John Pistelli

writer

Notes on Notes on Notes: Reading Coetzee’s Diary (Vicariously)

I was never much for archival work. I am as vain and arrogant as any unproven writer who occasionally imagines his future book blurbs, as in that chastening passage from Joyce’s “A Little Cloud”:

He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notice which his book would get. ‘Mr Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse’… ‘A wistful sadness pervades these poems’… ‘The Celtic note’.

But even I never could imagine what interest anyone might possibly take in my various jottings, abandoned drafts and school notebooks, grocery lists and blog posts. I even have a slight horror of such stuff: in a fit of egomaniacal paranoia, I destroyed the notebook in which the first draft of The Ecstasy of Michaela was written. I remember looking down at a note from Walter Pater to Oscar Wilde in an archive, really a glorified text message avant la lettre, something on the order of “My Dear Wilde, please do come at 4 o’clock,” and thinking, “How will this help me to read Marius the Epicurean or The Critic as Artist?” For me, literary criticism was never a branch of history. Also, I lack the antiquarian temperament, for the most part, at least when it comes to literature; literature is news that stays news, that which does not fade or molder, and I have always felt there was a falsity in seeking the source of that perennial relevance in brittle parchments and scrawled ephemera. “Ah, but the writer’s hand made these marks,” you will rightly say. But the miracle is the numinous quality that radiates from even the shoddiest mass-printing or poorly-formatted onscreen display of the truly great work. I write because my hand will be gone; don’t seek my hand, seek my mind, my sensibility, my creation.

Before anybody asks me to give back a grant or two, let me say that I am aware of this position’s churlishness, extremity, and irresponsible romanticism. I would never seek to defend it in universal terms; in universal terms, I say long live civilization and its works—long live the archivists and the writers’ notebooks! All sorts of interesting things may be turned up in archives, things that really do illuminate the complete work. It seems to me that the great thing in Wilde’s archive, published a generation ago, though now seemingly out of print, is his philosophy notebook from the Oxford years. And the notebooks of J. M. Coetzee may be among them too. I was interested to read the excerpts provided by Thomas Meaney in The London Review of Books. Of Coetzee’s temperament as revealed in the notebooks, Meaney rediscovers what we probably already knew from the fiction but which bears repeating:

The entries appear in meticulous small script, very rarely crossed out, all neatly dated. They are not the observations of a writer who trusts his instincts, still less his reason. They are more like the carefully sifted, windswept relics of a dried-up saint. In these diaries Coetzee creates the sense of remove of a classical work. The romantics force their genius on you like a coat, and get you to wear it; the classical writer takes you by the hand for a few steps, points the way home, then leaves you behind. And so it is with Coetzee’s notebooks. They don’t lead you to the work; they are scattered chickenfeed for those foolish enough to come pecking in Texas.

“Great writers are either husbands or lovers,” as Sontag put it—in a review, relevantly, of Camus’s notebooks. What is Coetzee? The broodingly distant and silent husband who comes late to bed, passionately to be sure, after several more hours of work on that bewildering project in the basement? Precisely the kind of husband whose diary you might like to sneak a glance at. Some telling glances from Meaney’s report:

Sex and violence – I know that my satire was an attempt to rationalise my attraction towards sadistic sex and violence. Now I feel my better hope is to take a cooler and more analytic line with sex and violence, and acknowledge that the politics is only a way of opening avenues for sex and violence.

I felt the shock of recognition when I read this. I too eventually came to understand that the politics in my work was not about politics, that the most vain thing a writer can do is to attempt to use the imagination to lodge some literal protest about some specific policies, and that I was drawn to political themes in quest of a human or even inhuman element that lay behind or within them. Not really sex, in my case; I suppose I have an old-fashioned view of sex as the opposite of politics. But certainly violence, or the place where violence meets organization, where the most uncontrolled part of us comes under control, thus making politics the enemy-double of art. I would direct you to my novelette “Agent Provocateur,” but what can I say, the damn thing remains unpublished. If you want to be published, kids, you must not write any works of fiction whose length falls in the cursed range between 5,000 words and 60,000 words; this is no country for Henry James’s “blessed nouvelle.”

