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Disturbing the Peace

Egudu lectures with more verve on “The Novel in Africa,” but what he has to say seems to her depressing. African culture, he says, is essentially oral, and hostile to private silent reading. The African writer can draw on this oral culture to create a different kind of novel from that of the Western literary tradition, but he still won’t have an African readership. He is condemned to make his professional life outside Africa, writing for foreigners. This, Elizabeth tells Egudu later, explains why there are “so many African novelists around and yet no African novel worth speaking of.” It is the result of “having to perform your Africanness at the same time as you write.” This is a fairly provocative assertion for a white South African writer to put into the mouth of his white Australian heroine, and is made even more so by the fact that Egudu’s lecture discusses the work of several real African novelists, such as Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri, in some detail. In the fictional scene Egudu declines to rise to the provocation, and patronizingly pats Elizabeth on the shoulder. “If we were alone, she thinks, I would slap him.”

As readers we are puzzled by the violence of her reaction. She reflects scornfully that he hasn’t written a decent book in ten years, that he has become an entertainer, working the cruise ships for money and sexual opportunities. She is not surprised to see the Russian female singer from the ship’s band leaving his cabin early in the morning. When they meet on a shore expedition Elizabeth asks the woman, in German, a language they have imperfectly in common, what she sees in the African novelist. The answer is that his voice makes her “shudder.” Elizabeth accepts that as a valid answer, and acknowledges her own jealousy. It transpires that she and Egudu were lovers in Kuala Lumpur:

The oral poet,” she said to him teasingly. “Show me what an oral poet can do.” And he laid her out, lay upon her, put his lips to her ears, opened them, breathed his breath into her, showed her.

Now she feels excluded by her age from such miracles, but the memory ends the Second Lesson on a positive note. Sex, which in Coetzee’s previous books has usually been represented as phallic, compulsive, obsessive, and rather joyless (I think particularly of Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace), appears in this book as something much more polymorphous, tender, unselfish, and healing.

In Lessons Three and Four, “The Lives of Animals,” the novel comes closest to the Platonic dialogue in form. One is quickly drawn into the debate, fascinated by the thrust and parry of argument and counterargument, and compelled to reexamine one’s own principles and assumptions—not only with reference to animal rights and vegetarianism. For these issues involve the definition of what it is to be human and where human beings stand in relation to the rest of creation, questions which have engaged the attention of several disciplines in recent years—ethology, sociobiology, anthropology, and cognitive science, as well as philosophy.

To Elizabeth our oppression of animals—keeping them in captivity, submitting them to painful or denaturing experiments, and above all breeding them in order to kill them on an industrial scale—arises from an unwarranted privileging of man and the faculty of reason. It is because we believe animals do not have the power of reasoning and the self-consciousness that comes from it—the Cartesian cogito ergo sum—that we claim the right to dispose of them in our own interests. She therefore attacks reason as “a vast tautology. Of course reason will validate reason as the first principle of the universe—what else should it do?” The ultimate value of existence is not reason but “fullness of being,” which animals enjoy in their natural state, and compared to which “Descartes’ key state…has…[the] empty feel…of a pea rattling round in a shell.”

There is a whiff here of the antihumanist views recently expounded by the British philosopher John Gray in Straw Dogs (2002), where he recommends a shamanic identification with animals as a corrective to human destructiveness and discontent. Elizabeth cites Thomas Nagel’s celebrated paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and denies his conclusion that the question is unanswerable. If we can imagine what it is like to be dead, if we can imagine what it is like to be a fictitious character, why should we not imagine what it is like to be a bat? The logic is shaky, but she has a very effective shot at imagining what it is like to be an ape subjected to a behaviorist experiment involving bananas placed out of reach:

The bananas are there to make one think…. One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought…. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?

Elizabeth argues her case eloquently, but she also overstates it at several points. The mediating presence of her son John, pragmatic and tolerant, allows us to see this, and to observe an element of hysteria in her state of mind. In the car on the way to the airport at the end of her visit, she admits that sometimes she thinks she must be mad to believe that the ordinary decent people around her are all “participants in a crime of stupefying proportions…. Yet every day I see the evidences…. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.” She turns a tearful face to him, pleading for reassurance. All he can do is stop the car, take her in his arms, and murmur, “There, there, it will soon be over.” It is not clear whether he means this grueling trip, or her life.

