AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

The argument over J.M. Coetzee
Monica Popescu | September 25th, 2013

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Literature should generate lively public debates — all scholars worth their salt will proclaim. We believe in the importance of culture and think that intellectual tussles over significant books, and not celebrity gossip, should grace the front page of newspapers. In reality, such prominent literary arguments rarely happen. Yet half a year ago, South African and international magazines as well as the online media exploded with such a debate — some have called it a feud — that has been flaring up periodically with follow-up responses. The original argument involved novelist and lecturer in creative writing Imraan Coovadia and his colleague at the University of Cape Town, Ian Glenn. The subject is J.M. Coetzee, arguably the best-known South African writer. His work, his legacy (now that he no longer lives in his native country), and the status of South African literature at home and abroad are the stakes in this heated exchange, which irrupted with the publication of the first authorized Coetzee biography.

Readers familiar with Coetzee’s work and style of writing must have been only mildly surprised when in his latest volume of autobiographical fiction, Summertime (2009), the author imagines himself dead. After all, in Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002) he wrote about himself in the third person, distancing his aged authorial stance from his younger self; conversely, in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) he foreshortened the gap between reader and protagonist through a demanding and difficult to sustain first person, present tense narration.

In Summertime a young scholar of English literature rummages through the deceased John Coetzee’s notebooks. He interviews the author’s friends and lovers to form a picture of the early 1970s, when the aspiring writer had just returned from the United States and was completing Dusklands. Coetzee has always subjected himself and his protagonists to rigorous scrutiny; in Summertime he imagines an unflattering portrait a lover might have given him — a scrawny man with an abstracted look, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and sandals: “There was an air of seediness about him too, an air of failure….I didn’t get close enough to check out his feet, but I was ready to bet the toenails weren’t trimmed”. Was the writer trying on, like a new hat, the uncomplimentary gossip that crops up after a literary master passes away? Or was it the self-confident pose of a literary god unswayed by trivial concerns?

This exercise in imagining his own posterity must have contributed something to Coetzee’s positive response to J.C. Kannemeyer’s 2008 request to complete an authorized biography. A doyen of old-school Afrikaans literary historiography, Kannemeyer is an unexpected choice for a biographer. There must have been no dearth of eager academics ready to take up this task. With a Nobel and two Booker Prizes to his name, the writer is at the top of the literary establishment, commanding the admiration of a large readership. Why did Coetzee grant access to his manuscripts, notebooks, friends and family to a scholar whose completed work, he must have known beforehand, would have favorable reviews describe it at best as factual, fine and monumental? Magisterial, as well — with all the heft of a backhanded compliment. Kannemeyer wanted to believe that Coetzee had been seduced by the idea of a look at his life and work from a minority literature perspective, the point of view of an Afrikaans scholar, someone removed from the world literature and postcolonial studies paradigms that are fashionable in English literary scholarship today. Perhaps it was a defying practical joke that threw a marrowless bone to an impatient public eager to know more about the reclusive writer’s life? Or was it a touch of undisguised thirst to build his own image, as Coovadia intimates in his essay, “Coetzee in and out of Cape Town,” published in the January issue of Kritika Kultura? Some of the answers to these questions have been lost as, in a reversal of the plot in Summertime, it is the biographer who passed away. The 2012 posthumous publication of the volume J.M. Coetzee: A Writing Life by J.C. Kannemeyer, written in Afrikaans and translated into English by Michiel Heyns, triggered the debate mentioned above — an exchange in part acrimonious and ad hominem, yet overall revealing of greater anxieties about the literary landscape in South Africa.

If his biographer has passed away, Coetzee is alive and productive in Adelaide. His 2002 departure from his native country to settle in Australia set off an open-ended argument on the role South African authors play in the global cultural imaginary, a debate now renewed with the further canonization of Coetzee in the first authorized biography. During the grim apartheid decades, readers abroad got their views of the injustice of that system from literary works as much as from newscasts, antiapartheid rallies and calls to boycott the government’s outrageous policies. But how does South African literature fare today, when most readers in the Western world probably know only the author of Disgrace? The fresh crop of writers that emerged or became established after apartheid ended — Zakes Mda, Zoë Wicomb, Ivan Vladislavić, Marlene van Niekerk and many others — or even the earlier generation of poets and novelists who had gained an international reputation despite censorship and banning — Mongane Wally Serote, Nadine Gordimer, Alex La Guma, Miriam Tlali, Lewis Nkosi — have slipped away from the international limelight or never reached it to the same extent their compatriot did. Academic curricula reinforce the same situation: there’s no lack of BA or MA candidates ready to write a thesis on Coetzee’s Levinasian ethics, and the author’s name on a reading list will often help fill up a class on African or postcolonial literature. Students will always enjoy reading Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town or Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow, yet these texts do not carry the same name recognition as Foe.

