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.
Daniel works in Westwood for a medium-size production company. For the time being he is making enough money that he suffers Diana to stay at home, rising late, trying to write, and occasionally depositing into their joint account a check of several hundred dollars for a book review published in some prestigious outlet. As for the psychological superstructure sponsored by this economic base, you might say that Daniel absorbs Diana’s anxiety and other outsize moods, while Diana prods Daniel out of his mere decency and competence into a liveliness he might not otherwise experience. And of course there is much more than that going on. But she respects their happiness enough not to investigate its sources.
Diana sits down sidesaddle on a cushion to the side of their lacquered red square of a Japanese-type table. She begins cutting up her sausage at right angles, spearing veggie gobbets on her fork along with chunks of pepper and onion.
Elizabeth Costello is not, to her mind, one of Coetzee’s great books, for reasons she hopes she can explain in the words allotted to her. Still, she recalls how important Elizabeth Costello the character was to her when Diana first encountered her. Coetzee’s conceit was undeniably clever: invited to give a pair of lectures at Princeton, he instead presented his audience with two short stories or vignettes in which a famous novelist—an Australian woman named Elizabeth Costello—surprises her collegiate audience by lecturing them on animal rights. The new book not only incorporates the text of those two stories or scenes (published in 1999 as The Lives of Animals); it also elaborates upon their formal tactic, assembling a novel of sorts out of a series of chapters in which the noted writer Elizabeth Costello is one way or another compelled to deliver a speech or make a statement, just as often happens to the world-famous Coetzee (however small his renown among thirtyish film-industry people in the city of Los Angeles). Parts of Costello’s imaginary documents are then transcribed and reproduced by Coetzee. In this way the words of the fictional author, like the words of any real author, are woven in and out of the overbearing context of her life, responded to half adequately, half coherently, by a host of colleagues, admirers, family members, and other strangers, and meanwhile affirmed or undermined by Costello’s own memories and unspoken reservations.
In the end these eight “lessons,” as the chapters are called, would seem to be Coetzee’s attempt to renovate by way of novelistic technique the ancient form of the Platonic dialogue. And the best thing about the book, to Diana’s mind, is the bare idea of it: to demonstrate what we all know and often forget, namely that the arguments set forth in papers or speeches (or hinted at in book reviews) are not so much the products of pure reason as they are allegories of our circumstances, the confessions of our flesh young or old.
Diana supposes that she had perceived all that in 1999, reading The Lives of Animals in her room in the tiny place on Elizabeth Street that she shared with Stephanie and Sharmila, then in the morning going off to work, part of the girl-army of editorial assistants, for a huge publisher in midtown. But at the time what mattered to her was only this: that the writer she so much admired had apparently come out, albeit in drag and under an assumed name, in favor of ethical vegetarianism. For in her lecture Elizabeth Costello plainly if somewhat hysterically condemns “what is being done to animals at this moment in production facilities (I hesitate to call them farms any longer), in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world”—those are the words the sense of which, if not the exact order, Diana now recalls—and then creates an awkward scene at the dinner reception afterwards, where only three people dare order the fish instead of the nut rissole. It made sense that Coetzee, with his ear, like that of the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, “tuned to the pitch of human pain,” should also have begun to listen to the mute or muffled cries of animals, since physical pain cannot be very different between humans and animals, whatever else may be. Nevertheless Coetzee’s concern for animals had surprised Diana, had pleased her, had seemed to give her company.
In 1999 her friends, with their miniscule New York apartments and their ten-dollar cocktails, with their purchases of expensive shoes when their paychecks arrived, followed by a diet of breakfast cereal at the end of the month (“that time of the month,” witty Stephanie called it), had developed a gloss of metropolitan toughness which Diana seemed unable to acquire. The strange nature of this toughness was to demonstrate that you were having a good time in the city, that you did not apologize for or feel embarrassed by your pleasures. And Diana too had drunk her share of vodka gimlets; had slept with enough guys to form an indie-rock band or two; and had sunk several paychecks into such fancy vegan shoes that you couldn’t tell the difference from leather. It was absurd: one night out at dinner in her tall vegan sling backs, and cuddled up the next pajama-clad with J. M. Coetzee. Nor when she met Daniel and fell rapidly, gratefully in love with him, did he solve her contradiction. What he did was look on it with sympathy, with—if she is required to define that look—a mixture of condescension and admiration such as one shows toward the superior sensitivities of a gifted child.
