J. M. Coetzee, Master of the Enigmatic Novel

Africa Classics Eastern European Fiction History Lit-Crit Love Nature Postmodernism Psychology Reading Religion

Ask me to name my favorite living writer, and I just might name J. M. Coetzee, formerly of South Africa, now of Australia. I think his best novels are Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, and I also get a tremendous kick out of his two recent meta-fictional adventures in psychological self-deconstruction, Diary of a Bad Year and Summertime, the latter of which has sometimes been mistakenly assumed to be the third volume of his ongoing memoir, following Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II. But Summertime, a fragmented third-person narrative about a dead writer named John Coetzee, is no memoir.

Strangely, I'm more likely to recommend his late period works than his most famous novels, which are his earliest ones: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K and The Master of Petersburg. These books won the author a Nobel prize, but the stone-faced dead seriousness of these downbeat parables can be hard to take. As he got older and more successful, Coetzee seemed to become lighter or warmer-hearted, and began challenging himself to write more playful, experimental and archly self-referential novels. Word is out that his very latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, may be the most expansively allegorical, spiritually provocative and magnetically enigmatic of them all.

I haven't written as much about Coetzee as about other writers, though I have brushed past his great works here, here and here, and have also discussed his vegetarian principles here. There is something forbidding about Coetzee's stern countenance that always makes it feel unseemly to gush about his work. An admiring review of Childhood of Jesus in Coetzee's hometown rag The Australian says something smart about the difficulty of writing critically about a writer who seems to plumb such mysterious and deep sources of emotion and meaning with his stark, minimalist texts:

The temptation, when faced with a book as conceptually rich and as brilliantly wrought as The Childhood of Jesus, is to describe it as a masterpiece. That would be to succumb to a hazy reverence of a kind antithetical to the author’s project. Nowhere since Disgrace have the architectural structure of Coetzee’s fiction, the import and music of his words, been so reverberantly interlinked. Yet Coetzee’s work insists that a too easy submission to myths of romantic creativity is religious mania transposed on to a profane realm.

Indeed, it cannot be this one novel (which won't come out in the USA for another month, and which I haven't yet read or even seen) that is a masterpiece. J. M. Coetzee's entire career is the masterpiece.

In lieu of saying anything about this impressive writer that might pretend to cast light upon his work, I point instead to a recently-created fake Twitter account, @FunnyJMCoetzee, that imagines what the world would be like if J. M. Coetzee ever got on Twitter. This may be as close as we'll ever get to finding out.

The book cover image at the top of this page represents the Polish edition. I chose this because this cover is boring and this one just strikes me as wrong.

2 Responses to "J. M. Coetzee, Master of the Enigmatic Novel"

by ds on

Yeah Coetzee's one of the greats. Disgrace floored me. It was a book that had me yelling "No not this" out loud as I read. It's just merciless. That, Foe, and Michael K for me. Can't wait for his new one. I hope it's more The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and less The Gospel According to the Son.

by JBR on

I've been reading, at your instigation, Waiting for the Barbarians: stunning stuff. I read Disgrace a few years ago and found it powerful, but then Coetzee got pushed out by other things until now. Thanks for bringing him back into my orbit.

Add new comment