Tag Archives: JM Coetzee

Thinking aloud about Borges

20 Oct

A comment on yesterday’s blog gets things churning as I walk the dog this morning along the sunlit banks of the glorious Taf (how lucky we are to have something resembling countryside within walking distance of the centre here in Cardiff: may the gods protect us from ‘developers’ and their lapdog councillors hell bent on destroying the city’s twin lungs).

Charles comments that Frank Bidart’s poem ‘Borges and I’ argues with the Borges piece I posted yesterday: (‘He had never had a self that wished to continue in its own being, survival meant ceasing to be what its being was’) and in which there’s at least one mirror (‘Secretly he [in this case Frank] was glad it was dirty and cracked’). So I look it up, as I am a diligent fellow.

Bidart’s prose poem, if that is what I am going to call it, as it appears in his poetry collection Desire and is written in prose, is a curious offering. Speaking of himself in the third person, and in the past tense, Frank first questions the veracity of Borges’ stance on his private and public selves:

The voice of this “I” asserts a disparity between its essential self and its worldly second self, the self who seeks embodiment through making things, through work, who in making takes on something false, inessential, inauthentic.

The voice of this “I” tells us that Spinoza understood that everything wishes to continue in its own being, a stone wishes to be a stone eternally, that all “I” wishes is to remain unchanged, itself.

But, argues Frank, who is really fooled by this? Most certainly Borges wasn’t, whatever he wishes us to believe:

When Borges’ “I” confesses that Borges falsifies and exaggerates it seems to do so to cast aside falsity and exaggeration, to attain an entire candor unobtainable by Borges.

This “I” therefore allows us to enter an inaccessible magic space, a hitherto inarticulate space of intimacy and honesty earlier denied us, where voice, for the first time, has replaced silence.

– Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.

The illusion of an integral, perceptive ‘self’ which stands in isolate and unsullied contrast to the public face of the writer (in his case ‘Borges’) is therefore a conceit; even, very neatly, a literary conceit, one in fact I use on my students – as another of the commentators on yesterday’s post, ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ reminds me – to illustrate . . . something (what exactly?) about the other, the double, the doppelganger, the ‘secret sharer’.

Borges wrote two short stories about meetings with himself, one set in Cambridge, Massachusets in the 1970s, and a late one, set in 1983, both of them highly self-conscious and rather arch creations, the first better than the second. But they deal with a rather different notion, that of meeting an older or younger version of oneself.

I am concerned about the contemporaneous double, the secret sharer, as he is familiar to me. I came into close contact with him during the illness I describe in The Vagabond’s Breakfast. This is the one you get used to talking to in the delirium of illness, or the one that is conjured for you by the opiate deities. He is the absent other of the encephalopathic brain, and my first realisation that he was infringing on my sanity took place at a book launch in February 2007, when my mobile phone went off while I was speaking to the assembled public and my thoughts were if I answer, it will be myself at the other end, wandering the streets, asking where the event is taking place.

The second time that I was made aware of this concretisation of the other self was after a prolonged bout of insomnia, when I miraculously managed a full eight hours’ sleep one night, and woke with “a sense of panic, as though by sleeping for so long I had missed something essential; what precisely, I could not have said, but the closest I can get to an explanation for my panic, or guilt, would be this: that I had slept while the other me, the insomniac me, had suffered the night in terrible solitude, and that I (who had been asleep) should have been keeping him (i.e. myself) company.”

I believe, as I say in the book, that this is called the disintegration of the self. And I know that it was caused by a state of disorder brought about by illness and the effect of ammonia on the brain and so on, but I am equally certain that the potential for this kind of double-act (or hell, multiple division of the self) is only a step away from the apparent safety of the stable self, with its illusions of a fixed identity. As psychologists like RD Laing were saying decades ago.

Borges’ piece, with its leanings (some might say pretensions) towards a Tao whereby stones are stones and tigers tigers, alerts the reader to the doubleness of life for the famous writer Borges and his private, unassuming ‘I’ (who likes hourglasses and Stevenson’s prose for what they are rather than the affections they become in the words of ‘Borges’). But is this just too twee and self-congratulatory for its own good?

It certainly doesn’t cut the mustard if you have recently emerged from the gaseous belly of the many-headed beast, or crawled, wailing, through the dark, sticky entrails of the labyrinth, although, to be fair, this cannot be a reasonable judgement to level against a piece of creative writing: charging it for what it is not.

