"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Belonging And Becoming

Denis Sampson

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, described as a memoir, dramatises the experience of John from the age of seven to thirteen, at first in Worcester, South Africa, and then in Cape Town. Youth, on one occasion given the subtitle Scenes from Provincial Life II, dramatises the life of John from age nineteen to twenty-four, at first in Cape Town, then in London and in an English country town, where he works as a computer programmer. Summertime: Fiction presents materials for a partial “biography” of John covering some years in the period following his return from the United States to South Africa in 1972; these materials include extracts from John’s notebooks and interviews conducted in 2007-2008, following his death, with people who knew him in the seventies. These three volumes, variously known as memoir or fiction, have now been published as a single volume: Scenes from Provincial Life.

These episodes in the life of John bear a certain relationship to the beginnings of John Michael (or Maxwell) Coetzee as a novelist and to the novelist he became. In the third volume, the publication of John’s first book, Dusklands, is mentioned, and there are references by interviewees to work they have read, often critical assessments, and to John’s career as a novelist, even to his writing of the memoir Boyhood.

Coetzee, the author of these oblique memoirs, was born in South Africa in 1940, lived in Worcester, Cape Town, London and the United States before he returned to live in Cape Town in 1972. He is still alive and lives in Adelaide, Australia. Recently, he sold his papers to the Harry Ransom Research Centre, University of Texas at Austin. What the relationship is between John and JM Coetzee will undoubtedly occupy scholars in Texas and elsewhere, much as they have tried to match up Joyce and Stephen Dedalus, Yeats and his various masks, Beckett and his solitaries. But for now Scenes from Provincial Life offers the pleasure of great writing, of brilliantly constructed fiction with confessional resonances, and focuses our attention on one particular issue, the one mentioned in the title. How does Coetzee understand his “provincial life” and what bearing does it have on the kind of novelist he became?

John is eight, it is 1948, and the family has been exiled from Cape Town to the barren outskirts of a country town called Worcester so that the father, a non-practising lawyer, can start his new job as accounts clerk in a canning factory. His mother wishes to have a bicycle so that she can escape from her daily isolation in this new housing development. Her husband ridicules the idea: “Women do not ride bicycles, he says. His mother remains defiant. I will not be a prisoner in this house, she says. I will be free.” In a sense these words set the tone and direction of the whole narrative of Boyhood, for in the boy’s observation of the incident, all of his own deepest and most conflicted feelings are stirred, and he is introduced to ideas of imprisonment and freedom that will become key preoccupations.

At first John is confused ‑ “What if his father is right?” ‑ and his mother’s first efforts to teach herself to cycle appear futile, so that he finds himself allied with his father: “His heart turns against her. That evening he joins in with his father’s jeering. He is well aware what a betrayal this is. Now his mother is all alone.” She does succeed eventually, although she only cycles when he is away at school, and so he only sees her on one occasion: “Her hair streams in the wind. She looks young, like a girl, young and fresh and mysterious.” It is a low-key epiphany, a passing vision of almost transcendent beauty somehow opposed to the squalor of the circumstances, and depths of feeling are brought to life that appear to last to the present time of writing.

John is actually sympathetic to his mother’s unhappiness, and has a sense that her life has once been very different, perhaps filled with promise, before she married, and the enigma of that marriage occupies him. “His whole inclination is to gang up with her against his father”, but on this occasion he slips into ridicule, betraying her. Somehow, and he does not know why, he associates himself with common male attitudes, and the incident seems to remain with him because for once “he belongs with the men”. Even though his mother does master the bicycle, she soon gives up: “No one says a word, but he knows she has been defeated, put in her place, and knows that he must bear part of the blame.” His felt recognition of gender stereotypes, abusive power, and humiliation informs Coetzee’s later understanding and surely determines his choice of this incident in the opening chapter. “I will make it up to her one day, he promises himself.” Images of powerlessness and imprisonment, which became so central to Coetzee’s fictional world, may be said to have their origins in this image of his mother.

 

In fact, John has a deeply conflicted and unsentimental attitude towards her, but here it appears that he becomes aware of the violence inherent in the texture of his daily life and even in his own self. She is “escaping towards her own desire. He does not want her to go. He does not want her to have a desire of her own.” In remembering her, it is as if the writer is working to identify and understand, to subvert, such violence, especially in the lives of men, and indeed in the life of the boy himself. In these simple sentences, it is as if he has plumbed some primal and visceral impulse to dominate that courses through intimate relationships, social intercourse, and, of course, racial relations in the tangled history of settlement in South Africa.

