The Pole is a seventy-two-year-old pianist named Witold Walczykiewicz, a last name that his hosts in Barcelona cannot pronounce; so “call me Witold,” as he tells them over a postconcert dinner. He has huge hands and “a chest that seems to burst out of his jacket”; his hair is “extravagantly white”; but he moves more easily than many men his age, and his “long, lugubrious face” and “faded blue eyes” recall those of the actor Max von Sydow. Witold records for Deutsche Grammophon and specializes, inevitably, in the work of his countryman Chopin. Only it’s Chopin with a difference, and not to everyone’s taste. His version is neither Romantic nor Modernist, neither intimate nor subtle: a composer who offers no transporting sweep of emotion but is instead “somewhat austere, Chopin as inheritor of Bach,” severe, logical, and maybe a bit arid. Wintry, and yet not, for Witold, without feeling, a figure who tells him, he says, about desires that “are sometimes not clear to us…desires for that which we cannot have.”
But we never get anything like a direct account of Witold’s interiority, and in any case the Polish pianist is not The Pole’s main character. That is Beatriz, a businessman’s wife who serves on the organizing committee for an annual recital series at Barcelona’s Sala Mompou. She’s nearing fifty and has started to worry about it; her hands show their age, and she remembers that in her mother’s day a woman could still wear gloves. Beatriz knows that she is an “intelligent person, well educated, well read, a good wife and mother. But she is not taken seriously,” not by the people around her, not by her husband, and not by herself; she is seen only as another rich woman who busies herself with good works.
Is that why the novel doesn’t give her a last name? I don’t think so. The Pole is written in the third person, but it keeps a tight focus on her inner life, and we don’t usually remind ourselves of our own last names; her husband doesn’t get a first one. Beatriz isn’t terribly impressed by Witold’s playing, though she’s interested enough in his physical presence to note that “he looks like a man with messy divorces behind him.” Still, for her he remains the Pole, and alien, even after they briefly become lovers.
How predictable this two-hander all seems! Even to Beatriz, and yet her creator could not write predictably if he tried. J.M. Coetzee has divided this spare and slippery novel into six chapters, each defining a different stage in his characters’ relationship, though three of them come after Witold’s death. All but the last are further divided into a series of brief numbered entries—twenty-eight in the first chapter, forty-one in the second. Some of those entries contain just a single sentence, others a paragraph; few of them, at least at the start, run for more than a page. Here’s how it opens:
(1) The woman is the first to give him trouble, followed soon afterwards by the man.
(2) At the beginning he has a perfectly clear idea of who the woman is. She is tall and graceful; by conventional standards she may not qualify as a beauty but her features—dark hair and eyes, high cheekbones, full mouth—are striking and her voice, a low contralto, has a suave attractive power…. That is how he would sum up her exterior. As for her self, her soul, there is time for that to reveal itself.
But who is that “him” in the first sentence, that “he” in the second? I’ll call him C, a destabilizing presence in these pages, neither author nor quite narrator but rather a figure through whom Coetzee dramatizes the process of writing itself. The Pole offers both the notes for the book C plans to write and the book that he has in fact written, the characters we watch him call into life. The woman gives him trouble, he says, though we might also say that she troubles him, as a pebble does a pool. She disturbs his mind’s surface; she stirs his curiosity. He wants to see what she will do, but he already knows her. Or at least that’s how it seems “at the beginning”; maybe later it will change, maybe she’ll surprise him. The man is in contrast “more troublesome,” which isn’t at all the same thing, and he will prove difficult to understand or imagine. These people don’t yet have names, and at the start the woman may not even be Spanish; C doesn’t know how they’ve come to him, but they have “been knocking at the door” of his mind for a year, and it’s time either to send them away or to let them in at last.
