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David Attwell: Manuscripts Indicate JM Coetzee is Not Who We Thought He Was

David Attwell

The second of two lectures presented by David Attwell at the UCT Summer School Extension programme, “Autobiography Into Fiction: JM Coetzee’s Disgrace”, took place at the Kramer Building on 14 July, a day made more poignant by the passing of Nadine Gordimer, the only other South African Nobel Laureate for literature apart from Coetzee himself.

Following on from his previous talk, “Autobiography Into Fiction: JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K Attwell, who is visiting from the University of York where he heads up the English Department, expressed his delight at returning to his alma mater, where he had studied under Coetzee.

JM CoetzeeDisgraceDoubling the PointAt the first seminar, Attwell said: “Known to be guarded, even reclusive, a self-conscious and accomplished stylist, an exponent of late modernism, a polemicist against the idea of fiction being a simple expression of selfhood, Coetzee’s manuscripts reveal him to be more autobiographical than we would have imagined. The provocations in his work are frequently personal and circumstantial; deriving from family history, from events in South Africa’s recent past, from personal losses, and from his returns to and emigrations from his home country.”

The focus of both seminars was informed by the research Attwell has undertaken at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, where some 155 document boxes, five filing cabinet drawers and an additional eight storage boxes of journals, manuscripts, correspondence, business documents and childhood artworks and school notebooks comprise the archive of Coetzee’s private papers, which were made available for scholarship in late 2011. Attwell’s critical biography, JM Coetzee & the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, is to be published in 2015 by Jacana Media, Penguin New York and in Dutch translation by Cossee Uitgeverij.

In light of this research, the essence of both of Attwell’s talks was that Coetzee is not who we thought he was.

“The Coetzee who emerges from an informed reading of his papers is very different author from the one we thought we knew,” Attwell explained. “Most surprisingly, his writing process turns out to be highly autobiographical, at least in its points of departure. It then involves a gradual, but determined process of writing himself out of the narratives, a ‘burning off of the self’ as it were.”

null“Another surprise revealed in the notebooks that accompanied the hand-written manuscripts was Coetzee’s confession of “radical insecurity” about what he was doing. The famously controlled, taut style we think of as signature Coetzee is matched by spells of quite debilitating self doubt, and seeing the work through to the end often appears to involve great effort.

Attwell said the period of the early 1990s, during which Disgrace was written, represented a highly productive phase of Coetzee’s life, which was marked by contradictory tensions. The story of Disgrace is less affirming than the story of Michael K and was written during a time of disaffection with the country of his birth. “Those critics, including myself, who argued that the book is about much more than South Africa, are not entirely right in the sense that the manuscripts show him to be thoroughly caught up in the country and its problems of the time. He wrote it during this productive period of ’94 to ’97, when he was working on a number of other projects at the same time; the autobiographies, Boyhood and Youth. He was also working on the earliest drafts of The Lives of Animals which was later taken up in Elizabeth Costello.

One of the most startling discoveries for Attwell was the sketch containing the seed of Disgrace; a journal entry dated December 1994 which indicates that The Truth and Reconciliation Commission catalysed the novel into being, despite the fact that Coetzee had been thinking about a novel based on a man’s public humiliation for some time. Attwell pointed out that this was long before the TRC hearing commenced in 1996.

In the period after TRC was mooted but before the hearings commenced, Coetzee conceptualised a novel about a distinguished writer who is invited onto a truth commission. He cites his objection to being fit to judge and declines, but he knows he is about to be exposed for sexual misconduct. These were transitional years in the country, but also for Coetzee who was redefining his working life. In 1994 he was appointed to the Arderne Chair of English at UCT. The honour was thrust upon him as the only obvious candidate. By 1997, he was already reconsidering his position, resigning from the chair and taking a reduced salary to make more time for his writing. This shows that by 1997 he was no longer an academic who was also a novelist; he had become a novelist who was also an academic.

“But the academy had marked him deeply. He had become an academic author. It was not a simple matter, therefore, of closing an office, handing in the key and walking away. In the early stages of his career, he saw the academy as a day job, but as his career developed, it became more and more important. The academy, the university, gave him resources, conversation and a readership for the kind of writing he produced. Looking back, ten years later, in 2007, his notes accompanying the manuscript of The Diary of a Bad Year reveal his thoughts.