At Appleton College Elizabeth startles a dinner table by saying that her vegetarianism “comes out of a desire to save my soul.” In the Fifth Lesson, “The Humanities in Africa,” she encounters the Christian way to salvation in a particularly uncompromising form, when she goes to a university in South Africa to attend the conferment of an honorary degree on her sister, Blanche. Blanche was trained in classics, then switched to medicine, and became a nun. She runs a hospital in Zululand dedicated to the care of AIDS victims, where native healers work alongside doctors practicing modern medicine, and has achieved international celebrity as a result of a book she wrote about this enterprise. She is a kind of alter ego to Elizabeth—an equally forceful, radical, eloquent critic of modern society, but working from quite different beliefs and principles.

Her address to the Faculty of Humanities has a family resemblance to Elizabeth’s lectures: “I…have no message of comfort to bring to you…. The message I bring is that you lost your way long ago.” The humanities, she says, began in the Renaissance as an effort of textual scholarship focused on the Bible. This led its practitioners to learn Greek, which caused them to be seduced by Hellenism, and to relativize the message of Christianity; but Hellenism as a philosophy of life has failed, and the humanities with it. They have failed because they offer “a secular vision of salvation.”

Elizabeth (who severed her Catholic roots long ago) argues rather weakly against this absolutist position, handicapped by the fact that she has lost much of her own faith in the saving power of secular literature. She visits her sister’s hospital out of a sense of duty, admiring its care of the terminally sick, but resisting Blanche’s insistence that suffering is the central, authentic human experience. (“To the people who come to Marianhill I promise nothing except that we will help them bear their cross.”)

There is ancient sibling rivalry as well as ideological difference in their exchanges. Elizabeth feels that she has been lured to Africa to be chastened and chastised, and it is all the more galling to find her own critique of reason turned against her. “If you had put your money on a different Greek you might have stood a chance,” says Blanche as they part. “Orpheus instead of Apollo. The ecstatic instead of the rational.” Back home, in a kind of extended esprit d’escalier, Elizabeth formulates a reply by recalling how as a young woman she brought comfort to an elderly neighbor dying painfully of cancer, first by posing for him bare-breasted, and later by a more intimate sexual contact, thus transcending the opposition of eros and agape, and enacting a fusion of spiritual and sensual ecstasy such as one sees in Renaissance religious paintings. But the message remains unsent—it would shock Blanche too much.

In Lesson Six, a year after her controversial visit to Appleton College, Elizabeth is once again flying long-haul, this time to Amsterdam, to contribute to a conference on “The Problem of Evil,” regretting that she has let herself in for another demand on her diminishing energy and appetite for disputation. She soon has more reason for regret. What prompted her to accept the invitation was that it arrived while she was “under the malign spell” of a book, a novel by Paul West, The Very Rich Hours of Count Von Stauffenberg, about the aristocratic officer who led the ill-fated July Plot of 1944 to assassinate Hitler. She was impressed by the novel at first, but horrified and disgusted by its description of the execution of the conspirators, who were hanged on Hitler’s orders by the cruelest and most degrading method, and their death throes filmed for his delectation.

That is a matter of record, but what particularly offended Elizabeth in the novel was the imagined behavior of the hangman, who sadistically torments and humiliates the condemned men up to the point of death. “Through Hitler’s hangman a devil entered Paul West,” and she felt the brush of his leathery wing as she read this part of the book. It is, she thinks, “obscene”—such things should not be thought, or written, or read. That is what she has come to Amsterdam to say. The title of her paper is, “Witness, Silence and Censorship.” Paul West’s book is her main exemplum.

To her consternation she discovers that Paul West is himself attending the conference. How can she deliver this attack on his book with him sitting in the audience? It is, in a way, a darkly comic situation. She tries rewriting her paper, leaving out references to him and his book, but it is impossible. She looks covertly at the men at breakfast in the conference hotel, wondering which is Paul West. Eventually he is pointed out to her and she confronts him, and warns him of the content of the paper she is going to deliver, not apologetically, but as a courtesy. To her irritation, he listens silently, and says nothing in reply.

