11 September 2016

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: Preliminary Notes

Whenever I write about a new Coetzee book, I am wary. I think back to what I wrote in 2005 about Slow Man when it was new, and I cringe. On the one hand, I'm glad to have this record of a first encounter; on the other, the inadequacies of a first encounter with a new Coetzee novel are immense. (With Slow Man, I learned this vividly a few months later after the book wouldn't stop haunting me, and I reread it, and it was a different book, one I had learned to read only after reading it.) The first sentence of my 2008 Diary of a Bad Year post is: "This is a book that will need to be reread." For the next book, Summertime (2009), I didn't write anything until I could spend time thinking and re-thinking it, particularly as it was the final part of a trilogy of fictionalish autobiographies; I first wrote about it in my Conversational Reading essay on Coetzee and autobiography.

For The Childhood of Jesus (2013), I returned to recording my initial impressions, but clearly labeled them as such. I will do the same here, with Childhood's sequel, recently released in the UK and Australia (it's scheduled for release early next year in the US).

Some preliminary, inadequate notes on The Schooldays of Jesus after a first reading:

There will be debate about whether it's possible to read The Schooldays of Jesus without having read The Childhood of Jesus. I think you could have a good, or at least adequate, experience of Schooldays without Childhood. They don't rely on each other for plot. What the novels together gain is resonance.

Reading The Childhood of Jesus the first time through was for me a profoundly disorienting experience, because right through the last page I just didn't know what Coetzee was up to. (It was much like the experience of first reading Elizabeth Costello.) Reading Schooldays was far less disorienting because the territory felt at least a little bit familiar. I was ready for the enigmas. I had learned how to read.

There is no dedication. Childhood was dedicated "For D.K.C." — David Coetzee. In place of the dedication there is an epigraph from Don Quixote, a book highly important to Childhood but much less present in Schooldays: "Algunos dicen: Nunca segundas partes fueron buenas." Here's the context of that sentence in Edith Grossman's translation:
“And by any chance,” said Don Quixote, “does the author promise a second part?”

“Yes, he does,” responded Sansón, “but he says he hasn’t found it and doesn’t know who has it, and so we don’t know if it will be published or not; for this reason, and because some people say: ‘Second parts were never very good,’ and others say: ‘What’s been written about Don Quixote is enough,’ there is some doubt there will be a second part; but certain people who are more jovial than saturnine say: ‘Let’s have more quixoticies: let Don Quixote go charging and Sancho Panza keep talking, and whatever else happens, that will make us happy.’”
The first chapter of Schooldays is a perfect short story. Coetzee almost never writes short stories, and the various segments of his novels typically rely on each other, but I had the feeling after reading this first chapter that even if the rest of the book were a dud, these twelve pages were rich enough to satisfy me.

Dogs are, once again, everywhere. Dogs as creatures wandering through the book, yes, but also dogs as metaphors and figures of speech. There will one day be entire Ph.D. dissertations devoted to Coetzee's dogs.

I will be curious to see if the US edition calls the child David or Davíd. He is the latter in the UK edition. I don't have the UK edition of Childhood, but some of the UK reviews put the accent on the i, so I assume his name is spelled that way in it, unlike the US edition, where he is simply David. Both novels concern themselves with names and naming, and names are significant to most of Coetzee's work (in one of the best studies of that work, J.M. Coetzee: Countervoices, Carrol Clarkson devotes an entire chapter to names). Yet there is a sense through both books that names are not all that important, that they are temporary, that there are "real names" beyond the everyday ones, and those ones matter, but the everyday names could be anything. Even Coetzee pronounces them differently: in December 2012, just before Childhood was published, he pronounced them in the Anglicized way: -mon and Day-vid. By early 2013, he was pronouncing David as Dah-veed (one contextual difference: in the first, Coetzee is introducing the characters himself, and they aren't named in the passage he reads [most of the time in the book, David is "the boy" and Simon is "he"]. In the second, Simón is pronouncing Davíd's name. This might not matter except that the complexity of the linguistic situation in the book might make it that Simón is trying to speak Spanish, the dominant language in Novilla but not his native language. However, though I usually think Coetzee is going for the most subtle, complex, and multivalent possibilities, in this case I really do expect he just changed his mind.)

