Some writers begin by lulling their readers, some by shocking them. J.M. Coetzee begins by starting an argument. The narrator of Diary of a Bad Year, of whom we as yet know nothing, is speaking of the nature of the state. Hobbes is the first name to occur. Why are we starting with Hobbes, not with Aristotle? Because, says the constant reader, we are in the territory of Coetzee, the balladeer of the limp and the harelip; the lives of his characters are miserable, brutish, but not short enough, being frequently prolonged beyond any use their owners have for them.
Turn the page.
What the Hobbesian myth of origins does not mention is that the handover of power to the state is irreversible….
We are born subject…. One mark of this subjection is the certificate of birth.
With this certificate the state gives you an identity, and you carry with you a notice of this identity, “or you do without an identity and condemn yourself to living outside the state like an animal (animals do not have identity papers).”
Any reader who has kept a dog with a pedigree longer than his own may be provoked to smile. Less frivolously, we might wonder if the status of inhabitants really changes when the state assumes a recording function. Think of it historically: in England, for instance, government instructions to record baptisms, burials, and marriages were first sent out in 1538. Before this year, people were subjects. After this year, they were subjects. Neither before nor after were they animals. Is not the voice on the page a touch flamboyant, dramatic, overstating his case in a way perhaps allowable in someone who has lived under a tyranny? Who is speaking anyway? Will he show us his papers, or will we ramble for hours in the easygoing terrain of the modern novel, hoping to bump into him and fit a face and a name to the words?
But we cannot concentrate on the argument. Our attention is being pulled away. The page we are reading is divided in two, and below the line another story is sharing the space, another tone of voice, as quiet and private and close to the reader’s ear as the first voice is distanced, amplified, and public:
My first glimpse of her was in the laundry room. It was mid-morning on a quiet spring day and I was sitting, watching the washing go around, when this quite startling young woman walked in. Startling because the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition; also because the tomato-red shift she wore was so startling in its brevity.
The second voice hardly commands instant sympathy. It sounds like that of an affected lecher: “startling brevity,” indeed. But on the second page a picture is evoked, to add to the voice:
The spectacle of me may have given her a start too: a crumpled old fellow in a corner who at first glance might have been a tramp off the street.
The heart plummets. Is the crumpled old man below the line the same person as the Hobbes-quoting dogmatist above? Do philosophers do their own washing? Is that seemly? Should a scholar not have a housekeeper? But then we ask—by now we are in the habit of contending with ourselves—why should he not do his laundry? Why do we assume it’s the genius and the retard who require someone to pick up after them? Perhaps it’s good for him. Perhaps it makes him humble. Perhaps he even likes going down to the basement. Perhaps it’s his only contact with his neighbors. Perhaps it’s his lucky day, encountering this neighborhood beauty. Perhaps it’s therapeutic. Perhaps it’s redeeming.
Coetzee does not go in for pathos. In his essay on Beckett’s fiction in his collection Inner Workings,* he notes, and not with approval, “an uncharacteristic dip into plangency” in his subject’s story “The End.” But bathos can also work on the emotions. It turns out that the narrator of the Diary is an eminent writer who is contributing a section to a book called Strong Opinions. He is weak and old. Above the line running across the page, he continues to assert himself: he opines on democracy, on terrorism. Below the line, he trembles. Somewhere in the white space between the two sections, his authority drains away. If you don’t like what he says, you can push him over.
Has a white space ever worked so hard? In the gap one falls between worlds. Above, the intellectual life; below, the affective life. Strength above, weakness below. Above, the grand generalization; below, the particular itch of a feeble body, not yet ready to give up the ghost of bodily desire. The writer discourses on the breakdown of authority and tells us the plot of The Seven Samurai, while the feeble tramp in the laundry room struggles to get a conversation going with the startling beauty, “black black hair, shapely bones. A certain golden glow to her skin….” “A derrière so near to perfect as to be angelic.” He feels a “metaphysical ache” that he thinks she notices, and that he guesses makes her impatient. He would like her to take notice of his strong opinions, not his physical frailty.
So when at their second meeting in the laundry room he finds that Anya can type, he proposes that she help him out with his section of the projected book. He wants, he tells her, a secretary with “a feel, an intuitive feel, for what I am trying to do.” Even, he suggests, an editor—a junior partner in his enterprise. The reader doubts the success of the arrangement. Above the lines, Strong Opinions has moved on to Machiavelli. We are speaking the robust, darkly glittering language of necessity. Anya, below the line, mouths the limp, impoverished phrases of corporate cant. Just now she is between jobs, but her partner, with whom she lives on the top floor of the building, claims her as “a secretarial resource.” Previously she has worked in the “hospitality industry.” She hopes to move into “human resources.” The narrator has confessed in his bottom-of-the-page reflections that he is not being honest. He does not need a secretary. The German publisher who has commissioned Strong Opinions can easily transcribe a dictaphone tape. He doesn’t need Anya, but he wants her and will flatter her to get her: “What self-respecting woman would want to deny she has an intuitive feel?”