But am I, are we, in danger, in fact, of sanctifying Borges just a bit? After all, it has been argued, quite convincingly, that apart from some poems, not much of what he wrote after the 1950s was really much good. In his essay on Borges, Coetzee has written of some of the later works that “there is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature” and: “The stories that had made him famous had been written in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lost his creative drive and had furthermore become suspicious of these earlier, ‘baroque’ pieces. Though he lived until 1986 he would only fitfully reproduce their intellectual daring and intensity.”

Anyhow, it gave me something to think about, along the muddy riverbank, as the dog wrestled with a big fish, which, on closer inspection, became a log.

 

 

 

 

J.M. Coetzee in Buenos Aires

19 Sep
14. J.M. Coetzee. Oleo sobre tela. 2006

Coetzee came to Buenos Aires to deliver the final reading of the festival last night. I am not really authorized to write at length about Coetzee, having only read two of his novels, which I found admirable, and a collection of his essays. However, I will certainly read more of his work now, and am particularly keen to read his own account of his life, of which there are now three volumes.

There were, of course, the introductions in Spanish: the first brief, the second rather long, both of them adulatory, then Coetzee emerged from the wings like a tall and elegant rock star (think a slightly more reverend Clapton with a tie). I was sitting in the front row, and had been approached by a security guard who told me that the first two rows were reserved for guests of the funding organisation. I told him I was an invited guest of the festival and stayed in my seat. He moved off, unsure what to do about me. Half the seats in the front two rows then remained empty, even though there were dozens of people outside who had been refused tickets, and others sitting on the steps in the foyer watching the proceedings on a big screen and possibly hundreds who had been told the event was sold out. The photographers had clearly been instructed that they could snap away only during Coetzee’s  introduction, and not in the reading proper. In any case, I was able to take a few pictures of my own, and they came out rather well.

Coetzee made a brief introductory statement in faltering Spanish, and then he read a story, set in a house in Spain (perhaps he chose one with an Hispanic theme for the occasion, believing there is not a lot of difference between one Spanish speaking country and the next, one with a few Spanish words in, like ‘vaya con dios’, which no one ever says unless they’re about a hundred years old). The story lasted half an hour, or forty minutes, I’m not sure, I think I drifted off briefly, and it was about a man called John (which is Coetzee’s name) visiting his mother, who lives in a village in Castille, and keeps a lot of cats and the village flasher (yes, that’s right, she has made her home available to the village pervert, because he was going to be taken away by social services and she stepped in and said she would look after him. I’m not sure this is how things work in Spain, but I guess we can let that go in the name of poetic licence). The story was okay, but did he need to fly thousands of miles to read it? Because that was all he did: read a story, then sit down and sign books for his abundant fans, who queued patiently (a very difficult task for Argentinians, or at least for Porteños) who came onto the stage one at a time, were allowed to exchange a few brief words with the great man, then trundled off clutching their books like they were holy relics. I wonder how much he got paid to do this. I wonder if he is doing any sightseeing while he is here. He certainly won’t be tasting the wonderful Argentinian steaks as he is a vegetarian; nor can I imagine is here much of a drinker, so will not be tasting the fine Argentinian wines. Coetzee is however a rugby fan, and since the world cup is on, the festival president tells me, he was able to talk to him about rugby on the drive back from the airport. If it had been me I would have expressed my opinion that his team (assuming he still supports the Springboks and not the Wallabies, after adopting Australian nationality) was extremely lucky to get away with a one-point victory over my team last week, but of course that is done and dusted now and we must press on. At least the world cup curse of Samoa has now been lifted, and if things go well against Fiji and Namibia we will most likely meet the Irish in the quarter-finals, which is do-able.

Coetzee stands in a very upright manner. There is, in fact, something quintessentially upright about him. Someone who know him expressed the view to me that this is related to a self-abnegating Afrikaaner protestant streak (although he did attend a Catholic school, so presumably got the worst of both worlds). This is not a man who will let his scant hair down. According to a reliable source (i.e quoted on Wikipedia) he lives the life of a recluse, and “a colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” In fact he is so reclusive that the Flash player did not want to upload my photo of him, so I am using a picture provided by Flickr instead. In the Wikipedia picture (which also refused to upload) he is wearing the same tie as last night, or appears to be, unless of course he has several editions of the same tie. The Wikipedia entry also informs me he has expressed support for the animal rights movement. Because he rarely gives interviews and so forth, signed copies of his books are highly valued.

