Given the exultation and edification of reading Diary of a Bad Year, it would seem that J.M. Coetzee has definitively escaped the post-Nobel jinx. Though nominally in the postmodern camp, the novel notches low on the difficulty scale. To enter this hall of mirrors that is tangentially an account of a highly regarded South African writer’s removal to Australia is to be willingly carried along in a simultaneous weave of political thought, moral philosophy, and personal drama that borders on the tawdry.
Señor C, retired novelist of no little esteem, has taken residence on the bottom floor of a high-rise apartment building in Sydney. Age encroaching, he faces the prospect of writing a selection of essays—or opinions—at the behest of a German publisher. In the laundry room an exotic young woman catches his eye. Currently between jobs, she reluctantly agrees to transcribe his opinions, but her live-in mate is suspicious from the beginning. Alan is a pragmatist and opportunist, a financier of sorts. It galls him that the Señor plans to leave his millions in savings to an organization that rehabilitates discarded lab animals. That the Señor’s mild flirtation with Anya is more in pursuit of aesthetics than sex is a subtlety consistently lost upon both of the upstairs tenants, and each eventually comes to terms with Señor C in divergent ways.
Coetzee’s super-honed style bears close watching. At one point early on, he refers to “talk-back” radio, a refinement that seems a bit arch. Later, we learn that the flip coinage is actually not C’s usage but a correction of Anya’s made for the sake of hipness. Anything that seems even slightly out of place will be explained.
As too, the narrative structure. The pages are arranged in three-layer fashion: on top are the strong opinions, in the middle is a personal narrative by the Señor, and Anya’s account takes the bottom. Appropriately, we learn in one opinion of Señor C’s high regard for J.S. Bach, as the ensemble nature of the sections comes to resemble musical parts. Were each section read linearly, across to the end and then beginning again twice, it would be like hearing just the woodwinds, then the strings, and finally the percussion. Read top to bottom, each page becomes a true suspension of event, interpretation, and brooding reflection—all the more effective for the blend.
The structure also reflects the nature of the characters. The Señor with his observations that are lofty and trenchant, yet shying away from the requirements of philosophically rigorous thinking. Anya with her practical preoccupations: appearance and aging, her effect on men, and the place of women in general. Alan with his notions of survival of the fittest, societal appearances, and schemes to get rich. The thoughtful, the bourgeoisie, and the base, so arranged, comprise a whole beyond the reach of any branch.
C’s opinions are never more resonant than when he speaks of the art of the novel. In novels, “authority must be earned; on the novelist author lies the onus to build up, out of nothing, such authority. No one is better at building up authority than Tolstoy.” And later: “If authority could be achieved simply by tricks of rhetoric, then Plato was surely justified in expelling poets from his ideal republic. But what if authority can be attained only by opening the poet self to some higher force, by ceasing to be oneself and beginning to speak vatically?” Though the structure is expressly metafictional, a reasonable approach to a fractured time, it belies a sense of longing for the sure hand of a canonical novelist.
Señor C has taken refuge in essays because he no longer has the strength to produce a novel, but thankfully Coetzee does. From the earliest novels and the starkly forceful Waiting for the Barbarians on down to Diary, Coetzee has managed to find appropriate scaffolding for allegories with the highest moral purpose. To integrate the ostensible realms of the didactic with accounts of human bravery and courage inside a whole that can strike fear and recognition in the human heart is an ambition wherein Coetzee pays tribute in a revealingly emotional way. Other reviews have noted the centrality of the moment in which C reads the part of The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan hands back his admission ticket to the universe; the Señor is not able to keep from weeping. “Far more powerful than the substance of his argument, which is not strong, are the accents of anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world. It is the voice of Ivan, as realized by Dostoevsky, not his reasoning, that sweeps me along.” The reader, convinced by Coetzee, comes to believe Tolstoy and Dostoevksy are standing back to back on a pinnacle, but that the former may be facing rearward, the latter looking toward the future. As with the Russian titans, perhaps this novel is best judged in retrospect.
Which brings us finally back to the novel’s cipher, Anya. Señor C tells us of a letter he received from a woman reader in Switzerland: “I understand nothing about women, she says, particularly about a woman’s sexual psychology. I should restrict myself to male characters.” This statement, read ironically, seems to be something of an attempt at inoculation against criticism. Perhaps it’s necessary, as Anya is the least believable of the three characters. At first she is repelled by C’s attention, and, though by the end she admits to being flattered by his advances, she never offers herself in a meaningful way. Anya writes in a letter: “As for your writing, you are without a doubt one of the best, Class AA, and I say that not just as your friend. You know how to draw the reader in.” Her shallowness is evident, but her elevated moral sense is what prevents Alan from pulling a devastating scam on the Señor. She quotes “Hamlet,” yet models for an online swimsuit agency, encouraging Señor C to go on the net and check it out.
To say the reader from Switzerland proves correct would be off the point; but then again, in another novel, in a lengthy Russian one perhaps, Anya’s contradictions would be epic. The case also can be made that her character is enlarged by Señor C. To go beyond that, as Coetzee in the guise of Señor C seems to indicate, would require the power of the vatic.
Daniel Whatley has published in Gulf Stream, The North Stone Review, and New Letters. He posts at
Under the Big Black Sun.
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