Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

JM Coetzee’s “Surprising” Preoccupation with Absolute Truth: A First Review of The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy

The Good StoryThe first review has emerged for JM Coetzee’s latest work, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.

The book, which Coetzee co-wrote with clinical psychologist Arabella Kurtz, is scheduled for a UK release on 21 May and will be available in the US in September.

Read an excerpt from The Good Story

Writing for The Independent, Gerard Woodward describes the shape of the discussion Coetzee and Kurtz undertake, which addresses “the possibility that the practices of psychoanalysis and novel-writing might have something useful to say to each other”.

The series of exchanges cover the nature of reality, the moral questions that arise from narratives of autobiography, the reliability of memory and the notion of absolute truth.

It seems surprising that Coetzee is so preoccupied with the notion of an absolute truth which fiction can either accurately reflect or distort. It is Kurtz who questions the idea of this kind of courtroom truth. The facts of anyone’s life are limited and rare. Psychoanalysis, says Kurtz, can sometimes be described as the process of setting free the narrative or autobiographical imagination. The truth is contingent upon viewpoint and context. If the goal of therapy is to set the patient free, is truth the only avenue to freedom?

There are, of course, many different kinds of truth – emotional, poetic, fictional, mathematical and so on. Coetzee is concerned by the idea of a separate, absolute truth outside and beyond the realm of the poem or the story, against which it can be tested. If so, then it is not something that seems to be recognised by the psychotherapeutic process.

About the book

A fascinating dialogue on the human inclination to make up stories between a Nobel Prize-winning writer and a psychotherapist.

Arabella Kurtz and JM Coetzee consider psychotherapy and its wider social context from different perspectives, but at the heart of both their approaches is a concern with stories. Working alone, the writer is in sole charge of the story he or she tells. The therapist, on the other hand, collaborates with the patient in telling the story of their life. What kind of truth do the stories created by patient and therapist aim to uncover: objective truth or the shifting and subjective truth of memories explored and re-experienced in the safety of the therapeutic relationship?

The authors discuss both individual psychology and the psychology of the group: the school classroom, the gang, the settler nation where the brutal deeds of the ancestors have to be accommodated into a national story. Drawing on great writers like Cervantes and Dostoevsky and on psychoanalysts like Freud and Melanie Klein, they offer illuminating insights into the stories we tell of our lives.

About the authors

JM Coetzee‘s work includes Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, Boyhood, Youth, Disgrace, Summertime and The Childhood of Jesus. He was the first author to win the Booker Prize twice and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Arabella Kurtz is a consultant clinical psychologist and is completing psychoanalytic psychotherapy training at the Tavistock Clinic. She has held various posts in NHS adult and forensic mental health services and is currently senior clinical tutor on the University of Leicester clinical psychology training course.

Book details


Please register or log in to comment