Diana has never been tough. Her prose, even in her journal, may be cool, hard, and rather formal, masculine as she thinks of it; and she was once a good athlete. But in truth, or rather in life, she remains at twenty-eight a girly sort of girl, with a sweet tooth, a soft heart, a perhaps old-fashioned modesty. Her voice is soft and full of succor; she shrinks from on-screen violence; and she is to an almost farcical degree a cooer at babies and a lover of animals. Recently she persuaded Daniel to let her adopt a cat from the shelter, and now this morning reverie of hers (extended perhaps to unrealistic lengths, but not withal so improbable in a woman like Diana Abbott) is interrupted by the cat himself, Jeremy they call him, as he rolls his brindled length against her calf, flicks his tail once, twice, and looks straight into her eyes.
“Oh Jeremy what am I doing with myself?” The cat regards her with unnerving feline frankness until she covers his head with her hand, scratching him between the ears. Jeremy’s purr conveys acknowledgement rather than delight; it is his style to receive all affection as being merely his due. “You have no memory of your life before here,” she tells the blasé creature. “You don’t remember how the other cats live.”
Diana gets up to rinse her dishes and deposit them in the sink, the cat following her to the kitchen and sitting eloquently before his bowl. Diana bends down to serve him a scoop, wondering what is in such food: chicken? pork? But she is not curious enough to read the table of contents—or the list of ingredients, rather.
“Shamekilling”: that is Joyce’s word, in Ulysses, for the eyes of a cat, and it is true, Joyce is right, there is no shame in Jeremy’s eyes, nothing complicates his appetite, nothing interrupts his selfishness.
Diana stands up and looks out the window. Today is another sparkling October day toward the end of the long California summer the exact term for which must not be summer; and suddenly she feels, in the bright lull of this early hour, that even for a long-faced miserabilist like J. M. Coetzee life must be better than he lets on. Indeed she feels, also of a sudden, that she will write an excellent book review, the considered work, appreciative yet critical, of someone who has gone so deeply into the author’s work as to emerge on the other side.
Why, after all, must Coetzee be such a gloom-monger? For if he desires to draw attention to suffering, doesn’t the apprehension of such become the more acute when full allowance is made for the possibility of happiness? Or might it be that John Maxwell Coetzee, like so many men, is simply afraid of life? Might it even be that he writes about postmenopausal women not so much out of sympathy as out of preference, because no more messy life can emerge from between their knobby sticklike legs? Might it even perhaps be that his ostentatious compassion for the injured and excluded conceals a lament over his own life and its mysterious spoilage?
The computer pipes and burbles with reviving electronic life. Settling into her chair Diana tries to at least start the day sitting up straight. It used to be that she wrote wearing yoga pants and one or another of Daniel’s soft old T-shirts. That was until she began to suspect that disorder in dress encouraged bad posture and abetted sloppy thinking. Now she dresses for work as if it is work, and she a real person, hired and official, with established outlines and a definite point of view.
Diana has double-clicked the Word icon and created a new document. She looks out the dazzled window, like an actress awaiting a line prompting; but there is nothing to see except the waxy elliptic leaves of a eucalyptus tree and the pastel camouflage of its patchy bark.
“Like her creator,” Diana bravely types, “the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello is a world-famous writer much in demand on the lecture circuit.”
She stops—a dud. What is wanted by readers of the Sunday Book World is a hook, a grabber, and that sentence is not it. As usual Diana wishes she could get all the facts out of the way and proceed straightaway to the good stuff, the flashing ideas, the nourished glow of the interpretation. She wishes she could somehow establish in one fell swoop the method of the book, and survey in a sentence its difficult-to-summarize contents. Before the “lessons” were gathered into a book they were published piecemeal over the course of five years, and perhaps this accounts for why Elizabeth Costello is somewhat diffuse in its effect, lacking the cumulative impact of the best novels.
