Friday, 28 November 2008

A week with J.M. Coetzee

This article is about 6 months old, but with December around the corner, I have been thinking back over the year, and this week in June stands out as one of the most remarkable. So I thought I would post this hear, and share with others a rare insight to J.M. Coetzee.

Here you go. Take a deep breath, and don't hate me for filling so many bites of the internet with my self indulgent rambling.

“Kill your idols” Bob Dylan urges, and I am generally of the same opinion. So how nice it is to meet a great writer and discover that, not only are they down to earth and friendly, but offer practical advice as well. This is my week with J.M. Coetzee, in all its brilliant banality.

John Coetzee (pronounced kert-zee-ah apparently) is one of the foremost authors of our generation. During a career that has spanned four decades, he has won the Booker Prize twice – for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999 – and in 2003 was awarded the Novel Prize for Literature.

This year Disgrace has been shortlisted for the Best of Booker prize and is one of the most beautiful, unremittingly atmospheric and evocative books i have read. With its unique and powerful narrative and sense of untamed regret in untameable conditions, it has a fluency of prose and clarity of thinking which will make it a classic for many years to come.

But Coetzee’s genius doesn’t end there. Life and Times of Michael K is not only one of the most original novels ever to win the Booker prize, – the plot follows a quiet gardener as he tries to escape the civil war all around him by seeking the simplest, most natural life possible – but it ends with what has to be my favourite image in any book ever. Michael K, after days of walking, returns to his garden, bends a tiny spoon into the shape of a ladle, ties rope around the handle and dips it deep into an underground well, drawing water from the earth one spoon at a time. “In that way,” he says, “one can live.” Such stark, understated beauty; it resounds throughout much of Coetzee’s work.

And that is saying nothing for the harsh brutality of the landscape in Waiting for the Barbarians or the subtle culmination to Youth. In short, J.M. Coetzee is an original and intriguing author who always has something to say and whose writing demonstrates a near biblical simplicity of prose. He addresses the very core of what it is to be human, while at the same time showing real concern for the natural environment. He is one of the few absolutely indispensable authors of this, or any other, generation.

Friends, be warned: this column may hold some vague trace of bias.

So it was – thanks to the powers that be – that J.M. Coetzee, a man fabled for his reclusive nature, a man who has not done any public events in this country for a decade, came to spend a week in Norwich. He was here to participate in the New Writing Worlds festival/conference, to debate and discuss the central theme of this annual event: Human:Nature. The point of debate: what can words do for our world?

For 5 days I traipsed around Norwich, following in the footprints of all the writers, running bookstall after bookstall, quietly watching on as one of literature’s least accessible traditions (intellectual debate) sought to answer one of our most pressing issues (climate change). Many other writers were present: Richard Mabey, Mark Cocker and Jay Griffiths representing the nature writers; Mimi Khalvati, C.K. Williams and Adam Zagajewski appearing for the poets; Giles Foden, Susan Fletcher and Adam Thorpe defending the novelists; along with a whole host of the leading climate scientists and nature experts. But for the public it was all building up to the grand culmination: J.M. Coetzee’s reading and signing which would conclude the week.

However, that was not until Thursday. On Tuesday afternoon I was in a state of almost superhuman excitement at the prospect of meeting him, for he was to come in and sign some stock for us. I eagerly donned my most stylish attire and waited until 2.30 when he was scheduled to arrive. I had some questions prepared but doubted whether he would be willing to answer them. Would he be rudely reclusive, or plain boring? The sun was out, campus almost deserted. Two customers idly passed time browsing the shelves. 2:30 passed by. I began to fear that he may not be coming, and the faces of the few customers who had overheard the rumours noticeably sagged. But never fear, Coetzee was here, only a little late, dressed in a short sleeved polo shirt, posture as straight as an arrow, quietly confident demeanour expressed in everything about him, from the nod of greeting and warm handshake to the self deprecating way he dealt with my obsequious protestations.

“It is an absolute honour,” I managed to say, and led him to the back desk where we had a table set out. A bottle of water; two nice, new pens; 200 books waiting to be signed; an attentive, nervous bookseller to wait on his every need: what more could anyone require? Well, it seemed very little. He is an attractive man, with short greying beard and piercing brown eyes. As a colleague observed: “he is mighty good looking.” And he got to work immediately, throwing off provisos that he only need sign for as long or short as he wished. And, hesitantly, we began to strike up conversation.

John Coetzee is quiet and controlled, he does not speak rashly, takes ten, twenty, sometimes even thirty seconds to think over the question before he answers, in a calm, deep voice. As with his prose, he does not waste words. But he is not cold, his conversation demonstrates a man who engages completely with what is before him.