“Coetzee wrote: ‘I calculated I could use the academy to support me while I surreptitiously followed a writing career. As is so often the case, I miscalculated. First I became an academic that did a little writing on the side. Later I turned into a writer marked deeply (too deeply?) by involvement with the academy. I would have been better off being just – just – a writer. But in order to be just a writer, I would have to be someone other than myself.’”

Attwell observed that the professor and artist had become inseparable. By the 1990s, universities were also undergoing substantial change. In an address to a UCT audience, Coetzee said, “Now, all over the western world the old model of the university finds itself under attack as an increasing economistic interrogation of social institutions is carried out.” The process referred to in Disgrace was that the “great rationalisation was well underway”.

“The academy was a necessary evil to Coetzee, but it was becoming more evil than necessary,” Attwell explained. “The Elizabeth Costello stories of this period were an expression of the situation. She is a square peg in a round hole who gives irritable lectures to academic audiences. It says much for Coetzee’s ingenuity that she became much more than a private joke as the stories flowed out. In fact, he was able to develop her into a vehicle for thinking about literature and literary life in the academy and in the global market place,” said Atwell, who also linked her character to Gordimer.

By the late 1990s, Coetzee was ‘globally mobile’,” Attwell continued, “spending a semester each year teaching in the United States, giving lectures on every continent. Seen in this light, the circumstances under which Disgrace was written become poignant. Just when the mood in South Africa was most buoyant, Coetzee was becoming more and more detached.”

Attwell referred to Thomas Hardy’s poem about the sinking of the Titanic, The Convergence of the Twain, offering the line “consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres” as a metaphor for how the country’s transitional years and Coetzee’s personal journey conflicted, creating the conditions under which Disgrace was written. The metaphor may seem hyberbolic, but the book is the most-written-about novel in South Africa’s literary history.

“The social ecology in which Disgrace was formed was a confluence of irreconcilable forces. Coetzee’s personal disengagement from the country took place at the precise moment in the mid-1990s when the country was embarking on transformation. Coetzee was skeptical about the rainbow nation, as the novel makes abundantly clear. The question he raises in the sketch is whether people are capable of living up to the spirit of moral triumphalism that was taking hold. It was a question Dostoevsky might have asked. In 1994, when he drew up the outline of Disgrace, part of Coetzee was still inside a Dostoevskian universe, because his previous novel, The Master of Petersburg, was about Dostoevsky. It was published the same year he wrote the sketch.

“On the evidence of the notebooks, Coetzee felt the moral climate of South Africa was increasingly anti-intellectual and potentially tyrannous,” Attwell said. “He copied into his notebook an extract of an account from Mao’s Cultural Revolution, in which an intellectual is made to appear in public wearing a dunce cap. In the published text, the reference to Mao is edited out, but a student activist carrying a wastepaper basket confronts David Lurie and a photo for the student newspaper is taken with the basket strategically positioned in comical fashion over his head. It appears above the caption, ‘Who’s the dunce now?’ It’s extraordinary to discover that the source of that incident in the novel is Mao!”

Atwell emphasised that Coetzee was writing well before the character of the TRC was established. “Given his anxieties about the anti-intellectualism that had started to surface, he worried that a truth commission might take the form of a Nuremberg style focus on retributive, rather than restorative, justice. Were one to ask Coetzee now about the TRC, he would almost certainly give a complex and nuanced take on it. To make that fragment indicative of his political judgement is not merited.”

A fascinating question and answer session enabled a dialogue between students, academics, the general public and Attwell.

This brief account of part of Attwell’s second lecture, “Autobiography Into Fiction: JM Coetzee’s Disgrace“, offers just the tiniest flavour of what was a fascinating lecture and a delightful evening. To appreciate fully the depth of Attwell’s scholarship, his joyful wit and insightful attention to Coetzee’s work, readers are urged to look out for forthcoming book. Additionally, a podcast will be issued in due course from the UCT Summer School, giving fans of Coetzee an opportunity to hear this lecture in full.

Attwell concluded by reflecting on how Coetzee makes mundane aspects of humanity extraordinary. “This is a writer who takes ordinary perceptions and feelings and transforms them into extraordinary writing. That process of burning off the ordinary is the process I take seriously.” With reference to his forthcoming J.M. Coetzee and the life of writing: face to face with time, he said, “That’s the burden of the book – the creative process, the transformation of life into art. What’s unusual is that we’re discovering through the release of these papers that Coetzee is human after all. He turns out to be more like you and I than we imagined!”

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Liesl Jobson tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks

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