Admittedly many of the chapters are interesting in themselves. For instance in Lesson 2: “The Novel in Africa,” Elizabeth Costello and a washed-up Nigerian novelist named Emmanuel Egudu are lecturing the pale-skinned liberal clients of a Scandinavian cruise line on the subject of African fiction. Egudu offers a canned hymn to African oral culture (evidently it is important to Coetzee not to patronize or prettify his black characters), while our E. C., ever the contrarian, complains that there is “no African novel worth speaking of” because there is no substantial African readership: writers from countries on other continents write primarily for their compatriots, whereas Africans must write for Europeans and Americans and therefore “perform” their Africanness instead of merely speaking from it. Whether correct or not—Diana has not read enough African fiction to judge—the argument is cogent. Yet Coetzee makes one wonder whether Costello’s quarrel with Egudu does not owe something to the fact that he, at one time her lover, has remained a lady’s man, virile and charming in his dashiki, while her sex life is now well behind her.
In another “lesson,” the fictional Costello prepares a lecture on the real-life novelist Paul West, condemning his scenes of torture as in some sense complicitous with the obscenity they depict. (Readers of Waiting for the Barbarians, unable to forget the scenes of torture in that novel, will note Coetzee’s implicit self-critique.) Naturally Costello is discomfited to learn that Paul West himself has been invited to Amsterdam to deliver a talk from the same lectern as herself. And yet, true to form, she goes ahead with her prepared remarks. Not the sort of woman to admit to liking anything, Elizabeth Costello does seem to like making people uncomfortable. As her son remarks in Lesson 1, “She is by no means a comforting writer”—just as people often say of Coetzee. The twist of irony comes at the end of the chapter, when Coetzee gives us Costello in a bathroom stall, thinking that there are privacies the novelist should not trespass against.
Yes, it would be nice to give an idea of all this without taking up too many of the 1100 words, and to point out with similar brevity some of the book’s more obvious implications. For instance, the problems of Africa are gone over among wealthy retirees visiting Antarctica on a ship called Northern Lights; the nature of animals is interrogated in that least junglelike of settings, the university; and the renowned writer arrives to discuss radical evil not in Sarajevo or Kigali but in orderly and placid, social-democratic Amsterdam. How hospitable and comfortable are the fora for the speaking of unwelcome and uncomfortable thoughts! Elizabeth Costello’s consistent failure to be collegial would seem a buried protest against intellectual collegiality as such—as if the disturbing writers and the difficult thinkers have agreed in advance that their disputes do not count, that on the deepest level they all get along. It must trouble Coetzee that such a disagreeable writer as himself is everywhere celebrated and given prizes.
But that is not the way to commence a book review, neither with a barrage of information nor with a résumé of its themes. Diana has been prepared to complain that Elizabeth Costello—cold, brusque, abstracted—is not credibly a woman, is too much like J. M. Coetzee in a skirt. But what of Diana herself? What of her voice as a critic? If we are to take into account the circumstances of the author, as Coetzee implies we should, then we must note that Diana’s own case is that of a young woman whom it is only frank to call pretty, and who ought, therefore, to know how to seduce readers, to tempt them, to lead them on. Diana is not some girl gone wild; she ought, when it comes to revealing information, to know better than to tear off all seven veils at once. (But of course she does not know how to seduce people—she has always been the one seduced.)
Diana deletes the stupid sentence she has written. She reaches back to gather her dark blond hair into a ponytail. She sits up straight, squares her shoulders, and tries again.
“J. M. Coetzee writes thin books, but they almost stack up into a new literary culture. You can almost imagine an alternate universe, several inches to the side of our own, in which Coetzee’s stringent practices are the prevailing norms. In our universe, literary modernism established the vagaries of consciousness as the great subject of the novel. Coetzee, on the other hand, writes about the body and pain. And in our universe,” Diana continues, “memoirists write of themselves in terms of I and me. Imagine if instead we did what Coetzee does in his two volumes of memoir, Boyhood and Youth, and wrote about ourselves in the third-person singular, in a voice poised somewhere between unavoidable narcissism (I am looking at myself) and necessary indifference (I am only one third person among the others, one he in a world of hes and shes).”
