Charlotte's Web

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Grappling With a Giant

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When I was at the University of Cape Town, doing my honours degree in English Literature, I avoided our very famous professor, the Booker prize-winning, Nobel laureate, JM Coetzee. According to student rumour, he refused to teach undergraduates, gave one seminar to Honours students and preferred to lavish his brain on Masters and Ph.D students only. He was said to be reserved, intellectually terrifying and not kind to graduates who might, in his august presence, have an attack of nerves and say something silly. Rian Malan, another South African writer, has said of Coetzee, “A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” Not one for feeling like a fool, or being around chilly, non-laughing types, I chose to study with other teachers, including Prof Coetzee’s partner Dr Dorothy Driver who taught me how to do a feminist reading of a text and to love Jean Rhys.

Reading one of Coetzee’s recent novels is a little like attending one of his seminars as an ill-prepared and nervous graduate. He has high expectations of his reader. You can’t turn up as an empty vessel, and allow his work to be poured into you. Instead, you need to grapple with the text. About three years ago, I tried to read Elizabeth Costello, his story of a famous writer, but tossed it aside in frustration about two-thirds of my way through the book. It was not its scholarly nature that put me off, but the fact that he killed his protagonist and left her outside the pearly gates making repeated applications to a board of angels? gods? other-worldly beings? to get into heaven. I found it intensely irritating; I had been enjoying Elizabeth’s story and to have her hanging about in some naive representation of purgatory, inspecting her navel, was intensely dissatisfying. I gave up the grapple.

I have recently finished reading his new novel Slow Man, which is a story about a retired photographer who has a bike accident, loses a leg and has to cope with his new, inefficient, slow body. I was lured in and enjoying bobbing gently on top of the text, when to my surprise, even horror, Elizabeth Costello turned up. All the realism I had previously been enjoying was turned upside-down. For a brief moment, I considered tossing Slow Man aside like its predecessor, but I persevered, and I’m glad I did.

There are all manner of ways to read Elizabeth Costello’s role in the narrative of Slow Man: she is a writer observing his life and taking the liberty of trying to shape its progress; she is a being from another dimension who is trying to guide him; she is his conscience acting to criticise his blundering actions; she is a fairytale witch who will place a curse on him when he tries – repeatedly – to cast her out; she is a fairy godmother or guardian angel who helps him to make better decisions; or, she is a flesh-and-blood character whose need for love and companionship mirrors his own. In the end it appears that she may be the latter, but what matters most is that he discovers he does not need or love her. Her emotional ministrations help him through a rough patch, help him come to terms with his very one-sided love for his Croatian nurse Marijana and help him realise that he is alone. He chooses grumpy old age and leaves Elizabeth Costello to hers – or to fly off into the ether. This we never know.

I found the non-real intrusion of this mysterious Elizabeth far easier to tolerate than her sudden death in the previous novel. Perhaps this was because Paul’s story and his bumbling attempts to form a relationship with Marijana and her family were so compelling, that the presence of Elizabeth was just an adjunct to the main narrative thread. I would strongly recommend Slow Man. I thought it was a great read.

Having finished it, I thought I’d better go back and check out the last third of Elizabeth Costello, to find out what had happened to her. I found her caught in a miserable limbo, making reapplications to the board of angels in order to get herself into heaven. Their main accusation against her was that she had no beliefs but merely wrote what she saw, like a “secretary of the invisible”. She is proud to be a conduit of ideas, but the angelic board wants more moral engagement from her, so the story leaves her, dallying outside the gates of heaven, waiting to be allowed in.

Since I am but a lazy graduate, under-prepared to grapple with the intertextual layerings of Elizabeth Costello, I give you, for further explication, the Wikipedia entry. Perhaps if I had gone to Coetzee’s seminar, I would have been better equipped to read his novel. I’m sure there are many of you out there more able to grapple with the giant than I am. Let me know when you do.

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Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

9 thoughts on “Grappling With a Giant

  1. Thanks for the interesting commentary. Slow Man sounds worthwhile.

    The man himself sounds positively objectionable!

  2. I think I remember reading about Slow Man in the NY Times Book Review a while back…but the whole accidental maiming thing turned me off. I have a very low tolerance for pain and wounds and such after having children.

    When I was in college Jacques Derrida was a professor at my university. I remember attending one of his lectures, and being both fascinated and suitably confused. I just read his wikipedia article, but I’m still confused! (I guess deconstruction isn’t my cup of tea.)

  3. I had a colleague a while back who had been in one of Coetzee’s classes. She said he was absolutely unbearable too.

  4. I probably would have stayed away from Coetzee too, if I’d been in your situation. Surely you learned more from approachable people? But I’ve had Coetzee in mind to read for a while; perhaps Slow Man is a place to start.

  5. Hi Bindi. Slow Man is worth the read. I didn’t adore it, but I liked the way he tackled family and growing old.

    Henitserk, if you were to read it you would not be grossed out. The maiming bit is very delicately handled.

    Hi Lesley. Apparently Coetzee didn’t turn up at either Booker prize-givings either – he’s just not a very sociable kind of guy.

    Dorothy, I had some wonderful, approachable, warm teachers, thank goodness. Slow Man might be a good place to start reading Coetzee, or Disgrace, which is set in South Africa. The latter’s a tougher read, and fairly dismissive of the “new” South Africa, but it’s fascinating and evocative.

  6. I too went to UCT many moons ago, but long before Coetzee was there. The thing about his books is that they always make me feel so bl**dy depressed, and I’ve decided that there are so many other writers out there that I haven’t even sampled, I don’t want to read the work of one writer just because I “ought” to, it smacks too much of medecine-taking. Lets face it, I’m just a shallow reader!

  7. When I worked at UCT Coetzee was notoriously difficult to get to come to Senate meetings. Other than that I had very little contact with the great man.

    I’ve read Disgrace, and enjoyed it, but haven’t expressly gone out of my way to read any of the others. English books being hard to come by in libraries here, and me being too cheap to pay for a book that I might not enjoy.

    I’m currently reading Nadine Gordimer’s ‘Get a Life’ and very much enjoying it.

  8. Coetzee’s partner was Dorothy Driver, a leading South African feminist. His books, Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man are deeply influenced by her.

    Coetzee battled with the insights she gave him about the condition of all women in South Africa, at the mercy of a bloated and brutal patriarchy. This led to his novel, Disgrace, a barely disguised feminist analysis of life for women in South Africa. The film, scripted by Anna Marie Monticelli, brings out the misogyny in the plot brilliantly, while Coetzee had tried to obfuscate it in his book. Then he tired of feminism. After all, he is a man. So he wrote Elizabeth Costello and, with abject contempt, killed off his recently born feminist understanding.

    Silly man.

    He had destroyed the very lens that had made his rather unremarkable book about a typical white misogynist male, Disgrace, into something remarkable. Having realised that, he brings her back for Slow Man (indeed he is) but take his revenge by rejecting her sexually.

    How very manly of him. The sad thing is, he must know that he rejects something true and profound, something absent in the world of men writing the world. Decades after feminism’s great revival, few men have the decency to even read feminist work, let alone allow it to embue their work.

    Slow, silly man.

    Mr Coetzee, your destroying the feminist lens has made of you a very small man.

  9. I know a lot of people who enjoyed his books, just
    recently my friend said -his sentences are like pearls thrown on the silver tray..

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