Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee puts it all together in his new novel
J.M. Coetzee â¢ Diary of a Bad Year (Viking)
by Jonathan Frey
In a letter written in the 1950s, British novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley described â“wrestling with the problem of getting an enormous amount of diversified material into [a] book without becoming merely expository or didactic.â” He expressed the intent to â“poetise and dramatise all the intellectual material and create a work which would be simultaneously funny, tragic, lyrical and profound.â”
Nearly 50 years later, Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzeeâ’s Diary of a Bad Year resonates with that same intention. The novelâ’s opening page is divided into two sections. At the top appears the following academic pedantry: â“It is hardly in our power to change the form of the state and impossible to abolish it because, vis-Ã -vis the state, we are, precisely, powerless.â” Below a line dividing the page into two unequal sections, we find the narrator, author of the previous sentence, describing a surprise encounter in his apartment complex: â“My first glimpse of her was in the laundry room â the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition. ... [T]he tomato-red shift she wore was so startling in its brevity.â”
Coetzee has emerged as an author associated as much with his ideas as his fiction. His recent novels increasingly concern the former, with narrators delivering essays as much as dialogue, often quite baldly. Elizabeth Costello, from 2003, represents the first overt example, comprising eight lectures delivered by a famed and aging novelist traveling the globe as a visiting lecturer. In Diary, we have a famous aging writer, in this case holed up in a high-rise apartment in Sydney, Australia. The novelist, referred to alternately as SeÃ±or C and El SeÃ±or, is composing a series of essays to appear in a German anthology.
Concurrent with the essaysâ"on topics ranging from national shame, Machiavelli, terrorism, animal rights, and Australian politicsâ"are SeÃ±or Câ’s diary entries concerning his encounter with Anya, of the abbreviated red shift. Commencing with the sixth essay, entitled â“On guidance systems and ostensibly about suicide attacks, Anyaâ’s diary joins SeÃ±or Câ’s, further dividing each page of the novel into three sections. Anya, married to a businessman and living in one of the apartment complex penthouses, is hired by SeÃ±or C as a typist, although both are aware of other impulses: â“As I watched her an ache, a metaphysical ache, crept over me that I did nothing to stem. And in an intuitive way she knew about it, knew that in the old man in the plastic chair in the corner there was something personal going on, something to do with age and regretâ.â”
The unlikely relationship with Anya, at first apparance merely a comely Filipina with average typing skillsâ"â“he records his opinions (drone drone) which I dutifully type out (clackety clack) and somewhere down the line Germans buy his book and pore over it (ja, ja)â”â"unfolds through this narrative trifecta. Since the respective diaries focus so much on what the other says and speculation about what the other must have meant, each comes to reveal more about the other than themselves. The result is a brilliant contrast. Commentary on the contemporary condition collides with the academic, domestic, profoundly personal, and even financial (a consequence of an unexpected development with Anyaâ’s husband), reaching, finally, a partial accommodation.
Thereâ’s a risk of associating Coetzee too closely with his main character. Both SeÃ±or C and Coetzee are famous writers from South Africa recently re-located to Australia; both are former professors of approximately the same age; and both are vegetarians and share similar views on the rights of animals. But itâ’s not fair to conflate the twoâ"SeÃ±or C primarily serves to dramatize the intellectual material through which Coetzee nearly achieves funny, tragic, lyrical, and profound simultaneously.
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