READING JM COETZEE’S The Schooldays of Jesus (Penguin Random House; Rs699; 272 pages) can best be likened to visiting your favourite bistro after a hiatus. To your horror, you discover the chef has removed from the menu those succulent pieces of chicken you’d sink your teeth into. Gone is the comfort of your medium-rare steak. In its place, you’re given an all-vegan fare—leafy, bland, forgettable. Coetzee’s own eating habits befit the analogy. His vegetarianism makes him a veritable activist. “I find the thought of stuffing fragments of corpses down my throat quite repulsive, and I am amazed that so many people do it every day,” he had said. But man’s capacity for this unthinking cruelty is what had once made his writing so meaty. Schooldays isn’t just marked by its tepidity. It’s also very insipid.
In The Childhood of Jesus, Schooldays’ 2013 prequel, we saw Coetzee ditch realism for a parable which many reviewers described as ‘Kafkaesque’. Simón adopts Davíd, finds him a mother and when Davíd’s ingenuity proves too volatile for the city’s authorities, they quickly flee. The story was wafer-thin, but there were lines, doctrinal and luminous, that brought pleasure—‘For real reading you have to submit to what is written on the page. You have to give up your own fantasies,’ as Simón puts it.
Franz Kafka had written that there is ‘universal delight in the literary treatment of petty themes’, and in Schooldays, the only line you remember is conspicuously frivolous—‘You can’t ask for more than that in a car, fidelity.’ The rest of the book is overweight, dragged down by its grand ideas about history, justice and identity. In Childhood, Simón says, ‘We are ideas. Ideas never die.’ That precisely is the problem. The characters in Coetzee’s last two novels are more ideas and less people. In a moment that comes late in Schooldays, Simón, the Joseph stand-in, is drinking his crises away with wine. Here is how Coetzee sums up the air of self-lacerating melancholy—‘The child [Davíd] turns to him for guidance, and what does he offer but glib, pernicious nonsense.’ You reluctantly borrow the words ‘glib’ and ‘nonsense’ when describing Schooldays, but Coetzee, you soon realise, has not just pre-empted your criticism, he seems to have slyly planned it.
In Summertime (2009), the last part in a trilogy of fictional memoirs, a character brutally sums up the work of John Coetzee: ‘In general, I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight […] Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion.’ Even the harshest of critics can’t say of Coetzee anything he has not said of himself before. The trouble, though, is that Coetzee seems to have said his piece long before he published Childhood and Schooldays. He isn’t really saying anything novel anymore. Our expectation of an unputdownable Coetzee necessitates nostalgia, and like all nostalgia, its destination now remains an impossible one.
COETZEE AND WRITER Paul Auster still fiddle with fax machines, and to communicate, these Luddites write each other letters. Here and Now, a collection of their correspondence between 2008 and 2011, sees them pontificate about cricket, baseball and Philip Roth. Sadly, the two colleagues never gossip. Released in 2013, their epistolary exchange does leave decorum intact, but Coetzee, at one point, unwittingly shows us his cards. He writes to Auster, ‘One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second, you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.’ If after winning the Booker for Disgrace in 1999, Coetzee’s work has bewildered more than it illuminated, baffled more than it entertained, we finally know why. The writer is a tad bored.
The Spectator gave its review of Schooldays a rather sensational headline: ‘JM Coetzee has lost the plot’. Strangely, the author might consider this slightly accurate. That loss, for him, is a disavowal. In a draft of Diary of a Bad Year (2007), Coetzee writes, ‘Readers who come to my recent books looking for the kind of pleasure that one can legitimately expect from the novel, and that one perhaps gets from books like [Life and Times of] Michael K, find them thin and artificial, and who can blame them?’ Critics have for long used the easy labels of ‘early’ and ‘late’ to categorise the work of canonical writers. In Coetzee’s case, he was expectedly the first to draw a distinction. For JC, Diary’s narrator, reality was exhausting. He didn’t want to recreate it. Coetzee too is no different.
The Coetzee who hung up his boots in the late 1990s gave narrative context its due. The Coetzee of Jesus busies himself with essence instead
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In his book, Late Style, literary theorist Edward Said writes, ‘To be late meant therefore to be late for (and refuse) many of the rewards offered up by being comfortable inside society, not the least of which was to be read and understood easily by a large group of people.’ To Coetzee, refusing rewards comes easy—he didn’t turn up to receive his two Booker Prizes—but an audience may have been harder to abjure. Realism, one would like to think, became a casualty of age, not of arrogance.
At 76, Coetzee has written a novel where the narrative thins as swiftly as a septuagenarian’s hair. Schooldays isn’t his first book whose historical and geographic specificity is vague. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) created a fictional Empire that was similarly abstract. But Waiting was still concerned with the gallery—‘I behave in some ways like a lover—I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her—but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate.’ Schooldays , on the other hand, never speaks with such passion, it only philosophises it. We are forced to wonder if Coetzee, like Diary’s JC, was always a ‘pedant who dabbles in fiction’.