Despite his saying that he was pleased to be here, he did not really give the impression of being overjoyed about the occasion. He was more like a pontiff bestowing a blessing on his devotees, with great dignity and reserve. And the ridiculous notion occurs to me that there are two Coetzees, one of them here in Buenos Aires, reading his story like a monk reading from the sacred text to his silent admirers, the other scribbling away, locked in his cell wherever it is he lives, Adelaide or thereabouts. The one I saw last night is the phantom Coetzee, the one that the real Coetzee very occasionally sends out to commune with his public, a doppelganger Coetzee who is dressed like a banker, reluctantly engaged in the contemporary phenomenon of the Book Signing, that strange ritual in which members of the reading public are able to pretend that they have a personal relationship with the author, and walk away clutching their books tight to their chests as though some of his greatness were now trapped in the trail of ink on the title page, that they have absorbed some of the fallout of his ascetic majesty, and will now, through some mystical process not unlike transubstantiation, be the richer for it.

 

 

 

 

Coetzee’s Foe

10 Aug

 

‘When I was young there were degrees of certainty’: these words I quoted the other day from Anne Carson evoke a sense of certainty instilled by the repetition of known stories. In childhood, if the world makes sense at all it does so because the stories we hear about it cohere. The ‘storied world’ takes on new meaning when applied to the central character of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, one Susan Barton, who, having travelled to Brazil to search for her kidnapped daughter, is cast adrift by mutineers, and washed up on an island inhabited by a dull and grumpy ‘Cruso’ (who after briefly becoming her lover, dies on her) and a mute Friday, whose tongue has been cut out, according to Cruso, by slavers.

Coetzee’s book is a story about the making of stories. Susan, on her rescue and return to England, writes an account of her adventure and sends it in instalments to the famous writer Mr Daniel Foe, while living in penury with Friday, first in rented accommodation in London, then on the open road as vagrants. She convinces herself – what a common fantasy – that the telling of her story will make her fortune:

“The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related.” Then I made a list of all the strange circumstances of the year I could remember: the mutiny and murder on the Portuguese ship, Cruso’s castle, Cruso himself with his lion’s mane and apeskin clothes, his voiceless slave Friday, the vast terraces he had built, all bare of growth, the terrible storm that tore the roof off our house and heaped the beaches with dying fish. Dubiously I thought: Are these enough strange circumstances to make a story of? How long before I am driven to invent new and stranger circumstances: the salvage of tools and muskets from Cruso’s ship; the building of a boat, or at least a skiff, and a venture to the mainland; a landing by cannibals on the island, followed by a skirmish and many bloody deaths; and, at last, the coming of a golden-haired stranger with a sack of corn, and the planting of the terraces? Alas, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?

Thus Susan Barton is unwittingly made the mouthpiece for the story Defoe actually wrote (but she cannot). How poor Susan needs to satisfy the need to tell and tell, and yet not to cross that invisible line into mere ‘invention’. How curious that the confection of her story demands such truth-telling; and yet all around her are those whose very lives depend on the invention of fictions.

This is a book rich is allusion, and in stimulating reflection on the writer’s life. Here is Foe speaking to Susan: “You and I know, in our different ways, how rambling an occupation writing is; and conjuring is surely much the same. We sit staring out of the window, and a cloud shaped like a camel passes by, and before we know it our fantasy has whisked us away to the sands of Africa and our hero (who is no one but ourselves in disguise) is clashing scimitars with a Moorish brigand. A new cloud floats past in the form of a sailing-ship, and in a trice we are cast ashore all woebegone on a desert isle. Have we cause to believe that the lives it is given us to live proceed with any more design than these whimsical adventures?”

And here is the crux of it: all our lives are story; much of that story is conjecture, the rest invention. A tale heard in passing between sunrise and sunset. There is room for many more such stories. Or, as Coetzee’s Susan tells the mute servant Friday, after being confronted by a strange girl who insists she is Susan’s long-lost daughter:

“It is nothing, Friday . . . it is only a poor mad girl come to join us. In Mr Foe’s house there are many mansions. We are as yet only a castaway and a dumb slave and now a madwoman. There is place yet for lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores to join our menagerie.”

Even without the lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores, Coetzee has the patience to furnish a story that is both intriguing and beautifully crafted. And my copy now carries the invisible traces of a thousand other stories, and of a hot day in August.

 

 

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