“The memory does not leave him”, the chapter’s final paragraph begins, as if confirming that the present tense in which John’s boyhood is narrated remains the present tense of JM Coetzee as he writes. The felt truth of this small familial event remains constant and becomes a much larger truth. The final paragraph of the book, in a chapter which describes the boy’s attendance at the funeral of his mother’s Aunt Annie (John is now thirteen) concludes: “He alone is left to do the thinking. How will he keep them all in his head, all the books, all the people, all the stories? And if he does not remember them, who will?” In these sentences, it appears that the writer steps in to identify himself with John’s burden, and in remembering on behalf of others, it is as if he protests on their behalf against the inescapable limitations on a life: of death and history, poverty and place, of the imprisonment of narrow circumstances and roles.

John’s mother and father were both raised speaking Afrikaans, in rural backwaters, and continue to speak Afrikaans to their families, yet they have decided that he will grow up speaking English. They speak English in the home and send him to English schools; in fact, one of John’s worries is that because he bears an Afrikaner name he might be obliged to attend school in Afrikaans. It appears that he did not begin to speak that language until he was about four, but having English as his mother tongue and having a heightened consciousness of the other language and its social and historical ramifications lead to some of the boy’s most complex feelings about his cultural identity. While he has to constantly negotiate both passing contacts and more established relationships with coloured people (there are almost no blacks at all in his English/Afrikaner environment), it is his relationship to Afrikaner culture, and especially stereotypical male behaviour, that shape the central issues of cultural identity for him.

 

Afrikaner culture is characterised from the beginning as an overlapping texture of violences. In chapter two, a secret he keeps from his mother is the violence of the school, the daily beatings by teachers, male and female, and the hazing rituals by the other boys. John stands out for academic excellence and so avoids floggings by teachers, but his sense of his own difference, his softness, amounts to a kind of shame. The violation and its acceptance are a sign of some obscure public honour, whereas in John’s observation of them, his sense of the privacy of physical sensation becomes an obscure and troubling aspect of his individuality. There is a suggestion that the normalising violence is a kind of rape, with life and death significance: “If it ever happens that he is called out to be beaten, there will be so humiliating a scene that he will never again be able to go back to school; in the end there will be no way out but to kill himself.” The “scene” that he imagines is his refusal to be beaten, and the will power that will allow him to refuse is rooted in a feeling of shame. “The strange thing is, it will only take one beating to break the spell of terror that has him in its grip. He is well aware of this: if, somehow, he can be rushed through the beating before he has had time to turn to stone and resist, if the violation of his body can be achieved quickly, by force, he will be able to come out on the other side a normal boy.” He blames his mother for making him a sissy, and abnormal, for his father and his uncles all seem to have been normalised by such beatings, and so the secret he keeps from his mother is the ground of his rejection of her.

While the wish to be normal occupies John daily, far more emphatic is a recognition of his separateness and a determination to preserve that separateness, from mother, from father, and from the surrounding society and its culture. So complex are the conflicting loyalties he feels, between his parents, home and school, “English” and “Afrikaner” culture, that he withdraws and creates a double life: “By living this double life he has created for himself a burden of imposture.” And yet it seems that he has no doubt that becoming an imposter preserves a great measure of his freedom and his desires, and is a cornerstone of his later dramatisations of the self.

Language and expression are at the heart of those issues because they are the medium through which his sense of his own male body, his bond to and independence from his mother, and the enveloping Afrikaner culture are all brought into consciousness. As he registers the nuances of communication and meaning, the enigmatic textures of words, the abrupt revelations of otherness and the effort to find clarity, all draw recurring attention to his isolation and difference. “Because they speak English at home, because he always comes first in English at school, he thinks of himself as English … The range of Afrikaans he commands is thin and bodiless; there is a whole dense world of slang and allusion commanded by real Afrikaans boys – of which obscenity is only a part – to which he has no access.” Yet on the farm of his father’s family, where a large gathering of brothers and wives and cousins assemble regularly, speaking Afrikaans, a dramatic change had happened on his first visit when, playing with coloured boys, he realised he could speak some Afrikaans. Something vital from that time remained: “When he speaks Afrikaans all the complications of life seem suddenly to fall away. Afrikaans is like a ghostly envelope that accompanies him everywhere, that he is free to slip into, becoming at once another person, simpler, gayer, lighter in his tread.”