How might he bring them together? C needs a plausible setting, a set of circumstances for what is, after all, a chance meeting; he needs to provide these importunate figures with a touch of motivation, to fill in a bit of background. “The decision to invite the Pole” isn’t Beatriz’s, but rather that of another committee member, her flirtatious friend Margarita, who falls sick on the night of his performance and asks her to take charge. Beatriz must give him dinner afterward, though she worries over the question of language. Nobody she knows speaks Polish, and there’s “no reason to expect” that the pianist speaks Spanish. Will he be comfortable in English or French? She knows both, but does anyone else in her set? Who can she invite to share their table? These are Beatriz’s thoughts, but they are also C’s, as he wonders who else he might need to invent. And then there are the moments that belong to C alone:
(7) Why will Beatriz’s own husband not be one of the party? The answer: because he never attends Concert Circle events.
So C decides, and in doing so tells us that she knows her husband’s tastes and won’t bother to ask him. The dinner passes awkwardly, with Beatriz and Witold joined by a polyglot elderly couple made up for the purpose, and everyone stiff in the English they’ve decided to speak, even Beatriz, despite her “two years at Mount Holyoke.” Still, it would all be easier if she had liked the concert more, and she can also tell that the man has eaten too many such meals. To him, Beatriz thinks, she must seem a part of the burden that any successful performer has to bear, one of those “nagging wealthy women” to whom he tells the kinds of stories “he presumes a woman like her wants to hear.” But she is not “a woman like her,” and feels only relief when the evening is over and she can drop him at his hotel.
A week later she gets a CD in the mail, his version of the Chopin Nocturnes, and a gracious note of thanks. Which leaves her wondering: “Does she like this man, Witold? Perhaps she does, on balance.” On balance—and what follows, as the first chapter concludes, is C’s attempt to define that balance, to provide an inventory of what she likes and what she doesn’t. For he will need to know that if these characters are to have a next chapter.
The Polish pianist is not the main character, nor am I sure that Coetzee’s title refers only to his nationality. For Witold is a pole of another kind, and in his way magnetic. Positive or negative, it doesn’t matter: he moves the needle of Beatriz’s life; he pulls her off course, a lodestone who changes her direction simply by calling out to her. A few months after that CD arrives, she gets an e-mail: he’ll be teaching a series of master classes in Girona, a hundred kilometers to the north, and wonders if she might visit one day. But the classes are just an excuse, and he has, he writes, come back to Spain only because she is there. She tells herself that she doesn’t want to see him again, and yet she’s curious; she has “no great respect for men and their appetites,” but she too is subject to desires that “are sometimes not clear.” She wants to learn why the thought of Girona makes her smile, and decides to drive up.
It doesn’t go well. Witold mentions Dante’s Beatrice, whom the poet loved his whole life even though she “never gave him one word,” and in response Coetzee’s Beatriz thinks, “Poor fool!” She is not some “symbol of peace,” and she will not be confused with a woman in a poem. Witold is undeterred and asks her to come with him on a concert tour of Brazil. She refuses, but soon after begins to explore his discography. His playing still leaves her “blank, baffled”; he may speak of love but his music remains “too dry, too lacking in ardour.” Yet she’s not sure that her settled middle-aged life has room in it for ardor, or that she would even recognize its call. More months pass, and once again he comes to Spain, to a festival on Mallorca—and this time she invites him to join her for a week at her family’s house on the island.
He draws her to him, and thinking of that makes The Pole seem complicated in an entirely different way. The South Africa–born Coetzee is so determinedly elliptical a writer that anything one says about him needs qualification. He delivered his 2003 Nobel Prize address in the voice of Robinson Crusoe; Summertime is largely made up of interviews with those who knew a now dead writer called John Coetzee; and in his most recent books, a trilogy on the life of Jesus, no character named Jesus appears. According to Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad once said that no English word has “clean edges,” and I can’t believe that Coetzee doesn’t mean to shade the plain sense of his title. It’s not quite a double entendre, that “pole” in “Pole,” but it does offer a meaning within a meaning, a sound within a sound. We should both hear it and forget that we’ve heard it, and indeed Coetzee himself might disclaim it. For that blurred meaning exists only in English. A magnetic pole is polo in Spanish geography books, and there are other words for fishing or telephone poles or the sticks one might use in the garden. But the Pole is El Polaco, and that’s the title under which this novel was first published last year, in Buenos Aires.