She wants to suggest that we might likewise imagine a world in which Elizabeth Costello is not the only book of its kind, a world in which moral-philosophical debates are frequently conducted by fictional characters whose lives illustrate or dispute the relevant ideas. But mustn’t she then explain how what Coetzee is doing amounts to the novelization of the essay rather than the old-fashioned novel of ideas? And where does she get off talking confidently of “the old-fashioned novel of ideas” when she hasn’t read Thomas Mann? She ought to have studied more of the classics, the canon. Had she done so, she might not write in such a stiff old-fashioned way, trying to sound as if she has been properly educated.
Diana holds down the delete key until there is nothing on-screen but the throbbing cursor. What does she think about Coetzee, or about anything? What course was she enrolled in when they were teaching people how to think?
Bored, disappointed with herself, bored with being disappointed with herself, she flips open Life & Times of Michael K. It is her favorite Coetzee. Set in a South Africa of civil war and concentration camps, one that happily never came to pass, the novel concerns the “coloured” Michael K’s desire to live free of categorization and control, hiding out from the world in a hole in the ground and sustaining himself as well as he can, a pitiably simpleminded person, on his pumpkin patch and whatever the earth will provide.
“He returned to eating insects. Since time was poured out upon him in such an unending stream, there were whole mornings he could spend on his belly over an ant-nest picking out the larvae one by one with a grass-stalk and putting them in his mouth. Or he would peel back the bark from the dead trees looking for beetle grubs . . .”
So even gentle Michael K is not quite a vegetarian. Diana skips ahead: “He also ate roots. He had no fear of being poisoned, for he seemed to know the difference between a benign bitterness and a malign one, as though he had once been an animal and the knowledge of good and bad plants had not died in his soul.”
How beautiful and severe, as the whole book is! Coetzee’s writing is no longer so good as that. In Elizabeth Costello many of the images seem drawn from a kind of Esperanto of metaphor (e.g., “the Nazi forest of horrors”), and Coetzee’s purse-lipped tone and general attitude of strictness, much praised by the critics, do not prevent him from indulging in the more-than-occasional prefab phrase (e.g., “a mood of bottomless dejection”). There is an irritable and petulant scrupulousness about Costello that has been imported from other recent books of Coetzee’s, and that rests in fact on empty scruples, a pretended strictness: “But she cannot believe it is a true smile”—looking at Emmanuel Egudu—“cannot believe it comes from the heart, if that is where smiles come from.” Except that no one believes smiles come from the heart, we all know it is merely an idiom. A discipline of vigilance has become a habit of grumpiness, a stance has relaxed into a pose, and the prose reveals as much.
It was different in Coetzee’s first books, where the harshness, the steeliness, the unforgiving quality—what all the critics refer to under different names—seemed the natural byproduct of his honesty. Now the severity is sometimes in place of honesty. Diana recalls the thoughts of Elizabeth Costello’s son on being taken to bed by one of his mother’s academic admirers: “Research: will that be her name for it afterwards? Using a secondary source?” This seems to bespeak the author’s cynicism more than it does the real concerns of the character in question. In Michael K the clear-eyed description of a few acts of kindness indicated how rare a thing was kindness in that world. Capable of perceiving charity, Coetzee could therefore perceive how little of it there was. These days Diana has doubts about the accuracy of Coetzee’s perceptions, just as she would with any habitual complainer. It doesn’t help matters that all characters in Elizabeth Costello speak in more or less the same voice.
If one wants to fix a date, Coetzee’s prose began to slacken in 1994, with The Master of Petersburg, a novel about Dostoevsky. (Diana dislikes this trend of novelists writing about their literary forebears, borrowing the prestige of other writers to make use of as their own.) She recalls a sentence about a woman with whom Dostoevsky is conducting an affair: “She is in his arms like Jeanne d’Arc in the flames: the spirit wrestling against its bonds while the body burns away.” The reference to Saint Joan is superfluous, therefore pretentious, and the rest of the short sentence sprawls, as far as is possible in its narrow bed, with religious hyperbole and bookish cliché. It reveals that Coetzee has paid visits to the church and the library; it does not persuade Diana that he knows anything of a woman’s thoughts in bed.