In spite of this, he fears the larger Afrikaner identity associated with his father: “It centres just as much on being beaten and on nakedness, on bodily functions performed in front of other boys, on an animal indifference to privacy … It is like being sent to prison, to a life without privacy.” He senses that his father’s family blame his mother for making him “English”, and he does not understand why they “dislike England”. Unaware of the Boer War, for it is not taught in school history classes, he is inclined to revere heroic and jingoistic aspects of the Empire, especially in the light of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. But he knows that he is not “truly English”; for that there are “tests to face, some of which he knows he will not pass”. And so, while he feels that he “commands with ease” the English language, all of the cultural and historical complexities in which his feelings about himself are entangled leave him isolated and anxious about where he really belongs.

Although Boyhood is a third person narrative, John is the central consciousness for everything that is narrated, and if his identity as boy is the memoir’s subject and is fully grounded in the startling intimacy of the details, his older novelistic self can also be sensed in the preoccupation with language and expression, with the medium of this art. John is always fighting back, he refuses to be a victim of the aggression of others, yet, at his age and degree of familial dependence, his independence is largely a private state of critical detachment and the registering of felt complexities. Becoming an imposter, “another person”, who registers and articulates felt complexities of violence and desire, is one of the underlying impulses of JM Coetzee’s later work.

Formally a student of mathematics at the university, John devotes a considerable amount of his time to trying to become a poet. The opening paragraphs of Youth introduce the phrase “under false pretences”, and indeed that is the note of the entire book – it is a narrative of youthful self-dramatisation, that is of his failure to act with conviction in the outer world even as his overactive analytical mind defines again and again the dilemmas which make action inauthentic and even shameful. The impasse in which he finds himself during his final undergraduate years and then for some years in England is centrally focused on his serial sexual relationships with women, and this is the constant source of deep shame, but his inability to establish any commitment with conviction is grounded in the conflicting issues of honesty and doubt, in being an imposter.

He commits his feelings about some of these relationships to his diary, but writing a diary, or writing at all, is problematic: “What are his true thoughts anyway? Some days he feels happy, even privileged, to be living with a beautiful woman, or at least not to be living alone. Other days he feels differently. Is the truth the happiness, the unhappiness, or the average of the two? The question of what should be permitted to go into his diary and what kept forever shrouded goes to the heart of all his writing.” At this moment, the drama of John’s thoughts running above the misery of his failures in relationships seems to capture the state of mind of the young man, yet such thoughts regarding the writing of a diary seem to echo forwards and backwards over the whole length of JM Coetzee’s mature career: what is to be confessed in writing, what shrouded?

Even the failures in love, he would like to believe, are the stuff of poetry: “If poetry is not to be the agency of his transfiguration from ignoble to noble, why bother with poetry at all? Besides, who is to say that the feelings he writes in his diary are his true feelings? Who is to say that at each moment while the pen moves he is truly himself? At one moment he might truly be himself, at another he might simply be making things up. How can he know for sure? Why should he even want to know for sure?” Coetzee is, of course, amused at his younger self, torturing himself with the questions which never cease – questions are the most prominent stylistic feature of the narrative – and from this first chapter to the final chapter, little is resolved, few answers emerge, and yet the themes of these questions remain as key issues for the mature JM Coetzee as for John.

Not surprisingly, Eliot and Pound were his mentors in his aspiration to become a poet/artist. They were, of course, dominant figures of English poetry in the 1950s, yet early references to Pound make clear that Coetzee’s identification with him is quite personal: Pound fled “provincial small-mindedness” and “Pound has suffered persecution most of his life”. The tone in which the narrator presents the inner life and thoughts of John in Youth is impassioned and ironic, so such conclusions have to be seen in that light, but there is no doubt that “the suffering” of both poets reflects his somewhat narcissistic concern: “Like Pound and Eliot, he must be prepared to endure all that life has stored up for him, even if that means exile, obscure labour, and obloquy. And if he fails the highest test of art, if it turns out that he does not have the blessed gift, then he must be prepared to endure that too.” Yet this extraordinary fiction of the impasse of youth, the frustrating cycles of self-consciousness and failure, of self-pity and self-dramatisation, explores also that ironic fact that it turned out that he did indeed possess the “blessed gift” and passed “the highest test of art”; at the age of twenty, his efforts to believe that he does are both futile and necessary.