We began by discussing the debate the previous night, in which Giles Foden (author of the Last King of Scotland amongst others) was pushed into a corner and asked to defend the novel (in its general sense) on the same level as that of scientific certainty, or political agency. This was unfair, he contended, a novel is not about absolute fact, it works on a less specific plane which does not seek to shout the loudest, but to slowly build a picture which permeates the reader through a process not unlike osmosis. If you set out to write a novel like a lecture on climate change you are doing nothing more than the Socialist Realists in the USSR, who sought to create writers who were “engineers of the soul,” whose purpose was to participate in the grand building of socialism. And how many socialist realist novels survive today?

And the suggestion that literature hasn’t already engaged with the natural world was treated with equal disdain. If Michael K isn’t a novel about living peaceably with nature then I don’t know what is.

Piles of signed books began to take over the table. We continued our chat, which I have paraphrased below.

SR: You moved to Australia in 2001. Do you have any desire to return to South Africa?

JMC: No.

SR: Are you still drawn to writing about the South Africa landscape in any way?

JMC: No.

SR: Do you have any plans to write about the Australian landscape?

JMC: No. I moved there too late in life to have an understanding of that landscape.

SR: Is there any one of your novels which stands out as your favourite?

JMC: No. I don’t think it is good to have a favourite. An author’s favourite book should always be the next one you are going to write.

SR: So what is your next project?

JMC: I am just finishing off a sequel to Youth. It should be published sometime in 2009.

SR: Oh wow, I just started reading that an hour ago. At one point you question the relationship between prose and poetry. Your character asks himself: “Is that what prose secretly is: the second best choice, the resort of failing creative spirits?” Is this really how you feel about prose?

JMC: Yes it is. I think prose is much easier than poetry, when you are writing a novel and the dialogue and plot are working well then you can almost go into automatic pilot. With poetry one has to be in a state of existence at all times, if you come out of it then the rhythm is lost.

SR: Romantic poetry is a big part of Disgrace and many of your works. And moving on to Disgrace, I was struck by how much it reminded my of Alan Patton’s Cry, The Beloved Country. It is as though they are carrying on a conversation across the years, one pre-apartheid, and the other post-apartheid. In each of them you have the terrible impossibility and the hesitant optimism, the struggle against forces greater than the individual, yet the individual, personal life being the only way of living. Was this conscious?

JMC: No, I was not conscious of it. (Clearly this was a question he disagreed with.)

SR: Diary of a Bad Year is a strange sort of hybrid between fiction and non-fiction, with the narratives completely interlocked. When I was reading it I was unsure whether to read it page by page or flick back and forth to follow the individual stories through to their conclusion. Did you have an idea of how you wanted it to be read yourself?

JMC: No. The purpose of it was to leave that completely for the reader to determine.

Now the conversation took a slightly unexpected twist. Perhaps he was getting tired of my questions, perhaps he wanted me to shut-up, but he decided to turn the conversation around and ask me some questions. Had I been a student here (yes,) what had I studied (History and Politics,) and what did I want to do with my life (well…). Each question carried what seemed his genuine interest, and real engagement. When I hesitantly said that I was writing a novel (well, who isn’t these days!) and that it was partly set in Australia with leanings towards Aboriginal mythology he smiled, asked what had drawn me to that, and whether I had heard of a man named B Wongar. I had not. So he informed me, like that teacher you have always wanted, the expert dispensing little gems of knowledge, that B Wongar is a Serbian author who emigrated to Australia and lived with tribal Aborigines for many years. He published a series of books on Aboriginal life and mythology which were presumed to have been written by a native, and only later did it emerge who the author actually was.

Delighted, I thanked him greatly and said I would check him out as soon as possible. (I have since learned that B Wongar published many books, none of which are in print in this country any more.) I said I had been reading David Unaipon’s work and he replied that he had a picture of David Unaipon in his wallet. (David Unaipon was a turn of the century writer and inventor and one of the first Aborigines to put down on paper the legends and customs of his race. As such, he played a major role in demonstrating the validity of Aboriginal culture and breaking down the barriers between natives and the Christian settlers.) So out he whipped his wallet and as he was doing so I remembered, David Unaipon is the man on the Australian $50 note! A laugh, a smile. John Coetzee carries around a fair few dollars…

His engagement in the conversation was enthralling, his genuine, down-to-earth and unpretentious manner a real pleasure. During our various literary festivals we have hosted many celebrated and world famous authors – Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, Isabel Allende, Louis de Bernieres, Margaret Attwood, Junot Diaz, Rose Tremain, Iain Banks among them – and although they are often nice, friendly and warm, there was something about the calm way Coetzee spoke which struck me.

