'JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing' suffers from many problems, including a star-struck author, writes Imraan Coovadia.
John Kannemeyer, a Stellenbosch academic, submitted the draft for this biography just before his death on Christmas Day last year. The authorities assure us that the text is in effect complete. Despite the uneven quality I am inclined to believe that it would not have benefited from second thoughts.
In his role as biographer, Kannemeyer is a doctrinaire starting from the startling principle that his “book is not a psychological study of the man JM Coetzee”, but rather a body of “facts that were not previously in the public domain”. Kannemeyer’s subject has never liked finding himself under psychological investigation and must have approved the method as well as his style of choosing the reliable practice of acquiring facts rather than following fugitive and ever-changing feelings.
Yet lives, and literary texts more than lives, are constituted by feelings as much as facts. It is the unfortunate teacher Thomas Gradgrind at the outset of Hard Times who instructs us that “facts alone are wanted in life ... This is the principle on which I bring up my own children and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to facts, sir!”
Moreover, the range of Kannemeyer’s facts is narrow. The fact that Coetzee’s career coincides with the high point of dispossession and subordination of tens of millions of human beings is visible only on the perimeter of this biography. It adds a moral drama to Coetzee’s life, but little of human and individual significance. He draws on almost no informant of colour, presents no significant relationship or exchange that Coetzee might have had with a black or brown man or woman in any capacity, and asks no questions about the possible originals of figures like Michael K or Petrus in Disgrace.
The most useful set of Kannemeyer’s whitewashed facts concern the Coetzee family and its branches and alliances by marriage in the Cape. Descended from a Dutchman, Dirk Couche, who first settled near Stellenbosch, they were generally pro-British and as close to English-speaking society as to Afrikaans. The women learned to play the piano while the men studied cricket and worked as bookkeepers, postmasters and bank managers. In this bilingual world, failed artists and writers were not unknown.
In “the case of John Coetzee, the artistic talent was given free rein, in keeping with the not uncommon phenomenon that exceptional talent in the arts is preceded in a family line by mediocre practitioners”. The most proximate failure was that of Coetzee’s father, Jack, a lawyer “with his dapper little moustache and his cocky look,” who embarked on a disastrous career of heavy drinking and defrauding his clients.
In 1957 Coetzee, who saw himself as a poet, found a better home in the University of Cape Town. Yet the English department was already a byword for academic dysfunction. In 1984, after serving there for more than a decade, Coetzee was clear that he “never enjoyed working in the English department” and in 1999 he finally moved out of “a depressed and depressing work environment, namely the department of English language and literature”. In the same year, through the figure of David Lurie in Disgrace, Coetzee drew on his memories to present an environment of unbridled mediocrity, serving time, racial exclusion and sexual harassment.
In 2011, in the same department, where I happen to work, 88% of black undergraduates left English before reaching their final year, a casualty rate that indicates that the advanced forms of postcolonial and poststructuralist argument that Coetzee found so congenial have as distant a connection to equality as Gradgrind to real horses.
Even as an adolescent Coetzee wanted to find a way out of provincial society. By learning to play Bach, as he tells us, “I was symbolically electing high European culture, and command of the codes of that culture, as a route that would take me out of my class position in white South African society and ultimately out of what I must have felt ... as an historical dead end”. We should be impatient with this characteristic pose. Why would a man have to infer the nature of his own conscious feelings? Why does politics, in a country under effective martial law, touch Coetzee only at such a distance?
In Kannemeyer’s account, apartheid is brought home to Coetzee at the university when the students are forbidden to join a march on De Waal Drive. And before that? Did he never see a sign on a beach? Did he never pass a segregated bus stop or see the handcuffed men in the back of a Black Maria? In the United States Coetzee is moved principally by what he sees of Vietnam on television: “I think particularly of the effect that televised air strikes had on the small screen. The violence erupted at you.”
There is something wrong here, or at least some strange distribution of priorities, which Kannemeyer evades by defining Coetzee in Keatsian terms as a man of no fixed identity, too sensitive to harbour a conviction. During his undergraduate years, for example, Kannemeyer’s Coetzee avoids both the “right-wing politics of the National Party” and “the left-wing politics of some of his fellow students with their violent political rhetoric”.
Only the least interesting of our reactionaries, such as Kannemeyer, FW de Klerk and Hermann Gilliomee, are still trying to construct a moral balance between the National Party and the left-wing organisations that opposed it. For the rest of us, we are entitled to ask whether the anecdotes concerning Coetzee, which show a man who has placed a seamless and implacable style between himself and the world, do not dramatise the limits of a certain conception of the writer.
In London, after Cape Town, Coetzee worked as a programmer for computer company IBM. He soon moved to the University of Texas at Austin where he studied linguistics and interested himself in Samuel Beckett. In 2001 he recalled that “both the state of Texas and the University of Texas were welcoming and generous to me from the moment I arrived there in 1965 ... It is a source of much satisfaction to me to have kept up the contact with the university to the present day.” The gentlemanly tone of that statement is one of the unexpected constants in Coetzee’s language and, I suspect, in his nature.