‘“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion,” says Eliot in words he has copied into his diary. “Poetry is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality.”’ It is ironic, of course, that he should have this quotation in the diary, which he has already undermined as a place where “the expression of personality” can be trusted. While its inclusion appears to denote an agreement with Eliot’s dictum, John’s thinking and language reveal that he is considerably under the influence of Eliot’s antagonist, DH Lawrence. Much of the time he seems to yearn for passionate feeling in sex and in poetry, for an experience of selfhood which is not “shrouded”, and yet he fears spontaneous action. Although he will continue to write poetry for a certain length of time, and will then stop all writing, at this point he tries writing prose: “The story that emerges from the experiment, if that is what it is, a story, has no real plot. Everything of importance happens in the mind of the narrator, a nameless young man all too like himself.” Unlike poetry, in which “the action can take place everywhere and nowhere”, prose “seems naggingly to demand a specific setting” and to his dismay and disquiet, he has set the story in South Africa: “he would prefer to leave his South African self behind as he had left South Africa itself behind. South Africa was a bad start, a handicap.” Yet, as he will learn later, even though he used a variety of fictional settings, that “handicap”, that “provincial” world that shaped his “South African self” will be a defining aspect of his style, and the understanding of that paradox will be his goal decades later in the three volumes which make up Scenes from a Provincial Life.

 

Towards the end of the narrative, a way out of the impasse is outlined as he accepts a brutal truth: that he is afraid, “afraid of writing, afraid of women”. “What is wrong with him is that he is not prepared to fail”, a reflex that he recognises as childish, and so it is suggested that maturity is “a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again”. By this point in the narrative, which does not end with any movement out of the impasse, it is hardly surprising that the older narrator embeds a broad hint that this period of waiting may in itself be a period of significant experience; the Beckettian echo in “fail and fail again” suggests that waiting and circling and powerlessness are real human experiences from which art can be won.

Although John has known of Waiting for Godot, he is surprised one day to discover a novel by Beckett: “Watt is quite unlike Beckett’s plays. There is no clash, no conflict, just the flow of a voice telling a story, a flow continually checked by doubts and scruples, its pace fitted exactly to the pace of his own mind.” The discovery of the narrative voice Beckett invented to disclose Watt’s radically eccentric sense of his existence in time and space may mark a major step forward in JM Coetzee’s embracing of a certain kind of poetic prose. He goes on to say: “Watt is also funny, so funny that he rolls about laughing. When he comes to the end he starts again at the beginning … Beckett is classless, or outside class, as he himself would prefer to be.” This recognition seems to move his sense of how he might write and what he might write away from the Flaubert-Henry James-Ford Madox Ford line, which Pound and Eliot had led him to believe was the tradition of prose writing that he should embrace. It would seem that it was in Beckett that he found the literary model for a kind of narrative based on a deconstruction of received knowledge, on doubt as an instrument of style that could be inserted into an historical reconstruction, and, indeed, for a defence of the individual person and an openness to a visionary spirituality.

Youth ends with failure: “At eighteen he might have been a poet. Now he is not a poet, not a writer, not an artist. He is a computer programmer, a twenty-four-year old computer programmer.” But, in fact, John, the young man JM Coetzee was, to some extent, in those years, has taken key steps in recognising and confronting that handicapped self that will be the foundation of his authentic self, although all will be expressed indirectly and ironically, as if in a kind of dialogue poem, of self and soul, and in the spirit of Defoe and Borges, fabricators of historical and biographical parables.

Towards the end of John’s time in England, he finds in the British Museum a collection of memoirs by travelers to the Cape two hundred years earlier. He realises that unlike England, “wrapped in centuries of words”, South Africa has never been transformed in this way, and yet the memoirs, especially William John Burchell’s Travels, make the past real. He is inspired by a literary project, one that is also a recovery of a lost historical truth, a lost reality: “The challenge he faces is a purely literary one: to write a book whose horizon of knowledge will be that of Burchell’s time, the 1820s, yet whose response to the world around it will be alive in a way that Burchell, despite his energy and intelligence and curiosity and sang-froid, could not be because he was an Englishman in a foreign country.” South Africa can be part of him and can indeed inform a kind of narrative that will allow him to write a truth that he knows from his own experience and yet it will have to be grounded in a particular kind of historical consciousness.

