Diana Abbott: A Lesson
She is waking up for the second time today. The first time was at 7:30, to National Public Radio, with its earnest recitation of the latest calamities, so that Daniel could be launched on his day and stand a chance of beating the rush-hour traffic to Westwood, and now Diana Abbott (who starts at the sound of alarm clocks, ambulance sirens, even telephones; for whom a peal from her new cell phone can be as startling as a call in the middle of the night) is waking up in the way she likes, slowly and late, to no buzzer or newscast. A few notes of inquisitive birdsong, species unknown, ride atop the fade and swell of traffic noise.
Diana slides out of bed naked, feeling as if she has learned something about Coetzee in her sleep. She steps into her underwear and wonders what it is.
In preparation for a book review she must write—1100 words, for one of the big Sunday supplements—she has steeped herself again in the work of J. M. Coetzee, the South African novelist, and he has gotten under her skin. It is almost as natural to her as the sight of her own body in the closet-door mirror that the first thought to cross her mind today should be of Coetzee. Coetzee, she notes, hooking on her bra, rarely writes of women with bodies like hers, smooth and young and as yet unhurt. What Coetzee writes about is pain; and so there is, for instance—the instance that comes first to mind—Mrs. Curren in Age of Iron, dying of cancer in late middle age as, for the first time in her life, she begins to understand the cruelty of apartheid. (That is how a book reviewer might put it.) Before Mrs. Curren had only acknowledged this cruelty; now she somewhat understands it. Through the narrow rite of her own pain she is initiated into the enormous tribulation of the others. That is the Coetzee pattern, that is what he does especially to the educated and comfortable among his characters, that is the sadism he characteristically performs on behalf of compassion. Were Diana to treat this theme in an essay she would discuss in particular the novels Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace.
Diana rotates her skirt into place, looking down at her young pale ankles, recalling the description of Mrs. Curren’s legs as “mottled, blue-veined, stuck out like sticks before me.” Perhaps in her review Diana will mention that Mrs. Curren from Age of Iron shares initials with Elizabeth Costello, eponymous character of the book under review, and that these two E. C.s have other traits in common as well, being distraught, solitary, and not long for this world: a pair of uncomforting grandmas, dispensing unwelcome thoughts in place of hugs and sweets. That would be a clever comparison, and would demonstrate that Diana, as always, has done her homework. For the moment however she is more interested in this matter of the sympathy, mingled with distaste, that Coetzee clearly feels for ageing female flesh. It is there in Elizabeth Costello just as it is in the early book In the Heart of the Country, where his narrator (or narratrix) writes: “I blush for my own thin smell, the smell of an unused woman, sharp with hysteria, like onions, like urine.”
For this, Diana thinks, is another thing about Coetzee: his fastidiousness turns easily into repugnance. He pays such strict attention to pain, including the pain of growing old, and then shivers with disgust at all the generations of people and animals suffering so indiscreetly before him. Coetzee apparently dislikes such displays; his own agonies he would apparently prefer to keep to himself (and yet he is a writer).
Diana has dressed neatly in a ribbed white tank top and a slate-colored A-line skirt made of some silky confection of rayon and other industrial materials, as if she will be meeting someone for lunch. In fact she has no plan for the day except to sit at her desk and knock out this review. Then, at around seven o’clock, Daniel will come home, God willing (Diana does not believe in God, but it made an impression on her as a girl that her maternal grandparents never anticipated the fulfillment of their travel plans without appending this proviso of His will), and when Daniel comes home they will cook dinner together and open a bottle of wine. They will kiss each other and review their separate days. Perhaps it is not too early to begin planning in detail the wedding they have set for June. Soon they will have to. But it makes Diana anxious to specify her wishes.
She shakes two circular patties of vegetarian sausage out of their frosty envelope, into a puddle of extra-virgin oil in the nonstick pan; she stoops slightly and adjusts the flame. She opens the refrigerator, produces half a bell pepper and a quarter of an onion from their plastic bags, and begins dicing them on her cutting board. On the first page of the first volume of Coetzee’s memoirs, Boyhood, Mrs. Coetzee is seen employing a paring knife to cut out “the horny shells” from under the tongues of the family hens, the better to increase their fertility. “The hens shriek and struggle, their eyes bulging. He”—Coetzee writes of his former self in the third person—“shudders and turns away.”
How strange that she and Coetzee have become so intimate when she isn’t even sure of his name. Is it cut-zee-uh or more like coat-zee? Coat-zee, she says to herself, considering this wrong but also less pretentious. She ought, after all, to be careful: she seemed pretentious and literary enough in New York, and now she lives in LA, in the Marina del Rey section, inside an enormous apartment complex bearing the theme-park name of Mariner’s Village. She doubts whether her and Daniel’s LA friends will want to hear about an author whom they are required to call cut-zee-uh. Their interest might be piqued if she were to mention that a screenplay has been adapted from Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee’s great novel about imperialism, about—again in the shorthand of the reviewer—knowing or not knowing what is being done to the enemies of your government. But according to Daniel the screenplay was drawn up years ago and is going nowhere. “The barbarians aren’t very popular these days,” Daniel has informed her, as though Diana has hardly stuck her head out into the world and does not know.
Books by J. M. Coetzee referred to in this article:
In the Heart of the Country (1977)
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
Life & Times of Michael K (1983)
Age of Iron (1990)
The Master of Petersburg (1994)
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997)
The Lives of Animals (1999)
Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life (2002)
Elizabeth Costello (2003)