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Portrait of the Artist

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 and red blood-vessels.”

Youth begins with Coetzee as a listless university student in Capetown. If childhood was something to be “endured,” student life was still pretty miserable. (An industrious literary scholar might have fun one day counting the number of times the word “misery” turns up in Coetzee’s work.) The young man feels dull and looks odd, but this is “part of a purgatory he must pass through” on the way to the bright lights of love and art.

Love and art are what draw the young man to London. He has visions of the metropolitan artistic life. Picasso, he thinks to himself, “falls in love with women, one after another…. Out of the passion that flares up anew with each new mistress, the Doras and Pilars whom chance brings to his doorstep are reborn into everlasting art. That is how it is done.” Coetzee is not the only young man with such ideas. It is a conventional beginning, a cliché handed down from generation to generation by the books of Henry Miller, among others. Coetzee grapples with Miller and the bohemian urge, not with charm, but earnestly. Artists, he muses, “have to live with their fever, whatever its nature, good or bad. The fever is what makes them artists; the fever must be kept alive.” At the same time, the kind of women who fall for passionate artists must be treated with caution, for they will try “to quench the fever and bring down the artist to common ground.”

There may be a hint of self-mockery here, but if so, it is very faint indeed. Coetzee takes his young self seriously, even if he doesn’t necessarily share all his feverish notions anymore. The way the young man deals with his female entanglements (to call them romances would suggest a warmth that is distinctly lacking, despite all the talk of passion) is described with brutal precision. In one particularly harrowing scene, he has sex with a young South African woman. It is her first time. She bleeds. The bedsheets are soaked. The next morning, he calls a taxi, “then waits pointedly at the front door while she dresses. When the taxi arrives he evades her embrace, puts a pound note in her hand. She regards it with puzzlement. ‘I’ve got my own money,’ she says. He shrugs, opens the door of the taxi for her.”

The confessional tone of the memoir, as well as much else, suggests a pietistic tradition more in tune with Coetzee’s Protestant Afrikaner forebears than his English ones. Here is a man who struggles, and grapples, and wrestles with his conscience and his muses, but not a man who knows how to enjoy life. Sex is important, because it “goes together” with creativity, because it calls down “the sacred fire,” because it is what Henry Miller, and Hemingway, and Picasso did. But Coetzee’s artist as a young man is far from being a sensualist. And the same goes for Coetzee’s fictional characters. He is a master at making sex sound like misery.

Here, for example, is Eugene Dawn, one of the main characters in Coetzee’s first novel, Dusklands. Dawn writes reports for the US on the most efficient ways to destroy the North Vietnamese. Dawn is perhaps not a million miles away from the young Coetzee, who worked in England as a computer programmer for IBM. One of Coetzee’s tasks was linked to the development of a new British bomber. It was one more reason to be miserable; Coetzee hated America, thought Britain should withdraw from NATO, and was on the side of the Soviets and the Chinese. Here, at any rate, is Dawn having sex with his wife:

I do my duty. Whereas I cannot escape the suspicion that my wife is disengaged. Before the arrival of my seed her pouch yawns and falls back, leaving my betrayed representative gripped at its base, flailing its head in vain inside an immense cavern, at the very moment when above all else it craves to be rocked through its tantrum in a soft, firm, infinitely trustworthy grip…my seed drips like urine into the futile sewers of Marilyn’s reproductive ducts.

It doesn’t get much grimmer than that. Except, perhaps, in real life. For here, in Youth, is the young Coetzee, with an older woman in Capetown, before he moves to London:

He responds, but uneasily. Where will this lead? He has not made love to an older woman before. What if he is not up to standard?

It leads, he discovers, all the way. Unresisting he follows, does his best, goes through with the act, even pretends at the last to be carried away.

These descriptions are interesting, for they show how sex, in Coetzee’s work, is not about pleasure. His characters tend to be men who complain about their lack of warmth, and yet they have a great deal of sex, to stay in touch with their artistic fever, or to demonstrate their power over women, or Hottentots, or, in the case of black Africans, over the whites, disgraced by the bloody history of apartheid and subjugation. There is a fascination in Coetzee’s books with the idea of sin, of South Africa as a nation born in sin, of fallen characters, like the professor in Disgrace, who is dismissed from his job after seducing one of his students, of America in Vietnam, of Coetzee’s young self behaving badly in the purgatory of mid-twentieth-century London.

