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Portrait of a Remarkable Novelist at Work: Rustum Kozain Reviews David Attwell’s JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face To Face With Time

By Rustum Kozain for the Sunday Times

David AttwellJM Coetzee and the Life of WritingJ.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time
David Attwell (Jacana)

Following the sale of a large archive of JM Coetzee’s papers to the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas (Austin) a few years ago, there is little surprise that a book exploring the symbiosis between the life and writing of the author has appeared. And there is little surprise that the critic to do so should be David Attwell.

Attwell has been at the forefront of “Coetzee Studies” ever since the publication of Doubling the Point in 1992, which he edited. More than being the collator and editor of the collection of Coetzee essays, Attwell also interviewed Coetzee for the book, and his interviews revealed a surprising rapport between him and Coetzee, the novelist by then already known to be a reticent interviewee.

Attwell, then, in a sense, is the best-placed to be first to delve into the biographical intimacies behind an oeuvre of fiction that has often been misread as impersonal, even soulless. But this new book is not for the socially prurient: while it may contain interesting biographical details, its purpose is not literary gossip. Neither is it, as Attwell himself disclaims, an “intellectual biography”. Attwell is more interested in the “creative processes and sources, [the] oddities and victories” underlying Coetzee’s fiction. He is interested in “the remarkable ways in which [Coetzee’s writing] transforms its often quite ordinary materials into unforgettable fiction”.

The book is reconstructed portrait of a remarkable novelist at work, from his first novel, Dusklands (1974), to his most recent, The Childhood of Jesus (2013). The material at hand is rich – Coetzee is a writer of meticulous habit. There are multiple drafts of novels (sometimes more than 15, all numbered and collated) and one can trace how a novel evolves and mutates into final form. Coetzee’s commentary on his drafts, editing notes, reading notes – all these add to the picture.

Naturally, Attwell’s book provides a fascinating account, novel to novel, from originating idea through imaginative dead-ends, of Coetzee’s fiction. It reveals a novelist determined and driven, who knows, properly, what it means to confront an issue and not shy away from more deeply held and disturbing aspects of humanity. Throughout, Attwell also considers wider social issues that affect the writer and by extension his fiction: is Coetzee an Afrikaner, why the Karoo, how to infect English syntax with Afrikaans? The book can be considered a quasi-compendium, driving one to a reconsideration of a favourite novel or a re-reading of lesser favourites.

But the book should not be considered in dusty academic terms – it is not a catalogue of footnotes or a jargon-filled exercise. And neither should fans worry that exploding the seam between the life and fictions of Coetzee might detract from the fiction’s magical enigmas. As with the rapport between him and Coetzee in the early interviews of Doubling the Point, Attwell’s writing is finely attuned to his subject matter, making for a careful consideration of the life and work of a careful novelist.

Follow Kozain on Twitter @Grondwerk

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