Above Disgrace: Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee

South Africa’s coup of a second Nobel Literature Laureate J. M. Coetzee, after Nadine Gordimer in 1991, has represented a rather one-sided critical response in our local papers. Gordimer, like Coetzee, tends to focus on the more morose side of an idiosyncratic South African existence. And maybe this is what cracking a Nobel nod for South African writers is about. And perhaps the local media’s response to Coetzee’s acknowledgment is an indication of the currents that make up our contemporary world.

Media response smacks of sour grapes, which is disappointing, particularly coming from South Africans. When Gordimer was thus lauded, the criticism was uniformly acclamatory, and people did not feel the urge to traipse around heavily into her private life. But maybe that is because she made herself accessible to these would-be traipsers, these literary critics. Are South African critics indeed displeased that Coetzee won, or is their kind of smarmy sensationalism going on, like a backhanded nod of national pride?

Reading as many of his works I have been able to lay hands on, I find the schism in local newspaper perambulations between critical grappling and tabloid-like searches for smut obscene. Coetzee, author of novels and academic articles, and the recipient of much acknowledgement for his work including two Booker Prizes, is notorious in his evasion of press attention. So much so, that local journo Shaun de Waal quippingly referred to Coetzee as the “Greta Garbo” of South African literature. Since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Coetzee’s recalcitrance to cater to the press resulted in a frenzy of digging up smarmy details on his private life — the better to juice up a story.

Colin Bower, a journalist whose feature on Coetzee appeared in the Sunday Times a little before the announcement of the Nobel, tagged the then two times Booker Prize recipient a “charlatan”. That’s an interesting pejorative that possibly marks the journalist more clearly than the labelled, given the change of events, but also, more patently, given the quality of Coetzee’s published writing. In a contentiously formed article, Bower goes on to lay into Coetzee’s style of writing, focus and narrative, condemning the fact that he currently lives out of South Africa, loudly proclaiming Coetzee as con.

But as I read Coetzee’s novels I’ve yet to understand the critical justification of Bower’s position. Coetzee’s prose is very proper. His narratives, although bleak, are readable — often un-put-downable — and his authenticity, I believe, is unquestionable in its forthright presentation of the conflicting and idiosyncratic position of pre- and post-apartheid issues. Real issues. Terrible issues. Issues and events conjured by someone with a sophisticated sensitivity toward the politics of representation and the moral complexities of writing. Coetzee is one who looks deeply into the political backdrop of South Africa — that is hardly the off-handed gaze of a charlatan.

But the plot against Coetzee thickens further. On hearing the Nobel news Xolela Mangcu, a black journalist for our local Business Day slipped into a well-worn and rather troubling fallacy, explaining Coetzee’s win: “because he’s white”. His article goes on to bemoan understandings of racial quotas for things like this, the neglect of minority groups over others, and the ostensible social message to be had in art. Admittedly, these are difficult issues. But it’s a good thing that readers, both black and white, do not subscribe to a view that discredits its source rather than the institution it criticises. Mangcu was shot down in flames by colleagues and readers alike for casting such naked aspersions on his own set of racist values.

The questions that de Waal, literary editor for the local Mail and Guardian, poses to his readership, with which I concur, are: Whatever happened to the dictum of art for art’s sake? Whatever happened to the concept of allowing a work to speak for itself without begin critically guided by its author’s intention, or for it to be governed by the low-down details of that author’s personal life? Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (Secker & Warburg, 2003), a complex set of stories within a story, grapples with many of these elements, calling up Franz Kafka’s Red Peter, from his Report to an Academy (1917): the performing ape, hiding his apeness, as he is conditioned to perform for an audience.

Indeed, Costello is a character, which we find in Coetzee’s earlier Lives of Animals (Princeton University Press 1999). Interestingly autobiographical, but written in the second person as many of his central characters are, Costello presents a sophisticated insight into the position of the artist who is forced to stand up in public and entertain her audience. Perhaps this is done to help render the work palatable. Perhaps, too, to render the elusive creator of this work accessible. Either way, it’s tortuous and difficult for the character, as it is uncomfortable to read about from the position of a “spectator”. Significantly and controversially, Costello doesn’t stand there to make palatable her life, her books, or her identity. Rather, she speaks at a tangent to all of this, which ultimately leaves her critical audience unsatisfied.

