J.M. Coetzee’s Facts of Life

J.M. Coetzee’s Facts of Life

For the South African author, the selves we write and read may be truer than any other.


“What does it require to enter into true dialogue?” asks J.M. Coetzee in The Good Story, a recently published debate/­discussion between the novelist and the psychoanalytic psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz. “To begin with, it sems to me, two persons are required (two minds, two souls).” But this explanation hardly seems sufficient, for a dialogue “may take the form of a monologue,” as Coetzee notes shortly thereafter. He has demonstrated as much in his fiction, which is populated by a series of sorry soliloquists: The petulantly taciturn narrator of Youth, for example, and the embittered protagonist of Disgrace present us with specimens whose every effort at connection devolves into a feat of impotent self-imposition.

In The Good Story, Coetzee goes a step further, suggesting that identity is a matter of monologue and self-fictionalization even in the best of cases. His own life, which is so closely bound up with his writing, may prove his point, as literary scholar David Attwell intimates in J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing. Is Coetzee’s assessment pessimistic, or hopeful? There are good fictions and bad fictions: soliloquies animated by self-awareness and soliloquies animated by self-importance. Coetzee’s self-inventions are only sometimes the good kind.

The Good Story, which offers cursory treatments of a range of philosophical topics, is sapped of the delicately affective irony that distinguishes much of Coetzee’s fiction, and it threatens to collapse into parallel soliloquies of the self-important variety. The book cannot answer the novelist’s preliminary question, because it cannot settle on a satisfactory account of selfhood. Do we write our own identities into existence, or do others write us into being? Or does some “authentic” personhood lurk beneath these overlapping presentations, as the psychoanalyst would have us believe? For all their theorizing, Kurtz and Coetzee cannot come to any conclusions, and their exchange is less a dialogue—an interaction between persons—than an exchange of recalcitrant frictions.

In J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, Attwell gives Coetzee’s self-fictionalization its due. The book is curiously depersonalized, a biography not of a man but of an oeuvre. Drawing on the collection of the author’s personal papers housed by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Attwell attempts to reconstruct Coetzee’s processes and methods, tracing his works from inception to completion with reference to their revisions and reconceptualizations. The book’s approach is not quite critical, though Attwell does allow himself several critical pronouncements; nor is it quite psychological, though he does occasionally indulge in bouts of speculation as to Coetzee’s motivations. Centrally, it is genealogical, a history of the origins and evolution of each of Coetzee’s works.

The result is a thorough if occasionally ponderous study that will please Coetzee scholars and devotees, though it is not entirely without a glimmer of wider appeal. The chapter on censorship in South Africa—­where Coetzee was born in 1940 and lived until 2002, and where most of his novels are set—touches on more general political questions that bear interest for broader audiences. Coetzee would likely approve of Attwell’s approach: working backward, inferring a life from a text rather than the other way around. “We continue to read biographically,” Attwell declares, “not in order to limit the truth of the work to its biographical sources, but in order to understand how the self is written into the work and then written out.” For Atwell, as for Coetzee, the truth is a matter of artful editing, undertaken with care to repress whatever threatens to upset our careful aesthetic arrangements.

Against the conviction that the self is an autobiographical fiction is Kurtz’s insistence on a genuine self, ripe for discovery through analysis. The collaboration between her and Coetzee is, in effect, a dispute between the figure of the agent and the comparatively disempowered figure of the subject. If Coetzee’s view is correct, we have the privilege of narrating the course of our lives—but if the self is an ineluctable fact to be passively uncovered, we have little control over who we turn out to be. We are creatures of the habitual suspects: the Oedipal structure of the family, our repressed libidinal drives, and the like.

Agency correlates with responsibility, and Coetzee is preoccupied with the constraints, both ethical and practical, on acts of self-invention: “What are the qualities of a good (a plausible, even a compelling) story? When I tell other people the story of my life—and more importantly when I tell myself the story of my life—should I try to make it into a well-formed artifact, passing swiftly over the times when nothing happened, heightening the drama of the times when lots was happening, giving the narrative a shape…?” he asks in the opening passage of The Good Story. Though cases of mass self-deception—for instance, South Africa’s sometime denial in the face of apartheid’s horrors—are clearly ethically compromising, is there something to be said for self-fictionalization as a form of therapy? If past traumas are too much to bear, why don’t we just deliberately forget them?

