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Further Notes from the Norwich Writers' Centre Worlds Literature Festival: Coetzee the Wry

JM Coetzee

Alert! BOOK SA has picked up two further articles on the recent Worlds Literature Festival in Norwich, UK, which included JM Coetzee in a constellation of SA Lit stars.

The first report, dispatched from Abu Dhabi of all places, puts Coetzee in the role of the fest’s jester, saying that during his brief appearance, as he read from a new short story that “railed against the ridiculousness of the once-fertile Karoo”, he had his audience in stitches.

Readers will recall that Coetzee’s sense of humour sometimes lies latent, like the creature of Kafka’s burrow, at literary festivals. However, it certainly seems to have poked its nose out in Norwich:

SummertimeA hundred silencesThe One That Got AwayElegy for a Revolutionary

When the South African novelist JM Coetzee agrees to a public appearance, it’s a big deal. After all, here is a literary recluse to rank alongside Cormac McCarthy and Harper Lee, who didn’t even turn up to collect either of his two Booker Prizes.

It’s fair to say that the author of the shockingly bleak post-apartheid memoir Disgrace has a reputation as a rather gloomy, joyless figure; something that wasn’t helped by Martin Amis, who, earlier this year, memorably said Coetzee’s “whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure”.

So laughs were the last thing anyone expected from his appearance at the Writers’ Centre Worlds Literature Festival in Norwich last week.

JM CoetzeeJM Coetzee

A second report comes directly to BOOK SA from a member of the Norwich audience, Lauren Jenna Norton – who, it might be added, also sent some first-class photographs of Coetzee with her text, which now decorate this post. Thanks, Lauren! Here are her notes:

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The Norwich Worlds Literature Festival, initiated by the Writer’s Centre Norwich, last week held an evening with four notable South African writers, among them the elusive JM Coetzee, who rarely makes public appearances. Chris Gribble, the Chief Executive of Writers’ Centre Norwich, explained that the night was not planned to include an intentional diversity of voices, but rather a showcase of unique and individual ones.

After the inevitable jokes about South Africa’s admirable display in knocking themselves out of the World Cup earlier that day the night began with Gabeba Bederoon reading a few of her published poems. Baderoon was born in Cape Town and gained her PhD at the University of Cape Town but now teaches Women’s Studies and African and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Softly spoken but very clear, Baderoon reading her own poetry was touching to witness. She seemed involved in the words on the page, as though she were saying them to herself and not to an audience that you couldn’t help but want to be privy to her musings and listen with intent to her secrets. The first poem about her father sea fishing was particularly moving, describing the pulling and pushing of the waves on his line, her voice undulated along with the motion she described.

The next to read was poet CJ ‘Jonty’ Driver who lives in Sussex and has for more than half his life. Introduced as South African by ancestry, birth and education Driver’s presentation concentrated on the preoccupation of how South African he considered himself. When asked by a friend if he had become British yet he responded, “You don’t belong to any country, in particular, when you’re old.” A meticulous poet, he introduced the metre before reading each one of his poems and each were technical and well crafted showing the attention of a structural and precise poet.

I was interested to note that despite the fact none of these writers lived in their birthplace any longer, some like Driver not even considering themselves completely South African, none could hide the vestiges of the accent underneath their now morphed voices. Driver’s Sussexian English was occasionally broken by the tell-tale South African slant trying to break through. Acclaimed short story and novel writer Zoe Wicomb’s voice was particularly interesting. Talking to her and Driver afterwards, Driver mentioned how precise her speaking voice was. “Clipped, I think is what I have been called most often. Like a school mistress” she joked. Driver commented that he would be very interested to re-read her work again with the knowledge of what she sounded like and see if it changed his interpretation.

Dressed in a striped, 50’s style dress and purple wedge heels with her trademark hair, Wicomb certainly didn’t appear the school mistress she claimed to sound like. More the eccentric, intelligent artist that displayed herself in the part of the short story she chose to read. She apologised that it wasn’t what she had intended to read but had grabbed the wrong book on the way out off her house. The story was about a widowed grandmother and her grandchildren. It was strong, poignant and precise. Hearing her read was like feeling yourself alongside the widow as she watched her grandchildren frolic on the beach in Cape Town. Her accent too slipped in and out of precise clipped English and lucid expressive Afrikaans.

During the interval I conversed with a self-confessed Coetzee groupie who had just graduated from Edinburgh University having read Linguistics. She had never been to South Africa. It suddenly struck me exactly what the main man of the evening had done for the country. Even for people who have never set foot in South Africa, they were being educated about it by perhaps one of its greatest lovers and its harshest critics.

After the brief interlude between the appetizers and the main course, because to be truthful one could sense the audience salivating to get a glimpse of the rockstar of South African literature, JM Coetzee appeared with a presence that made the chatty audience instantly fall totally silent. After being introduced by Chris with all his notable accolades, Booker Prizes, Nobel Prizes and the like the self confessed shy man (at least according to his new his semi-autobiographical biographical fiction novel Summertime) took to the stage to read a piece of barely published vintage Coetzee. His story was about a boy on a Karoo farm who then grows older and returns to show his American friends the area.

Coetzee appears and sounds exactly like I had imagined, but perhaps my imagination had been too nourished by his own descriptions in his novels. His English was immaculate and notably ‘Cape Tonian’, his ‘out’ became ‘aat’ softly, and his English so pronounced that even when he spoke an Afrikaans word it came out Anglicised. The concern of his story was to do with the land, the descriptions of the Karoo and the treatment of the farm land through the ages. He wrote of the boy’s wondering of the presence of fairies in the Karoo, if they sweltered under a rock wishing for England.

Coetzee barely introduced his reading and let the work elaborate on itself for he offered no explanation at its termination or gave any opportunity for questions. He simply said “thank you” and moved to the sofa on the stage to sit and smile wryly at Chris’ praise and gratitude for his appearance. Coetzee in person seems like Coetzee in his books, very into himself but in a completely blameless way. It is as though he has given of himself in his novels and if you wish to find out more about him, read them, don’t ask him, for what justice can a man do to one question in such a short amount of time? In a sense, one gets considerable interpretations of Coetzee from his writing, one can almost deduce him themselves. He rallies both the reminiscence and the critique of the country of his birth into concepts and questions rather than answers. Is it this that makes Coetzee himself more of a concept than a man and makes seeing him in the flesh a rare privilege but somewhat unnecessary encounter? He stayed on to sign some books and greeted his fans with an interest but one could not help but notice his dignified, removed stance from the rest of us rabble.

The evening turned out to be indeed what the Writer’s Centre had intended and displayed a range of unique and individual voices. Despite the fact they had all been grouped together as South African, which I feel sometimes separates writers from their talent and individual merit by nationalising them, the group displayed an immense amount of diverse writing and speaking skills to capture a reader or in this case, listeners. What was most interesting was the fact they were grouped together as South African despite all living out of the country. Baderoon lives in America, Driver in England, Wicomb in Glasgow and Coetzee famously in Adelaide, Australia. This made me wonder as I walked up the cobbled streets of Norwich- is it easier to write about South Africa when you aren’t in it? Does the distance allow enough reflection and nostalgia to comment on a situation without being too caught up in the surroundings to speak the truth? Or do the new places offer perspective on the South African way of living and how hard it is to shake it from the mind? Either way, it was a good night in Norwich.

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