Stars of popular culture have media focus lavished upon them in tabloids and other media manifestations. That goes with the territory, whether what the media portrays is true or not, harmful or not, unwarranted or not. As do politicians, who are also performers, albeit on a different platform. But does this type of fickle and dirty detail journalism really do much to give insight into the work? And is it necessary on a serious art platform, where the artist in question is not flirting with revealing personal data to the planet, but is making serious art.

Personally, I find the needling into Coetzee’s marriages or the attribution of autobiographical notion into characteristic gestures of his, which recur in his novels, rather boring. And irrelevant. I find the psychoanalysis of his common themes academic and counterproductive. My chosen field of study, art history harbours such a danger: too many words about an artwork can muddy and destroy its freshness and beauty.

Admittedly, there are common threads throughout Coetzee’s work that critics have noted and with which I agree. Threads such as: the single-character focus; the use of an animal as central to the narrative’s development; the play on in-house academic banter and politics in sub-plots; the misogynistic way in which sex is dealt with; the ostensible woodenness of dialogue, which often tends to make the characters inhumanly literary; and the overriding depressive focus, context and development. Furthermore, certain thematic threads have become Coetzee’s signature. His sensitive approach and carefully shaped language flirts with beauty and horror: the language is succinct (the books are generally slim), the metaphorical content and development is beautiful and well constructed.

Michael in The Life and Times of Michael K (Ravan Press, 1983) is what is colloquially and pejoratively called “coloured”: the product of a mixed liaison. He has a harelip, which monsterises him even more than his colour. Coetzee’s extraordinary novel of Michael’s life and times presents a panoramic but also tightly focused view of discrimination, poverty, aloneness, disownment . . . but Michael articulates in clear English. His words are never tainted with dialect. He never slips into klonkie taal (coloured language), which perhaps would flesh out the character’s sense of authenticity. But then again, maybe without this dialect, Michael’s power to maintain a universal identity, like Kafka’s K remains unflawed.

The mirror of South African complexity that Coetzee presents to his reader is often difficult to look at: it shows rape and vandalism, violence and filth, bureaucratic lethargy and misery coloured by the multiple dilemmas that are infused into local awareness, whether the protagonist is white and ostensibly privileged or black and vagrant. His books confront apartheid head-on. Often from the point of view of a fictional character of colour, but with a level of empathy that is about stomaching the injustice in it all.

Coetzee’s main protagonist, in The Age of Iron (Random House, 1990), for instance, is an elderly white woman. Her only daughter lives out of the country. Her husband is gone. She has just been diagnosed with cancer. She develops a rather unlikely friendship with a vagrant black man, who leads her unwittingly into a confrontation with student uprisings in Khayelitsha, a black township located relatively close to the white suburb in which she lives. She enters a fray that is of no concern to her, and raises her elderly white womanly voice. But she is led away by anonymous black hands that know that she has no place there. This is not her battle.

Coetzee cannot be given all the credit for these strong and contradictory and challenging situations and images: the reflection of this South African mirror has been ugly and painfully difficult for a long time. What we see when we look into a Coetzee novel has brought the stigma and embarrassment to South Africans from the rest of the world. We see a self-hatred that has become part of the territory for many South Africans who have witness, been party to, and/or been complacent during terrible events, and for complicated, yet irrevocable reasons.

Coetzee reflects upon Apartheid South Africa with deep humanity. He ploughs terrain that has often been sanctioned by the large embrace of literature, and pushes and challenges his characters to confront worlds that are difficult and unforgiving. His writing is beautiful and disturbing, and both easy yet complicated to read, as it reads quickly, yet resonates deeply. The language beguiles one into acknowledging that a book may be a beautiful piece of well-crafted words strung together, but the meaning of those words is often acrimonious. Coetzee doesn’t soapbox or grandstand. His criticism of the South African, or better still, the human condition, is embraced intimately in how his characters face them complex and painful situations. He does this with the negativity and peevishness of the central character in Youth (Secker & Warburg, 2002). Through the elderly woman in Age of Iron who naively attempts to confront South African contradictions during the zenith of apartheid while very conscious of being old, white and alone in her convictions. David Lurie, in Disgrace (Secker & Warburg, 1999), is a man tainted with lusts, both his own and those that characterise the internecine battles of his country through rape and murder. It is seen in Elizabeth Costello’s confrontation with the lives of animals, the essence of a cultural Diaspora, the problem of evil, and the end of a way of life. .

Coetzee’s work represents the good fight. He gives his readers sophisticated literature that leaves them with a bitter taste; causing the reader to question his own predetermined values and opinions. Sour grapes from critics and the press aside, this is a South African brother we should celebrate.

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