Kurtz thinks that psychoanalysis displays a selection bias, treating only instances of failed repression—those problem cases in which self-description and behavior come apart so thoroughly that the self-ascribed fictions are no longer believable. The neuroses that result are “not freedom—the freedom to pick a preferred version of one’s life from the trees, as it were—but the opposite.” This response leaves several core questions unanswered: Why treat these neuroses by unearthing a patient’s repressed memories, rather than helping him to repress further and better? And what differentiates ineffectual cases of repression from effectual cases of the same?

* * *

In Attwell’s view, Coetzee’s writing, which labors under the historical burden of white South Africa’s colonialist roots, is a model of successful repression. The manuscript of Waiting for the Barbarians, a fable about totalitarianism in an unidentified state, reveals that the cautiously sparse quality of Coetzee’s published works “is a function of editing, of late, tactical omissions: deletion is shown to be central to the process of invention.” The famously placeless novel was originally set in a recognizable if dystopian post-apartheid South Africa, and it underwent a dramatic shift from third- to first-person narration. It also endured several renamings: It was titled Exile, Traitors, The Border Guard, Disposal of the Dead, and, simply, Barbarians at various points in its composition.

In each of the subsequently revised passages that Attwell quotes, the words that were later excised are retained, marked with a strike-through. I found myself wondering about Coetzee’s ultimate choices of phrasing. Who can say for sure whether “comb these rocks” would have been better than “search these rocks,” or if “trying to restore” would have been better than “interested in restoring”? Delightfully, J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing undermines the certainty and seeming inevitability of Coetzee’s finished texts by charting the wavering course of self-doubt and revision that winds from authorial origin to textual destination. There is a dizzying freedom about Coetzee’s radical changes of direction, a sense of possibility so pronounced as to verge on fragility. Perhaps it is especially easy for Coetzee to subordinate his life, which he admits is anemic, to his writing, which is so robust. “When one is living a full life and working on a book, everything is transmuted (comme on dit) and used. With a thin life, I am writing a thin book,” he once mused in his notes. Attwell quotes an interview in which Coetzee famously proclaimed that “All writing is autobiography” and “All autobiography is storytelling.”

But we cannot fashion our identities as freely as all this might suggest. Coetzee writes in an early draft of Dusklands, his first novel, that “the need of the soul to be relieved of its past remains urgent as ever.” His lifelong preoccupation with guilt, confession, and expatiation—especially apparent in his 1985 essay on “confession and double thoughts” in the work of Rousseau, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy—suggests that we are empowered to compose autobiographies but condemned to compose them in terms we have not chosen, using language that bears the traces of an uncooperative history.

* * *

Evidently, there are limitations on self-invention. But in The Good Story, Kurtz and Coetzee are maddeningly imprecise when it comes to spelling them out. “The claim here is not that autobiography is free, in the sense that we can make up our life-story as we wish,” Coetzee writes at the beginning of the book. “Rather, the claim is that in making up our autobiography we exercise the same freedom that we have in dreams, where we impose a narrative form that is our own, even if influenced by forces that are obscure to us, on elements of a remembered reality.” But how great is the world’s resistance in the face of confabulation? To what extent can we manipulate the facts?

Kurtz offers no guidance. “Subjective truth in psychoanalysis is not the same as external truth at all, and yet it is something one bumps up against, sometimes quite violently and sometimes more gradually, almost in the manner of an external object or fact,” she remarks. Later, she writes that it is hard to discuss psychoanalytic truth without making reference to “the metaphor of an encounter with an aspect of external truth.” How, then, is psychoanalytic truth different from external truth, if the “metaphor” is really so apt?

