Notes on Passages from J.M. Coetzee's Foe

Though J.M. Coetzee's work has long fascinated me, I've avoided writing anything on Foe, because every time I tried to write anything, it felt obvious and stupid. It's the same feeling I've gotten whenever I've tried to write about Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka, two other favorites of mine. Perhaps what has defeated me with writing about Foe is something similar to what defeats me whenever I've tried to write about Beckett and Kafka, who were, in fact, considerable influences on Coetzee — their work is so what it is that to add words around it feels inevitably reductive, a violence against the art.

I recently tried again with Foe, and while it didn't feel quite as stupid and reductive as previous attempts — indeed, the writing helped me clarify some of my ideas about what the novel is up to — I don't think I'm going to go on. I started with a couple of passages toward the end of the book, and thought that might bring me back toward earlier parts, but as I started toward the earlier material, the feeling began again, the feeling of it being pointless — worse, harmful — to keep emitting utterances around that which defies language.

Here, then, are two basically first-draft almost-essays about the end of Foe, in case they are of any interest...

1. pp. 123-126 [US Penguin edition]

At the end of the first paragraph of this passage, Susan claims herself as “father to my story”. Foe then tells the first of his parables (anecdotes? tales?), one that centers on confession and the idea of “true” confession.[1] A woman who was convicted as a thief confessed that her first confession was false: she unleashes a torrent of confession on a minister, who becomes skeptical.

The woman says, “And if my repentance is not truly felt (and is it truly felt? — I look into my heart and cannot say, so dark is it there), then is my confession not false, and is that not sin redoubled?” (124). Confession here moves from being a true account to a true feeling, and the link with repentance elides any difference between the two: unfelt repentance = false confession.  (Echoes of Disgrace here.)

Foe seems to believe that the woman’s confession in his story is a tactic, for he says, “And the woman would have gone on confessing and throwing her confession in doubt all day long…”, which suggests she is not so much telling a true story as behaving like Scheherazade, trying to forever defer her death through storytelling. Foe’s expression of what he thinks the moral of the story is boils down to: at some point, you’ve got to stop telling stories and accept the effects of the stories that have been told, particularly with regard to the story of our self. (I think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night here, where in an introduction Vonnegut says it is the only one of his novels that he knows the moral, and the moral is: “Be careful what you pretend to be, for you are what you pretend to be.”)

Susan disagrees with that interpretation. “To me,” she says, “the moral is that he has the last word who disposes over the greatest force” (124). Susan knows that the storyteller only has power so long as the auditor is willing to keep listening. The real power is with the king or executioner: whoever can, at any moment, say, “Stop. Now I will kill you.” Here, I think, we see the difference in Foe and Susan’s experiences of power. Susan’s experience is that of a woman in patriarchy — no matter what she does, no matter who she is, it is always he who has the last word.

Foe tells a second story: a condemned woman seeks someone to take care of her child; one of the jailers agrees to, and the woman goes to her death content. This is a parable of procreation and progeny: instead of sending stories off into the world, this woman sends a child, and the child is a continuation of the self, providing a different sort of posterity. Foe interprets it as a way “of living eternally” (125).

Susan seems to misinterpret this parable — she’s good at understanding storytelling, but not so good at understanding parenting, it seems. She immediately interprets Foe’s “living eternally” as “fame”, which is not at all what he said. Foe’s was a more biological idea: the passage of a self encoded in genes from one generation to the next. Susan wants Foe to give her new clothes and a letter of recommendation so that she can get a job in domestic service: “I could return,” she says, “in every respect to the life of a substantial body” — but that’s exactly what Foe was talking about in the previous parable: the substantial body of the child outlives the body of the mother and thus carries on heredity. Susan’s silence about her daughter here is notable, because that would seem to be the logical subject to bring up: “At least the woman in your parable knew where her daughter was,” Susan could say. But she doesn’t. She brings it all back to herself. “I remain as ignorant as a newborn babe,” she says (126). She here is in the child position … but who was her mother? Mothers don’t make stories, for stories are, she says, fathered. It seems to me that the novel is somehow getting at ideas of failed or deferred or broken motherhood. (And I haven’t said anything about these interesting sentences from before: “But such a life is abject. It is the life of a thing. A whore used by men is used as a substantial body” [126]. This is Susan rejecting bodily life, striving, as always, for the life of storytelling. But stories are breaths and bits of ink, not life.)

