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The Life and Times of J.M. Coetzee

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JM Coetzee - Slow Man [20 Sep 2006|01:12pm]

When Coetzee's latest novel, Slow Man came out, I had just given up my first attempt at writing a thesis. I'd chosen a complicated subject and couldn't even do all the research within the 11 weeks I had to complete the thesis. I failed, I gave up and went on a vacation to Yorkshire.

I could have chosen to work on it during the summer holidays, but I felt miserable because I failed, in my opinion, for the first time in my life, and second of all, because, allthough people tell me I'm not a bad writer, writing always makes me feel inadequate. I have a complicated relationship with writing. In my heart there's nothing I'd love more than become a writer; non-fiction, maybe because I feel like I'm too serious and dull to write fiction. On the other hand there's no thing I hate more than having to write.

In a futile attempt to escape writing, I decided to get my degree in translation studies, where - I was told - I didn't have to write a thesis, but had to make a long translation instead. Of course something had to go wrong, and on the first day of the year they told us they had changed the rules. The closer I came to having to write my thesis on postcolonial translation theory, the more I wanted to write on Coetzee. No doubt another attempt to escape, but this time I have to choose what I want to escape more. I hope that this time I'll do more than spend too much money on books the library doesn't have.

I just finished Slow Man, about two hours ago. I don't know what to think and I'm not sure I (dis)like it. So more about that, when I've had some more time to think.
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[14 Sep 2006|11:39am]

It's a long time since I or anyone else have posted here, and I'm going to ask the same question as I did last time: has anyone read Coetzee's Slow Man? I'm probably going to write my thesis on it. I'm reading it atm, and I'd like to read some views on it.
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[30 Sep 2005|11:42pm]

Has anyone read Slow Man already? I haven't. I'm very busy, so I hardly have time to read anything not related to the courses I'm taking at the moemnt, and there's the new Rushdie as well, so I couldn't really choose which one to read first.
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[29 May 2005|01:21pm]

White South Africans and Complicity
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Disgrace - JM Coetzee [01 Apr 2005|05:12pm]

David and women

David Lurie is introduced as a casanova who lost his power. He used to be able to get any woman he wanted, now he has to buy sex. The first woman described to the reader is Soraya, a prostitute. Everything goes fine, until the moment David sees her in the street with her two kids and Soraya stops working for the agency.

The second woman is a student of David's, Melanie. She is twenty. He invites her over for coffee one day, and she accepts the invitation. One thing leads to another. They meet several times. After a while Melanie files a complaint against him, and he resigns.

He also has a short affair with a young prostitute, even younger than Melanie. She is probably on drugs and/or alcohol, but still he lets her do her job. He says he "feels drowsy, contented; also strangely protective."

After a while I started to notice that David seems to mix his relationships with Soraya and Melanie with that of his daughter, Lucy. The last time he had sex with Melanie took place in Lucy's old bedroom. When Lucy is raped, David starts sleeping in her bedroom.

David sees Lucy's rape as a punishment for having sex with Melanie. He didn't feel bad about sleeping with Melanie at first, but after the rape he starts wondering about the relationship between men and women, and wonders if women wouldn't be better of without men.

He is also concerned with Lucy's sex life. Lucy is a lesbian, and David wonders about how she and her girlfriend Helen would sleep together. Would they just lie in bed together and cuddle, or have sex, and how? This to me already seems strange, I think most men don't like fantasising about their daughters having sex, but it seems like David feels rejected by Lucy because she is lesbian. He says "perhaps that is all that lesbians are: women who have no need of men" (104). David already feels rejected by women in general because he believes he's lost his touch with them.

Then he has these weird fantasies of living on Lucy's farm with his ex-lovers: "Three. That would be a solution of sorts. He and Lucy and Melanie. Or Melanie and Soraya" (88). At one point he also says Lucy has become "his second salvation, the bride of his youth reborn" (86) which I find strange because of the bride image and because he only feels old because women don't want him anymore. At a certain point he also feels like a father to Melanie: "Mine! he would like to say turning to them, as if she were his daughter" (191).