It is curious that depictions of women having sex (the one doing research, the other perishing in secondhand metaphorical flames) should occasion such bad writing on Coetzee’s part. Yet Coetzee can be a bad writer about plenty of things: “a chill down his spine”; “each man is an island”; “But it is too late now, the damage is done”; “Now he is in a fight for his life.” Diana has read through the recent book Youth striking out portions of his sentences as if she were his editor. And in Youth, too, he has his younger self think idiotic thoughts: “Are all Englishwomen so beautiful when their clothes are off, he wonders.” A young man who has ridden the Tube does not plausibly wonder this. And the refusal to attribute to his younger self an original thought or a charitable impulse is a failure of realism. Sometime in the nineties Coetzee, as stylist and psychologist, slipped, and even Disgrace, the best of the later books (with the chill of David Lurie’s impending extinction blowing through it), is uneven in these respects.
An explanation may be proposed: forced to take note exclusively of pain, Coetzee’s sensibility rebelled at the task, growing somewhat dull and vague so that his awareness of suffering would not have to remain so sharp, so precise. Hence the clichés, the grumpiness, and other defenses against insight. Or else it may be, more simply, that Coetzee, like Costello, is now old and tired.
Diana wishes she could just quote at length from Michael K and leave it at that. Coetzee wrote so well about what is elemental—the need for food, warmth, safety, freedom—that when she first read him she felt as if her life had been hiding in plain sight and she had only now seen it. As for the lives of others, his books did more than her subscriptions to a left-wing weekly or her halfhearted inquiry into Buddhism to rebuke the frivolity of her Manhattan existence, to remind her that the world was an economy of pain.
And there was something more: Coetzee seemed so dubious about the possibilities of language-as-communication, preferring instead to consider words as a species of music (cf. Disgrace and Foe for articulations of this properly Viconian idea), that Diana wondered whether she should not give up writing. After finding out, two years after meeting Daniel, that he would support her, she had wondered whether she should not simply content herself with the animal sufficiency of their life together, and abandon writing. Really: why write? Speak of the darkest matters, and still you have only produced a decoration for a comfortable room. Adorno said it long ago, when domiciled in LA: even Kafka’s books have become so much furniture.
Diana finds herself thinking again what she has thought before: she should be an activist, not a writer. The thought is never serious. Still, she does not see that it avails anything to write highbrow book chat. Her reviews communicate nothing, convince people of nothing. They are a talented girl’s brittle recital, more or less pleasant on the ear. Sometimes people offer that she writes well; never do they say she has induced them to think.
So what should she write in her valedictory book review? “At his best J. M. Coetzee’s writing reminds us—or me, I should say me—that there is very little that animals, human or otherwise, require, and that many of them nevertheless go without. That is the nature of our world, it makes me distraught, and in his best books I commune with my distress. Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, and Age of Iron are novels that seared me and salved me, I can’t say how, when I lived as a slush-pile Lolita in booming NoLita in the late 1990s. (What is my tone here?) Also I love In the Heart of the Country, which I suppose a reviewer would describe as a metafictional novel narrated by an ageing white virgin in a remote corner of South Africa. It’s the best book I know about hysteria and also one of the best metafictions, nor is this a coincidence: metafiction is hysteria, it’s a feeling that you have not made contact with the world, that you do not know your dimensions, that you don’t know what sound you will make on contact with the
“But then you will ask”—Diana is surprised at what she is typing—“why become more intimate with reality when (à la Mrs. Curren and the Magistrate, also David Lurie in Disgrace) the touch of the world equals pain? The people who make our world—Ils sont dans le vrai, Flaubert re: workmen on the street—are people who suffer. Never mind under what conditions my skirt has been made or my food grown, a girl in the Philippines may have gone blind soldering the circuits inside the computer on which I write these wild words. Yet why share her fate even so far as to know about it? That is what Daniel asks when I am like this: why”
Diana breaks off her text, highlights it, presses delete. It is a lucky thing that she is not a blogger—people would think she was nuts.
It has become depressingly plain that she is not going to write another word this morning. It might improve her mood to masturbate or smoke a cigarette, but these are precisely the decadent activities she fears that non-writers suspect writers of indulging in all day, and therefore she, at one time an occasional smoker and semiregular masturbator, no longer indulges herself in either way on weekdays.
There is always, however, when laziness requires an object, the internet.
