Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Diary of a Bad Year

Justin Cartwright's review, published in the Independent, of J.M.
Coetzee extraordinary novel cum collection of essays cum thinly
disguised autobiography, Diary of a Bad Year, which I'm enjoying
immensely (especially the essays):

Diary of a Bad Year, by J M Coetzee
Coetzee is raging against the dying of the light, though it still
seems to be blazing as bright as ever

Reviewed by Justin Cartwright
The Independent, 2 September 2007

There are so many indications in this astonishing book of John
Coetzee's reverence for the great Russian writers, that I was driven
to read Tolstoy's scene of the death Ivan Ilyich again. The titles of
Coetzee's two volumes of biography, Boyhood and Youth, are borrowed
from Tolstoy, and his finest book, The Master of Petersburg, is a
tribute to Dostoevsky. Diary of a Bad Year is about a famous South
African writer in his seventies, crippled by Parkinson's but also by
his solitary and cold nature, now living alone in Australia. He is
asked to contribute some opinions, the more extreme the better, to an
anthology for a German publisher. He has lost his appetite for
constructing novels.

We realise that this can be read as another instalment of the
biography, but set some way in the future. (Coetzee himself is 67.) A
young woman, Anya,lives in the same apartment block, and John C (whom
she believes comes from Colombia) offers her a little deal: he
pretends to need a typist, she is temporarily out of work. The
relationship, rather more satisfying than a similar one in Slow Man,
is remarkably subtly described.
The structure of the book is intriguing and very deftly handled: John
C writes his opinions on a variety of subjects: universities, Tony
Blair, terrorism, the rights of animals, democracy, Australia,
anarchism, the misuse of language and much more, and all these are
wonderfully expressed and perceptive. But then on the same page
Coetzee describes not only John C's motives for passing this
high-minded stuff through the hands of young Anya – just one level
above a bimbo – but also her reactions to what she sees as rather
old-fashioned opinions. He begins to see that his opinions may be
irrelevant, faced by the new realities, whatever they are. Anya is
well aware that the elderly author is enjoying close proximity to her
youthful sexiness. And then, it turns out, so is her boyfriend, Alan,
a financial adviser and something of a crook.

As Anya comes to like and admire John C, despite his decrepitude, she
becomes more concerned about her boyfriend's motives: he wants her to
give him details of the writer's bank accounts and investments. The
boyfriend believes that he comes from the real world, where every man
is set against every other man in a financial, national and
philosophical struggle, almost the exact opposite of what John C has
been arguing in his "strong opinions". There is quite a lot of sly
humour about the pedantry, coldness, unsociability, inability to
describe place and lack of social ease in John C's work, supporting
the distinct impression that this is the final volume of the
autobiography of a great writer, musing on the dying of the light,
although on this evidence the light burns as brightly as ever.

There are also some fascinating insights: John C falls foul of his
adopted country by suggesting that the premier John Howard, took his
lead from South Africa in his enthusiasm for repressive measures
against terrorism, including torture. The Australian writes that he
should return to Zimbabwe or wherever he came from if he doesn't like
Australia. There is no attempt now to maintain a disguise: in this
context John C mentions his book Waiting for the Barbarians. But it is
a surprise that this hostile reaction should have affected him so
profoundly. "What a sheltered life I have led! In the rough-
and-tumble world of politics, a letter like this counts as no more
than a pinprick, yet me it numbs like a blow from a leaden cosh."

It is a revealing book, a wonderful book of essays, a subtle and
touching near love story, and an autobiography, an extraordinary
account of John Coetzee's deepest preoccupations and beliefs. In the
gradually revealed loyalty and decency of Anya, Coetzee seems to
suggest rather regretfully that he has neglected love and warmth in
his own life.

The candour is deeply moving, but somehow expected from this
profoundly serious writer. If you are interested in literature, ideas
and the reach of art deep into the heart of humanity, you must read
this book.

