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The Uncertainty Principle | The Nation

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The Uncertainty Principle

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In Coetzee's previous novel, Elizabeth Costello thinks that "people who believed in art, or at least in the artist" have a "childish faith." "No matter that god had failed, and Socialism," she wryly observes, "there was still Dostoevsky to guide one, or Rilke, or Van Gogh." It is not just Costello's books that "evince no faith in art." Coetzee's own prose in Disgrace, Youth and Elizabeth Costello is spare and analytic rather than richly descriptive. Eschewing metaphor and often courting cliché, his sentences seem to deliberately defy conventional notions of "beautiful writing"--the tyrannical aesthetic of Nabokov, from whose influence Coetzee sought early in his career to liberate himself, and whose fetish for finely turned sentences still dominates writing courses and shapes much new fiction in the West.

About the Author

Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra's most recent book is An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Though wary of the bourgeois idolatry of style, Coetzee shies away from using the novel as a radical political critique. Having lived in apartheid South Africa, he has had a deeper experience of organized oppression and has witnessed more closely than most writers how the possession of inordinate power causes what the autobiographical narrator of Youth calls the "atrophy of the moral life." Indeed, it is not hard to imagine Coetzee as a writer in the postcolonial mold of Naipaul or Rushdie--a writer who transmutes his homelessness into globe-spanning fictions and is rewarded by his Western readers with literary and political authority.

But Coetzee has always faced up honestly to his helplessness before violence and suffering--the great facts of the contemporary world. As he said in an early interview: "I, as a person, as a personality, am overwhelmed, that my thinking is thrown into confusion and helplessness, by the fact of suffering in the world, and not only human suffering. These fictional constructions of mine are paltry, ludicrous defenses against that being-overwhelmed, and, to me, transparently so."

More acutely than any other contemporary novelist, Coetzee has been aware of the aesthetic difficulty and moral conceit of turning man-made suffering into art. Certainly, his confession of inadequacy is far from the bold assumption Naipaul and Rushdie share even as they argue about what literary form is likely to capture best a vital and diverse human world: the assumption that the individual author has the intellectual and spiritual resources to describe a human condition larger than his own, and indeed to convey it, in either fictional or nonfictional forms, to his easily distracted middle-class audience. Increasingly, Coetzee seems to lack the egotism necessary to play the role of the wise, omniscient narrator. Much of his fictional energy is now devoted to revealing how writers struggle no less anxiously than their characters with a human self increasingly fragmented and diminished by the pressures of modern life.

The French-Romanian essayist E.M. Cioran once wrote that although "we know a great deal about ourselves," "we are nothing"; as a result, "the material of literature...grows thinner every day, and that of the novel, more limited." The only novels worthy of attention today, Cioran asserted, are "precisely those novels in which...nothing happens, and which are a research without points of reference, an experiment pursued within an unfailing vacuity, a vacuity experienced through sensation, as well as a dialectic paradoxically frozen." Cioran was writing about his friend Samuel Beckett, and he looked forward to the "last novelist" bringing down the shutters on the "epic of the bourgeois era." But his words increasingly seem apt for Coetzee, an admirer of Beckett, whose recent novels play out a dialectic between bodily pain and intellectual uncertainty while casting doubt on almost every grand claim made in the past fifty years for storytelling and storytellers.

Slow Man shows Coetzee writing himself deeper into silence. He is unlikely to be the last novelist--the novel will live, even flourish, at least in the West, and novelists will continue to pretend to be seers as they meet the general book-buyer's demand for entertainment and instruction. But Coetzee may turn out to be one of the last great novelists, exalted by the intensity of his self-awareness and his willingness to make his home in a spiritual and intellectual impasse of which few of his contemporaries were even aware.

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