Diana closes her blank document and visits nytimes.com. She feels a pang of guilt at sticking with the New York Times when really she should embrace her new California life and read the LA paper. Nevertheless it is the paper of record she has turned to, and the paper of record which tells her in summaries of today’s stories that the US military practices how to shoot down hijacked commercial airliners as often as three to four times a week; that the New York Public Library’s exhibit “Russia Engages the World” contains rich cultural artifacts from Russia’s imperialist past; that preliminary findings support the claims of critics that President Bush used dubious intelligence to justify his decision to go to war; that Israel intends to build about 600 new homes in three large West Bank settlements; that North Korea has raised the stakes by saying that it is making atomic bombs from plutonium it has reprocessed from 8,000 spent fuel rods; that Steven B. Markovitz, a former trader at Millennium Partners, has pleaded guilty to after-hours trading in mutual fund shares; and that—but what is this?—the Swedish Academy has awarded the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee the Nobel Prize in literature for his bleak examination of the human condition.
Diana remembers at once: this is what she learned in her sleep, what she heard on NPR. Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize. Forgotten, repeated, and remembered, the news somehow returns her to zero, erasing the morning, deleting her few sentences were they not already gone, and Diana laughs to herself at her ineffectuality and at the parlous state of the world.
“See you later,” she has said to Jeremy, who followed her to the door, curious perhaps about this break in her routine. Now she is driving down Lincoln toward the beach she likes. J. M. Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize so Diana Abbott is taking the day off. Is that illogical? Well, she never took a course in logic.
She had wanted to write a piece about Coetzee. She does not much want to write something about a Nobelist. (The term itself sounds like a South American mispronunciation of novelist). Now if Diana praises Coetzee it will seem she is only adding her voice to the right-thinking chorus; and if she pans Elizabeth Costello it will look like mere contrarianism. And who will care either way? Perhaps she should confine her views on books to her journal. A writer is most valuable, anyway, when he feels like a private possession, when you feel that you are the only one taking him to bed. As of today Coetzee belongs to everyone, to that human condition he is alleged to depict.
Diana is waiting at the light, windows down, as a disheveled middle-aged woman—hair matted, face the color of fired clay, white Athena College T-shirt falling off one shoulder in helpless imitation of a certain early-eighties style—wheels her possessions across the street, remonstrating with herself over something in an impatient tone of voice. How could anyone who has set foot outside her apartment believe in a shared human condition? And speaking of humanity hasn’t Coetzee himself said, accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, that his writing and that of other South Africans constitutes “a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power”? Perhaps LA adds no barriers to a fully human literature, but Diana is by no means certain.
The light turns green and Diana resumes driving to the beach through the spooked sunlight of the West Side. A midnight-colored sports car has left her in the metaphorical dust.
How clean the air is out here, washed by the breezes off the ocean. One would not suspect the smog banked at one’s back, or guess at the prices of the real estate, so humble do the low-slung stores and dwellings look in the presence of the sea.
Perhaps in Coetzee’s case especially, prizes and acclaim draw attention to his flaws. There is a desire for praise at the heart of his work; you see it in the memoirs. There is a wish to be congratulated on having such high standards, on judging oneself and one’s fellows so severely. Isn’t that the melancholic’s chief consolation, to be considered too good for this world? Surely this is one reason why the melancholic turns to writing. He—or she—is proud of her distress and cannot help but display it. It may be that Coetzee’s famous aversion to publicity is thus something of an overcompensation, the exaggerated self-effacement of the hopelessly vain. An unfair speculation, quite out-of-bounds in a review, but it may be accurate. Diana after all is a vain and a shy person both.
Diana looks behind her, changes lanes. She bears right onto Avenida del Rey, drives a distance along the shore, noses into a parking space. She gets out of the car, taking her cell phone and sunglasses with her. The VW Jetta responds with an obedient electronic chirrup as she locks its doors by remote. And then she is taking off her sandals, placing them in her once hip Kate Spade bag, and walking barefoot through the sand.
“I will take off my shoes and crunch through the seasand,” says that hysterical narrator in In the Heart of the Country, “wondering at the millions of tiny deaths that have gone to make it up.” Diana often experiences things by way of allusions, which may be hardly to experience them at all.
