Guest blog

The persisting question of J.M. Coetzee

What does J.M. Coetzee mean? As the great literary questions of our age go, it seems to be one of the more persistent ones. To say that every utterance ventured by the reticent South African author causes a flurry of interpretation in literary circles is to risk understatement. It has been a relatively busy year of both exultations and exasperations for the industry that paddles along in the wake of Coetzee, attempting to divine his motives and directions: news bubbled forth that two Coetzee texts would emerge soon (a collected set of belles lettres co-authored with Paul Auster, and a new novel, The Childhood of Jesus), but from shores afar came the disturbing news that the University of Texas had acquired the author’s professional archive, depriving the country of a vital part of its literary heritage.

Coetzee inhabits a somewhat uneasy relation with the South African literary corpus, suspended between the enamouredness of those who clamour for another word, another book, another speech, and those who feel him to be a bit of a false prophet. While his works are critically celebrated, there has always been a degree of disquiet about Coetzee’s ostensible disengagement from the material realities of “the South African situation”, in all its many iterations. Coetzee prefers the understated to the overstated, prefers subtle to the obvious. The old suppurating question of Coetzee’s reluctance to get his hands dirty by immersing himself in the fragrantly muddy realities of life in South Africa is never too far away. In Imraan Coovadia’s rather splenetic review of JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing, authored by the late J.C. Kannemeyer, he took aim at the “sycophantic” treatment of Coetzee in the biography:

The fact that Coetzee’s career coincides with the high point of dispossession and subordination of tens of millions of human beings is visible only on the perimeter of this biography. It adds a moral drama to Coetzee’s life, but little of human and individual significance. He draws on almost no informant of colour, presents no significant relationship or exchange that Coetzee might have had with a black or brown man or woman in any capacity, and asks no questions about the possible originals of figures like Michael K or Petrus in Disgrace.

Coovadia’s review is well-pitched, and he avoids fence-sitting on the difficult issue of what a writer’s immersion in society should/could be. That being said, Coovadia’s posture on the matter of Coetzee seems to carry a common thread that runs through the popular media criticism of the author: that he is somehow allowed to get away with too much, that he is extended liberties he ought not to be given. One detects a certain degree of impatience with Coetzee’s refusal to articulate a more explicit political position, a certain frustration with Coetzee’s refusal to mean, so much so that the review almost risks being an evaluation of Coetzee, rather than an appraisal of Kannemeyer’s efforts. Certainly, the life documented in A Life in Writing is one where the question of meaning doesn’t seem to have much purchase: it doesn’t ask difficult questions, although who exactly defines what those are is another matter altogether.

At any rate, the leaden idea that writers, certainly the eminent ones at least, ought to be hero-figures with outstanding political credentials, carries a certain ideal of what it means to be socially engaged, and it is an ideal that Coetzee seemingly doesn’t care to meet. Certainly, given the topical nature of much of what is written in South Africa, Coetzee’s detachment (or indifference) can ruffle a few feathers. What fascinates and frustrates the literary imaginary where Coetzee is concerned is his minimalism, a quietness (quietude, perhaps?) that invites a schism between two camps of sophisticated readers: those who “get it” and those who don’t. The former bear the slings and arrows of their adversaries who would cast aspersions on Coetzee with beatific grace, or else they fervently wade into literary battles to defend the honour of their high priest, convinced deep down that they are finely-tuned literary sleuths. The other camp holds those who see Coetzee as a false prophet, a hero whose feet of clay must be pointed out at every opportunity, such that they obsessively grind away at the topic. Each thinks they have seen the “real” Coetzee, and each seeks to make meaning from the necessarily abstract.

