development but, having experienced similar "crises" in the past, I stoically took the thing in for an autopsy and had the computer coroner extract my files for me.

    And now I stand, sixpence cap clutched to my breast, humming Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" as the staid cemetery hands of this idiotically extended metaphor lower the corpse into the ground...

    Ah, but I did not weep. Nay. Rather I look to the future, knowing that the work started on one computer can easily be transferred to another like genes from parent to child.

    Deliberately sappy prose aside, it does suck to lose one's computer. I mean, obviously, for someone writing a dissertation, the word processing and research capabilities of the average PC are of tremendous value. Still, I am of a generation for whom memories of computer-less living rooms and dens are quite common. I didn't even own a computer until I had graduated from college and worked for several months, so working without the buzz of a CPU is not wholly foreign to me.

    Of course, I might have sung a different tune had I actually needed to use the computer today...

    I did continue working, as I had planned, and will work a bit more before bed. I am still enjoying Waiting for the Barbarians, though I do occasionally find the tone a tiny bit didactic. As a philosophical novel, however, I suppose such a tone is both inevitable and ultimately necessary.

    For tomorrow: Same old, same old.

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    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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    Friday, January 4, 2008
    Well, today was a better day than yesterday, that's for sure. I did struggle with procrastination much of the afternoon, playing music, solving crosswords, wasting time online and, oddly, cleaning. I should emphasize here that I have always been more comfortable living amid clutter than in anything approaching a nice, neat home. The very concept of making a bed, for instance, strikes me as utterly absurd and, truth be told, there's a certain coziness inherent to a paper-strewn desk or a floor-cum-hamper that I really rather like. But, still, I cleaned. I was that restless, that unfocused.

    I did, however, remember how I felt yesterday evening and resolved to read one, just one little chapter about Age of Iron, which I did do. I decided to really focus my energy on comprehending what I read, getting up frequently to ward off the temptation to skim. Which explains the cleaning and the sudden growth of my iTunes library (it is nice, though, to finally have added the Jam's entire output, X's Los Angeles, and a good deal of X-Ray Spex).

    In any case, I read David Attwell's "'Dialogue' and 'Fulfilment' in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron," which I found to be one of the better essays I have read on the novel (which, I suppose, figures, given that Attwell is one of the most respected Coetzee scholars out there, and one who knows the author personally). In it, Attwell addresses one of the more common criticisms of Coetzee's fiction, namely the author's supposed disengagement with the political landscape of his native South Africa. Drawing upon comments made by Benita Parry Nadine Gordimer, Attwell sets out to challenge the more disparaging interpretations of Coetzee's work, showing how the author does, in fact, address the issues some critics accuse him of omitting as well as provide room for the other to speak in his fiction.

    What I enjoy most about the essay, however, is Attwell's discussion of Coetzee's lack of what Parry calls a depiction of "a transfigured social order" to which South Africans may aspire (162). I, personally, have always baulked at the notion that an artist must work towards bettering his or her society in any prescribed fashion. Certainly, an individual may feel a sense of obligation (as, indeed, is the case for many writers), but to disparage an author's work based on his or her desire not to engage with socio-political situations in his or her craft, to my mind, seeks to limit the scope of creative exploration in much the same way as the oft-cited Soviet effort to eliminate Samizdat art. Essentially, I am of the opinion that there is no external code that determines what one is or is not obliged to create or address in one's creation, nor do we have the right to universalize our notions of propriety to such an extent that they become the sort of criticism with which Parry faults Coetzee. All obligation, then, must necessarily be negotiated within the creative artist and the resulting work will reflect his or her individual morals, ethics, aesthetics, conscience, or conception of duty. Ultimately, owing perhaps to our common humanity and shared values, we tend to feel the same pull of duty, but may not respond in precisely the same fashion as another person. Indeed, as Attwell shows, Coetzee does engage with the socio-political conditions of his homeland, but in a markedly different, decidedly less explicit way as, say, Andre Brink. Rather than provide readers with an alternative to the present, Coetzee dissects the present, autopsy-wise, so that we may learn how to live from the disease that destroys us.

    For tomorrow: Another chapter.

    Works Cited

    Attwell, David. "'Dialogue' and 'Fulfilment' in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995. Eds. David Attwell and Rosemary Jolly. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 166-179.

    Parry, Benita. "Speech and Silence in the Fictions of J. M. Coetzee." In Attwell. 149-165.

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