The Pole, that is, first saw print in a Spanish translation, as did The Death of Jesus (2019), and in fact a German version has also been released before its British or American appearance. (There it’s Der Pole, while a compass points to the Nordpol—closer to the English but with the distinction still clean.) That’s a deliberate strategy on Coetzee’s part, one motivated by his distrust of his own language’s global dominance, its
universalist pretensions…[and] uninterrogated belief that the world is as it seems to be in the mirror of the English language. I don’t like the arrogance that this situation breeds in its native speakers.
Coetzee has always known the Afrikaans of his ancestors, but his immediate family spoke English at home and his schooling was in it as well. English liberated him from what he’s described as “the narrow world view of the Afrikaner,” and yet he’s also said that with age his command of it increasingly “feels…like the kind of command that a foreigner might have.” He’s not at ease with either inheritance, any inheritance; he wants to disclaim the idea that he’s “native” to anything, to wipe out whatever spot of arrogance might touch his own sentences.
Still, the fact remains that he has gone on writing in English, and in this he differs from Jhumpa Lahiri, who dropped the language she learned as a child for the Italian she acquired as an adult. And there’s another fact as well. Coetzee claims that his books are not only easy to translate but that their translations are “in no way inferior to the original.” Perhaps. Yet even so apparently bare and toneless a prose as his own will have its undertow, an unwilled accretion of meaning that no other language can capture. Pole.
Maybe that’s why translation plays such an important part in this book. It isn’t only that dinner. Witold and Beatriz spend a week together on Mallorca, but afterward she deletes his e-mails without reading them. A few years pass, and then she gets a phone call. The pianist has died, he has left her a few things, and she goes to Poland to fetch them; her husband is curious, but there are questions they each know not to ask. Here the figure I’ve called C appears to drop out of the novel, as though he has served his purpose, served Coetzee’s purpose. By this time the writer knows his characters, and can simply—no, never simply—tell their story. The numbered sections remain, but some of them now last for pages and include fully formed scenes, above all those detailing Witold’s bequest: a manuscript containing some eighty-odd “poems, in Polish, one to a page, typewritten and numbered.” They are addressed to her, but she cannot read them. If she wants to know what they say, what they say about her, she will have to hire a translator; the Polish consulate gives her a name, and at this point my head began to spin. For The Pole includes a few of these poems: the English originals of the allegedly Polish originals that Beatriz reads in what is supposed to be Spanish. And in El Polaco would be, though I also wondered why, given Coetzee’s sense of the politics of language, he didn’t have Beatriz’s translator put them into Catalan.
She doesn’t like Witold’s poems any more than she did his Chopin, and she especially doesn’t like the fact that he still sees her as Beatrice. But by now she also knows that she’s missing something. All she has of him is “a version I can read,” and one she suspects is inadequate both to the poems and to the man who wrote them. (Meanwhile Coetzee, who really did write them, has made them sound like a bad translation.) They have had to communicate in that all-too-dominant English, in which neither of them is fluent, and she now wonders if their linguistic differences have gotten between them. Why did he always take her so literally at her word? He has gotten her wrong, and wrong again, but maybe she has gotten him wrong as well. “If we had dropped the adult masks and approached each other as child to child we might have done better,” for children don’t need language to play. That is what she wants to say to him, once there’s no one left to hear it.
