The Master of the Unsaid’

In two of his letters to Paul Auster, written in the fall of 2009 and recently published in Here and Now,* J.M. Coetzee considers the idea of “late style”:

It is not uncommon for writers, as they age, to get impatient with the so-called poetry of language and go for a more stripped-down style (“late style”). The most notorious instance, I suppose, is Tolstoy, who in later life expressed a moralistic disapproval of the seductive powers of art and confined himself to stories that would not be out of place in an elementary classroom…. One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labor away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.

He returns to the subject, which is obviously on his mind: “Late style, to me, starts with an ideal of a simple, subdued, unornamented language and a concentration on questions of real import, even questions of life and death.”

These thoughts on “late style” were hardly, for Coetzee, abstract musings. He was then approaching his seventieth birthday, which presumably still counts as a biographical eleventh hour. (He is now seventy-three.) Perhaps more importantly, his need to “look elsewhere” is palpable. Coetzee’s last novel, the wonderfully playful but often self-lacerating autobiographical fiction Summertime, began and ended with the desire to escape, to free himself from the burden of responsibility to history and family. That book marked a literally final reckoning with his own career in and beyond his native South Africa: its conceit is that John Coetzee is dead and that those who knew him best are being interviewed by a sometimes obtuse biographer.

To complete the joke, we might say that his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, is therefore not so much a late work as a posthumous publication. It is a writer’s afterlife, Coetzee after Coetzee. As the central character, Simón, explains to David, the young boy for whom he has become a surrogate father, “After death there is always another life…. We human beings are fortunate in that respect.”

In the mysterious place to which they have both come, “None of us has a past. We start anew here. We start with a blank slate, a virgin slate.” An important recurring phrase in The Childhood of Jesus is “washed clean”—clean of all attachments, clean of memories, clean of the past. The novel itself can be seen as Coetzee’s attempt at a blank slate, his excursion into a fictional universe from which all the things that have clung to his previous work, often in spite of itself—politics, history, sex, family—have been scrubbed away at last.

Its fascination is that it fails. It betrays a deep uncertainty about the project of a “late style …

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  1. *

    Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee, Here and Now: Letters, 2008–2011 (Viking, 2013).