Kannemeyer wastes many pages quoting unnecessary academic verbiage, but it is true that the university, its values and its disappointments are central to Coetzee. In this biography he protests on only two occasions and only for reasons of profession and guild. At the first, in 1970 in the United States, he was charged and arrested and therefore refused the opportunity to remain in the country permanently. It is usually portrayed as a protest against the Vietnam War, but Coetzee is careful to describe it differently: “I was indeed arrested in Buffalo at the height of the anti-war demonstration in 1970, but not in an anti-war demonstration as such ... I took part in a protest against the way in which our university — State University of New York Buffalo — was being led.”
Almost 20 years later, protesting against the withdrawal of an invitation to Salman Rushdie to visit South Africa after Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, Coetzee placed Nadine Gordimer in the role of the fall guy and argued that “fundamentalism abhors the play of signs, the endlessness of writing ... It stands for the one founding Book and after that no more books.” But Khomeini objected to what he saw as blasphemy, not to “the play of signs [and] the endlessness of writing”. Coetzee quoted unprocessed Jacques Derrida rather than thinking about the specifics of the situation. It’s not clear that the Qur’an is best described as a book and not true that fundamentalists, who keep alive an endless strain of religious commentary in every religious tradition, are in any way opposed to the “endlessness of writing”.
Coetzee’s early work exerted a radical force on certain minds. Tony Morphet was the first and best critic to understand the significance of Dusklands: “A new form of narration, a new way of imagining — a new prose had entered South Africa literature ... the sense of a violation of the canons of a liberal and humanist study of literature was deep and intense.”
Later Morphet found In the Heart of the Country, “an experience of entering the deep dark recesses of hidden states of mind”. In the same novel the young Barry Ronge saw only “a romantic cliché”, a piece of criticism that raises the question of what romance might mean to Ronge.
What did romance mean to Coetzee? Kannemeyer includes, without elaboration, an incident in which Coetzee offers his first wife to a colleague and commences an affair with the wife of another colleague, which does something to indicate the understanding of collegiality at the University of Cape Town.
In general, Kannemeyer is ill-equipped to deal with the ordinary materials of biography. Consider his account of Coetzee’s developing relationship with his current partner: “Dorothy, who had by then read In the Heart of the Country, was impressed with Coetzee’s intellect, charm, friendly manner and good looks. He was obliging enough to give her a copy of the proofs of Dusklands for the National English Literary Museum’s collection ... Dorothy was sure Coetzee was the right man for her. In Cape Town each had a separate home, though they were often together.” Where would you read a romance described in just that way? Is it more Fair Lady or Huisgenoot? Is it from the Romney family newsletter (“he was obliging enough to give her a copy of the proofs”) or from a dating website (“intellect, charm, friendly manner and good looks”)?
On the intimate Coetzee, Kannemeyer exceeds any comparison except, if you happen to know it, the band manager Murray Hewitt in Flight of the Conchords: “When Coetzee entertains at home, his friends are constantly aware of his cool, observant intellect. His casual clothing at such intimate gatherings, however, shows that he can relax in familiar surroundings ... His friends find him humorous, warm, and generous ... He is an excellent cook and likes preparing food such as gnocchi and richly-flavoured Indian food.”
It’s not only Kannemeyer’s being star-struck that is the problem. It’s not just the soupy tone that perhaps shares a source, if not a perfect style, with the Coetzee who remembers the generosity of the state of Texas. Kannemeyer commits the one unforgiveable sin of a biographer, which is to rely on numerous occasions on the testimony and therefore the language and feeling of a single informant rather than cross-checking and limiting one account with another.
What’s left after Kannemeyer? To Fair Lady, as it happens, in 1983, Coetzee offered his own “idea of a nice evening ... Friends drop in unexpectedly. I cook up a quick, simple, nourishing meal. They eat everything on their plates, compliment me on my cooking and go home early without requiring me to make conversation.” There’s an ideal there of almost silent and solitary pleasure, coupled with doing a service to others, which may be the most generous interpretation of a writer’s function Coetzee ever offered. Alongside it is the courtly style, perhaps inherited from a dissolute father and, in a productive tension with the first and second motives, an unbending and stylised pessimism: “It’s bad if I write but worse if I don’t.”
To this let us add one final piece of pessimism. By 1981, Coetzee had turned his historical dead end into a labyrinth. Between 1981 and 1999 his spare and strange, moving and turbulent fiction may have been the most interesting in the world. Since his emigration his subsequent works, in my judgment, at any rate, have not even been the most interesting in a given week. For half a century, while millions had no freedom at all, Coetzee yearned to take his freedom from South Africa. He should have known that in a novel, unlike a fairy tale, you never want your wishes to come true. He turned his labyrinth into a dead end.