“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.