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Autobiography as Defacement

By Danny Byrne.

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Scenes from Provincial Life, J.M. Coetzee, Harvill Secker 2011

Whom do we hear speaking in the following sentence?  “For a man of his age, fifty two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well”. The self-justifying tone of the opening clause, the rhetorical qualification ‘to his mind’, the telling definite article in ‘the problem of sex’, suggest an inflection on the part of the character in question. But the journalistic parenthesis ‘fifty two, divorced’, to say nothing of the fact that it is written in the third person, sounds more like the author spatchcocking in some background information to chivvy his narrative along. The voice is neither straightforwardly that of the author nor that of the character. It occupies, though the use of Flaubert’s style indirect libre, a space between the two that allows both for critical detachment and internal access.

The above, the opening sentence of Disgrace, might be cited in a creative writing course as a textbook example of a modern literary style (though the uses to which Coetzee puts it are anything but). Coetzee retains a reputation for this kind of minimal, slightly frosty precision, surgically dissecting his characters while maintaining all along an unflinching distance and restraint. Passages such as the above play out the uncertain relationship between the narrator and narrated in their every word, and this dynamic has been one of the key points of tension throughout Coetzee’s oeuvre. Indeed, his very first novel, Dusklands, begins with a narrator who labours under the gaze of a military supervisor named Coetzee. (First sentence: “Coetzee has asked me to revise my essay”).


In fact, Coetzee’s major works present us with a series of protagonists that increasingly resemble the author, shrinking the distance between narrator and narrated: A bookish magistrate in the colonies (Waiting for the Barbarians); a female classics professor at the University of Cape Town (Age of Iron); a literature professor at a fictional university in Cape Town (Disgrace); a famous novelist who campaigns for animal rights (Elizabeth Costello); an elderly South African author living in Adelaide called Senor C (Diary of a Bad Year). The progression towards characters such as Elizabeth Costello and Senor C, who serve as proxies for the author figure – whose views, though slightly displaced, parodied or exaggerated, increasingly approximate those Coetzee has endorsed as a critic – is a progression towards the self as subject. Coetzee has stated his belief that ‘all writing is autobiography’ on more than one occasion and in his recent works there has been a growing tendency to cut out the fictional middleman.

This narcissistic focus in Coetzee’s fiction reaches its logical destination in his three fictionalized autobiographies – or as he has termed them, autrebiographiesBoyhood, Youth, and Summertime, collected here for the first time as Scenes from Provincial Life. A major project published over a 12-year period, the volumes see Coetzee adapting his novelistic techniques to tell the story of three distinct, formative periods in his life: his childhood and early teenage years spent in uninspiring 1950s South Africa; his early twenties as a gauche would-be poet masquerading as a computer programmer in 1960s London; and the inauspicious outset of his literary career in the early 1970s, in which we find a bedraggled Coetzee living in suburban obscurity with his father.


Coetzee has indicated that he did not originally conceive of the project as a trilogy, and Summertime represents a departure from its predecessors in both content and form. Whereas Boyhood and Youth deal with events that correspond in outline with those of Coetzee’s life, by the time we get to Summertime he has abandoned biographical fact to the extent of actually killing himself off. Summertime takes the form of a series of interviews, conducted by a young English biographer, with four women and one man who played a role in the life of the recently deceased novelist John Coetzee, alongside some unfinished fragments from his notebooks. What’s more, Coetzee has also altered other crucial biographical details. For example, though in the 1972 in which Summertime begins his father is already a widower, Coetzee’s mother Vera did not actually die until 1985; the John of the novel is a hopeless bachelor, yet by this point in his life the real Coetzee was married with children.