Comparing Coetzee’s early works to titles such as Childhood is perhaps a schoolboy error. The writings, and its writers, are tellingly dissimilar. The Coetzee who hung up his boots in the late 1990s gave narrative context its due. The Coetzee of Jesus busies himself with essence instead. Some of his themes have survived decades, but distilled as they now are, they seem like vital ingredients never fully mixed to make a broth. Though dance and its capacity to transform give Schooldays much of its propulsion—‘Words are feeble—that is why we dance’ — Davíd is not the first of Coetzee’s characters to have made up for the inadequacies of language with his feet. In Foe (1986), Coetzee’s retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, Friday at one point dons his author’s robe, and, wearing nothing else, he spins like a dervish. Friday has no tongue, but his body is discourse. His dance marks a welcome dissonance, while Davíd’s instruction is comparatively tedious and abstruse.
Writing on Disgrace, academic Derek Attridge says almost all of Coetzee’s novels stage a political challenge. They each want to find a way of building a new, just state that is not founded on the notion of ‘unpredictability, singularity, excess, a state that recognises the importance of an inventive responding to the other, and a wagering on, a trusting in, a different future.’ Rather than being inferred, Coetzee is sadly making his politics obvious. Sections of his recent novels read like dry theses. When Dmitri, the only character in Schooldays with a modicum of ‘passion’, finds himself in the dock, a judge tells him, ‘Of course we have a responsibility to society […] to shield it from rapists and murderers. But we have an equal responsibility to save you the accused from yourself.’
JUSTICE, MUCH LIKE literature, is made relatable by its consequence. Nothing or no one here really matters. Human nature isn’t examined in some novelistic operating theatre. It is seen through an ultrasound machine, without its flesh. In an early draft of Dusklands (1974), his first novel, Coetzee had written that ‘the need of the soul to be relieved of its past remains urgent as ever’. For someone who has said that “all autobiography is storytelling; all writing is autobiography,” there’s some wish fulfilment in these Jesus novels. When he became a citizen of Australia in 2006, Coetzee had claimed, “In becoming a citizen one undertakes certain duties and responsibilities. One of the more intangible of those duties and responsibilities is no matter what one’s birth and background, to accept the historical past of the new country as one’s own.” Simón and Davíd arrive at Novilla with their minds wiped clean of all past memories, and this obliteration of subjectivity made Attridge say that Childhood was Coetzee’s first truly Australian novel. The turbulent South Africa, which Coetzee left in 2002, gave his fiction a riveting immediacy. Adelaide is perhaps too tranquil a corner.
Some of Coetzee’s themes have survived decades, but distilled as they now are, they seem like vital ingredients never fully mixed to make a broth
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Doggedly cerebral, Coetzee, like his female alter-ego Elizabeth Costello, is ‘by no means a comforting writer’. Elizabeth Costello (2003) is itself a difficult book, more polemic than fiction. Amusingly, Costello’s son John remained puzzled by the fact ‘that a woman who wrote books for a living should always be so bad at telling bedtime stories’. Coetzee, quite obviously, would have had the same problem. He was always parsimonious with warmth, but the Nobel laureate has become stingy with his stories too. ‘When all else fails, philosophise’—this line from Disgrace seems to be fashioning the writer’s late oeuvre. Diary, for instance, was part-essay and part-narrative. The two Jesus novels are didactic enough to fault. Roland Barthes, whose influence Coetzee has acknowledged, had once said literature is the question minus the answer. In today’s Coetzee, there is only answer.
Childhood sees Simón abruptly leave a philosophy class in disgust because he does not have any patience for questions like what makes a chair a chair. His restlessness affords us some absolution when giving up on Schooldays. The book spends too much time dwelling on what makes a number a number. In his critique of Disgrace, Salman Rushdie had written, ‘When a writer’s created beings lack understanding, it becomes the writer’s task to provide the reader with the insight lacked by the characters. If he does not, his work will not shine a light upon the darkness, but merely become a part of the darkness it describes. This, alas, is the weakness of Disgrace.’ Such criticism is perhaps unjustified for a book that was, in the end, affecting, but of late, Coetzee has only traded in shadows. Though he might have erased his past, his readers haven’t. Our pleasure unfortunately is indelible.
Unlike Rushdie, Ian McEwan or Paul Auster, Coetzee has never been known for lightness. His characters don’t fall in love. They brutalise one another. The writer had once said, “Everyone seems to see bleakness and despair in my books. I don’t read them that way. I see myself as writing comic books, books about ordinary people trying to live ordinary, dull, happy lives while the world is falling to pieces around them.” Though this is perhaps the closest Coetzee has come to cracking a joke, he would have to revise this assessment of his literature. The world hardly falls to pieces around Simón. He simply tires of comprehending it. Having tried to grapple with the mystery of who we are for the better part of his days, Coetzee, like his many protagonists, is finding comfort in a grim elsewhere that remains parched and austere. His frequent invitations to this unforgiving terrain, however, provide little solace to dedicated readers. If a book, like Coetzee, paraphrasing Kafka, had prescribed in Summertime, ‘should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us’, then we are in need of a sharper machete.