Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.
Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.
Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.
Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.
Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if perhaps it is out of print for a completely different reason than I thought. Perhaps it's because the book's disturbing violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.
The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has died. We've written about Achebe on Litkicks before: Juliana Harris wrote a brief biography, and I had a chance to hear him read at a PEN World Voices festival in 2006.
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:
I'll be reading a lot of books from or about Africa this winter. I'm starting with Geoff Wisner's A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.
Then I'll be digging into In the House of the Interpreter, the second installment of longtime Litkicks favorite Ngugi wa Thiong'o's fascinating multi-volume memoir of a literary life in Kenya (we reviewed the first installment, Dreams In a Time of War). I didn't get too far into Ngugi's other recent release, Globalectics, a book assembled from literary lectures by Ngugi, but maybe that's because I'd rather hear the author talk about himself than about the academic reputation of regional African literature. I've always been partial to memoirs, and I'm really psyched to read In The House of the Interpreter.
It wouldn't feel right to say I'm also "psyched" to read a memoir about the horrifying civil war between Biafra and Nigeria, a blight of violence and manufactured famine that ended in 1970 with the eradication of Biafra as an upstart nation (today's situation in Darfur is all too reminiscent of Biafra's disaster). But it is exciting news that the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has now followed his classic Things Fall Apart with a heartfelt memoir of the Biafra war, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. This tragic period of Nigerian history was also the subject of an award-winning novel a few years ago, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (though, as I blogged at the time, I had a hard time matching this book to my expectations). Maybe I'll understand Chinua Achebe's book better.
Also buzzing in the African scene: Black Bazaar by the charming Alain Mabanckou of Congo-Brazzaville, and the first authorized biography of my favorite metafictional expatriate from South Africa, J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, by the brave J. C. Kannemeyer, who must have fielded an unimaginable number of cold stares and awkward silences from the famously sarcastic and antisocial (but, truly, brilliant!) Coetzee while interviewing him for the book. Kannemeyer deserves some kind of literary award just for surviving the interview process.
On a recent very cold day, I dropped by Zuccotti Park, the once-rollicking site of Occupy Wall Street during its first joyous phase (before the city shut the gathering down). I wasn't surprised to find only a couple of isolated protestors hanging around on this freezing day, though I was surprised to find many cops still on the job, as if they were needed.
Despite the considerable chill in the air, everybody involved with Occupy knows that the movement has never stopped growing, and has not lost momentum. Instead, it has reacted to the loss of its original New York site by adopting an "occupy everywhere" approach. "It's still happening all over the city," said a guy tending a giveaway pile of pamphlets and Occupy buttons and a mostly empty donation jar near where I'd stopped to gaze upon the desolate plaza. "I know," I told him. I had just come from the atrium at 60 Wall Street, where the working group sessions were as active as ever. I picked up some pamphlets from his stack, including one particularly good one: Anarchism by Andrej Grubacic and the influential political philosopher and economic historian David Graeber, whose Debt: The First 5,000 Years I've been meaning to read. The pamphlet is a slightly less daunting Graeber volume, but no less relevant. David Graeber, one of the original personalities behind the original Wall Street occupation nearly six months ago, sees "anarchism" as the best word to describe the sensibility of the movement, and this pamphlet explains why. He and Grubacic make it clear in the opening pages that the goals they are fighting for will only grow organically, and gradually:
Increasing numbers of revolutionaries have begun to recognize that "the revolution" is not going to come as some great apocalyptic moment, the storming of some global equivalent of the Winter Palace, but a very long process that has been going on for most of human history (even if it has, like most things, come to accelerate of late), full of strategies of flight and evasion as much as dramatic confrontations, and which will never -- indeed, most anarchists feel, should never -- come to a definitive conclusion.
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?
"The girl in the apron turned out to be the totality of the catering by Federico's. By the time she brought in the snacks Alan had downed two glasses of champagne, and that set the pattern for the evening. I stopped drinking early, and Senor C. hardly drank at all; but over supper (roast quail with baby vegetables followed by zabaglione, except that Senor C. didn't have the quail, he had a butternut and tofu tartlet) Alan made serious inroads into the shiraz."
J. M. Coetzee, a Nobel-prize winner and one of my very favorite living writers, is not known for his funny side. A video went around the Internet recently mocking the dignified South African writer's demeanor at a ceremony when Geoff Dyer dared to make a joke about Nadine Gordimer only to receive the stoniest of reactions from the guest of honor (it's still fun to watch).
Coetzee's earliest major novels are also very low in light humor. Waiting For The Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K., for all their moral excitement, are tough, sinewy, dreary narratives about martyrdom and suffering. It's hard to laugh about characters who are being tortured, humiliated and ostracized (usually all at once). But a few sly chuckles starts to peek through in Coetzee's best mid-period books, like the great Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello and the memoir installments.
Whatever happened to the film adaptation of J. M. Coetzee's stunning novel Disgrace, starring John Malkovich? If, like me, you've been under the spell of this book, you may have been wondering this too. We heard about the film when it was in production, and word began to spread over a year ago that the much-awaited film was playing festivals, but it was in and out of New York City and Washington DC theaters before anybody I know had a chance to see it. It didn't get terrible reviews; it just didn't get much of a release at all. Then, two days ago, I suddenly spotted the title on a long list of Time Warner Cable "Movies on Demand" on my TV, hiding unceremoniously between Did You Hear About The Morgans? and Easter Bunny Kill Kill!.
I pressed a button to magically pay $4.99, and there I was catching a private viewing of the much-anticipated and mysteriously vanished film in my own living room.
(Dedi Felman's coverage of PEN World Voices continues with this tale of what it takes to put an exceptional novel in front of American readers. -- Levi)
What sells a book?
Picture an editor desperately scribbling at her desk. She’s drafting a “sell sheet” for a book for which she hopes to gain her publishing colleagues’ support. The author has indie appeal but virtually no mainstream recognition. Said author is also very dark, feminist, brilliant, and experimental. She’s perhaps just a bit too lucid about sexual power games to be a male critic’s darling (and most mainstream media critics remain male.) The zeitgeist also feels ever so slightly off. In her book, the author goes for the throat of an issue -- Race -- that most Americans, loudly proclaiming their liberalism in having elected their first black president, increasingly prefer to avoid. Evidence of the new postracial America is spotty but debate has, at least for the moment, been somewhat silenced. Finally said author, who is NOT Toni Morrison, is a foreigner. Even worse, the language in which she writes, Afrikaans, has associations that make people scratchy. The book is a masterpiece. Our poor editor is in a muddle:
A few years ago I was bowled over by Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow, a bitter satire about an African dictator whose corruption has reached surreal heights and a few ragtag rebels who combat his regime. I joined in an extensive discussion of Wizard of the Crow at the Litblog Co-op, which chose the novel as its Winter 2007 selection.
Dreams in a Time of War, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new memoir, shares an attractive cover concept with Wizard of the Crow, but otherwise could hardly feel more different. Sarcastic anger was Wizard's top note, but Dreams captures the author as a child, observant and innocent, devoid of hatred even as the emerging independent nation of Kenya dissolves into civil war around him.