David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time

J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with TimeJ. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time by David Attwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Attwell’s book is billed as a “literary biography,” presumably so as not to scare off the common reader, for whom it seems to be intended. But it is more like a critical study of Coetzee’s writing, organized thematically rather than chronologically, and informed by Coetzee’s archival materials at the University of Texas at Austin.

If Attwell has a thesis, it is twofold: 1. that Coetzee, based on his voluminous drafts and notebooks, is committed to the process of finding a form for his fiction that not only refuses conventional realism but that also allows his own sensibility and experience to speak; 2. relatedly, that Coetzee, even in his earlier allegorical and historical fictions, is a far more autobiographical writer than readers have yet understood.

Attwell’s longest and strongest sections on Coetzee’s life are fascinating: his account of Coetzee’s troubled love for the landscape of the Karoo, a locale his ambiguous class position as a poor Afrikaner and his racial status as a white settler colonist and his European cultural attachments never really allowed him to imaginatively “possess” with any security; his summary of Coetzee’s extremely complex involvement, at times amounting to collaboration, with the apartheid-era censorship regime; and his examination of the genesis of Coetzee’s great Dostoevsky novel, The Master of Petersburg, in his son’s death at age 22. Other sections—on Coetzee’s relationship with his parents, for instance, or his life in the U.S. during graduate school in the 1960s—are sketchier, perhaps reflecting a paucity of archival evidence.

Attwell depicts Coetzee in the midst of massive struggles with his fictional and autobiographical materials. This is refreshing, because in narrating the writer’s intellectual difficulties, Attwell reveals as terminally shallow the “craft” discourse that dominates so much discussion of imaginative writing today. Finding a form for a novel or memoir is not a problem of craft—as building a sturdy table would be—because literary aesthetics is bound to ethics and metaphysics, and form communicates worldview.

By the end of this book, though, I was slightly weary of Coetzee’s cliched notebook complaints about realism, which he seems to view rather one-dimensionally for an admirer of Tolstoy. But no serious writer can fail to be inspired by his agon as he tries to compose works that at once address or imitate the social world, critically comment on their own procedures, and express the author’s own passion, as Attwell observes:

The last sentence of this [notebook] entry—‘Finally, perhaps, evidence of me’—is especially revealing, confirming that for Coetzee metafiction has an autobiographical implication in so far as it is about the book’s being written. The stakes for this mode of self-conscious narration are much higher than postmodern game-playing and they certainly don’t involve self-masking—on the contrary, self-consciousness in the narration marks the place where the need to define oneself is most acute.

The notebook is illuminating here because it shows that Coetzee is frequently anxious about ‘attaining consciousness’. […] ‘Attaining consciousness’ means two things: showing that one properly understands one’s materials; and bearing witness to one’s existence in the act of writing.

(As an aside, it is also inspiring how many bad ideas Coetzee eventually, even doggedly, turned into superb novels: Life & Times of Michael K started as a Kleist-inspired tale of a white South African crime victim who goes on a spree of vengeance in a black township; worse than the reverse of Doctorow’s Ragtime, it anticipates—not in a good way!—Joel Schumacher’s angry-white-man film, Falling Down.)

Are the archives, as Attwell transmits their contents, especially revealing? I would say yes—but the archival “scoop” is understandably not one that either Attwell or his publishers would want to trumpet: Coetzee has apparently long been more conservative than his academic reputation would suggest, and even the postmodern gestures of his middle-period fiction were motivated as much by a reactionary distaste for the affective styles of progressivism as by a desire not to commit the “epistemic violence” of “speaking for the Other.” Why, for example, did Coetzee not allow Friday a voice in Foe (his postcolonial recasting of Robinson Crusoe)? He writes during its composition:

By robbing him of his tongue (and hinting that it is Cruso, not I, who cut it out) I deny him a chance to speak for himself: because I cannot imagine how anything that Friday might say would have a place in my text. Defoe’s text is full of Friday’s Yes; now it is impossible to fantasize that Yes; all the ways in which Friday can say No seem not only stereotyped (i.e. rehearsed over and over again in the texts of our times) but so destructive (murder, rape, bloodthirsty tyranny). What is lacking to me is what is lacking to Africa since the death of Negritude: a vision of a future for Africa that is not a debased version of life in the West.

Attwell comments rather blandly on this (“it is [Coetzee’s] judgment about the failure of post-colonial nationalism”), but its sweeping dismissal of postcolonial writing perhaps requires more commentary; what begins as an ethical refusal of “cultural appropriation” ends in a perhaps over-hasty identification with Africa and rejection of all extant forms of black protest!

On the other hand, Coetzee’s stern admissions of his own intractable position, his confessions about what he cannot know or imagine, has much to recommend it. As the young Barack Obama wrote about T. S. Eliot, “there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism”—and Coetzee, a lover of Eliot, falls under this heading. There is no divesting oneself of one’s historical situation, not really, and Coetzee allows, in the following journal entry that may serve as the epigraph to all his works, that he will remain the “man of liberal conscience” (a phrase that recurs throughout this book) till the end of his days, even if they have to take him out and shoot him:

I am outraged by tyranny, but only because I am identified with the tyrants, not because I love (or ‘am with’) their victims. I am incorrigibly an elitist (if not worse); and in the present conflict the material interests of the intellectual elite and the oppressors are the same. There is a fundamental flaw in all my novels: I am unable to move from the side of the oppressors to the side of the oppressed.

Coetzee has chosen to devote his life’s work to worrying at this Gordian knot. It can be sliced, however, by dispensing with the Manichean terms (oppressor and oppressed) and abandoning the arrogant writerly mission—which goes back only two centuries anyway—to save the world. Perhaps it is enough only to observe it and to recreate it in language (the conclusion of Diary of a Bad Year suggests as much).

It may be distasteful to discover in Attwell’s report that Coetzee was reading ruefully about Mao’s Cultural Revolution during South Africa’s transition to democracy; but the implied assessment of the writer’s necessary distance from popular judgment may well be a wise one. Attwell’s intelligent portrayal of this most intelligent of writers leaves readers much to think about—much of it disturbing.


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