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“All Versions of I Are Fictions”: Arnon Grunberg Examines JM Coetzee’s Speeches and Oeuvre

In an article for Asymptote, Dutch author Arnon Grunberg examines JM Coetzee’s banquet speech upon the presentation of the Nobel Prize – specifically his rhetorical question: “”And for whom, anyway, do we do the things that lead to Nobel Prizes if not for our mothers?”.

JM CoetzeeElizabeth CostelloFoeThe Jewish Messiah

He looks at the speech in relation to the Tanner lectures at Princeton University in 1997, where Coetzee – mischievously – showed up with the story of Elizabeth Costello, who comes to deliver a lecture at a prestigious university. Grunberg points out that the “I” in the banquet speech differs from the “I” in Elizabeth Costello and substantiates this by quoting from Coetzee’s own essay on Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg, in which Coetzee writes, “All versions of I are fictions of the I. The primal I is not recoverable”.

Grunberg also refers to Coetzee’s novel Foe in which the tongue and voice is connected to the world of play and he comes to the conclusion that Coetzee has a certain playfulness as a writer. “I see in Coetzee’s oeuvre — Coetzee has said that all reading is translating — a paean to frivolity”.

It is important, as the Dutch Slavicist, Karel van het Reve once said, not to forget that books, plays and poems are written to be read by an audience without explanation. A certain skepticism with regard to secondary literature is justified, even more so because such secondary literature is often addressed to us in such sorry prose. In reaction to J. M. Coetzee’s essay on evil, an essay later included in Elizabeth Costello, Mario Vargas Llosa writes: “Disgrace is also so hair-raising because the novel is a shocking, dramatic portrayal of the social conflicts and psychological traumas that have faced South Africa since the introduction of democracy and the abolition of apartheid.” If even Vargas Llosa seeks refuge in such pretentious clichés, clichés which one has come across in one form or another so often that one no longer even feels like checking whether they contain any veracity, then there is due reason for despair. If I were to replace Disgrace with The Rights of Desire by André Brink, the statement cited above would remain equally valid, or equally invalid. The statement, “The Tears of the Acacias by W.F. Hermans is also so hair-raising because the novel is a shocking, dramatic portrayal of the social conflicts and psychological traumas that have faced the Netherlands since the liberation and the reinstatement of democracy” would also meet with nods of agreement from a broad public.

In this essay, therefore, I will do my best to make at least one statement about Coetzee and his work that is not equally applicable to ten thousand other writers and their books.

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Image courtesy Aktualne and Arnon Grunberg