Certainly, if Coetzee’s persona has been treated to an artistic make-over he does not emerge from it with any great credit. Morphing from an intense and earnest child in Boyhood, to a pretentious, self-absorbed outcast in Youth and an inscrutable misfit in Summertime, Coetzee is portrayed as cold and introverted, a tragi-comic loner. A common theme is his failure to connect, emotionally or sexually, with women. For all his social ineptitude, the young Coetzee does his share of shagging around, but the result is generally anticlimactic. One youthful tryst ends with a trip to an illegal abortionist, another with a squeamish Coetzee unceremoniously ejecting a recently deflowered maiden in the middle of the night, leading to much recrimination. One particularly cringe-inducing episode in Summertime sees Coetzee attempt to induce a bemused lover to have sex to the rhythm of a Schubert string quintet. ‘Empty your mind!’ he hissed at me. ‘Feel through the music!'”


As well as being a recurrent theme, this failure to connect – the inability of the individual to truly know and be known – is in a sense the very basis for the narrative forms that Coetzee employs. Coetzee has stated that any autobiography is autrebiography (the biography of another), and this distance is maintained throughout the first two volumes of the trilogy by Coetzee’s alienating use of the third-person, present historical tense. In the first instance, Coetzee’s use of the third person constitutes an anti-confessional disavowal on the part of the author of the experiences the text recounts. This distance is accentuated by the present tense, liberating us from the controlled fictional environment of the preterit which, as Barthes famously observed, “Presupposes a world which is constructed, elaborated, self-sufficient, reduced to significant lines”. In Coetzee’s hands the present historical creates a sense of detachment and disavowal, a narrative gaze – drained of ownership, affiliation or value – that merely describes.

In Summertime the gap between text and reality is widened by Coetzee’s use of distancing effects that make it difficult to straightforwardly attribute the words we read to a given character. The interviews are fancifully rewritten by Coetzee’s English biographer, in a style that is utterly indistinguishable from that of Coetzee’s novels. As in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives – also consisting of a series of documentary-style interviews about the two characters that form its subject – the real thoughts and experiences of Coetzee’s fictional persona remain inscrutable to us. Rather than giving us the convenient all-areas access of the conventional literary novel, Summertime places the reader in the tricky position of never knowing for sure whom or what to believe. The English biographer functions, in James Wood’s terms, as an ‘unreliably unreliable narrator’ – he undermines the veracity of the words that we read to an extent that is impossible to pin down.

The danger in Coetzee’s insistence upon distance and his resistance to straightforward confessional writing is the accusation – levelled against some of his novels – that for all their precision and ingenuity they are ultimately formalist exercises. Let it not be forgotten that this is a man whose PhD thesis involved designing computer programs to analyse patterns in the recurrence of words, phrases and grammatical constructions in Samuel Beckett’s prose. As Coetzee the author writes of Coetzee the character in Youth: “If there were a department of Pure Thought at the university he would probably enrol in Pure Thought too; but pure mathematics appears to be the closest approach the academy affords to the realm of forms”. While we may admire the subtlety and inventiveness of Coetzee’s writing, there are nonetheless times when we, as the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said of Nabokov, hear the clatter of surgical tools.


The difference in the Coetzee of Scenes From Provincial Life is that, while the surrogate he creates may not always be likeable – indeed Coetzee often seems to go to self-flagellating lengths to ensure that he isn’t – and for all the obstacles he places in the way of a confessional reading, we still hear an unmistakable authorial investment reverberating through the echo chamber of Coetzee’s formal distancing effects. Indeed, it is an emotion intensified by the insurmountability of the barriers that prevent it being confronted more directly. Rather than being tacked on as an affectation, the sense of alienation from the past created by these narrative forms – the inability to unify the self as constructed by memory, the memory as constructed by self, the text as constructed by memory, and the self as constructed by text – is in itself the subject, and it is one to which we can relate. Just as Proust’s striving for a past that remains tantalisingly inaccessible is an essentially pathetic exercise, so Coetzee’s alienated autobiographies speak to a wider alienation from the self that transcends the works’ formal cleverness and elevates them way above the realm of pure technique.



Danny Byrne is a journalist based in London. He has written reviews for ReadySteadyBook and BookGeeks, and blogs here. He studied literature at Oxford and UCL. Twitter: @dannysbyrne

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 21st, 2011.