There is something about Coetzee’s sense of disgust that reminds one of German paintings in the 1920s: Otto Dix or George Grosz. London in the early 1960s offers a suitably depressing backdrop to Coetzee’s youthful struggles of the soul. He lives in a cold-water, one-room apartment in a “fogbound quarter of London.” He works in a “featureless block of concrete and glass,” which “seems to give off a gas, odourless, colourless, that finds its way into his blood and numbs him.” He finds refuge, alone, in the gloom of a local cinema, or in the British Museum reading room, where he speaks to a pock-marked Indian, “who gives off a smell of boils and old bandages. Every time he goes to the toilet the Indian seems to follow him, to be on the point of speaking, but then unable to.” The streets are frosty and damp. The “featureless crowds” ignore him.

Somehow, then, the yearned-for lights of art and love elude poor Coetzee. He knows they are there, the artists and the women who love artists, but they are always beyond his grasp. Instead there is solitude and disgust and exhaustion, as he passes through the “circles in Dante’s Hell,” as though this were a test, like those “the great masters had to pass, Hölderlin and Blake, Pound and Eliot….” One of his torments is that his talent is yet to come out to be tested. For now his “sole talent is for misery, dull, honest misery. If this city offers no reward for misery, what is he doing here?”

With one little tweak, these travails would be hilarious, the stuff of dark comedy. Perhaps, as I said, Coetzee is in fact making fun of himself. But I don’t think so. The sacred fire, for him, is not something to be mocked. There are clues to this not only in his fiction, but in his criticism. Some years ago, for these pages, Coetzee reviewed two books by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom. It was a peculiar meeting of opposites. Nooteboom is at the non-Protestant, non-anguished, non-pietist, non-minimalist, non-sober end of Dutch fiction. Nooteboom is what the Dutch call a Bourgondiër, a man of the Catholic south, a gourmet, a sensualist, a charmer. Not for him the lonely garret, wallowing in misery, as though it were a necessary medicine for the artistic mind. A fine claret and a beautiful woman are more likely to stir his creative juices. Coetzee rather disapproves:

For despite contortions of self-reflexiveness that in another writer (Samuel Beckett, for instance) might give rise to agonies of the spirit, Nooteboom and his narrator-avatars strike one as too urbane, too much at home in the world, to genuinely suffer. This… is Nooteboom’s peculiar misfortune as a writer: that he is too intelligent, too sophisticated, too cool, to be able to commit himself to the grand illusioneering of realism, yet too little anguished by this fate—this expulsion from the imaginative world of the heartfelt—to work it up into a tragedy of its own.*

Only a severe northern Protestant could write this. Or at least someone writing in the severe Protestant vein. He may not actually believe in God. Indeed, like most writers of his age, he was marked by the secular counterblasts of 1960s hedonism. But Coetzee wrestles with his soul in a way that fits much more comfortably in a Dutch than an English tradition. The Afrikaner blood runs thickly in his English prose. And that blood contains a tendency toward dogmatism. The merits of Cees Nooteboom’s fiction aside, it is surely not true that “agonies of the spirit” are the only source of great art. It is a common northern prejudice, and why some people disparage the painting of Bonnard, say, or the music of Rossini, for being too lighthearted, too joyful, in a word, too charming. To be pleasing is not always a drawback. I can see that most of Bergman’s movies show a more agonized spirit than Jean Renoir’s or Fellini’s, but are they greater? Was Shakespeare writing from a deep well of suffering? Was Voltaire?

In the end, of course, only one thing matters, and that is whether a work of art is any good. How much the author suffered is irrelevant. Bourgondiërs have produced wonderful things, and so have the agonizing Protestants. Coetzee’s fiction belongs to the stringent tradition of Mondrian and Bergman. When his suffering is worked into his fictional characters, it is transformed into something moving and of lasting interest. I’m not sure the same can be said for the memoirs of his younger self. If this is the raw material of his fiction, it needed more time in the cooking pot. The cold-water bed-sit angst of the young Coetzee in London comes across too often as pathetic, even banal. If Coetzee had not become a great writer, his young man’s frustrations would not have been of any interest at all. But he did, and that is a blessing.

  1. *

    J.M. Coetzee, “Blowing Hot and Cold,” The New York Review, July 17, 1997.

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