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JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing bears testimony to the value of a literary archive

What role does the philologist play in our ongoing engagement with great writing? AAP image/Art Gallery NSW/ 'John Coetzee' by Archibald finalist Adam Chang, 2011.

JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing bears testimony to the value of a literary archive

David Attwell’s new book JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing (2015) commands attention for a particular and notable reason: it is the first extended investigation of the South African author’s work since the advent of Coetzee archive at the University of Texas in 2011.

Attwell is always mindful of the conventional wisdom about Coetzee’s works – a wisdom he has contributed to over many years through his own scholarship. But his chief concern in Life of Writing is to allow the archive to speak. He wants the drafts of Coetzee’s novels, his notes, press clippings and miscellaneous remarks, to be considered at length for the first time.

In doing so, the book raises the question of whether that archive makes any real difference to our appreciation of Coetzee’s core concerns. Whether the works stand eloquently, as they mostly have till now, on their own ground, with no need of augmentation.

Another way of putting the same question (a touch polemically, I admit) is to ask whether the philologist – the literary archivist of days gone by – is needed when it comes to ongoing engagement with notable writing.

Cover of David Attwell’s JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing. Image courtesy of Text Publishing

As a way of answering that, let me outline the approach Attwell adopts. The chapter Suburban Bandit: Michael K as outlaw, considers Coetzee’s 1983 novel Life & Times of Michael K, which marked Coetzee’s arrival on the global stage and bagged him the 1983 Booker Prize – the first of two to come his way.

For those who don’t know, Life & Times is the story of a man called Michael K, who journeys from Cape Town to his mother’s rural birthplace. The setting is apartheid era South Africa during a fictional civil war.

Much scholarship already exists around Life & Times. But the archive reveals the literary model Coetzee was using as a way into his material. It was not, as had been widely assumed, any one of several possible texts by Franz Kafka – many believed “K” was a tribute to Kafka, or the protagonist K in two of his novels.

Instead, the model was a piece of writing that appeared a century before Kafka’s, the novella Michael Kohlhaas (1810) by the German author Heinrich von Kleist.

The protagonist of Kleist’s story suffers a loss when two horses he leaves as surety are worked into the ground while he is away on business. His campaign of revenge soon makes him one of the most feared outlaws of his day (Kleist’s story is based on an actual historical chronicle).

The question Coetzee poses in his recasting of Kleist’s story is whether that path of violence would have to be abjured in the fictional universe of his own novel. The complicated gestation of Life & Times sheds light on the complex problem Coetzee chose as his starting point.

Attwell uncovers in this instance, as with so many others he considers, a sprawling edifice of writings and rewritings, plots and subplots, many of which end up – as with a good film – on the cutting-room floor.

Coetzee in 2014. EPA/Mauricio Duenas Castaneda

As Attwell shows, Coetzee’s novels do not abandon the contradictions inherent in their intellectual starting point or shift onto easier ground. On the contrary, they retain the sense of contradiction from which they spring and to which they insistently seek a response.

These responses illustrate the struggle of protagonists against a testing, frequently intransigent, outer reality. They also bring forth in essential outline “the life of writing,” the exacting craft of the writer. It turns out that the kind of writing to which Coetzee pledges himself is not fully tractable even to the most dogged and drawn out literary labour.

Small wonder Coetzee chose a moment of decadal significance – January 1, 1970 – as the moment of personal commitment to the supremely challenging literary enterprise he had set himself.

In the concrete instance of Life & Times we see an initial premise, arising from middle-class indignation, move through various stages of development, finally emerging as the pathos of the simpleton Michael K. The rebellion this character stages is then almost completely allegorical.

Harelipped, idiot-seeming, Michael K is fitted to allegory less because of an inability to articulate his concerns than the unspeakable circumstances engulfing him. The novel, on a long journey to its final form, thus reveals to the reader a psychological and existential predicament.

It is a predicament, as the medical officer in the novel tells us, according to which meaning seeks to “take up residence within a system without becoming a term in it”. Though in the end a different novel quite removed from its dominant inspiration, Michael Kohlhaas, Life & Times nevertheless works out the same sort of rebellion of decency against obscene outer circumstances.

Attwell concludes:

Coetzee triumphed over his own earlier difficulties by creating a powerful anomaly – one which, when read back into the culture from which it springs, stands as an affirmation of artistic and intellectual freedom (even if such a declaration, in its finality, traduces what the novel itself argues).

The book is without question an important work of scholarship, and one of the most insightful studies of Coetzee and his oeuvre yet published.


JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing by David Attwell is published by Text Publishing.

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