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J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year

An online exclusive review

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Friday, January 11, 2008

By Chris Ross

J. M. Coetzee is a bit of a recluse — he persistently denies interviews and was not present at either of the Booker Prize award ceremonies held in his honor. For a man whose written word is so eloquent, he is famously tight-lipped in person. “A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once,” said fellow South African Rian Malan in a New Statesmen article. “An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” But one of the powerful suggestions made by Coetzee’s crafty new novel, Diary of a Bad Year, is a fundamental distinction between words that last and words that fade — literature falling in the former camp and timely opinions into the latter. Diary reveals a mind concerned with writerly comportment, sketching an ideal model of the author not as society’s bellwether or prophet, but rather as an artist with designs on the eternal.

Senor C is aware that the hot young number he spies in his building’s laundry room at the start of the novel must see him only as “a crumpled old fellow in a corner who at first glance might have been a tramp off the street.” Indeed, she returns his attempts at conversation coolly, folding what appears to be her husband’s underwear. But the young woman, Anya, awakens in Senor C a kind of metaphysical ache, the kind that might seize a dinosaur upon catching sight of an advanced species. At a later run-in, when Anya mentions she is unemployed, Senor C proposes to hire Anya as his typist. He has been commissioned by a German publishing house to opine on the pressing issues of the day in a book titled Strong Opinions, he explains. Anya is coy but accepts.

Coetzee documents Senor C’s professional opinions, as well as his private thoughts and Anya’s perspective in a manner at once abstract and playful. Each page of Diary takes three divisions: Senor C’s opinionated prose at the top, his tersely worded diary in the middle, and Anya’s internal thoughts in the nether slot. This organization lends the novel a funny topography: the eye hops from the bottom right of each page, wherein lie Anya’s gossipy insights into vanity and men, to the top left of the next page, snapping back into Senor C’s droning opinions on avian flu, extraordinary rendition, and quantum mechanics, among other topics. It is like daydreaming about a sexy classmate, then awakening to a professor’s endless lecture. The structure produces a pathetic impression of Senor C — blithely unaware, self-important — especially as Anya ridicules the author’s outdated appearance and thoughts. But this impression becomes almost tragic as the novel progresses; Senor C’s precious opinions trail on at the top of the page even as we learn of a plot hatched by Anya’s fiancé to rob the author of his small fortune. Coetzee has toyed with novelistic form in previous works, but this is a technique that succeeds more on an emotional than formal level.

Sadly, Senor C is all too aware of the deficiencies cursed upon him by old age, and this acknowledgment leads to many of the novel’s most searing insights. Foreshadowing a later argument with Anya concerning disgrace, Senor C contrasts the notion of tragic guilt, an ancient conception of sin as belonging to an entire race and passed down through generations, to a more modern idea of crime as attached to only a single individual. “No man is an island,” Senor C tells young Anya, who insists he has nothing to be ashamed of. “Dishonor won’t be washed away. Won’t be wished away.”

But for Senor C, one consequence of meeting Anya is the realization of how irrelevant he has become both as a sexual and intellectual being. A similar relationship between ailing intellectual and fresh-faced beauty has appeared in Coetzee’s other novels, Disgrace and Slow Man, suggesting a vital, virile consciousness trapped in a handicapped physicality. In writing about the decline of language, Senor C pauses in a moment of painful self-reflection: “I survey my elderly coevals and see all too many consumed with grouchiness, all too many who allow their helpless bafflement about the way things are going to turn into the main theme of their final years.”

Yet in “Soft Opinions,” the last quarter of the novel, Coetzee lets fall a ray of hope from his otherwise excellent but grim oeuvre. If salvation is possible, it resides in the music of Bach, whom the author presents as the best proof that life is good, that God might exist. Coetzee’s previous literary criticism reveals his belief that the classics are denominated so with reason, that they contain timeless inspirations and admonitions. Senor C defends Tolstoy and Dostoevsky from literary critics’ attacks on their rhetoric. When the dust falls, the two Russian pillars remain. “And one is thankful to Russia too,” writes Senor C, his opinions at a close, “for setting before us with such indisputable certainty the standards toward which any serious novelist must toil, even if without the faintest chance of getting there … by their example one becomes a better artist; and by better I do not mean more skillful but ethically better. They annihilate one’s impurer pretensions; they clear one’s eyesight; they fortify one’s arm.”

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