Why does Coetzee continue to represent South Africa in the eyes of a global readership even when he lives far away in Adelaide? How does one pull away from the snowballing effect of the myth-making surrounding the author, when other excellent writers remain less known abroad? These questions are at the core of the debate that exploded earlier this year between Coovadia and Glenn. Is this mythologizing process deterring readers from assessing Coetzee’s latest works as books that should stand or fall on their own merit? — asks Coovadia. The problem is, he argues, after the Nobel Prize and the second Booker, Coetzee’s oeuvre has been treated as a religion — the ultimate word on South Africa and suffering, even when the texts lack direct reference and relevance to the lives of his fellow citizens. His recent works are not really being reviewed but simply added to the Pantheon.

Earlier in his career, when the world knew him only as first time Booker Prize winner and author of Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Coetzee pointed out how wrong it was for him, a writer of the white minority, to be repeatedly invited to speak on behalf of the oppressed majority. At the time when Coetzee’s international audience was growing, his allegorical rendering of power, knowledge, and subtle forms of complicity did not fit in with what and how his compatriots associated with the antiapartheid movement were writing. South African literature of the 1970s and ’80s was often seen as an instrument of the struggle. For leftists, it was a tool to raise the consciousness of the people, to make them aware of the government’s fear-inducing tactics, and to teach them ways of standing up for their truth. Poets recited their latest lines at political rallies. Plays that tackled racism and social inequality roused the audience jam-packed into township halls. Novels, like Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter or Alex La Guma’s In the Fog of the Season’s End, were liable to be deemed subversive and banned. The immediacy of the message shaped the choice of literary genre. Few had the leisure and space to write novels in the crammed tin shacks they shared with their families, and few had the time to read them.

In this context, the pristinely crafted sentences of Coetzee’s prose, his morally tortured characters, his reflection on forms of domination and complicity appeared a different species altogether. Yet the writer had defended his approach, refusing to make literature ancillary to history and to write in a realist vein. “[T]he story is not really playing the game you call Class Conflict or the game called Male Domination or any of the other games in the games handbook,” the writer said in one of his most quoted essays, “The Novel Today,” disparaging the call for direct relevance.

Coetzee’s novels of the 1980s and 1990s did present the South African reality, albeit in oblique fashion. The meditation on torture in Waiting for the Barbarians, which today reads so à propos in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the enhanced interrogation techniques scandal, was also a direct comment on the 1977 death in detention of Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement. In this novel set on the frontier of an unnamed empire, innocent fisher folk are tortured to death and the euphemisms concealing the murderous scene are a haunting echo of the report following Biko’s death in police custody. “A scuffle ensued during which the prisoner fell heavily against the wall. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.” The language of officialdom in South Africa was chock-full of euphemisms disguising sinister scenes. There is also the obsession with the frontier, the dread of a barbarian invasion and its destruction of a way of living — a reminder of the early 1980s fear that South Africa’s left-leaning neighbors would unleash the rooi gevaar, the red menace. If in Age of Iron Coetzee for the first time attended directly to the tense mood of the mid-80s State of Emergency, his readers were surprised to see the author turn away from the local scene in the year of its most glorious transformation. The 1994 novel The Master of Petersburg looks at an imaginary incident in Dostoevsky’s life, but speaks volumes about the position and role of a writer in a newly reconfigured political field, like the one in South Africa at the time. And then, of course, there’s the impeccably written yet often misread Disgrace.

When it came out in 1999 it did very well on the international market, winning Coetzee the second Booker. At home, the ANC expressed disappointment in what they narrowly read as a novel suggesting the victimization of white people. Lucy’s rape by three black men was taken as the revival of the old black peril cliché. It is both sad and surprising that some readers felt Coetzee portrayed David Lurie, no less a rapist or misogynist, in a sympathetic light. And as Coovadia points out, it is outright baffling that there are a couple of academics who would even take pride in being the inspiration for the protagonist. Whatever influenced Coetzee’s decision to relocate to Australia in 2002, one hopes it is not associated with the book’s reception in South Africa. Only a very thin-skinned writer would take offence at Thabo Mbeki’s literary criticism, Coovadia observes.

