J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year
Coetzee, J.M. Diary of a Bad Year. New York: Viking Penguin, 2007.
The major departure in Coetzee’s new novel isn’t the split-page format that shares real estate between different narrators; the dialogic mode is perfect for an author whose stylistic signature is the question that looks like a rhetorical question until you realize that he doesn’t actually mean to answer it. What is daring about this book, and ends up qualifying its success, is the decision to make one of the narrators a young Filipina immigrant. For good or ill, Coetzee’s sentences are very much his own; they transfer well enough onto a certain spectrum of characters, but it isn’t clear how he wants to work this one. Sometimes she talks simply and, we assume, naturalistically: “Crumbs everywhere, even on his desk. Cockroach heaven. No wonder his teeth are so bad. Crunch-crunch scribble-scribble talk-talk.” Then the ideas come to the fore, and she starts talking like this:
So I say, But is Señor C really such a fraud? Don’t we all have opinions that we try to extend into the real world? For example, I have opinions about colour and style, about what goes with what. So when I go to the shoe shop, I buy shoes that in my opinion match the dress I bought yesterday. As a result of that opinion the shoe shop makes money, the factory that made the shoes makes money, the importer that imported them, and so forth. How is that different from Señor C?
I am sorry to say of one of my favorite living writers that this bit kind of hurt to read. The premise-conclusion format erases her individual speech markers in favor of neutral and correct constructions from written English (“for example,” “as a result,” “so forth”); presumably we are supposed to recognize the young woman’s continued presence only in the choice of shoe shopping as an example. (A similar passage elsewhere finds her using makeup as a metaphor for the changeful social self.) Of course literature of the last century has done a lot to question the relation between subject-position and language, and sometimes it’s clear that Coetzee is lending the character some of his technique for the sake of vividness: “sheathed in tight denim,” “his eyes avid upon me.” But the shoe paragraph does not seem like that; it’s just a failure of imagination.
Why, then, did the end of the novel move me, especially since it’s just a variant on the old story of a young hedonistic Muse renewing an old man on the way out of life? (Of course, this being Coetzee, the sexuality is tastefully displaced into hypotheticals.) Perhaps because of its conjunction with this late note, which expresses something about elective affinities that I’ve never quite known how to say:
The best proof we have that life is good, and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all, who has our welfare at heart, is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It comes as a gift, unmerited, for free.
How I would like to speak just once to that man, dead now these many years! “See how we in the twenty-first century still play your music, how we revere and love it, how we are absorbed and moved and fortified and made joyful by it,” I would say. “In the name of all mankind, please accept these words of tribute, inadequate though they are, and let all you endured in those bitter last years of yours, including the cruel surgical operations on your eyes, be forgotten.”
Why is it to Bach and Bach alone that I have this longing to speak? Why not Schubert (“Let the cruel poverty in which you had to live be forgotten”)? Why not Cervantes (“Let the cruel loss of your hand be forgotten”)? Who is Johann Sebastian Bach to me? In naming him, do I name the father I would elect if, from all the living and the dead, one were allowed to elect one’s father? Do I in this sense choose him as my spiritual father? And what is it that I want to make up for by bringing at last a first, faint smile to his lips? For having been, in my time, such a bad son?
oh, dear. there are no bad sons.