J. M. Coetzee’s new book, The Childhood of Jesus, will be published on September 1 (and my brief review will appear in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune somewhere around there), in anticipation of which, a few notes:
Here’s a link to Coetzee’s 2012 speech to the graduating class of the University of the Witwatersrand, encouraging men to go into primary education, which will be cited, in light of the writer’s evolving weirdness (also, a good photo of Coetzee looking like the subject of a Renaissance painting):
And here’s perhaps the mostly frequently quoted passage from an interview the South African writer (My Traitor’s Heart) Rian Malan conducted with the infamously interview-shy Coetzee–I don’t know where and I don’t know when, because it’s referred to in New Statesman, October 25, 1999 and again in Time Magazine in 2003 as if it’s out and about–though I can’t, for the life of me, find anything but accounts of the interview:
“A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”
As reported in J. C. Kannemeyer’s new biography of Coetzee, A Life in Writing, when asked about this Coetzee replied: “I have met Rian Malan only once in my life. He does not know me and is not qualified to talk about my character.”
And here’s Martin Amis, a funny guy, within limits, in an interview: “Coetzee, for instance – his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure.” He also said, after he “read one”: “he’s got no talent.”
I’ve heard sad and harrowing things about Coetzee. A writing workshop at Johns Hopkins blown up when he stormed out, declaring that the students, apprentice writers, knew nothing, had nothing to say (on a day, they later learned, when his 22-year-old son had died in a fall that might have been an accident or a suicide). An interview with a friend, Joanna Scott, that was supposed to be in the Paris Review, though Coetzee proved so recalcitrant that it was pulled, finally refashioned for Salmagundi. And Joanna, so thoughtful and smart and kind, was mortified.
There is plentiful evidence of his darkness and his meanness in his books, especially as they’ve moved closer to his life–in the “fictional” autobiographies (Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime) and in Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello, where psychological reckoning becomes polemics. But this is a writer whose work tests the bond between creator and creation, whose semi-allegorical novels (In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K) have more to say about the human condition than any one man might contain. If they transmit “no pleasure,” then pleasure should be redefined. Because the beauty of what J. M. Coetzee writes is the rare, the almost impossible sort, earned and experienced and understood in spite of all the ugliness and hardship it takes to get there. It is the light that shows us the darkness.