Thus it was that when Coetzee was honoured this past week with an honorary doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand, the ears of many a literary commentator were pricked in expectation: the great author was to address the convocation and while it was uncertain what he would speak about, what was certain is that Coetzee would not provide an easily digestible set of homilies. And indeed, Coetzee took the stage and gave a quiet and brief speech (it runs to no more than 4 pages), the full text of which has already been dispersed to every corner of the internet. Coetzee was “impelled” to declare “what a relief it is to see so many young men among the graduates in the humanities. What a relief that men have not entirely abandoned a field which they once used to dominate.” Coetzee expressed his hope that the men present would consider a career in education, moreover that they would give thought to a career teaching young children. “I offer this suggestion,” Coetzee continued, “because it is good for the children to sometimes have a man’s hand guiding them.” A potentially inflammatory remark, when taken out of context as I’ve done there – but Coetzee’s speech has several such moments that would invite knee-jerk reactions from those looking to mine meaning from Coetzee’s statements. Certainly, it seemed a rather oblique choice of subject, but Coetzee’s speech has to be read in its entirety to divine its subject. For as he spoke, it became clear that what he was “getting at” was the need to reimagine the place of men in society: what would it mean for our conception of masculinity to inhabit a society where, given our history of gendered abuse and overly-masculinised sociocultural tendencies, men could involve themselves in the education of children? It might be worthwhile to teach children younger than twelve the lesson that caring for children, opening new windows for them, giving them new ways to see the world, encouraging them but also correcting them, praising them and sometimes consoling and comforting them, is not a role restricted to women, that men can do it too.

It was certainly a quirky speech, but what did it really mean? Judging from the round of interrobang-laden commentary that filtered out in the immediate reviews, it seems that a fair number of those present were perturbed by the oblique address. The sub-po-mo hypothesis was that Coetzee was playing a literary game, something in the mould of his Elizabeth Costello novels. But where was the punchline? Part of the bafflement seems to lie in the assumption that Coetzee, being Coetzee, would be indulging in some form of post-modern play, a “lecture” in the mould of his Elizabeth Costello, something to be dissected by literary theorists. It wasn’t that. It was a speech to an audience of (mostly) young graduates, and as such I’d wager that while everyone was looking to see when and where Coetzee would pull the rug out from under them, the uncomplicatedly eloquent simplicity of Coetzee’s remarks renders such suspicious readings rather ludicrous and over-reaching.

Given Coetzee’s long-held resistance to commenting on the topical, expecting him to do so all of a sudden seems a tad disingenuous. Nonetheless, there were mutters of consternation that Coetzee’s address seemed to have very little application to the local realities, as Richard Poplak declared in a Daily Maverick article published the day after Coetzee’s speech:

That he made not one solitary reference to the education crisis currently destroying another generation of South African youth – a crisis Jacob Zuma blithely blames on the architect of Apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd – was, at best, pathologically out of touch.

The vast amount of meta-commentary that accompanies such things makes it easy to miss the necessary connection between what Coetzee was saying and our particular historical moment. In a country which has borne witness to (and continues to exhibit) a very problematic and deeply-rooted masculinity (the very Zuma who is invoked by Poplak being a prime example), the idea of reinvesting men with a degree of humanity is not only critical in our current society, but deeply valuable as a way of furthering the values an education in the humanities espouses. It echoed concerns Coetzee has held for years (a quick read through his back-catalogue would confirm at least that consistency), so perhaps then it was more in touch than some would give it credit for? Certainly, given that Coetzee made his remarks right at the end of 16 Days of Activism, perhaps it was more topical than some may have thought.

Ultimately, what one thinks of Coetzee’s speech will invariably depend on what one thinks of the author, and consequently what we expect, or don’t expect from him. Whatever else we choose to infer from what Coetzee said, we ought to be aware that perhaps our reactions are testament to how we continue to regard our writers as captive parrots of what we already know to be true. It’s a role Coetzee has never accepted for himself, with good reason. The question of what a writer should say is a Gradgrindian question (Imraan Coovadia riffs off Dickens in his review, so I shall riff off him too), and a deeply uninteresting one at that.


Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M. “Graduation Ceremony 2012: University of the Witwatersrand”. 10 December 2012.

Coovadia, Imraan. “JM Coetzee’s Badly Written and Sycophantic Biography”. Mail & Guardian, 14 December 2012.

Poplak, Richard. “Disgrace: JM Coetzee humiliates himself in Johannesburg. Or does he?” Daily Maverick, 11 December 2012.

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