What startles once again is the discrepancy between the negative or absent reaction to the novel among South Africa’s general readership and its canonization in academia, both at home and abroad. Coetzee’s work, it has been said, reads well in translation, whether transposed to a different language or cultural context. It is part of the cosmopolitan literature that, as one critic put it, is born translated — readily imbued with the values and literary codes that appeal to a global readership. There is, of course, a less generous but no less compelling interpretation: books that become household items in a global literary market play by the rules of neoliberal capitalism or are unwittingly incorporated into these worldwide circuits. They sell well to a mostly privileged Western audience and do no favors to the national literature from which they arise.

This is what Coovadia’s essay reminds us to consider. Shouldn’t we look afresh at how Coetzee’s work is evaluated and what is being inferred about South Africa based on his corpus of work? What are the energies that promote his novels, and what does this setup do for his compatriots, whether established writers or young people entering university to study literature?

There is by now a good-sized mini-library of academic exegesis on Coetzee’s works and the ink is still flowing from the scholars’ pens, augmenting the image of the great South African novelist. While at times unjustifiably harsh — it suspects Coetzee of being frugal with love for his fellow human beings by dint of spatial proximity to other misanthropic lecturers — Coovadia’s argument hits the nail on the head. After producing some of the best literature in the world during the 1980s and 90s, is the Coetzee of Elizabeth Costello (2003), Slow Man (2005), or Diary of a Bad Year (2007) still measuring up to his earlier achievements? And in a pedagogical light, what does it mean to hammer students at the University of Cape Town and elsewhere around the country with the same works and authors, even when they are perceived as less relevant? Why not teach and promote the works of Zakes Mda, Ivan Vladislavić, Mandla Langa and Lauren Beukes — award-winning writers that really speak about and to contemporary South Africans?

On forums and social media, those outraged by Ian Glenn’s attack on Coovadia have compiled honor rolls of South African writers, a proof that the country’s literary prestige does not rely solely on the reputation of Coetzee, as Glenn intimated. Lauren Beukes, Sifiso Mzobe, Damon Galgut, Ivan Vladislavić, Mandla Langa and others have been invoked for their recent contributions. As for Glenn’s response to Coovadia’s essay, there is little that needs to be said about it. It amounts to nitpicking on formal issues, spelling and uncorrected typographical errors, and identifying a couple of facts that the author of the original essay got wrong. It ends with thinly disguised racial stereotyping. About one thing Glenn is correct, though: Coovadia’s essay, and I would add the enthusiasm it generated, has little to do with the person John Coetzee. It is a symptom. It is not a symptom of “individual, racial and generational” animus, as Glenn would want us believe. It is a symptom of a younger generation of writers and intellectuals tired of seeing their literature measured in internationally recognized prizes, always held up to the standards and logic of global recognition and a putative universal quality — that old colonial yardstick. The mechanisms that grant star quality to an author, make certain forms of literature desirable, or even provide formulas for what will sell well and what will win applause are not separate from the neoliberal undertows of a global book market. Coovadia’s iconoclastic essay — and it’s no easy task to shake up the image of a great writer even when it has become cloyed by sycophantic admiration — is the symptom of new cultural and critical energies bursting to reshape the South African literary canon and the way it is viewed in the world.

This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in Berfrois. You can revisit the whole exchange in full — chronologically — herehere and here.

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Monica Popescu

Author of "South African Literature Beyond the Cold War" (2010) and English Professor.

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2 thoughts on “The argument over J.M. Coetzee

  1. Dear Monika,
    Your piece has got me asking a lot of rhetorical questions:
    Firstly:
    Can’t we have both the old and the new, if you say waiting for the barbarians shows what is happening now?
    and then:
    What does art do?
    What does a storyteller actually do apart from telling a story?
    Is he or she a social engineer?
    Was JM preparing his readers for the changes that were coming, in those days, and is he still doing so?
    Are those reading, listening?
    And is your questioning his relevance making him more interesting or consigning him to the history library?
    And if the latter why should he be consigned to the History library now and not at any other time?
    And lastly:
    If he has outlived his biographer and if his biographer was from his same tribe what does that mean? Why would you list the titles of three of his books that you have decided are not worth reading?
    Do they make us want to read those books or not read them?
    How decides who measures up to what?
    What you are saying about the culture industry is such a fundamental arguement I was surprised to read it at the end of your piece instead of the beginning. Having said that had you started from there you would have probably answered all my rhetorical questions and written a very different piece.
    But I agree with you the writers you listed should access thier audiences then the advice ort to be: You don’t need to wait for the culture industry to create a space for you, you make yourself relevant to the people you are righting for. If you touch your people you will touch all people and then you can move to Australia and continue tellng the truth from there.
    We need to access our audience directly on a regular basis and then we can maintain a conversation.
    greetings,
    Branwen Okpako

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