THE SAVAGE THRIFT OF J.M. COETZEE

Notes on a Voice: Simon Willis unpicks a lean and menacing prose style

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

Reading J.M. Coetzee is like swimming in a sea with a calm surface and a savage undertow. His sentences are lean, his subjects menacing: power, race, animal rights and confession. In his later work there’s a thread of religion and salvation. His new novel is called "The Childhood of Jesus". 

Born in South Africa in 1940, he spent his 20s suffering "the nausea of facing the empty page". The sickness abated in 1974, when he published his first novel "Dusklands". Since then he has written penetrating works of the apartheid and post-apartheid eras—including "Life and Times of Michael K" (1983) and "Disgrace" (1999), both Booker-winners—as well as novels that are more like essays, and memoirs that are more like novels. He won the Nobel prize in 2003. 

Before becoming a novelist he was a mathematician and academic, and his sentences gleam with rigour and clarity. Some critics have found them too hard, too barren. But it’s a style, as Michael Wood has written, which takes you "through stunted country but arrives at a region of desperate feeling". 

KEY DECISION

Going to Austin, Texas. In 1965, Coetzee went there to do a doctorate. In the university library he found the early manuscripts for Samuel Beckett’s novel "Watt". Beckett gave Coetzee a sound. You can hear it most strongly in the faltering monologues of "Dusklands" and "In the Heart of the Country" (1977). The most important lesson of all was restraint. "The thought was like a ravening dog", Coetzee wrote, "the prose was like a taut leash."

GOLDEN RULE

Keep it spare. The leash became a choke-chain, and he drew it tightest in "Disgrace", setting his protagonist, Professor David Lurie, on fire with a single sentence: "The scrape of a match, and at once he is bathed in a cool blue flame." But the leash quivers with the power of Coetzee’s themes. "I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself," Lurie says later. 

STRONG POINTS

(1) Pronouns. "I" or "he" are simple words, unless Coetzee writes them. "Boyhood" (1997), "Youth" (2002) and "Summertime" (2009) are all autobiographical works. The first two are written in the third person present tense. In the third, Coetzee is dead. The game poses serious questions. How much can we know about ourselves? What does it mean to tell the truth? (2) Form. As well as oblique memoirs, Coetzee has written allegories and epistles. In "Diary of a Bad Year" (2007) he divided each page into three, one for each strand of the narrative. The result is a beautiful counterpoint, a fugue for three voices. (3) Animals. They give Coetzee many of his most piercing images of human degradation. Michael K drinks "like a guilty dog". The magistrate in "Waiting for the Barbarians" (1980) hangs from a tree "like a great old moth with its wings pinched together, roaring, shouting".

FAVOURITE TRICK

Using doubles. Animals were the subject of Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures at Princeton in 1997. Except he didn’t give his opinions. He told stories about a writer giving hers. The most provocative of them compared industrial meat production with the Holocaust. Some critics thought he was being evasive; others that he was thinking about how ideas are embodied and lived. 

ROLE MODELS

Not hard to spot: Coetzee writes novels about them. "Foe" (1986) is a reworking of "Robinson Crusoe", "The Master of Petersburg" (1994) is about the life of Dostoyevsky. The influence of Kafka is felt in Michael K’s name, which evokes "The Trial", as do his run-ins with obscure and violent authority. 

TYPICAL SENTENCE

"There seems to be no limit to the shame a human being can feel" ("Age of Iron", 1990).

The Childhood of Jesus Harvill Secker, March 7th

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life and a former associate editor of Granta.

Illustration Kathryn Rathke