Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Coetzee Reduction

The affinity with Beckett, though not always obvious, is apparent in Coetzee. His work often feels like it is attended to by lab coated technicians. This precision in Coetzee might make his writing dull for some readers, but clean prose is appealing. In the kindest sense of the word, this sterility keeps the words measured, never wavering in pitch. He is writing from his own register, untouched by any other writer, and untouchable. This is the uniqueness of voice; it’s a quality of the writers I can count on one hand who I secretly admire but can’t quite admit that I love. (Does love of a writer equal a desire to want to emulate the writer?) This voice elevates Coetzee above the merely functional writers far and wide. But voice doesn’t necessarily make one adored.

In Summertime, the surprise of the author writing about himself and calling it fiction sates a prurient fascination, and yet we are aware he is not writing strict autobiography; in fact, the Coetzee in Summertime is dead. The stature of the real Coetzee imposes a Zelig-like quality in the narrative, and it’s conspicuously his thoughts on what others might think about him as the prodigal returning to shock them (Coetzee’s femmes) from their comfort zones. By absenting himself, he is everywhere.

As in Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, Coetzee frames this narrative of a self-referencing narrator within the story. Coetzee takes this a step further, imposing a mental puzzle on the narrative that calls into question the layered self-referencing. It is one thing to refer to your earlier pseudo-autobiographical self as “he,” as in Youth, but when a narrator transcribes another character’s words back to her as “she,” complete with running editorial from this subject character, there are intrusions that feel like a fold in the brain:

“In the Standton set in which she [Carol] and Klaus move, she confides, quite advanced things go on. She does not spell out what these advanced things may be, and she, Margot, does not want to ask, but they seem to have to do with sex.

I won’t let you write that. You can’t write that about Carol.

It’s what you told me.

Yes, but you can’t write down every word I say and broadcast it to the world. I never agreed to that. Carol will never speak to me again.

All right, I’ll cut it out or tone it down, I promise. Just hear me to the end. Can I go on?

Go on.

Coetzee’s dialogue blanches with the moral indignation that feels Doestoyevskian: there is no urge for the put upon character to resist saying what everyone wants to ignore.

In Coetzee there is a lack of adornment. His writing might be the stripping away of all poetic language (or what I mean by this loose term for inflated, purple, adjective laden writing), so that what is left either zips along for you or it violates a cardinal rule of the creative writing manifestos (“show don’t tell”). Coetzee writes psychological prose. But it’s not describing a lot of action, it’s more of thought and gesture. The style is a discursive and projected thinking on the part of the character.

Writing consciously in this vein--and Coetzee is never an unconscious writer; self-conscious, yes--rolls the story forward. One doesn’t dwell and linger; the lack of modifying words drives the narrative because Coetzee has already distilled the prose to a reduction, and it’s necessarily succinct.

Thinking about Coetzee, after reading him, is almost a gray wash. It becomes difficult to recall specific moments in his work, or why they make an impression. But I find reading him is like settling into a highly engineered piece of machinery--even when I might have the hesitation of doubt, however brief, I’m soon rocketing back into the stream of the writing. I have come to trust him. There is a compelling consistency in his writing, like religion. Or from the words of a character in Summertime: “As a writer he knew what he was doing, he had a certain style, and style is the beginning of distinction.”


  1. Thanks for checking in at Wisdom of the West and commenting on my three-part review of Summertime.

    I agree with your point that Coetzee is nothing if not stylistically consistent. Your description of it herein is spot on. It's like a stiff, strong, straight shot of dry scotch.

    One comment about your post here: You say "what is left either zips along for you or it violates a cardinal rule of the creative writing manifestos (“show don’t tell”)." Given my reading (not only of this book but all the other recent ones) the latter option is simply not feasible. Coetzee shows/demonstrates/dramatizes his themes so cleanly and so smoothly that readers often miss what he's doing. My own point—re the coherence of the ramified theme of patrimony as centered in the father/son relation—attempts to interpret precisely what Summertime so effectively and efficiently shows.

    I look forward to reading more into your blog. Visit around over at WoW. My critical takes on fiction can all be found under the "Ur-story" label.

    Jim H.

  2. Thanks for reading, Jim. Perhaps that should have been my point, that it isn't always obvious that Coetzee's actually laying out the story so carefully.

    I'll be sure to return to your blog.