Simón's name is used much more in Schooldays than it was in Childhood. It's as if he's growing into it. Coetzee loves playing with pronouns and antecedents, and in Schooldays, Simón's name is usually used in the narration via the construction "he, Simón". He's being named, pointed to, hailed into identity (and ideology?). Perhaps one of the reasons for his constant tension with Davíd is the boy's resistence to such identity. (It's not that Davíd is without identity, but that he is more mysterious in his identity than Simón. Simón is simply unable to comprehend Davíd's identity, it seems. Certainly, Davíd believes that to be true.)

Though their titles lead us to think these novels are about the child, the main character is Simón. It's his consciousness that we have access to, his experiences that we see. One of the questions these books dramatize is: What is it to be responsible for the life and welfare of a child whom you can't understand, a child whose own view of the world is so clearly different from your own, a child who is alien to you. (A fascinating comparison: Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child and Ben, in the World.) Do we want Simón to give up on Davíd, to let him go? After all, Simón is, as Davíd repeatedly points out, not his "real father", just a caretaker, and he has fulfilled his duty as he originally perceived it. And yet there is responsibility for this young life, as difficult and confounding as that responsibility may be. Inés may have accepted the label of "Davíd's mother", but she doesn't seem much interested in the actual role. Simón is far more conscientious, recognizing that there is something beyond and outside of Davíd's behavior/personality/self/whatever that he must try to take care of.

One of the new characters in Schooldays is Dmitri, a man who tends the local art museum, hangs around the dance academy that Davíd enrolls in, and more or less befriends Simón for a while. He's one of those familiar Coetzee characters who shows up, makes a mess of things, and refuses to go away. He returns us to names — it is no coincidence that there are two Russian names in the book: Dmitri and Alyosha. We can't help but think of The Brothers Karamazov, and the personalities of Coetzee's Dmitri and Alyosha fit generally (or allegorically or stereotypically) with the personalities of Dostoevsky's. This makes me think of the end of Coetzee's first correspondence with Arabella Kurtz (which would eventually lead to The Good Story):
I think back to The Brothers Karamazov, where the storyteller distinguishes between those of us whose thinking is disordered and those whose minds work tidily and efficiently. He belongs (more or less) among the latter: he sees the Karamazovs as cautionary examples of where disordered thinking can land one. I hear what he says. Nevertheless, my sympathies are with the Karamazovs.
Order and disorder are ideas that run all through both books, and Schooldays enriches some of the discussions of rationalism and mysticism in Childhood via the academy of dance that Davíd enrolls in. The school's philosophy is utterly mystical. It carries forward some of the discussion of numbers and pedagogy from Childhood, where, for instance, Simón says of David, "Most of the time ... I think the child simply doesn't understand numbers, the way a cat or a dog doesn't understand them. But now and then I have to ask myself: Is there anyone on earth to whom numbers are more real?" At the academy, the teacher says:
Uno-dos-tres: this this just a chant we learn at school, the mindless chant we call counting; or is there a way of seeing through the chant to what lies behind and beyond it, namely the realm of the numbers themselves — the noble numbers and their auxiliaries, too many to count, as many as the stars, numbers born out of the unions of noble numbers?...

To bring the numbers down from where they reside, to allow them to manifest themselves in our midst, to give them body, we rely on the dance. Yes, here in the Academy we dance, not in a graceless, carnal, or disorderly way, but body and soul together, so as to bring the numbers to life. As music enters us and move us in dance, so the numbers cease to be mere ideas, mere phantoms, and become real.
Davíd loves dancing the numbers, and has a particular talent for it. This is not, though, an uplifting movie-of-the-week in which a difficult/troubled child discovers a talent and becomes a great person and everyone lives happily ever after. Davíd's talent gives him some pleasure and sense of accomplishment, and it pleases some audiences, but that's about it. Other circumstances intervene, and Davíd ends the book more or less as he began. Simón, though, does not. The final pages are evocative and enigmatic, but within the enigma one thing becomes clear, and I found it remarkably moving: Simón has changed, his senses and perceptions are widening. For all the mysteries and frustrations he has endured throughout the two books, Simón has now, by the end of Schooldays, found a moment of new possibility not for anyone else, but for, finally, himself.

There is much more to say and explore through this novel. (We still don't have any good answer to why these books are titled as they are. Is "Jesus" Davíd's "real name"? Does the biblical allusion allow Coetzee a comfort with allegory that he has never had access to before?) However, I have only read it once, and I know better than to trust any of my conclusions about Coetzee's writing after only one read. I will simply say: This second part is very, very good. Let’s have more quixoticies.