Clever Coetzee’s Latest Novel: Reader Assembly Required

The story below is consistently less interesting (and less convincing) than the miscellany of ideas Señor C expresses up top. But the events of the story also cause Señor C to consider revising his opinions: “I should cull the older, more decrepit ones,” he tells himself, “find newer, up-to-date ones to replace them.” His rapport with Anya pushes him in fresh directions. The layout of the text is an active agent here, forcing the eye to flit up and down and up again, forcing the hand to turn the pages both forwards and backwards: This is a novel that won’t tolerate stasis.

 

SENOR C WORRIES about the novels he has written. He worries that his art is not “great-souled,” that it “lacks generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.” Critics accuse him of being “a pedant who dabbles in fiction.” I can see how some readers would feel the same way about the author of Diary of a Bad Year: The novel is both stingy and demanding, the pleasures it offers almost exclusively intellectual. It’s a technical triumph and a showcase for the author’s wit, his learning, his critical acumen. Touching, it’s not.

Anya says she wants to be by Señor C’s side in his final hour (already he’s “a bit trembly, a bit doddery”); she paints a fetching, sentimental picture of the deathbed scene. She will whisper to him, and comfort him. “I will do that. I will hold his hand.” She’s probably moved by the thought of this last farewell, but I doubt it will bring a tear to the reader’s eye, and I don’t believe it was meant to.

However grim and uncompromising, however controlled and cerebral, Mr. Coetzee has shown many times that when he wants to, he can melt the heart. Consider another terminal leave-taking, from the very end of Disgrace (1999), when David Lurie, who’s volunteering at the Animal Welfare clinic, decides to put down a dog with a withered hindquarter, a dog he’s become fond of, a dog that has adopted him. David, too, promises comfort: “He will do all that for him when his time comes.” At last he goes to get the animal from its cage. “‘Come,’ he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. ‘Come.’”

A cruel scene, and tender, and unbearably sad. Barthes would have called it readerly.

 

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer. He can be reached at books@observer.com.