Señor C - At the gateway to oblivion

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  • Published 5.10.07

DIARY OF A BAD YEAR By J.M. Coetzee, Harvill Secker, £10.25

The structure is polyphonic — a tribute to Bach, “the spiritual father”; the plot secretly reworks James and recalls Kawabata; and the implied master-allusion is to Nabokov. Coetzee’s latest work is a bottomlessly clever feat of intellectual virtuosity and authorial legerdemain. Like Elizabeth Costello and unlike Slow Man, it is and is not just a novel. Most of its pages are divided initially into two, and then into three sections. Hence, the unfolding of Diary of a Bad Year is split into multiple, but simultaneous, levels or voices. Like an orchestral score, this music-haunted book demands to be read from left to right and from top to bottom. And the reader has to work out a way of holding it all together in the head.

The topmost layer presents “Strong Opinions”, a series of brief essays written between September 2005 and May 2006. The title is silently stolen from Nabokov’s similar collection of 1973. In Coetzee’s Diary, “Strong Opinions” gathers reflections on various aspects of the contemporary world, in a voice that is relentlessly cerebral and public as well as darkly private, moody, occasionally vatic. There are meditations on the origins of the state, terrorism, Guantanamo, Blair, Machiavelli, paedophilia, Kubrick’s Lolita, avian influenza, probability, the body, cursing, apologizing, how the history of music runs parallel to the history of feelings — and finally, written with magisterial humility, “On authority in fiction”, and with a logical rigour that is both elegiac and witty, “On the afterlife”.

Coetzee’s templates here are provided as much by Bacon, Montaigne and Pascal as by Nietzsche’s longer aphorisms, Adorno’s Minima Moralia and Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Yet, after surveying the Greek and Christian notions of the afterlife, the last essay in “Strong Opinions” ends, reticently and elusively, on what Elizabeth Costello calls the “far shore”: “The persistence of the soul in an unrecognized form, unknown to itself, without memory, without identity, is another question entirely.”

The second, or middle, level gives the ‘human story’, in first person, around, beneath and between these pieces of writing and thinking. The narrative is sparse, brisk, insidiously manipulative. The writer of “Strong Opinions”, we learn, is “C”, a 72-year-old South African novelist of considerable eminence, now living in a Sydney high-rise. Some, and only some, of C’s biographical details (“ficto-facts”) are obscurely similar to Coetzee’s. In the laundry room of his building, C meets Anya, a 29-year-old Filipina with a disconcerting awareness of what her perfect little bottom could make others — including geriatric writers with waning motor functions — think, imagine or attempt. C promptly employs Anya to type up “Strong Opinions” as he writes it in his own, failing hand. And what unfolds is not only the story of Anya’s evolving opinions on C’s opinions, but also of the minute shifts in the erotic and conversational play of power between them.

It is a devious courtship through which Coetzee explores, in a dizzying regress of mirrors, the relationship, marked by power as well as resistance, between creator and character, the writer and the written, the possessor and the possessed. It is also a story — like that of the nurse, Marijana, and the ageing and crippled Paul in Slow Man — of the playing out of “a metaphysical ache…something to do with age and regret and the tears of things”, at once voluptuous and macabre, ironic and abject. (Coetzee had woven together this story’s literary precedents in his review, reprinted in Inner Workings, of García Márquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores.) Anya, in her teasing generosity (erotic, yet maternal too), comes to embody C’s fantasies of penultimate rescue, intercession and deliverance at “the gateway to oblivion”, before the final and absolute solitude: “Is she the one who has been assigned to conduct me to my death? If this is so, how odd a messenger, and how unsuitable!”

At the bottom of the page is Anya’s telling of the story of the person she privately refers to as “Señor C” and his “little typist”. This is the other end of the devious courtship narrated in Level Two. Suddenly, the story of C’s “use” of his subject, muse and amanuensis finds itself on the other side of humiliation and abuse, discovering its mirror image in the woman’s wilful awareness of, and collusion with, the man’s erotic and fictional interests. It is Anya who persuades C to write a second, “gentler” set of opinions. She calls them the “Soft Opinions”, and they include pieces on his dreams, the kiss, his father, ageing, abandoned story-plans, the magpies in the park, and finally, two profoundly ‘personal’ fragments on the music of Bach (“It comes as a gift, unearned, unmerited, for free”), and on Dostoevsky and “Mother Russia”, who must be thanked “for setting before us with such indisputable certainty the standards toward which any serious artist must toil”.

There is, however, a third person in the story: Anya’s live-in boyfriend, Alan. He is a white, middle-class Australian investment consultant. In Alan’s free-market vision of things, Señor C is simply a “leftover from the Sixties” who cannot get away, in his mind, from his native Africa. But Alan’s increasing obsession with the Anya-Señor-C duo, and with C’s fortunes, becomes the driving force of the novel’s lowest narrative tier. This turns into a story of intrigue, and of another kind of “use”, that quietly reworks, with a different dénouement, the sinister and sordid Kate-Merton-Milly triangle in James’s The Wings of the Dove.

C’s opinions, together with the stories that interlace, counterpoint and break them up on the page, are held together by the idea of human “dishonour”. It is a deliberately archaic, even quixotic word, which, like its twin, “shame”, always has a collective as well as an individual dimension. Dishonour is born out of the great totalizing systems of the world that are both actual and abstract structures — the state, the market, the mechanisms and discourses of politics, terror and the law. “Why is it so hard to say anything about politics from outside politics?” C asks in “On the origins of the state”. But do not C and his creator, JMC, know that the ultimate totalizing system is fiction itself, that it is hard, indeed impossible, for a writer to talk about fiction from outside fiction, to rescue and dignify its creatures from the humiliation of being created? The vanity of power, the vanity of human reason, and the vanity of storytelling, of bringing things to life, become interlocking structures in the intellectual and fictional edifice constructed in the triptych of Coetzee’s last three novels. The irony of C’s self-professed “quietism”, “willed obscurity” and “inner emigration” becomes fully intelligible only in the light of the knowledge that his creator will not allow himself to look away from. The will to be ruled is inseparable from the will to rule, and together they lie at the heart of fiction, as they do at the heart of everything human and inhuman: “What the great authors are masters of is authority.”