In Brideshead Revisited Anthony Blanche, the Oxford aesthete, teaches Charles Ryder a lesson about the English upper classes. One has to watch out for their charm, he warns, that dangerous, corrosive charm, which is a threat not only to impressionable youths, but to English art as well.
Charm, dangerous or not, is not what marks the works of J.M. Coetzee. His fictions can be described in many ways—bleak, depressive, saturnine, astringent, dour, bitter, lacerating, prickly—all that, but never charming. It is not entirely clear whether Youth should be read as fiction. Coetzee, as a young man, is a character, described in the third person, not a narrator of his life. His first autobiographical book, Boyhood, is identified on the cover as “a memoir.” Youth is not. Both are as bleak, depressive, et cetera, as the fictions.
To say that Coetzee’s work lacks charm is not a criticism. Celine, Thomas Mann, and Ibsen, to mention just three writers, did not exactly ooze charm either. That was Blanche’s (and presumably Waugh’s) point: English charm is the enemy of profound art. It is pleasing, certainly, but great artists do not set out to please, or not in the first place. The reason I bring this up is Coetzee’s avowed Anglophilia. In his first memoir, he tells us how keen he was to be English and not Afrikaans. Coetzee is an Afrikaner name, of course, and his father was Afrikaans. He himself grew up surrounded by Afrikaners. He could speak fluent Afrikaans—a rich and much altered variation of Dutch. But his mother was English. English was the language of his home, and his education.
Coetzee’s Anglophilia, like Anglophilia everywhere, had something to do with class. The English in South Africa were more urbane, more cosmopolitan, and by and large probably a lot more charming than the provincial Afrikaners. To the young Coetzee, the Afrikaners were like “rhinoceroses, huge, lumbering, strong-sinewed, thudding against each other as they pass.” They were also “angry and obdurate and full of menaces and talk about God.” But then Coetzee’s idea of Englishness was not exactly redolent of Anthony Blanche and Oxford wit either. He admired the Dunkirk spirit, bagpipe music, and the boy at the Battle of Jutland who stood by his guns on a burning deck.
The young boy’s English infatuation is complicated by his love of the Coetzee family farm, Voëlfontein, which was not only rural but Afrikaans to the core. Life in the veld, and its intimately brutal social relations, provide some of the most memorable passages in Coetzee’s fiction: the marvelous evocation in Disgrace of a young white woman trying to live a rural idyll among black farmers in the post-apartheid years, or the murderous confrontation in Dusklands between Hottentots and an eighteenth-century Afrikaner, named Coetzee. In Boyhood the young Coetzee watches his uncle’s black workman castrate a lamb by biting off its testicles, which are like “two little jellyfish trailing blue …