Belatedness is the term for this situation. The novelists and poets, naturalists of our inner life, have by now tagged and sorted most of the species therein. Coetzee at least has risen to the occasion, dealing squarely with the problem of his belatedness and addressing his precursors directly. He is at his best when most insolent. Life & Times of Michael K alludes of course to Kafka’s Joseph K. But in an interview Coetzee declared that he saw no reason why Kafka should hold a patent on the letter. And while Waiting for the Barbarians may be a lengthy paraphrase of Cavafy’s poem by the same title, it is also clearly the superior work of art, making the poem seem an anticipatory gloss on the novel. Coetzee is less successful in The Master of Petersburg, which seems a weak homage to Dostoevsky rather than a victory at the master’s game.
Diana is walking southeast along the sparsely populated Playa del Rey. Its visitors this afternoon would appear to be homeless people, a few truant teenagers, and at least one prosperous man—the dark-haired one with the trotting dogs—in the prime of his life, mysteriously free for the afternoon. The sunlight lies across her neck like nothing so much as Bengay.
Obviously the problem of belatedness afflicts Coetzee still. In the final lesson of Elizabeth Costello our heroine is called before a mysterious border-town tribunal which demands a “statement” from her before they will let her pass through—to peace, to death, one is not sure. “The wall, the gate, the sentry, are straight out of Kafka. So is the demand for a confession, so is the courtroom with the dozing bailiff and the panel of old men in their crows’ robes pretending to pay attention while she thrashes in the toils of her own words.” Trapped in a parody of Kafka, Elizabeth Costello must nevertheless produce a statement in earnest. Clichéd her predicament may be, but it is her predicament all the same. And so it is for Diana herself to the nth degree. The writers arriving before her already arrived late; they became a troupe of allusionists and pasticheurs. How late are you, then, when you show up after the late? There is far too much literary history for Diana ever to master it, and far too much for her ever to escape from it; it is her fate never quite to be sophisticated or naïve.
Diana runs down to the water through the squishy sheen of the wet sand, into the cool sizzle of the surf. It feels so much later than two o’clock in the afternoon! That is what she gets for moving to California, where the world has already been at its business all day, getting and spending, murdering and creating, handing out sentences and handing out prizes, before the sun has peeked over the Santa Monica mountains and the local NPR affiliate begun to broadcast its reports.
Diana is kicking through the surf, feeling guilty and exhilarated like a truant.
Really everyone who wins the Nobel Prize does seem overrated. Is this the best anyone can do? you wonder. Note to self, she thinks: Don’t win Nobel Prize. So far there is little danger. Three months ago she sent out her best short story to five publications; the result to date is two perfunctory rejections. Meanwhile she is at work on a novel—that is what she tells Daniel and her parents. It would be truer to say that the idea of the novel simply follows her wherever she goes. It is one of her skills to be able to describe how other novelists sound. But she doesn’t for the life of her know what her own fiction should sound like; that is the missing timbre for which she is constantly listening, the unknown tune to which her ears are pricked up. How much easier it would be to write a pastiche of Coetzee! But that is not how to do it. The way to write is not as if you have just learned the craft, at the school of the masters; the way to write is as if you have somehow always known how.
Diana is knee-deep in the Pacific. What is she feeling, as the dissolving wreaths of foam slide past her, to make her laugh and almost cry? She laughs, she almost cries, it is better than Elizabeth Costello. She feels violently partitioned among her moods. Young and null, healthy and decadent, hopeful and in despair, what is up with her? It feels so early in her life—earlier than it actually is—and at the same time so late in the day, much later than a clock would admit.
After this review is completed maybe she won’t read Coetzee anymore. She admires him too much, maybe understands him too well. And maybe he isn’t good enough! This is what Diana is always doing, what too many women do: she gives herself over to someone else’s perspective and loses her own.