And then, all too soon, he had signed all the books he possibly could, and with a friendly handshake, he departed, walking purposefully down the street, back to his temporary student accommodation.

Two days later J.M. Coetzee returned to give his reading/lecture. He talked about the issue of censorship and how, recently, it has moved from being a general consideration of his, to something more intimately personal. It is a fascinating and informative lecture which I have reproduced here, non verboten.


I have always been interested in the relationship between censor and writer; it is both incredibly intimate and yet at the same time undesired, like having a strangers eye upon you. I began writing in South Africa in the 1970’s, in a historical situation in which censorship was official, and controlled. Most fiction was published initially in London and then re-imported back to South Africa where it would be checked by the “expert readers” at the censors.

This censorship essentially had two aims: to demonstrate and maintain power for the state, and to preserve the moral integrity and purity of South African society. The essence of the latter being the dichotomy between good and evil, white and black.

By this time, South Africa had moved from a utopian phase which sought to isolate itself and preserve “God’s peace”, to a more realpolitik stance whose aims were to gain security and power by playing the superpowers off against each other.

My second and third novels, In the Heart of the Country, and Waiting for the Barbarians were both published in London and then passed the censors and allowed back into South Africa. End of story, one might think. But it was not so.

In 1994, following the end of Apartheid, the national archives were opened up and unlike many other autocratic regimes, very few of the files were destroyed. Then, last year, in 2007, I received a phone call from South Africa asking whether I would like to read the Internal Censors reports on my books. “Of course” I replied and a couple of weeks later they arrived.

Here are some extracts from them:

In The Heart of the Country

Read by 4 censors.

Although there are examples of sex across the colour divide, this book is “outstandingly written” and will be “read and discussed only by intellectuals.”

There are 13 questionable passages found, mostly involving cross colour sex. One censor wrote that this is “no enjoyable recreational reading.” Another, that the book was a “difficult, obscure, multi-levelled work.”

Waiting for the Barbarians on the other hand had only one censor. Although there were 22 instances of undesirable content, it was noted that the novel is “set in a desert somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, no-where near South Africa.”

That it “lacks popular appeal” and was thoroughly “sombre – unrelieved by any lighter touches”.

Life and Times Michael K

“Deals with sensitive issues in South Africa.”

“Although it is situated in South Africa, the tragedy of Michael K is universal.”

All this is interesting, it provides an insight into the thought processes of the censors. But it is also pretty expected. What was less expected was to see the names on the censors reports…

They were not Orwellian bureaucrats who wore dull suits and trudged to work in bland, concrete office buildings where they punched out at 5.30 on the button and went home to their solitary lives. They were, to all eyes, normal citizens. One was the mother of one of my colleagues at the university of Cape Town. I had met with her many times. Two others were lecturers at the university, one when I was a student, the other a colleague of mine.

It turns out that they were my contemporaries and colleagues, people whose houses he had visited for barbecues and the like. I had shared hotdogs with my censors!

Now this is not wholly surprising given that there was a small intellectual community in Cape Town and the censorship bureau was located there. But nonetheless, to be judged so clearly by colleagues and have absolutely no idea of it was a strange discovery.

But then the question became apparent. Were the censors on my side? Did they edit their reviews in order to benefit me? Many censors across the world have done their work based on particular extracts from books, but it appears with me at least, they chose to consider the overall tendency of the book. Was this to benefit me, or the way the censors regularly operated. Were they making me an exception, or did our censors really believe that the overall quality of a work made up for transgressions in what was considered morally acceptable?

I will never know, because all the censors who read these books are now dead. But it is interesting to get an insight into the minds, and identities of censorship, and who would have thought that something like censorship could be so invisible even to those whose work is actually being censored.

John Coetzee went on to read from two of his books, In the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians, reading passages which had been flagged as unseemly. When he finished, he signed books for 45 minutes, satisfied the eager excitement of over 200 customers (many with first edition hardbacks of his early work which made me incredibly jealous!), and then we shook hands and he left. It was an interesting week spent with John Coetzee and all the others. Most importantly, it was interesting for its normality. Great writers are rarely the astounding people we picture them as, and they are all the better for it. John Coetzee is a quiet, reclusive author, one I feel privileged to have met, and whose advice and interest I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Congratulations for reading through to the end. As a reward, have a virtual chocolate bar on me…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I look forward to reading the sequel to Youth.