The would-be employer suspects that Anya is fully aware of the adulterous possibilities of the situation. The reader is sure of it. She is not an ingenuous young woman, naturally dependent, like the student in Coetzee’s Disgrace who gives way unwillingly to her teacher’s sexual approaches. Anya has the whip-hand here. We hope she will gratify him, up to a point; we see that he is lonely. We only hope she will not humiliate him. We recognize that, like the protagonist of Slow Man, the writer called C has a full bank account and an empty heart. Already the reader is involved, though we may not be sure how far the author wants us to care about his creations. In what sense are we shown, on the page, beings about whom we can shape an opinion, on whose behalf we ourselves can form desires? We are used to Coetzee rattling the cage of fiction. Perhaps we shall find he has slid out through the bars, and left us empathizing with the empty air.
Who is Anya, the glowing Filipina? If she’s a muse, she’s late on the scene, when we consider that the writer thinks of himself as “post-physical.” His mind is lively, but his hand is already slackening its grasp on the pen. Will he be strong enough to take advantage of whatever she brings to his writing life? On the other hand, the desiccated heroes who tread Coetzee’s desert landscapes have a perverse vigor. If we go back to 1983, to The Life and Times of Michael K, we have a character who is starved through a whole novel but does not die. Paul Rayment in Slow Man, whose lack of capacity to drive his own narrative suggests he is senescent, turns out to be only sixty.
In the days of naive photo-tourism, travelers in torrid zones would show us a near-naked and sexually null human being, as wrinkled as a blob of tar on a scorching road, and then surprisingly reveal that he or she was only twenty-seven. Something the same happens with Coetzee’s characters: they seem on the brink of extinction, but there’s life in the old dogs yet. The strong opinions never flag. Al-Qaeda. Pedophilia. Harold Pinter. Avian influenza, intelligent design, Guantánamo Bay. We are aware that they are edging us from the stock-in-trade of the finely pessimistic yet liberal commentator, and toward Coetzee’s familiar and haunted and powerful preoccupations: disgust, disgrace, shame, the painful lives of animals. The arguments above the line are variously persuasive, invariably robust. Sometimes the opinion offered above the line is slyly taken apart by the characters below it. The miracle of the book is that it is deeply involving, wryly funny, and perfectly easy to read, even when the bifurcated narrative splits into three.
For soon, Anya has her own first-person voice. She tells us what she thinks of the writer, as he tells us what he thinks of her. He, like Coetzee, is a South African, now living in Australia. Like his creator, he has written a novel called Waiting for the Barbarians, and some essays on censorship. There is an area of overlap, and there are areas of biographical variation. Perhaps we should see John C, like Coetzee’s creation Elizabeth Costello, as a kind of fuzzy doppelganger; as they come down the road to meet their original, the real and the fictive pass through each other, outlines smudged, not a perfect fit but unnervingly close.
Anya misunderstands C to be South American. She calls him Señor, or perhaps Senior. She corrects his English, which she believes is not his first language. How are we to understand Anya’s status in the novel? Are we to take her as equal in value to that of the shambolic bag person who occupies the privileged position at the top of the page? Has she been granted—by that sleight of hand that takes place between writer and reader—the autonomy of a fictional character?
In his essay on Robert Walser, Coetzee refers to the pleasure the writer got from “damselling,” which he defines as “experiencing a feminine life imaginatively from the inside.” We are probably safe in saying that Coetzee is not damselling, as Anya appears to have the soul of a performer in a burlesque show: “As I pass him, carrying the laundry basket, I make sure I waggle my behind, my delicious behind, sheathed in tight denim. If I were a man I would not be able to keep my eyes off me.” She speaks in coy cliché: “Always keep a man guessing.” Though she is almost thirty, she is the kind of child-woman who is used in pornography, and she knows this, and the author of Strong Opinions knows this, so when he begins to pick away, above the line, at the logical basis of society’s taboo on pornography involving children, a queasy resonance is set up between one narrative stream and the next.
Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000–2005 (Viking, 2007).↩
Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000–2005 (Viking, 2007).↩