John’s excited discovery of Burchell’s Travels marked a reversal of what had been a wilful and abrasive departure from home. His correspondence with his mother reinforces his will to embrace his exile, to make England his home, but suddenly he finds himself thinking: “it is his country, the country of his heart, that he is reading about … Having shaken the dust of the ugly new South Africa from his feet, is he yearning for the South Africa of the old days, when Eden was still possible?” His first historical fiction, The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, Edited by S.J. Coetzee, translated by J.M. Coetzee, is a “forgery” in the style of Defoe (although in Youth the narrator remarks that “deceptions of that kind do not interest him”). It is set in 1760 and purports to be the account of a journey by an explorer/adventurer into the lands of the Bushmen ‑ when it is really a journey inside the mind of the narrator. It is “of the old days”, but it is far from being nostalgic, or heroicising, for the “true” version restored from the complete manuscript is an intimate confession of the savagery and violence of “Coetzee” and an exploration of his barbaric mentality. And so it is clear that when John thinks of “the South Africa of the old days”, this is not so much an historical epoch he is recalling with yearning, it is an earlier experience of “Eden” granted to his young self and recorded in Boyhood in a long central chapter.

Voëlfontein, Bird-fountain, is the farm in the Karoo on which his father grew up, and although his older brother Son inherited it, the large family of siblings have regular reunions there. Although this is his father’s world, John “loves every stone of it, every blade of grass, loves the birds that give it its name, birds that as dusk falls gather in their thousands in the trees around the fountain, calling to each other, murmuring, ruffling their feathers, settling for the night. It is not conceivable that another person could love the farm as he does.” In spite of his conflicted feelings about his mother’s presence at the farm – she does not feel welcomed there by her husband’s family – the chapter recounts his many pleasures on these occasions, with people as with the land itself, the farmhouse, the coloured farmhands, the animals, a passionate attachment even to “the happy slapdash mixture of English and Afrikaans that is their common tongue when they get together. He likes this funny, dancing language, with its particles that slip here and there in the sentence.” It is a world apart and “he must go to the farm because there is no place on earth he loves more or can imagine loving more. Everything that is complicated in his love for his mother is uncomplicated in his love for the farm.”

Early novels such as In the Heart of the Country and The Life and Times of Michael K seem to recall or recover that Eden in the Karoo, and in Summertime, the final volume of Scenes from Provincial Life, it is recovered once again in the recollections of John’s cousin Margot when she recounts a visit they made there together in 1974, after John’s return from America. The character Margot appears to be an elaboration of Agnes, the young cousin to whom John became very attached in early visits in childhood years: “She is his first cousin, therefore they cannot fall in love and get married. In a way that is a relief: he is free to be friends with her, to open his heart to her. But is he in love with her nevertheless? Is this love – this easy generosity, this sense of being understood at last, of not having to pretend?” The answer to that question appears to be given in Summertime when a much older John confides in her: “What the actual words were I don’t recall, but I know I was unburdening my heart to you, telling you everything about myself, all my hopes and longings. And all the time I was thinking, So this is what it means to be in love! Because – let me confess it – I was in love with you. And ever since that day, being in love with a woman has meant being free to say everything on my heart.” The Eden in the Karoo is not simply the paradise lost of Proust, the source of the deepest involuntary memories, but a place where in so many ways he is “understood at last” in his free and separate selfhood.

This utopian vision/memory of a place in which such a liberation becomes possible remains with him. Even if there was much that was alienating and barbaric on the farm, the treatment of the sheep for instance, something else was forged there. “The secret and sacred word that binds him to the farm is belong. Out in the veld by himself he can breathe the word aloud: I belong on the farm. What he really believes he does not utter, what he keeps to himself for fear the spell will end, is a different form of the word: I belong to the farm … Voëlfontein belongs to no one. The farm is greater than any of them.” It is, of course, a Tolstoyan notion, and the older Coetzee certainly went some way in sympathising with aspects of Tolstoy’s rejection of the world and history, but the boy feels that it is a sacred place, his observances there are close to ritual, and his journeys there are pilgrimages.

