J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a bad year
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.