Why should she have allowed her sensibility to align so neatly with Coetzee’s or have felt that he somehow speaks for her? She is not from South Africa but from America, a more happily mongrelized location. Her father, moreover, is nothing like the no-account bully Coetzee describes in Boyhood, and her mother is not much like Coetzee’s was—baffled, needy, and defeated. Were Diana Abbott to write a memoir, the first memory presented would not be that of a mother going at the family hens with a knife. (Can Coetzee’s interest in animal rights be traced to such a memory? Did little John Coetzee guess so early that our comforters and protectors have attained their position at the expense of other life? And will Diana herself become a mother, as Daniel believes she will?) In Girlhood, Diana Abbott would instead describe her mother coming to sit down, with her enormous grown-up person’s weight, on the little girl’s bed, and rubbing her daughter’s back in the nightly ritual. Why was nighttime so much itchier than the day, Diana had wanted to know. And her mother—this is one of Diana’s first memories—had told her that it is only when we are lying still at night that we notice all our itches. Intended as comfort, in the way of all explanations, the answer had disturbed Diana, and for several years it bothered her—on the way to school, or at school, or being driven home—that she must have itches to scratch that were going unattended, that the itches were constantly there, suffering, as it were, by themselves.
But that has nothing to do with Coetzee. And why should it? Why should she identify at all with this unsmiling man and traffic in his few cold themes of pain and power? Except for when her right ring finger was shattered by a hurtling lacrosse ball and had to be amputated above the knuckle, Diana has hardly been acquainted with intense physical pain. As for the maldistribution of power in the world, it has not polluted all of her pleasures, especially not her sexual pleasures, as seems to be the case with Coetzee, for whom sex would appear never to be a win-win situation. Life is good, in large part, at most times, for her and Daniel and their families. In the win-win stratum of American society to which they belong, life is substantially good, and next summer they will be married. And if now she is crying—not weeping, certainly not bawling, merely crying a little as she stands in the surf—it is not because anything bad has happened. But there is a chilling line spoken by the Queen in Richard III that Diana often thinks of: “I fear our happiness is at the height.”
Suddenly—sometimes things do happen suddenly, as in books—Diana arrives at a new understanding. Knee-deep in the water, she seems to cringe as if in anticipation of a blow, but she does not in fact cringe, she keeps wading forward, and no blow comes, only the slack tide smacking between her thighs and wetting the hem of her skirt. She is a morbid young woman; that much she has known. But here is the new thing: she understands it now as the special morbidity—the special curiosity about pain, the special fear of pain—of someone who has not intensely suffered or witnessed others doing so. The thought fills her with shame and dread and she turns away from the ocean.
There is the dark-haired man with the two dogs, standing, looking at her. She waves to him and smiles, embarrassed by her tears. Clark Kent waves broadly back. He has the thickened look of the former athlete who now makes lots of money. He also looks mischievous and pleased, as if he has been caught ogling by a woman who doesn’t mind.
Diana turns back to the water and wades a distance farther from the shore, a mystery to herself and no doubt her onlooker both.
She is wondering what she will do with the rest of the day, whether she will ever turn in her review, when her cell phone starts to ring. She very nearly screams back at the ringing phone. Instead she fishes the clamshell-style device from her bag, not unfolding it to see the incoming number, not answering the call, instead holding the phone crying in her palm. Chances are it is Daniel calling from work or her mother reporting on her latest checkup; few others have this number yet. But Diana doesn’t want to hear either good news or bad, doesn’t want to make any plans whatever, doesn’t want to hear at present that she is loved. In the melodramatic gesture of a fictional character, richly if obscurely symbolic, Diana—a real person, never mind her surprise at this fact—takes the shrilling phone and throws it as far she can out into the water, where it disappears with hardly a splash. How will I explain this to Daniel? she wonders, and in the same moment, furious at him for his banality and mental vagueness, doubts whether she will marry him.
She marches back to the beach, out of the water. Diana’s robust onlooker is still watching her, while one of his dogs looks for a sign of permission to run in search of the hurled object. “Was that a cell phone you just threw in there?” the man asks.
“Yes.” She means to sound defiant; instead she sounds abashed. She smiles her best all-purpose smile.
“That was some throw.” He betrays no awareness that she is crying—which causes Diana to recall that she is wearing sunglasses. So is he. “You’ve got a good arm on you,” the man says, whether flirtatiously, condescendingly, admiringly, humorously, or only to make conversation. “You don’t throw at all like a girl.”
“I throw like a fucking quarterback,” Diana says through tears, and walks past, not stopping. Boys used to tell her this in wonder, and grown-ups that she was never at a loss for words.
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)
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)