2. Chapter IV

Chapt. III begins: “The staircase was dark and mean.” Chapt. IV: “The staircase is dark and mean.”

(Darkness again. One could easily write a 30-page paper on the words “dark” and “darkness” in Foe.)

IV continues differently, though: where III continues with “My”, IV gives us a body: something substantial, “a woman or a girl” (153). She can be picked up, she has substance, but she “weighs no more than a sack of straw”.

The bodies in the bed, with skin “dry as paper”, are introduced first as a pronoun: “They lie side by side in bed, not touching.” The pronoun has no antecedent for the reader. We can fill it in ourselves with suspicions. If we were reading grammatically (Coetzee knows this, tempts us toward this), the antecedent is “a mouse or a rat”. But rather than living (substantial) animals (rodents, vermin), what we have are dessicated bodies, bodies similed into paper.

“I draw the covers back.” As if pulling a book open.

In an alcove: Friday, in “pitch darkness” (154). Matches “will not strike”. “I find the man Friday stretched at full length on his back. I touch his feet…” Once again, the fetish of Friday’s feet. Susan always wants shoes; Friday always wants bare (life?) feet. (Susan always desires stories, always flees bare life through the distance of tales. Friday desires — if the figure of Friday can be said to “desire” anything — flesh against soil, cobblestone, floor.)

Friday has a pulse. In his throat. “From his mouth, without a breath, issue the sounds of the island.” It is as if the pulse produces the sounds. But the sounds of the “faraway roar” are ones the narrator expects, ones previously reported, for that faraway roar, perceived as “the roar of waves in a seashell” is “as she said”.

A break in the text.

A plaque, a sign: Daniel Defoe, Author. We know Foe, not Defoe. The sign is a mark, the author an authority, and the sign enacts his authority. The authority of a byline. It is not free-floating, it is nailed to a wall. Did Daniel Defoe author(ize) this room?

A few paragraphs later, we get the first sentence of the book we’ve been reading, but now with a salutation: “Dear Mr. Foe, At last I could row no further” (155). Taken on its own, it sounds like a suicide note. The salutation directs it. We have repeatedly had clues suggesting that Chapter I (numeral and singular personal pronoun) is not the spoken text we probably first took it to be: the ship’s name rendered typographically was the first clue, and here we are encouraged to see Chapter I as similar to, if not exactly the same as, the epistolary Chapter II.

At any rate, here the narrative splits without a textual break: the narrator now appropriates some of the words of the first pages, here without quotation marks and here in the present tense.

With a sigh, with barely a splash — a sigh, a breath. (Stories require breath. Friday has a pulse.)

The dark mass of the wreck is flecked here and there with white. … It is like the mud of Flanders, in which generations of grenadiers now lie dead, trampled in the postures of sleep. … In the black space of this cabin the water is still and dead, the same water as yesterday, as last year, as three hundred years ago. Susan Barton and her dead captain…. I crawl beneath them. … But this is not a play of words. … This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday. (156-157)

And now, again, at the end, a beginning: Friday’s mouth opens. “From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption.” He speaks without breath. This is not a story or confession, but something else. Something uninterrupted. It is bodily, and conveyed bodily. What it is, we do not know: it is it, pronoun, no antecedent. Soft, cold, dark, “unending”.

it beats against my eyelids

The eye/I. Friday’s eyes on feet (147), “dark to my English eye” (146), Foe says Friday rowed across a “dark pupil” or “dead socket” an “eye staring up at him from the floor of the sea” — “but I should have said the eye, the eye of the story” (141).

it beats against my eyelids

against the skin of my face.

We end, then, with Friday’s unbreathed story beating against closed eyes and (white?) skin.

[1] True Confessions was an American “women’s magazine” that began in 1922. True Confession was a 1937 movie, a screwball comedy in which Carole Lombard plays a blocked writer who makes up fanciful stories, stumbles onto a murder, and tells a vivid fictional version of the crime, which causes her to be arrested for it; she wins her case as self-defense, writes a lively book about it, gets blackmailed, tells her husband that she’s pregnant (she’s not), and in the end, in the immortal words of Wikipedia, “Ken then takes Helen into the house in an attempt to teach her not to lie.”

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