04 February 2008

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

This is a book that will need to be reread. Until then, some notes.

Diary of a Bad Year is immediately impressive simply because it isn't incoherent. That may sound like faint praise, but in this case it is not, because J.M. Coetzee has decided to structure this novel as three voices speaking, mostly, at once. The first pages are split between a top section and a bottom section, with the top devoted to short essays about current events and the bottom devoted to the diary of the writer of those essays, a South African novelist known around his apartment building in Australia as "Señor C". On page 25, a third section is added to each page: the diary of a woman named Anya, who becomes the typist for the novelist's opinions.

Such a structure is a recipe for confusion, but it is a testament to Coetzee's skill that the novel is always readable and often compelling. We have the choice of sticking with one of the sections for as long as we want to keep flipping pages, or we can read the pages top to bottom, drifting between voices. I mostly did the latter, even when, as happens toward the middle of the book, the sections began to stray parts of their sentences across multiple pages, providing no convenient spot to pause.

In his insightful New Yorker review, James Wood says, "In truth, one reads the top section of each page with mounting excitement, and the bottom two sections rather dutifully," but my experience was exactly the opposite -- the "Strong Opinions" (as, a la Nabokov they will be called when translated and published in Germany) are interesting enough, but few of them are particularly incisive, and many are quite ephemeral, rushing through the current of the events they respond to. Which is, it seems to me, the point. Novelists are not inherently better opinionators than any other pundit or person. Señor C is writing outside his realm of greatest competence. The meaning of his essays lies not in what they say, but in how they fit into the story of Diary of a Bad Year, for which they are simultaneously the motivating material and the byproduct. It is not a novel of ideas so much as it is a novel depicting the inspiration and effect of ideas, their predictable limits and unpredictable force.

Coetzee is also once again playing with our desire to match writer to writings. He's done this from his very first book, Dusklands, and Foe and The Master of Petersburg fictionalized and riffed on the lives of Daniel DeFoe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, respectively, to examine the connections between writers and texts, readers and what they read, the world and the book. Recently, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man dared us to wonder even more about the connections between Coetzee, his characters, and their opinions. Diary of a Bad Year feels, in some ways, like a summing up of those two books, an attempt to discover a post-Elizabeth Costello world.

Diary of a Bad Year, though, is a much less frustrating book to read than many of its predecessors, and this is, in some ways, its weakness. Coetzee's least traditional books frustrate us by jumping out of the way of our genre and narrative expectations; his more straightforward books frustrate us with their moral complexity, their brutal details, their cold eye toward a world of everyday atrocities. Some of Coetzee's books frustrate us by appearing to be allegories and then refusing to be so; some frustrate by undermining our sense of history and reality in ways that can't be summed up in soundbytes; some frustrate by objectively presenting deeply flawed and even repulsive protagonists. It is a productive and exciting frustration, the sort of frustration the greatest literature provides -- an effect that cannot be summed up, but only pointed toward and experienced. For a reader not much interested in the stories Diary of a Bad Year has to tell, I expect the book is more numbing than frustrating; for a reader, like me, who finds it all quite interesting there is no frustration at all -- this is probably as close to a page-turning romp as Coetzee is ever likely to write. The effect, then, of reading the book is a perfectly pleasurable one, but Diary of a Bad Year is less of a provocation to thought and feeling than Coetzee's other, more unsettling, books.

Nonetheless, Diary of Bad Year is an extraordinary book, and even if I think it offers less than some of Coetzee's best work, that is very light criticism: few living writers possess Coetzee's mix of intelligence and skill, and he is one of the few writers I can think of where I can't imagine ever calling any book his "worst", even though, as with any writer, he has books that are better than others. As I said at the beginning, this one cries out for rereading, and I look forward to entering its pages again.

4 comments:

  1. Diary of a Bad Year has been sitting on my desk at home and with me trying to figure out how to go about reading it. Your thoughts regarding will be helpful. It also happens to be my first Coetzee read.

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  2. I agree that DOBY feels like something 'less' than Coetzee's greatest. But I can't decide to what extent. I easily find ways to convince myself that possible flaws are in fact strengths...

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  3. This is a tough choice for a first Coetzee read. Try Waiting for the Barbarians or Disgrace

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  4. Dear Matthew,

    I wrote a post about the novel's structure, in particular the temporal elasticity that Coetzee introduces as readers become comfortable with the tripartite structure: http://www.briansholis.com/insearch/archives/2007/12/j_m_coetzee_a_b.html

    I enjoy your blog.

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