David feels terrified of losing his power. He does not want to apologise after the Melanie affair and he does not want to go to a therapist, because, he says, he cannot change anymore. He is too old to change, counselling would not help him anymore. Later in the book he gives another reason: "The truth is, they wanted me castrated" (66).

When he first meets Lucy's friend Bev Shaw, he does not like her. He finds her uninteresting and says she reminds him of "Christians of a certain kind" (73) because of her work with animals. He does not find her attractive. He does not enjoy helping her at the animal shelter, and sees it as "playing right-hand man to a woman who specializes in sterilization and euthanasia" (91). To me that suggests that he doesn't dislike her because of her personality or her beliefs, but because he is afraid of her, afraid of her power. He is the powerless one, assisting in 'murder' and 'castration'.

End-of-rant, have to work now, but I had to write these ideas down so I wouldn't forget.
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JM Coetzee - Waiting for the Barbarians [10 Mar 2005|06:00pm]

Yesterday I read Waiting for the Barbarians. I enjoyed reading it, it gave me a lot to think about and a lot of ideas for paper topics. This book, like the other early works by Coetzee, deals with master-slave relationships, and with complicity.

The main character is a Magistrate, living at the frontier of the Empire. Then the Third Bureau decides to start a war against the Barbarians, although there haven't been any problems with them for years. The Colonel captures a whole group of Barbarians and tortures them, some of them are beaten to death. After a while the Third Bureau officials leave, the Barbarians are released and one Barbarian girl is left behind. The torturers broke her ankles and so she couldn't walk home. The Magistrate takes her home when he finds her begging, gives her a job and she sleeps in his bed. He washes her and rubs her, but they don't have a real sexual relationship. At a certain moment he does not understand anymore why she sleeps in his bed, what drew him to her. In the end he decides to bring her back to her own people, and gives her the choice of coming back to the town with him, but she says no. After a long voyage he comes back to find the Third Bureau waiting for him. He is accused of warning the Barbarians, and they lock him up. They send out an expedition to find the Barbarians, and they bring back four prisoners. They whip them and break their feet. The Magistrate, who has managed to escape from his hut, cannot stand the sight of it (it reminds him of the girl) and starts to shout 'no', but then the torturers start hitting him. They bring him back to his hut. The Barbarians come and flood their land, and it is said that they raped a young girl. The people are scared and do everything to keep the soldiers in town, give them all their food. Another expedition goes out to find the Barbarians, but only a few of the soldiers come back. They say they could not find the Barbarians, that the Barbarians just tried to lure them further into the desert and many did not survive the cold and the lack of food. They take everything from the village, all the food and cattle, and leave. The villagers, left without horses or food, cannot do anything but wait for the Barbarians to come.

When the Magistrate is locked up, he thinks about freedom and how important it is. He thinks about the times when he followed the law although he did not agree with it, he thinks about torture. He tries to understand his torturers, even asks them how they can eat after they tortured someone, do they just wash their hands or do they perform rituals? He realises that to the torturers he is not important, that they don't forget to feed him on purpose, but that they have their own lives. He thinks about decency, about the body, the amount of pain the body can endure, etc.

I'm still not quite sure what to make of it all, especially his relationship with the Barbarian girl is odd. He says he wants to get to know her body, learn about the marks on her body that the torturers left (which is interesting, because we also find out that one of the Magistrate's hobbies is cartography). He sometimes thinks he wants to leave marks on her body just like that, and in the end of the book he says that he does not see the difference between torture and his relationship with her, that it's both intimacy. There's the notion of torture as a form of dealing with the soul, which is relevant because the Magistrate somehow cannot get beneath the Barbarian girl's surface. He cannot penetrate her, both metaphorically and literally (although in the desert, when he is returning her to her family, they do make love). The Magistrate also wants to write the history of the settlement, but he cannot. The Magistrate thus seems to be preoccupied with leaving marks, in all forms, and mapping.
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"May 2000: J.M. Coetzee" by Salman Rushdie [20 Feb 2005|09:55pm]

