J.M. Coetzee is Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide. He is the author of sixteen works of fiction, as well as numerous works of criticism and translation. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. His story in this issue is adapted from Moral Tales, a forthcoming collection. (December 2017)
I am writing from San Juan, from the one and only hotel here. I visited Mother this afternoon—a half-hour drive along a tortuous road. Her condition is as bad as I had feared, and worse. She cannot walk without her stick, and even then she is very slow. She has not been able to climb the stairs since returning from the hospital. She sleeps on the sofa in the living room. She tried to have her bed shifted downstairs, but the men said it had been built in situ, could not be moved without being taken to pieces first. (Didn’t Penelope have a bed like that—Homer’s Penelope?)
The nineteenth century was the heyday of the Great Writer. In our times the concept of greatness has fallen under suspicion, especially when attached to whiteness and maleness, and Great Writers courses have largely been retired from the college curriculum. But to call Patrick White a Great Writer—specifically a Great Writer in the Romantic mold—seems right, if only because he had the typically great-writerly sense of being marked out from birth for an uncommon destiny and granted a talent—not necessarily a welcome one—that it is death to hide, that talent consisting in the power to see, intermittently, flashes of the truth behind appearances.
As a writer, Gerald Murnane is a radical idealist. His fictional personages or “image-persons” (characters is a term he does not use) have their existence in a world much like the world of myth, purer, simpler, and more real than the world from which they take their origin. For readers who, despite Murnane’s best efforts, cannot tell the difference between image-persons and figments of the human imagination, it may be best to treat Murnane’s theorizing—which extends into the very texture of his fiction—as no more than an elaborate way of warning us not to identify the storytelling I with the man Gerald Murnane, and therefore not to read his books as autobiographical records, accountable to the same standard of truth as history is. The I who tells the story will be no less a constructed figure than the actors in it.