As most readers of this journal (but not necessarily most of Coetzee’s readers) will know, Paul West is a real author, who published The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg in 1980. His CV is not unlike Coetzee’s, though less brilliant: born in England but an American citizen, he has held a number of prestigious posts as a professor of literature, and writes literary novels which have won several awards. For a writer to introduce another, living writer as a character into his fiction, especially in such a prejudicial light, is a very unusual, perhaps unprecedented, thing to do. One might speculate that Coetzee read The Very Rich Hours…with much the same reaction as Elizabeth’s, wanted to write about that experience, and felt that inventing a fictitious novel would not serve his purpose—indeed, would involve him in the same kind of “obscene” imagining of which Elizabeth accuses West, though it must be said that there are some very nasty imagined tortures in Waiting for the Barbarians.

When she finally accosts him, “West, the real West, glances up from what he is reading, which seems, astonishingly, to be some kind of comic book.” In context the epithet “real” distinguishes him from a man Elizabeth wrongly suspected of being West in the restaurant, but it also draws attention to the real existence of Paul West, and teases us with the possibility that Coetzee actually met him in circumstances not unlike these. No further reference is made to the comic book. It’s the kind of incongruous detail that sticks in the memory when observed in real life, but as a signifier in the code of “realism” its effect is to associate West with the crude exaggerations of comic books. The whole episode is a startling transgression of literary protocol, and one can’t help wondering what Paul West himself thinks of it. It ends in an empty corridor, without the meeting between heroine and antagonist, and the resolution of their conflict, that a well-formed story would normally require.

I read West’s novel out of curiosity, and agreed with Elizabeth’s literary judgment: it begins well, but falls off, especially toward the end, when the ghost of Stauffenberg (who was summarily executed the day of the abortive plot) observes and reports the horrible end of his fellow conspirators. There is a serious failure of tone in the fictional treatment of Hitler and his hangman, cranking up the horror when the known facts are horrific enough. Such subjects should certainly be handled with care—history and documentary probably being the best way—but Elizabeth surely goes too far in asserting that they should be sealed up and passed over in silence. Again there is more than a touch of hysteria in her reaction, which revives memories of an ugly sexual assault she suffered in youth and has never mentioned to anyone: the return of the repressed, perhaps.

The Seventh and Eighth Lessons have not been previously published. “Eros” consists of Elizabeth’s whimsical musing on sexual relations between gods and humans in myth. She imagines that the gods envy us our greater orgasmic ecstasy, which is ironically linked to our mortality. This rumination is prompted by Elizabeth’s reading a poem about Cupid and Psyche by Susan Mitchell, which reminds her of meeting and being strongly attracted to the Black Mountain poet Robert Duncan when she was a young woman. Again real writers are brusquely drafted into Coetzee’s fiction to kick-start his heroine’s thoughts.

The Eighth Lesson, “At The Gate,” brings the novel to its conclusion. Elizabeth, tired and hot, alights from a bus in some dusty provincial town, where there is a gate, and a gatekeeper, and a court with a panel of inquisitors who demand that she state her beliefs before she is given permission to pass through the gate. She says she has no beliefs—it is not compatible with her profession of writer. She can do an imitation of a belief if that will do. It will not. (We wonder what has happened to her passionate belief in the rights of animals.) She lugs her suitcase to a roughly constructed dormitory, and claims a wooden bunk with a greasy straw mattress, to think about revising her application. The dormitory resembles the huts of the death camps.