And here is Maggie Gee's review, published in Murdoch's Times on
September 2, 2007:

Diary of a Bad Year
By JM Coetzee: a brilliant piece of writing about the shame that falls
upon citizens of the countries that attacked Iraq and subscribed to
Guantanamo Bay

Reviewed by Maggie Gee

Do not miss this book, which reads almost like a man saying goodbye,
restlessly surveying his work and thanking the artists who have given
him pleasure – composers such as Bach and novelists such as Tolstoy
and Dostoevsky, the "great-souled" Russians to whom its narrator
defers. JM Coetzee, the winner of the Nobel prize in Literature and
(twice) the Booker – for Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace
(1999) – may be the greatest living writer in English, although as he
points out in this playful and intelligent new novel, artists do not
believe in competitions. Diary of a Bad Year is a brilliant piece of
writing, probably his best since Disgrace, though both Elizabeth
Costello (2003) and Slow Man (2005) were extremely good. Like
Elizabeth Costello, the new novel mixes fiction with philosophical
debate; like Slow Man, and unlike most of Coetzee's work, it has what
can only be called a happy ending, something hard-won, touching and
transforming.

Diary of a Bad Year centres around the same question that obsessed
Disgrace: how can we recover from shame? In Disgrace the shame seemed
a personal matter: an arrogant South African academic falls apart
after sexually pursuing a mixed-race student. Diary of a Bad Year by
contrast is about the shame that falls upon citizens of the countries
that attacked Iraq and subscribed to Guantanamo Bay. Should we feel
guilty? Modern Britons manage to live with their imperial past rather
cheerfully, Coetzee's narrator suggests, by saying they are quite
different people from those "dour, stiff" Victorian imperialists. But
how can South Africans (like Coetzee himself) disentangle themselves
morally from their history of apartheid? This last, we may guess, is
pivotal to all Coetzee's investigations of shame and guilt.

Despite its grave theme, this is a high-spirited and even a happy
book. Happiness comes from the delightful if not always wholly
convincing Anya, who begins as a Lolita figure in a short red shift,
bending in front of the ageing narrator in the laundrette of the flats
where they live, and later typing his manuscript. The narrator, C, is
a novelist in almost every respect like Coetzee, currently writing an
extended essay on the state of the world for a collection called
Strong Opinions. The plot seems predictable, but is not. C initially
flatters Anya that she will be his editor, without believing it. But
Anya turns out to be witty and shrewd, and her intuitive responses
change the shape of C's writing. A friendship between the two survives
the venal intrusions of Anya's lover Alan, a financial advisor, crook
and bully.

The pleasure this book gives is partly a matter of its formal
inventiveness. Each page is divided into three, and the three sections
read independently, though there are many subtle intertwinings.
Usually the top section is C's essay, the middle section his private
thoughts about Anya, the bottom section Anya's thoughts and
descriptions of her life with Alan. This sounds confusing, but is not.
It is tempting, of course, to neglect the essay and read the personal
stories, but that is partly Coetzee's point; that without emotion,
adventure, the unpredictable, thought is dead. And, in fact, the
personal stories are made more interesting by their extended,
Bach-like counterpoint with the essay.

Strong Opinions is another reference to Nabokov, whose collected
interviews were published under that name, but halfway through the
novel C, learning from Anya, abandons both his impersonal style and
the rather arrogant title.

This novel is almost a thought experiment: what would have happened if
the heroes of Disgrace and Slow Man had restrained themselves? What
kind of love is possible for a man who knows he is beyond sexual
adventures, and what kind of woman could give it? If evil is possible
(Alan is evil precisely because he is without shame) then so, this
book suggests, is goodness. Anya represents it in the form of
charitable love, but also as fun, lightness and realism, all
attributes that the hero of the book overtly lacks. Yet by creating a
stiff, cold alter ego who is in love with warmth and lightness,
Coetzee is forcing his imagination to transcend its habitual
restraint. And though C the essayist never pinpoints a way of escaping
shame, the story that the real Coetzee unfolds provides a pragmatic
solution: change your behav-iour and be lucky enough to find someone
forgiving like Anya. In his generous, flawed evocation of the inner
life of a woman who despite suffering can love and turn the other
cheek, Coetzee seems to me to have attempted something new in his
work, and demonstrated the Tolstoyan greatness of soul he fears he
lacks.