May 2000: J.M. Coetzee

Just occasionally, a work of literature offers its readers a clearer, deeper understanding of the opaque events being reported in the press and on TV, whose shadowed truths the half-light of journalism fails to illumine. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India taught us that the great public quarrels of history can make it impossible for individuals to construct a private peace. History forbids the friendship between the Englishman Fielding and the Indian doctor, Aziz. 'Not yet, not yet,' Aziz demurs. Not while imperialism's great injustice stands between us. Not until India is free.

After World War II, many German poets and novelists felt that their language had been reduced to rubble by Nazism, as thoroughly as the bomb-devastated cities. The 'rubble literature' they created sought to rebuild German writing brick by brick.

Now, as the aftermath of Empire is acted out on the white-owned farmland of Zimbabwe while Kenya and South Africa watch with trepidation, J.M. Coetzee's acclaimed fiction Disgrace is proposed as another such age-defining work, a lens through which we can see more clearly much that was murky before. Disgrace is the story of David Lurie, a white professor who loses his job after sexual harassment charges are laid against him by a female student with whom he has had a joyless series of sexual encounters. Lurie goes to stay with his daughter Lucy on her remote smallholding, where they are violently attacked by a group of black men. The consequences of this attack profoundly shake Lurie, darkening his view on the world.

There is something in Disgrace that harks back both to the Fosterian vision of the Indian struggle for independence, and to the Germans' rubble literature. In Lucy's apparent readiness to accept her rape as her assailants' way of working out on her body the necessary [end of page 338] revenges of history, we hear a much harsher, more discordant echo of Dr Aziz's 'not yet'. And Lurie believes (like, one must conclude, his creator) that the English language is no longer capable of expressing the Southern African reality.

The bone-hard language Coetzee has found for his book has been much admired, as has the unflinchingness of his vision. The book unquestionably fulfils the first requirement for a great novel: it powerfully creates a dystopia that adds to the sum total of the imagined worlds at our disposal, and by doing so, increases what it is possible for us to think. Reading about Lurie and Lucy on their dangerous, isolated patch of land, we can more readily grasp the condition of those white farmers in Zimbabwe, as history comes calling for its revenge. Like the Byronic Lucifer - in whose name both 'Lurie' and 'Lucy' can be found - Coetzee's protagonist 'acts on impulse, and the source of his impulses is dark to him'. He has, perhaps, a 'mad heart', and believes in something he calls 'the rights of desire'. This makes him sound passionate, but in fact he's cold and abstracted to an almost somnambulist degree.

The cold detachment, which also permeates the novel's prose, is the problem. 'Rubble literature' didn't just strip language to its bones. It put new flesh on those bones, perhaps because its practitioners retained a belief in, even a love for that language, and for the culture in which their renewed language was to flower. lacking that loving belief, the discourse of Disgrace sounds heartless, and all its intelligence cannot fill up the hole.

To act on impulses whose source one claims not to understand, to justify one's plunges at women by one's 'rights of desire', is to make a virtue of one's psychological and moral lacunae. For a character to justify himself by claiming not to understand his motives is one thing; for the novelist to collude in that justification is quite another.

Nobody in Disgrace understands anyone else. Lurie does not understand Melanie, the student he seduces, nor she him. He doesn't understand Lucy, his own daughter, and she finds his deeds and his 'case' for his actions beyond her. He doesn't understand himself at the beginning, nor does he get any wisdom by the novel's end.

Interracial relations are conducted at the same level of ignorance. [End of page 339] The whites don't understand the blacks and the blacks aren't interested in understanding the whites. Not one of the novel's black characters - not Petrus the 'gardener and dog-man' who works with Lucy, and certainly not the gang of assailants - is developed into a living, breathing character. Petrus comes closest, but his motives remain enigmatic and his presence grows more menacing as the novel proceeds. To the novel's whites, its black inhabitants are essentially a threat - a threat justified by history. Because whites have historically oppressed blacks, it's being suggested, we must now accept that blacks will oppress whites. An eye for an eye, and so the whole world goes blind.