“Eliot as a man and particularly as a young man,” Coetzee declared in a lecture entitled “What is a Classic?” (in Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999), “was open to experience, both aesthetic and real-life, to the point of being suggestible and even vulnerable. His poetry is in many ways a meditation on, and a struggling with, such experiences; in the process of making them into poetry, he makes himself over into a new person. The experiences are perhaps not of the order of religious experience, but they are of the same genre.” These insights into Eliot’s becoming a poet and “making himself over” have an autobiographical resonance. How is John, struggling with his unformed experiences, to make himself over into J.M.?

The answer appears to be to recognise in himself the “provincial”, and to discover not necessarily Pound’s way or Eliot’s way of leaving middle America and becoming “European” but to find his own way of approaching the centre. “The feeling of being out of date, of having been born into too late an epoch … is all over Eliot’s early poetry … This is a not uncommon sense of the self among colonials – whom Eliot subsumes under what he calls provincials – particularly young colonials struggling to match their inherited culture to their daily experience.” On familiar ground now, Coetzee continues: “To such young people, the high culture of the metropolis may arrive in the form of powerful experiences which cannot, however, be embedded in their lives in any obvious way, and which seem therefore to have their existence in some transcendent realm. In extreme cases” – and this seems to prefigure what is explored in the drama of Youth – “they are led to blame their environment for not living up to art and to take up residence in an art-world. This is a provincial fate – Gustave Flaubert diagnosed it in Emma Bovary, subtitling his case study Moeurs de province – but particularly a colonial fate.” This closing phrase appears to disclose that Coetzee may not be thinking of the canon of English literature, or English culture, but the culture of Dutch/German Protestantism and the mythologising of that culture by the Afrikaners; this is his “colonial fate”, and the high art of Europe, as interpreted for a time by Eliot and Pound, as the yearned for liberation from it.

 

Coetzee discloses that some years before he surrendered to the Eliot/Pound perspective on the “transcendent realm” of classical European culture he had made a more fundamental discovery which determined his “autobiographical path”. In the summer of 1955, when he was fifteen, Coetzee heard for the first time a recording of classical music, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, played on the harpsichord. It was an accidental event – there was no music in his family – a recording overheard from the house next door, and in spite of an initial teenage impulse to reject it because it was “classical”, he became entranced: “I was being spoken to by the music as music had never spoken to me … after which everything changed. A moment of revelation which I will not call Eliotic – that would insult the moments of revelation celebrated in Eliot’s poetry – but of the greatest significance in my life nevertheless: for the first time I was undergoing the impact of the classic … The revelation in the garden was a key event in my formation.” What does he mean by “the classic”? The rest of Coetzee’s lecture in 1991 is an attempt to provide a definition which takes into account his own experience of revelation, and that of Eliot. Coetzee is temperamentally sceptical of revelation-experiences and indeed of the critical evaluations of high art. “Is being spoken to across the ages a notion that we can entertain today only in bad faith?” he asks, and there is no doubt that a central preoccupation of Coetzee’s whole work is “bad faith”, especially in sexual and political matters but also in relation to artistic expression and spiritual experience.

He does not follow the “autobiographical path” in the remainder of the lecture, but his definition of the classic is surely significant in relation to the work he undertook in his life. “It is not the possession of some essential quality that … makes it possible for the classic to withstand the assault of barbarism. Rather, what survives the worst of barbarism, surviving because generations of people cannot afford to let go of it and therefore hold on to it at all costs – that is the classic.” In Coetzee’s awakening to the “bad faith” of the Afrikaner society into which he was born, and the “bad faith” of the literary culture which at first he was drawn to in opposition to it, an awakening too to historical relativism, he is driven to find in the notion of “the classic” an historical anchor for his work. In the opposing terms “barbarism” and “the classic”, the beginnings of Coetzee’s spiritual, moral, and literary odyssey are suggested.

In a strange way, the provincial imposter, who eventually gave himself to finding more and more ways to dramatise the deconstruction of identities and cultural and historical inheritances, appears to hold on to that “Eden” he had once known; and perhaps known again in his discovery of Bach’s classical music; and then in an idea of literary tradition as something an individual talent can belong to. In wishing to be “free” on his own behalf and his mother’s, John really wanted to “belong”, and that is the fierce tension that underlies the first novels of JM Coetzee.


Denis Sampson is the author of 'Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist' to be published early in 2012 by Oxford University Press.  Earlier books are 'Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist' and 'Outstaring Nature's Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern'.

Categories