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J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a bad year

July 5, 2009
Coetzee, Poland, 2006 (Photo: Mariusz Kubik, from Wikipedia)

Coetzee, Poland, 2006 (Photo: Mariusz Kubik, from Wikipedia)

J.M. Coetzee is one of those rare novelists who pushes the boundaries of what a novel is. The progression from his mid-career novel, the spare but terrifying Disgrace (1999), through Elizabeth Costello (2003) to Diary of a bad year (2007) is so dramatic that there are those who question whether these last two are even novels. It’s actually been a year or so since I read Diary of a bad year but it is currently being discussed by one of my reading groups so now seemed to be a good time to blog about it here.

One of the first things to confront the reader who picks up Diary of a bad year is how to read it. It has three (two to begin with) concurrent strands running across the top, middle and bottom of the page. Some readers try to read the three strands as concurrently as possible while others read the strands sequentially. Following this latter path, though, means you risk missing the way the strands comment on each other. The three strands are:

  • the narrator’s formal voice, basically taking the form of essays he is writing
  • the narrator’s informal voice in which he talks about his life as he is writing the essays
  • the voice of Anya, his “little typist”, and, through her, of her boyfriend, Alan

The three characters represent three modes of viewing the world: the narrator’s is primarily theoretical, while Anya’s is more pragmatic and Alan’s rational. Through these modes, Coetzee teases out the moral conundrums of the early 21st century both in terms of the political (the events confronting us) and the personal (how are we to live).

Towards the end, Coetzee refers to his love of Bach. To some degree the book is a paean to Bach: its three-part structure in which each part counterpoints the others seems to be a textual representation of Bach’s polyphony. The essays running across the top of the page, while a little uneven and dry on their own, are counterpointed by the views of the characters in the other two strands, resulting in our being presented with different ways of viewing the same world.

The characterisation is interesting: Senor C, the writer of the essays, is the logical, moral but somewhat pessimistic thinker; Anya is practical, down to earth, but with a strong moral sense; and Alan is the economic rationalist for whom money is essentially everything. The views of the two men are strongly contrasted, while Anya is caught in the middle. There is a Darwinian sense in Alan of the survival of the fittest, while Senor C spurns competition as a way of life, preferring collaboration. For all his “moral” views, though, Senor C is not presented as a paragon and we are discomforted at times by his attitude towards the beautiful Anya.

The overall theme seems to be how do we live in a world full of paradoxes and contradictions, a world that seems to be pervaded by dishonour and shame (the things Senor C explores in the essays). He talks about ordinary people and how they (we) cope with things they (we) don’t approve of. He wonders why they (we) don’t do something about it, but suggests in the end that they (we) practise “inner emigration”. He says:

The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.

I like that concept though it does smack of burying one’s head in the sand. He also talks about collective guilt, and about bearing the dishonour of what’s gone on before. Through choosing a “novel” form like no other, one which blends but in no way harmonises fact and fiction, Coetzee shows in a very concrete way that difficult times need new ways of presenting ideas. He offers no neat conclusions, no easy outs;  he is quite subversive really. Late in the book he ponders the value of writing, and says:

Are these words written on paper truly what I wanted to say?

This then is another step in Coetzee’s path of trying to find the best, perfect perhaps, way of saying what he wants to say. I, for one, will be ready for his next step.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2009 11:39 pm

    I saw Disgrace at the pictures this week, and thought they did a good job of it. It is as you say the last of his more accessible novels and the one that I find most fatalistic. Have you read Life and Times of Michael K? That was bleak too. South Africa usually makes me feel bleak these days – the last time I felt differently was on that first multi-racial election day.

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    July 6, 2009 12:37 am

    I have been wanting to get to this movie but life has got in the way the last couple of weeks (Jane Austen feast, Mum’s 80th, friend in hospital with cancer) and we haven’t seen any movies. I’m seeing one tomorrow but this is not the film for that friend I think. No, Michael K is the one I want to read next. I have been told about it for years.

  3. July 6, 2009 9:51 am

    For a ‘nice’ movie, as distinct from a powerful intellectually challenging and emotionally disturbing one LOL, I recommend Coco Avant Chanel. I saw it yesterday (oh, it’s so good to be on holidays!) and enjoyed it very much.

  4. whisperinggums permalink*
    July 6, 2009 9:56 am

    That’s actually the one we’re seeing today! Seemed to be the best for the purpose. Glad you recommend it. I’m sure holidays are wonderful for teachers – I guess the only trouble is you do get stuck with going to cinemas with the kids. We non teacher people hate the school holidays and what they do to our lovely quiet cinemas (though of course there are cinemas and cinemas aren’t there?)

  5. July 6, 2009 11:35 am

    You’re pretty safe going to foreign films LOL – no children there….
    Actually, if I ever get to run the world for 5 minutes, near the top of my priority list would be the banning of eating and drinking in cinemas. Slurp, crackle, crinkle, gulp, it’s disgusting, and the sound travels all over the cinema in such a confined space. Why can’t people last a couple of hours without eating and drinking like they used to?

  6. whisperinggums permalink*
    July 6, 2009 6:28 pm

    That’s true and it was indeed fine…I totally agree re noisy food. Fortunately it seems that we get less of that at the Dendy. It’s not unknown there but I certainly notice it more at other cinemas.

  7. August 18, 2009 5:25 am

    Excellent review. Thanks so much for giving me the link. I’ll be adding your excellent blog to my RSS feed and blogroll.

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      August 18, 2009 9:13 am

      Thanks Kimbofo…it’s one of those books I loved getting my teeth into. As you see I have added you to my blogroll – having seen you a few times around the traps, particularly at ANZLitLovers. I like your blog too and might steal your method of categorising authors if you don’t mind!

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