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Bill curates: JM Coetzee’s Diary of a bad year

July 10, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

When Sue wrote this review in July 2009 – yes I am progressing only slowly, but there is so much to choose from!  – Diary of a Bad Year was Coetzee’s most recent work. I read it only a year or so ago and it impressed on me how lucky we are in Australia that Coetzee chose to live here.

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My original post titled: “JM Coetzee, Diary of a bad year”

Book coverJ.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.

JM Coetzee
Diary of a Bad Year
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007
178pp.
ISBN: 9781921145636

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I said in this July 2009 post that I was ready for his next step, but in fact other reading got in the way and I have not read any more Coetzee since then. However, like Bill, I’m very glad he chose Australia to be his home. I will try to read more of him in coming years because I enjoy his exploration of the novel-form itself, as well as being interested in his ideas.

Have you read any Coetzee? If so we’d love to hear what you think about his writing.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2020 12:46 pm

    LOL I haven’t read any Coetzee since last time you reviewed this, I used to read his work religiously, but he lost me with Elizabeth Costello.

    • July 10, 2020 1:39 pm

      Thanks Lisa. I rather liked EC. But it was different. I like that he makes you think about form and what fiction us without being difficult to understand. I guess he speaks to things that intrigue me!

  2. July 10, 2020 2:11 pm

    I really appreciated the format, it still makes me think about different ways I could construct a text. Also, Coetzee seems to be regarded as apolitical, but I thought the section labelled Strong Opinions (I think) was pretty openly critical of the Howard government

    • July 10, 2020 6:52 pm

      Thanks Bill. Is he regarded as apolitical? I hadn’t realised that. It probably says something about my views that I felt his ideas aligned with my politics!

      I agree with you regarding appreciating the format. It was so interesting to read, and my reading group’s discussion was fascinating.

  3. July 10, 2020 4:06 pm

    This was a great review. I have not read Coetzee but I have wanted to for awhile. The structure of this one sounds so creative. It also sounds like it works well. The theme of coming to grips with a world of contradiction is an interesting one.

    • July 10, 2020 7:32 pm

      Thanks Brian … it’s so hard to read all the books you want to, isn’t it? I think you would like this if and when you find the time to delve into Coetzee.

  4. Sue permalink
    July 10, 2020 5:42 pm

    OK I’m going to have to ‘fess up – I read Disgrace long ago but honestly can’t remember what I thought of it, and I haven’t read any Coetzee since – and the library doesn’t have Disgrace or Diary of a Bad Year. Any suggestions of what book of his is best to read will be gladly accepted!

    Sue – I’m afraid I for Isobel lost my interest about half way through and I dropped it for Wallower’s The Watchtower – so far so good on that one, perhaps Witting just isn’t for me?

    • July 10, 2020 7:43 pm

      Fascinating isn’t it, Sue, how differently we read. I read Disgrace before blogging but it is absolutely imprinted on my brain as a really powerful novel. It reminded me, in a way, of Doris Lessing’s The grass is singing. Very very different, but also with some similar moral complexities. I’ve only read Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello, and Diary of a bad year. But I would like to read some of the earlier novels like Life and Times of Michael K. The early novels might be a good place to start.

      Interesting re Witting. It’s quite a while since I’ve read her but I loved those I’ve read so much that I’m keen to read more. (However, see my opening sentence!) I don’t know Wallower’s The watchtower at all. Can you tell me more?

      • Sue permalink
        July 10, 2020 8:59 pm

        Duh, The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower, honestly I’m having one of those days sorry Sue, how did I get the author’s surname wrong! I’ll let you know how I go with it I’ve only just started yesterday.

        I was enjoying I for Isobel until I felt the story got bogged down in the conversations with her friends which started to bore me – but I may be going through a phase of other things on my mind and not concentrating well (see tonight’s previous post as an example, oops!)

        It must so long ago I read Disgrace & now you’ve said how powerful you found it, it would be good to re-read it – I do remember it vaguely. I wish the library here had a copy. Might be one for the second hand bookstore here!

        Hope this post makes sense, I’m half-watching Les Mis at the same time – I really shouldn’t try to multi-task in the evenings!

        • July 10, 2020 9:06 pm

          Ah, why did I not guess that. It’s a powerful book.

          I know what you mean about not being in the right frame of mind sometimes for a book. It has certainly happened to me.

  5. Meg permalink
    July 10, 2020 6:41 pm

    Hi, a great review Bill. I was hooked on Disgrace and Coetzee when I first read the book and him! I love his writing style. He makes me think, and he takes me on unknown paths. He always leaves me wondering.

    • July 10, 2020 7:45 pm

      Yes, I’m with you Meg. Disgrace sold me on Coetzee, and I’ve liked him since though I’ve only read three of his novels so far which is not much given his oeuvre.

  6. July 11, 2020 3:33 am

    I have tried Coetzee but didn’t like his style. I think he’s too clever for me perhaps. But I did love the movie “Disgrace” based on his novel – I think I’ll give that one a try.

    • July 11, 2020 8:40 am

      Do, Pink Roses. It’s a gritty story, as you’ll know from the movie, but it’s a far more straightforward read, as I recollect, than the others I’ve read.

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