Coetzee’s most important books remain the ones he wrote before the Nobel, though another way to put that is to say that they’re the ones he wrote before leaving South Africa for a new life in Australia. The necessary titles here are Waiting for the Barbarians and his two Booker Prize winners, Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace, though I also admire Age of Iron. Since then he has only written about his birthplace under the guise of memoir, and there’s always been some speculation about the reasons for his 2002 emigration. He had been visiting Australia since the early 1990s and found himself ever more drawn to both its landscape and its open society, while also feeling that South Africa was not, for him, “a good place to grow old in.” With his longtime partner he first applied for emigration in October 1999, just before Disgrace made him the first two-time winner of the Booker Prize. Yet that novel had also cast him as the Cassandra of his postapartheid country, and the reaction against it was fierce.* I think it’s understandable that he didn’t want to go on with that song, and he has never seemed comfortable with the idea of the writer as a necessarily public figure, someone who’s supposed to stand for a set of clearly articulated positions; or maybe one should just say that he has never seemed comfortable, full stop. The truth, I suspect, is that he thrives on being displaced, untethered to any one national story.
His later works may not match his earlier ones, but his career after the Nobel has been exceptionally productive, and it does include some remarkable books. For me the most interesting are Elizabeth Costello, which mixes the title character’s academic lectures with an account of her life; Diary of a Bad Year, with the year in question being that of a writer called Señor C; and yes, The Pole itself. They are more formally playful than their predecessors, and the changing world—his changing world—has allowed Coetzee to look at different issues than he did in the time of his first fame. Yet the two parts of his oeuvre are more alike than they seem.
Take, for example, one of the ways that, after losing his job in a sexual harassment case, David Lurie fills his time in Disgrace. He has always been fascinated by Byron’s affair with an Italian countess named Teresa Guiccioli; he wants to write about it, and does, only instead of words he now begins to think in music. He finds it easy enough to imagine his Byron, but the young beauty the poet seduced refuses to start into life. What holds him instead is the thought of the older Teresa, who outlasted her Englishman by almost fifty years: an aging woman, living on memories, and someone he has to find a way to love before he can write the “flat, tinny” music that defines her.
Lurie isn’t a musician, and the chamber opera he imagines will never be finished. Still, he does learn from it, learns to hear the voice of the unregarded; and that, of course, is what Disgrace is about. That limpid, lacerating novel raises many questions, from animal rights to the grim bargain that Lurie’s adult daughter believes she must make in order to go on living in the new South Africa. But they all come back to an attempt to imagine the full claims of otherness, of beings who are not ourselves and for whom we may not, at first, feel much sympathy.
That is the ethical and aesthetic imperative at the heart of what novelists do, and one that Coetzee has returned to throughout his career. It is also, I think, what Beatriz finally learns in this surprisingly tender new book. The Pole begins with C’s questions about its characters—who are these people? That, however, is what we should ask whenever we meet someone new. Who are they, and what must we do to understand them? To translate their terms into our own, as though bridging the gap between one tongue and another were the model for all human relations?
The Pole is in love with Beatriz from the moment he meets her, but he can only describe what he feels by assimilating it to other and earlier models, Dante or even classical mythology. That’s how it seems to her, anyway, for she doesn’t believe that he ever really sees her, even though she recognizes that his face fills with light whenever they are in a room together. Yet she sees even less about him, and after their days on Mallorca she dismisses Witold’s emotions as a way of dismissing her own. She says to herself that he’s probably making up a story about her, a tale about “a cruel Spanish mistress who left a scar on his heart.” That’s what she expects to find in his poems, and it disturbs her when she doesn’t. It tells her how little she knew him, and maybe how little she has known herself.
The novel’s brief last chapter opens with an unsent letter that begins with all she doesn’t like about those poems, and that then turns to a question. Why didn’t he write when he knew he was dying? You should have said something—that’s what she seems to suggest, and in doing so admits that they have had a claim on each other, albeit one that she only now recognizes. The next day she writes to apologize, while telling his ghost that there won’t be many such letters, that “I don’t want to turn you into my…phantom limb.” And yet how can one get rid of something that’s already gone? Beatriz finishes her note, tells the dead man to sleep well, and then adds a postscript that stands in itself as The Pole’s last words: “I will write again.” Witold’s love story may be over. Hers has just begun.