This, then, is the novel's acclaimed revelatory vision: one of a society of conflicting incomprehensions, driven by the absolutes of history. Certainly it's coherent enough - coherent in its privileging of incoherence, striving to make of its blindness a sort of metaphorical insight.

When a writer's created beings lack understanding, it becomes the writer's task to provide the reader with the insight lacked by the characters. If he does not, his work will not shine a light upon darkness, but merely become a part of the darkness it describes. This, alas, is the weakness of Disgrace. It doesn't, finally, shed enough new light on the news. But the news does add a bit to our understanding of the book.

Rushdie, Salman. Step across this line. Collected non-fiction 1992-2002. London: Vintage, 2003. 338-40.
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J.M. Coetzee - In the Heart of the Country [20 Feb 2005|09:27pm]

I read In the Heart of the Country by J.M. Coetzee this week, and I thought it was pretty confusing. Initially I thought it was too confusing, but at a certain point it got a bit better and actually became really interesting. The book can be interpreted in many ways because it is so confusing. One cannot really tell what is 'fact' and what is fiction. The main character gives several versions of the same event and shows that she is an unreliable narrator by interpreting things incorrectly and contradicting herself.

It is unclear whether or not the main character, Magda, killed her father. She says she shot him, and buried him, but in the end she is feeding him. I got the impression that she did kill him, although my teacher did not think so.

It is also difficult to say what the story is about. My theory on that is that it is an allegory of colonialism, and a lot of critics seem to agree with that. Magda shoots her father because he has an affair with Anna, a servant, or at least that is what is suggested. She seems to be jealous, this is suggested in a scene where she thinks Anna and her father are having dinner when she is up in her room having a migraine (although there is no real evidence that this is the case, since she can only hear her father talking). There are two servants, Hendrik and Anna, who are married.

Magda feels very useless, she sees herself as a cleaning device or something. She is lonely. Her mother is dead, she does not have any brothers or sisters (she believes that they died, although there is no evidence for that). She hears voices, she imagines things. Her interpretations and the various accounts she gives of certain events seem to be a way to give meaning to her life: "I make it all up in order that it shall make me up" (79).

She tries to write her own story and calls herself "[a] woman determined to be the author of her own life" (68). My idea on this is that she does not succeed in this and that reality keeps pervading her narrative, that there is a case of trauma. There are several references to abuse and rape, Magda pays a lot of attention to her father's genitals when she has to wash his dead body, she also describes the penis of Hendrik, and pages 3-4 seem to point to incest: "Wooed when we were little by our masterful fathers, we are bitter vestals, spoiled for life. The childhood rape: someone should study the kernel of truth in this fancy." In the end she is also raped by Hendrik, and they end up having sex every night when Anna is sleeping. Magda has always felt like a hole that needed filling up, and she is looking for that in Hendrik, she is looking for someone to make her into a whole being, but it does not work. She does not like having sex with him.

Magda is trying to make peace with Hendrik but it does not work. This I think can be seen as a reference to colonialism. Magda cannot just ignore her position, cannot ignore the position of blacks in South Africa and just make everything alright because in the end Hendrik can not be equals with her. Hendrik has to flee for the police because he is afraid they will accuse him of the murder of Magda's father and thinks Magda betrayed him. Hendrik raping Magda can be seen as an attempt to attack the colonizer. Rape has always been important in colonisation because on a metaphorical level colonisation is more or less like rape, but women were also often raped by the colonisers so they would produce slaves. Magda also thinks it is not clear what her relationship to Anna and Hendrik is, she invites them into the house and tries to become friends with Anna.

The novel is concerned with language. Magda talks about meaning, about différance (although she does not use the word), there is a lot of self-reference, and there are some references to Lacan, e.g. "It is a world of words that creates a world of things" which is a quote from Lacan's Ecrits.
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