Perhaps the problem is that Coetzee and Kurtz are never especially clear about their respective positions, nor do they take much care to define the terms of their discussion. At times, Coetzee seems to take the weaker view that the authentic self is present in principle but unknowable in practice. At one point, he posits that psychological truths are inaccessible to us only because we do not have time to undergo perpetual analysis. At other times, he seems to take the stronger view that the self is in fact indeterminate—that it comes to life in some robust sense via the act of self-description. All Kurtz contributes to this line of inquiry is the opaque platitude that “truth in psychoanalytic psychotherapy is internal truth”—a statement that has no bearing on whether truth of the “internal” variety is invented or discovered.

It’s difficult to know whether or not we should be optimistic about human relationships, given the ambiguity that characterizes the very nature of personhood. Kurtz believes, somewhat inexplicably, that a measure of intersubjective projection is possible—that by coming to inhabit the patient’s experience, the psychotherapist can come into nearly unmediated contact with his or her inner self. She even takes matters a step further, arguing that it’s only in discussion with others that we can discover our true identities. Coetzee remains staunchly skeptical, even nihilistic: “I believe most exchanges between human beings to be exchanges between projected fictions.” If there is a truth beneath all our posturing, this pronouncement is woefully insufficient. But if we are no more than our self-presentations, this flimsy fare is all we have to eat.

* * *

Attwell presents us with facts: Coetzee’s ambivalent relationship with the English language; his simultaneous distaste for and complicity in the censorship system that so terrorized the South African literary establishment in the 1970s; his nostalgia for the desert landscapes of his youth in Cape Town; his close relationship with his mother, and the characters she may have inspired; his fascination, literary and psychological, with the paranoia endemic to repressive regimes, South Africa’s under apartheid especially; the various books after which he loosely modeled his own works (Life & Times of Michael K after Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas; Foe after Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe). For the most part, we are left to draw the conclusions, to extrapolate the life from its creative products. Invariably, our best attempts prove fictional. There is no infallible way of traversing the expanse between the reticence of facts and the convulsions of experience.

Yet believable fictions—sometimes Coetzee’s own—can yield some of our richest interpersonal encounters. There is the indefatigable patience of Elizabeth Costello in her namesake novel, the impotent anger of David Lurie in Disgrace—and the thrilling emotional range of Coetzee’s autobiographical trilogy, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime. At the end of Youth, a despairing account of a young author’s failed attempts at writing, comes this wrenching passage:

He may pull faces at the poems he reads in Ambit and Agenda, but at least they are there, in print, in the world. How is he to know that the men who wrote them did not spend years squirming as fastidiously as he in front of the blank page? They squirmed, but then finally they pulled themselves together and wrote as best they could what had to be written, and mailed it out, and suffered the humiliation of rejection or the equal humiliation of seeing their effusions in cold print, in all their poverty. In the same way these men would have found an excuse, however lame, for speaking to some or other beautiful girl in the Underground, and if she turned her head away or passed a scornful remark in Italian to a friend, well, they would have found a way of suffering the rebuff in silence and the next day would have tried again with another girl. That is how it is done, that is how the world works. And one day they, these men, these poets, these lovers, would be lucky: the girl, no matter how exaltedly beautiful, would speak back, and one thing would lead to another and their lives would be transformed, both their lives, and that would be that. What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again?

Writing, in this view, requires an almost religious faith in what can sometimes seem impossible: instances of true exchange, as fulfilling as they are elusive. The closest Coet­zee ever comes to answering the question of selfhood in The Good Story is to say that the author “believes sincerely in the truth of what [he] is writing at the same time that [he] knows it is not the truth.”

Fiction lives somewhere between truth and fabrication. “Inventing is a creation, not a lie,” writes Italo Svevo in his 1923 confessional novel Zeno’s Conscience. The book is written as the journal of the endearingly neurotic Zeno, who has begun working on a memoir at the urging of his inept psychoanalyst. Zeno’s meditations are “inventions like those of a fever, which walk around the room so that you can see them from every side, and then they touch you. They had the solidity, the color, the insolence of living things.” These are fictions with bodies, fictions we can reach out and embrace.

If we believe irrationally in literature’s communicative capacities, Zeno suggests along with Coetzee, we may, incredibly, achieve something like connection—at least for the span of the book. The selves we write and read may be truer and more animate than any other.

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