Coetzee: The Life of Writing, The Good Story

by David Attwell
Viking ($27.95)

by J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz
Viking ($27.95)

In 1977, J.M. Coetzee struggled while beginning the novel Waiting for the Barbarians, because, he wrote in his notebook, he had failed in “the creation of a credible beloved you.” David Attwell explains this mysterious statement as a manifestation of Coetzee’s disaffection with illusionary realism, the kind of writing that pretends textual figures are real. A week later, Coetzee wrote: “I have no interest in telling stories; it is the process of storytelling that interests me. This man MM, as a ‘he’ living in the world, bores me. ‘Creating’ an illusionistic reality in which he moves depresses me. Hence the exhausted quality of the writing.”

Any fiction writer could sympathize with the feeling of frustration when beginning a difficult story, one that seems rich with possibility, but which the writer has not yet found a productive structure for. Coetzee’s frustration was heightened by his disaffection with the most common techniques of fiction. One of the many virtues of Attwell’s  J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, the first book to explore Coetzee’s manuscripts in depth, is that it shows how Coetzee’s novels serve to unite interests and challenges that are sometimes at direct odds with each other.

Waiting for the Barbarians began as an aesthetic challenge, but the challenge was conquered when the world outside the text refused to stay outside, for just as Coetzee was beginning work on the novel, the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was arrested, tortured, and killed. The inquest was held in open court, and received international attention. Coetzee kept press clippings about it. Attwell writes that “Biko’s torture and death gave Coetzee the minotaur’s lair, the ‘habitation for desire’ that he was looking for… The novel’s emergence took the form of a simultaneous, seemingly contradictory, two-way process: both a distancing—into an unspecified empire at an unspecified moment in history—and a homecoming into the violence of apartheid in the period of its climactic self-destruction.”

Attwell shows over and over that the tensions inherent within this two-way process, the dance of world and text, fuels much of Coetzee’s writing, often providing the animating force for his work.

J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing is not a comprehensive biography (for that we have J.C. Kannemeyer’s J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, which Attwell’s title echoes, perhaps confusingly), nor is it a comprehensive study of Coetzee’s manuscripts (archived at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin), as Attwell only spent five weeks with them and is more than aware that the wealth of papers will keep scholars busy for a very long time. Instead, Attwell’s book is a collection of glimpses and reflections. It provides detailed looks at the composition of some of Coetzee’s most famous novels, Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians, and intervenes in some of the controversies over Coetzee’s work: the presence or lack of political commitment; the place of South African history and landscape in the novels; the purpose of metafictional moves (especially in Foe and The Master of Petersburg);  the relationship of his most famous novel, Disgrace, to post-apartheid South Africa; the connection of his recent work, written after he moved to Australia, to the rest of his oeuvre.

Though Attwell is a professor and an eminent scholar, J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing is not aimed at an academic audience, nor does it make much reference to the massive body of Coetzee scholarship now available. Readers with an interest in Coetzee will be those most attracted to the book, but it should not be ignored by readers whose interest is not so much in Coetzee as in writers’ creative processes. Very few books provide such careful, detailed, thoughtful study of the progression both of specific manuscripts and of a writer’s career. Coetzee himself did similar study when working on his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Texas, where he studied Samuel Beckett’s manuscripts of Watt. Discussing this work in the early 1990s with Attwell for Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, Coetzee said of the Beckett manuscripts: “It was heartening to see from what unpromising beginnings a book could grow: to see the false starts, the scratched-out banalities, the evidences of less than furious possession by the Muse.” Beckett’s genius can, in its final form, seem austere, forbidding, even alien, and Coetzee’s genius is similar, his texts so carefully balanced, calibrated, and ambiguous that they hardly seem to come from a human being. Attwell now allows us to be heartened (and fascinated) with glimpses of the human behind the texts, and with the ordinary writerly struggles that have led to some of the most extraordinary books of our era.

A view of the human behind the text is also provided by The Good Story, Coetzee’s exchanges with the psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz, though here the view is quite different, in that the correpondents wrestle with the question of how selves and stories construct each other. “The creation of a credible beloved you” is here a problem not just for the writer of novels, but for all of us. [Note: Additional correspondence between Coetzee and Kurtz, including Kurtz's email initiating their discussions, are available in "'Nevertheless My Sympathies Are With The Karamazovs': A Correspondence" in Salmagundi issue 166-167, 2010.]

It is perhaps surprising that Coetzee would explore psychotherapy at such length, because his work shows great suspicion of psychological realism and of the sort of knowledge that psychology claims to reveal. Kurtz is not only a psychologist, though, but a psychotherapist trained in psychoanalysis. Freudian psychoanalysis may not have the prominence within the field of psychology that it did before the rise of neuropsychology and psychopharmacology, but it remains influential within the literary world. (Indeed, these days you are more likely to find Freudians in university departments of Literature than departments of Psychology.) In Doubling the Point, Coetzee said, “If one believes that stories must aspire to more than merely to be interesting, then one must go beyond psychology.” He qualified this statement, however: “Does this mean that I am anti-Freudian? Far from it—the traces of my dealings with Freud lie all over my writings.”

Coetzee and Kurtz prove to be excellent interlocutors. Coetzee is skeptical, but not hostile, and Kurtz embodies the extraordinary patience of a good therapist as Coetzee returns again and again to small, but significant, distinctions and insights. Though the first few sections of the book have tedious moments as Coetzee and Kurtz establish their positions, the discussion soon goes in productive directions, and it is the differences between the two writers that allows their conversation to be richly suggestive and ultimately meaningful. (Coetzee’s banal dialogues with Paul Auster in Here and Now showed nothing so much as the peril of listening in on a conversation between two people who agree most of the time and share a lot of the same references.) Their conversation ranges across a wide variety of topics, from group psychology to teaching to W.G. Sebald, but at the core of the book is the question of what can be known about the self.

For Kurtz, psychoanalysis is of value because it helps reduce people’s suffering, and the successes of psychoanalysis show “the way in which a human being in distress or difficulty can use another human being to help them understand themselves.” Coetzee is much less convinced that selves can be understood. Selves, he feels, are conglomerations of fiction. The desires that seem so strong, so real, so often overwhelming to each of us are like stories we fall into believing and identifying with. “We attribute them to ourselves,” he says. “We try them out and if they suit us we inhabit them. A desire that is too thoroughly understood loses its force and in effect ceases to be desire.” The happy person, for Coetzee, is the person whose fictions interlock, the person who can create for themselves a credible, even beloved, self-image; the unhappy, suffering person is someone whose fictions are in conflict. There is no reality accessible to such a self, and it is this refusal to believe in an accessible self-reality that sets Coetzee apart from the psychoanalyst, though as Kurtz is quick to point out, “If psychoanalysts do not accept fiction, fantasy, and make-believe as an ordinary, healthy part of life, then I really do not know who does.”

The difference between their two views is ultimately not so much about fiction and fantasy as about epistemology: what can we really know of ourselves? Kurtz sees some truth as accessible beneath our fictions of the self, some reality beneath the fantasy. Coetzee isn’t so sure.

J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing and The Good Story are utterly different books, but they both help us understand Coetzee’s commitments and quandaries, and they show us his extraordinary mind at work as it wrestles with the questions that have obsessed him from his earliest publications—questions of fictionality and representation, of language and truth, self and other, suffering and joy.

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