The Uncertainty Principle

The Uncertainty Principle

By writing a novel about a conventional novelist writing about a conventional man, J.M. Coetzee’s latest work illuminates the role of the novel and cuts through typical and tired theories on fiction.


Few art forms today seem to provoke as many obsequies and hallelujahs from their practitioners as the novel. According to V.S. Naipaul, the world has grown too large and complex for an essentially nineteenth-century literary form to grasp. The novel is “of no account,” Naipaul told the New York Times recently, mocking people who persist in writing about “men and women falling in love, etc.,” and who “give a little narrative here and there.” On the other hand, Salman Rushdie thinks the novel is uniquely dialogical, the “crucial art form” of the “post-modern age,” and even a kind of substitute for religion in the secularized West.

It is hard to imagine J.M. Coetzee, the most self-effacing of writers, offering grand statements on the novel and the state of the world. He may seem to speculate about them through his most recent fictional author, the aging novelist Elizabeth Costello, who in the book that bears her name offers many views on realism, the future of the novel, humanism, multiculturalism and death. But Coetzee also undermines our temptation to exalt him as a wise man by often making Costello spout transparent nonsense.

Nevertheless, few European or American writers since Thomas Mann have been as concerned as Coetzee to examine the novelist’s relationship to his bourgeois origins, subjects and audience. He reintroduces Costello in Slow Man, which begins with an aging Australian photographer called Paul Rayment having a near-fatal biking accident. Lying in bed with an amputated leg, Rayment wonders about his sixty-odd solitary and childless years on earth. “Frivolous is not a bad word to sum him up…. If in the course of a lifetime he has done no significant harm, he has done no good either. He will leave no trace behind, not even an heir to carry on his name.”

With his sense of futility, his simple regrets and longings, Rayment is an average character in a contemporary novel. Most novelists choosing this slightly banal figure as their central character would feel compelled to entangle him romantically with someone; it would be the easiest way to give him some emotional depth, open up the possibility of “character development” and make him attractive to readers, who often bring to novels their own unfulfilled fantasies. Accordingly, Rayment does fall for his middle-aged Croatian nurse, Marijana, and tries to assume control over her life by offering to pay for her son’s education. But he has not reckoned with her proud husband or her European past.

There are enough class and emotional complications here to stretch any fictional narrative for a few hundred pages. But Coetzee seems too conscious that the novel is mostly formula, and that its characters acquire meaning and depth only to the extent that the writer invokes the social and political prejudices he shares with his readers. His recent works express a dignified refusal to play the usual game. Indeed, much of their interest arises not so much from losing oneself in Coetzee’s delineations of character and plot as in observing what this extremely intelligent and superbly self-aware artist does to his creations.

In Slow Man Coetzee provides a closer view of the authorial power of manipulation by bringing Elizabeth Costello into Rayment’s placid life. Rayment is disconcerted by the knowledge Costello appears to possess about him and dislikes the possibility that much of what he does–falling in love, having sex with a blind woman–has been arranged by her. “You treat me like a puppet…. You treat everyone like a puppet. You make up stories and bully us into playing them out for you.” He tries to resist Costello’s attempt to make him grow by throwing him into sexual and emotional intrigue: “I am not an exceptional person, Mrs. Costello, and I cannot make myself exceptional just for your sake. I am sorry.” And he is exasperated by her persistence: “What I don’t understand is, seeing that I am so dull, so unresponsive to your schemes, why you persist with me.”

Costello is equally impatient. She wants Rayment to hurry up and do something or become someone. But Rayment appears to be slow in embracing his destiny and becoming an existential hero. “Please stop dithering,” she tells him and confesses that she is “unhappy because nothing is happening.” She laments that other characters in the novel mope like “tramps in Beckett…wasting time, being wasted by time.”

Images of exhaustion and death haunt Slow Man as much as they did Coetzee’s two most recent novels. Costello says,

I can’t begin to tell you how tired I am. And not with the kind of tiredness that can be fixed by a good night’s sleep in a proper bed. The tiredness I refer to has become part of my being. It is like a dye that has begun to seep into everything I do, everything I say…. And not just the bodily self. The mind too: slack, ready for easeful sleep.

All this may make Slow Man sound like the kind of novel in which the novelist, exhausted by a lifetime of making up stories, lays bare the rickety machinery he uses to create passing illusions for readers, while providing enough critical commentary on his own work to keep literary critics and academics busy. But such metafictions are by now a commonplace form of artistic narcissism, one that Coetzee seems unlikely to endorse.

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.

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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