Wednesday 12 January 2011

The clever cleverness of the very clever J.M. Coetzee

As I read the slim but still much too long Youth, it occurred to me that maybe Ian McEwan has ruined me for J.M. Coetzee. Before my recent reintroduction to McEwan's perfect style, I had mentally held Coetzee in reserve as my go-to author for great writing. Indeed, I've admired Coetzee's writing so much in the past that it's helped me get over the fact that I'm generally averse to his subject matter and often profoundly repelled by his characters. Well, no more; Coetzee is on probation.

Youth contained the predictable self-absorbed, prickish sort of protagonist I expect from Coetzee. He is self-absorbed but in no way self-aware; he is more invested in looking like a poet than in being one; he is dedicated to becoming literarily cultured but shockingly narrow-minded about what constitutes good literature:
His ambition is to read everything worth reading before he goes overseas, so that he will not arrive in Europe a provincial bumpkin. As guides to reading he relies upon Eliot and Pound. On their authority he dismisses without a glance shelf after shelf of Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Mereditih. Nor is anything that came out of nineteenth-century Germany or Italy or Spain or Scandinavia worthy of attention. Russia may have produced some interesting monsters but as artists, the Russians have nothing to teach. Civilization since the eighteenth century has been an Anglo-French affair. (p. 25)
When I read this early passage, I concluded that Coetzee was being ironic, for not only do I know him to be a very slippery fellow when it comes to the book-writing, but the contrast between John's proclaimed "ambition" and his 1) lack of independent thought (relying on Eliot and Pound to tell him what to read), and 2) the shockingly narrow strictures he places on what he considers "worth reading" are the very antitheses of readerly ambition. I don't know about you, but I consider true readerly ambition to constitute the impossible dream of reading everything, end stop!

But like much of Coetzee's fiction, Youth contains no clear-cut moments for establishing the novel's either irony or complete lack thereof. I don't know if this book is an ironic look at the Earnest Dreams of youth and their wretched fragility, or if it's a lament for the same - or both. In the end, it doesn't matter to me because the writing style Coetzee chose for this novel is far inferior to what I've come to expect of him, and I found no enjoyment in considering it from any interpretive angle. Indeed, his slavish reliance on the rhetorical question made me so impatient and bored that I considered giving up on the damned thing with only ten pages left! (I had a friend back in high school who once confessed to me that he'd given up on St. Urbain's Horsemen only four pages from the end; I couldn't credit it. Now, sadly, I get it; I really, really get it.)

That an author as accomplished as Coetzee could think only to have his wanky protagonist simply ask himself heap after heap of Deep and Probing questions, to show that he doesn't have any idea of what to do with himself, seemed straight-up lazy to me. Here's a representative example of the kind of passage that made me want to scream quietly in frustration, and which comprises the majority of the book:
Yet misery does not feel like a purifying bath. On the contrary, it feels like a pool of dirty water. From each new bout of misery he emerges not brighter and stronger but duller and flabbier. How does it actually work, the cleansing action that misery is required to have? Has he not swum deep enough? Will he have to swim beyond mere misery into melancholia and madness? He has never yet met anyone who could be called properly mad, but he has not forgotten Jacqueline, who was, as she herself put it, 'in therapy,' and with whom he spent six months, on and off, sharing a one-room flat. At no time did Jacqueline blaze with the divine and exhilarating fire of creativty. On the contrary, she was self-obssessed, unpredictable, exhausting to be with. Is that the kind of person he must descend to being before he can be an artist? And anyway, whether mad or miserable, how can one write when tiredness is like a gloved hand gripping one's brain and squeezing? Or is what he likes to call tiredness in fact a test, a disguised test, a test he is moreover failing? After tiredness, are there further tests to come, as many as there are circles in Dante's Hell? Is tiredness simply the first of the tests that the great masters had to pass, Holderlin and Blake, Pound and Eliot? (pp. 65-66)
Descend? Young John, you're already mired in the self-obsession and unpredictability you find so tiring! You are so boring you exhaust me and all the characters Coetzee places around you! Such character defects are clearly no guarantee of literary output either, for John thinks a great deal about writing poetry but doesn't write anything to speak of. The whole book reads this way - just these endless questions of no interest and questionable literary merit. Coetzee may be being ironic about his character and what he wants, but I doubt he'd purposefully produce a badly written book just to get the point across!

Or maybe he would...near the novel's conclusion, which is a whimper rather than a bang if ever I saw one (another homage to Eliot), John discovers the novels of Samuel Beckett - and his search for poetic inspiration and meaning comes to an end, for he has discovered a literary style that fits him perfectly:
There is no clash [in Beckett's novels], no conflict, just the flow of a voice telling a story, a flow continually checked by doubts and scruples, its pace fitted exactly to the pace of his own mind. (p. 155)
Aha! This novel was written by someone very like John on the model of what he admires most in Beckett's prose. So, the whole novel could be an entirely ironic and very prolonged satire on what it means to be a writer, particularly one perhaps overly devoted to his literary heroes. If it is, I might concede that Coetzee is clever, but in this case I won't concede that he's smart. The near unreadability of this book is not improved by the possibility that Coetzee is playing an elaborate and prolonged joke on the reading world and probably also on himself. The joke may be clever, but it's too dull and exhausting to be even remotely amusing. Now Swift, he could write a prolonged and elaborate joke both amusing and extremely well-written...


Heidenkind said...

Sounds like there's a lot of navel gazing going on in this novel.

Anonymous said...

Great review, I'm a fan of Swift myself.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear ... I'm a Coetzee fan but haven't yet his autobiographical fiction trilogy. Having read a few other books of his I wouldn't be surprised if it was satire (or something?) of what it means to be a writer, I'll have to wait until I've read it myself. I've seen him speak live - he's a very reserved (and I think interior) man. He read and he sat down - no questions were allowed.

Meytal Radzinski said...

I haven't read enough of Coetzee's works to decide if I'm a fan or what, but I can pretty easily understand the annoying aspects of his writing. Especially in a book that's something like an autobiography, but also like a novel, sort of ironic but also somewhat sincere... or something like that?

I find these clever-clever-clever self absorbed characters all too often in literature. It's a frustrating side effect of merely clever (but not necessarily intelligent) writers... they write what they know.

J.G. said...

Sometimes a protagonist makes me just want to slap them. Sounds like this is one of those times. The over-rhetorical excerpt was all it took!

Anonymous said...

You have a point biblibio, but on the other hand I sometimes get tired of the same-old, same-old style of writing ... I crave something different even if I don't think it works fully. It's great to see someone pushing the boundaries (at least for my taste).