Everything in this place reminds one of something encountered a hundred times before in books, plays, films: the Kafkaesque court, the idle customers at the café tables, the uniformed band that plays light music in the square, the stonewalling guardian of the gate. If this is the threshold to the afterlife, Elizabeth thinks truculently, couldn’t they have come up with something more original? Or is it a purgatory especially designed for writers, to torture them mercilessly with clichés? It is a brilliant piece of writing, both funny and poignant. Elizabeth goes back repeatedly to the court, and repeatedly fails to satisfy her inquisitors. If she could say, “I believe in the irrepressible human spirit,” she would pass, but she cannot perjure herself. She says she believes in the little frogs that, when she was a child, survived in a semi-comatose state under tons of mud in the mudflats of the Dungannon River until the rains came, but the inquisitors stare at her and snigger. They think she is “confused.” Perhaps, then, this is Elizabeth in the grips of dementia. Or perhaps she is a seer. She has a vision of a dog lying at the foot of the gate, blocking her way,

an old dog, his lion-coloured hide scarred from innumerable manglings…. It is her first vision in a long while, and she does not trust it, does not trust in particular the anagram GOD-DOG. Too literary, she thinks again. A curse on literature!

This dog seems to have loped out of Disgrace, which ends with the hero dedicated to putting such unfortunate animals humanely out of their misery. Is Coetzee expressing his own loss of faith in literature here? The postscript, entitled “Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos, to Francis Bacon,” is an ambiguous pointer, of complex provenance. It stands in the same relation to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Letter of Lord Chandos to Lord Bacon” (1902) as Elizabeth Costello’s The House on Eccles Street does to Ulysses, though on a much reduced scale. In Hofmannsthal’s (entirely fictional) text, Lord Chandos writes to Bacon, in 1603, to explain his “complete abandonment of literary activity.” He no longer trusts the connection between language and reality and is in a state of total apathy and despondency, occasionally alleviated by astonishing, mystical visions of the Infinite through the humblest things in creation. In Coetzee’s text Elizabeth Chandos, having had a sight of her husband’s letter, writes to assure Bacon that her husband is not mad, but she sounds on the verge of madness herself:

Save me, dear Sir, save my husband! Write! Tell him the time is not yet come, the time of the giants, the time of the angels. Tell him we are still in the time of fleas. Words no longer reach him, they shiver and shatter, it is as if (as if, I say), it is as if he is guarded by a shield of crystal. But fleas he will understand, the fleas and the beetles still creep past his shield, and the rats; and sometimes I his wife, yes, my Lord, sometimes I too creep through. Presences of the Infinite he calls us, and says we make him shudder; and indeed I have felt those shudders, in the throes of my raptures….

This makes a bit more sense when read in conjunction with Hofmannsthal’s text, but its bearing on the main story is still puzzling. Elizabeth Chandos’s letter seems to be simultaneously vouching for the authenticity of her husband’s mystical visions and begging the empirical, rational Lord Bacon to “save” him from his “affliction.”

So what are we to make of the whole extraordinary book? Its First Lesson, it will be remembered, was that all texts are now open to infinite interpretation; but in spite of deconstruction we persist in trying to discern some kind of communicative intention in works of literature, for they do not come into existence by accident. The choice of a Renaissance voice to end this one is interesting. In its mixture of realistic narrative, myth, controversial polemic, Platonic dialogue, erotic interludes, and gossipy allusions to fellow writers, it is more like a Renaissance prose work than the average modern novel. But Coetzee’s Elizabeth Chandos is of course a modern recreation of a Renaissance personage, expressing a modern anxiety—as indeed was Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos. The German writer’s text reflected a creative, intellectual, and psychological crisis of his own, after which his work took a different direction. Perhaps Elizabeth Costello will prove a similar kind of turning point, though it comes much later in Coetzee’s career. Certainly one senses in the book’s implied author, as well as in its heroine, a disillusionment with the value our culture attributes to literature, a strong feeling that, in Marianne Moore’s words, “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle,” and a kind of restiveness at being regarded as “a writer of world importance.” Ironically, its publication coincides with the award of the Nobel Prize, which will cement that burdensome crown still more firmly to Coetzee’s head. (The announcement, I may mention, came just hours after I thought I had finished writing this review.)

Coetzee has never sought popularity or celebrity. His books are always unsettling, unexpected, and uncomforting. He seems a rather aloof figure in the contemporary literary world, who seldom gives interviews, and often declines to collect his prizes in person. But he is one of the few living writers routinely described as “great.” He deserves the Nobel because he is exceptionally intelligent and a master of his medium. If he goes to Stockholm the acceptance speech should be memorable—but what will they serve for the main course at the banquet?

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