More Coetzee, a note on a scene from an abandoned project:

I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a tour de force of evocation of a dusk city after a day of random sniping and hit-and-run attacks

I’m trying to recall—is there anything quite like this in any of Coetzee’s novels (not that I’ve read every last one)? I don’t think of him as the evoker of cities; he writes so close to the perspectives of his characters that every evocation comes through them, or at least in their vicinity. There are apocalypsescapes throughout, to be sure, though I think from my vague reading-memories that Age of Iron, one of his most “realist” or least allegorical novels, is his most apocalyptic vision, townships on fire, houses and bodies porous. But the high-altitude view, the city in chaos or at violent peace, as seen from the air, ever-unread and bitterly or negligently discarded sheets of the government-controlled newspaper crackling in the dry wind, would seem to belong to more high-spirited writers, Saramago or DeLillo. Can writers escape their most characteristic métier? Speaking of that question, and of Age of Iron, which Coetzee had wanted to base on Nadine Gordimer (is that an archival fact worth knowing? isn’t it already part of the novel’s subtext?):

Try to give the book a more imaginative feel, not the Gordimer-type imprisonment within an environment. Play fast and loose with the facts. Dump social relations.

I’ve only read one Nadine Gordimer novel to completion, The Pickup, which I liked very much, and which Coetzee gave a good review. An exemplary novel of ideas, it depicts a love affair between a middle-class white South African woman and a working-class Arab immigrant man. The upshot, essentially, is that each wants the other’s life: he wants the appurtenances of civilization and freedom, which bore and alienate her, and she wants the command of an ordered ritual life and the silence of the desert, which he understands as the correlate of backwardness and poverty. The tragedy of modernity and its discontents is arranged perfectly and, despite Gordimer’s reputation as something of a polemicist, is handled without much in the way of obfuscatory polemic, either in the anti-imperialist (“the west is nothing but oppression”) or the neoconservative (“why don’t they want freedom?”) veins. I gather Coetzee loved it for its slow movement, with the heroine, into the holy muteness of the desert, in keeping with his own caution to himself about Age of Iron, as reported by Meaney:

The book [Age of Iron] will only work if I work on things like angelhood.

But The Pickup is, as Coetzee complains in his review, an incorrigible social novel too, with a whole satirical subplot out of Philip Roth about a gynecologist falsely accused of sexual misconduct. In an earlier post, I somewhat exaggeratedly referred to my left-wing college professors as sixties people who relentlessly mocked political correctness; I gather that Gordimer was of that ilk, not unlike Doris Lessing too, an old leftist who found elite-school feminism’s traumatology trivial, infantilizing, and ultimately in service to the powers that be. The later Coetzee never goes in for that sort of satire, exactly: David Lurie, in Disgrace, is certainly guilty of some kind of sexual misconduct “in the eyes of the Lord,” as it were, even if the bureaucracy that arraigns him is also contemptible. In such a scenario, the social per se is an untoward coercion of the ethical, the latter not to be mocked. Gordimer, in her well-known review of Life & Times of Michael K finds just this strain in Coetzee disturbing; how can someone who is even a little bit Marxist, which is to say Hegelian, conceive of ethical embodiment outside the state? She inelegantly writes, in what I personally find to be an indecent bout of Stalinist jargon,

[T]he organicism that George Lukács defines as the integral relation between private and social destiny is distorted here more than is allowed for by the subjectivity that is in every writer.

Even so, the moral here is surely that I must read more Nadine Gordimer. Is Burger’s Daughter the consensus masterpiece?

A last citation from Meaney’s archival dig (I am clearly trying to exhaust the patience of my own future archivists here):

I have no interest in telling stories; it is the process of storytelling that interests me

Nothing is more unfashionable under the reign of poptimism than to seek any boundary between literature and genre fiction. There is at least one good reason for that: having ditched as philosophically untenable all mimetic theories of literature from Aristotle to the aforementioned Lukács, we no longer have a warrant for ruling any subject matter out of bounds. And I am in sympathy with this shift away from normative realism and every other neoclassicism: I say bring on the detectives, the spaceships, the dragons, and the sex. And yet—there is a difference between the literary and the generic, a difference of form rather than of content, and Coetzee names it here: a work of literature must in some way be written from a concern with its form. It cannot take forms for granted and must at least strive to remake or unmake them every time. And it must encourage its readers, of whom it takes no sensationalizing notice, to read into it the investigation of form in place of, or at least alongside, an absorption in whatever thrills the subject matter may hold. As good a statement of the difference between literature and its opposites (entertainment, propaganda, pornography, reportage) as any I’ve seen: a great find in the archive, after all.

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One comment on “Notes on Notes on Notes: Reading Coetzee’s Diary (Vicariously)

  1. Pingback: Cynthia Ozick, The Din in the Head | John Pistelli

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